I am an avid listener to BBC Radio Four’s Farming Today programme and have been interested to listen to the amount of air time they have dedicated over the last month to the issue of employment, or rather the lack of it, in the agricultural sector.
Recent research has shown that there will be an estimated shortfall of some 50,000 – 60,000 employees in this sector within the next decade, leading to a ‘critical shortage’ as the current crop of farmers retire (the average age of the UK farmer is 58 years old) and insufficient numbers of properly trained youngsters are available to take over soon to be vacant positions.
There are fears that over half of farm owners and managers will have nobody to take over when they retire and that with the ever increasing sophistication of farm machinery, there will be a lack of workers able to operate complex farm machinery.
The result? An industry wide struggle and, according to one agricultural college’s head of training, food prices that will ‘go through the roof’ in the future.
But when the underlying issues behind this predicted shortfall are examined, there are no real surprises.
The agricultural sector has always had an ‘image problem’ and there is a general consensus amongst representative bodies (such as the National Farming Union and Royal Horticultural Society) that agriculture is not given enough credibility as a challenging and rewarding career option within the education system. They fear that school students still view the industry as a ‘dead-end’ option, offering only long, unsociable hours with little financial reward or hope of career progression.
And it would appear that these worries are well founded. The Careers in Farming and Food Supply organisation recently undertook a survey of school age children and asked questions regarding how they perceived work in the agricultural sector. The key words that they come up with in response were ‘boring’, ‘repetitive’ and ‘low paid’.
When these doubts are coupled with the gloomy experiences suffered by farmers over the last year it is no wonder that there are so few interested in working to provide food for this nations people; bad weather, crop losses, dead livestock and huge financial risks do not exactly appeal.
So what’s the solution?
One obvious step would be to increase wages, thus attracting more people into specific food production roles, but business owners have to work within fairly strict constraints. If producers can’t get a good price for their products from suppliers, margins are tight and it’s incredibly difficult to assure pay rises.
Steps are however being taken to make agriculture more appealing to younger people, with various initiatives within and outside the education sector. The hope being that by doing so, more young blood will be drawn into agriculture.
The NFU is delivering one such campaign, entitled Farming Delivers (http://www.farmingdelivers.co.uk/) and aims to highlight all the various, important roles that agricultural workers do and the importance of the sector to the national economy as a whole.
The organisation is also working with colleges and secondary schools to try and increase training provision, a position that is reinforced by LANTRA’s attempts to get more agricultural work experience placements made available for 13-14 year olds.
There is no doubt that skill and intelligence are required to succeed in the agricultural sector and it is hoped that by highlighting the marketing, management and negotiation skills that are often required in higher level positions within the sector, agriculture will lose the undeserved tag of being reserved for the poorly educated. (For the record some farmers and farm managers that I know are the most intelligent and hard working people I have ever met)
In the long run, there is also a prediction that new talent will naturally be drawn to the sector, as food security becomes an increasingly important element of daily life. With an ever increasing world population set to outstrip food supply in the not so distant future, agriculture will eventually attract the public attention and recognition that it rightly deserves. When this happens, the agricultural sectors profile will rise and more people will want to play a part in resolving complex food security issues.
It’s all made very interesting, if not slightly depressing, listening and whilst I hope more young, talented people are drawn to the industry, it does spur me on to become as self sufficient as possible.
Food prices are already worryingly high and in the face of a reduced agricultural work force either food prices will rocket as production levels fall in the UK or we shall become more reliant up GM crops and mechanisation to produce our food, with obvious financial and ethical consequences.
So whilst I may get quietly mocked for my rather over the top enthusiasm for vegetable growing and chicken keeping, it is reassuring to know that if push comes to shove, in the future I will at least have an idea about how to go about producing my own food and maybe save myself a bit of money.