The future of agriculture depends on attracting young talent by making them realise what a modern, challenging career it is. Ask anyone for their impression of a British farmer and they are likely to describe an aged character with a flat cap and a tweed jacket, ideally sucking a piece of straw. This caricature is often perpetuated by advertisers who see it as a trustworthy and wholesome image, likely to inspire confidence in the food they produce. It's not, however, an image that will inspire the brightest and best young people to take up a career in agriculture. Nor is it accurate.
Our climate is changing, which threatens traditional world food production. Our population is growing, increasing the demand for food. Interest is building in greater self-sufficiency. As a result we need more efficient, more highly skilled farmers. Successive governments, too, would like to see a farming industry able to stand on its own feet – free from the support provided by the European common agricultural policy. This requires technically savvy entrepreneurs who are prepared to balance risk and reward so that they can deliver the food we need, in a way that gives them sufficient return for their labour and capital.
We already have such farmers. They are driving machines fitted with state-of-the-art GPS mapping technology on computers that limit waste fertiliser, or analysing feed-conversion ratios for dairy cows that self-milk at machines. These are the farmers of the future. It is a world away from what is often taught in schools. Many of those who guide school children in their choice of career are unaware of the challenges and opportunities that agriculture offers – not only to those who are practical and interested in technology and engineering, but to science students interested in animal and plant breeding, nutrition, and soil management.
A report by the Royal Agricultural Society of England used the often-quoted statistic that the average age of a British farmer is 58 to predict a pressing requirement for 60,000 new farmers to replace those who will shortly leave the industry. Figures from Eurostat and CEJA, the European Council of Young Farmers, point out that the percentage of farmers under 35 in the UK has fallen from 16% in 1990 to 2.8% in 2011. It is clear that a steady supply of able, young entrants is needed to meet the challenges mentioned above.
Getting into farming, however, is far from easy. For the candidates who wish to farm on their own account, land prices pose a challenge. Farmland values have risen by 22% since the start of the recession from £7,400 an acre to £9,000 an acre now. The traditional route into the industry – tenancies – are few and far between, especially now that local authorities are selling off their farms under pressure to cope with reduced funding. Where they do occur there is strong competition from established farmers.
For there to be opportunities for new entrants there need to be retirements, but many farmers are reluctant to do so. Not only do many of them enjoy their work, but also they often find family succession difficult to organise given that the farm may support one family only. Presently our system encourages farmers to remain in work, rather than retire. If they do wish to stop there is often a shortage of affordable housing, much of it having been purchased as second homes by those who appreciate the landscape in rural areas but don't have to make their living from it.
It was with these problems in mind that the government, working with the farming industry, set up the future of farming review, which reported in July. The result contains recommendations not only for changes to tax, tenancies and planning, but also to help older farmers with succession planning and to help new entrants access finance. It also makes suggestions for improved work in schools to improve the image of farming. It will be a measure of the leadership that exists within farming and government as to whether or not they are taken forward.
Photo credit: Jason Smalley/Alamy