Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Rural Business Adviser Simon Haley wants young people to be better informed about the opportunities available to them in the agricultural sector – and he has signed up as a STEMnet ambassador to help make it happen.

At the moment, the UK is full of young people wondering what direction will offer the best prospects in the long term.    At the same time, farming is asking itself how to encourage more bright new starters into the industry.  How can we capitalise on the situation, for the benefit of both?

The agricultural sector will face a wide range of challenges over the next ten years.  It has to be adaptable, reacting to events such as extreme weather and changing legislation, so change management will be key.   Who will be expected to put this into practice if not the next generation of farmers and industry enthusiasts? Indeed, it would be remiss of the industry to expect the current workforce to weather pressures without instilling the skills further back down the line to address such problems with new ideas.

But how can we find the people we need?  That seems to be a perennial question for farming. I believe it needs to be addressed from primary school stage up, giving children role models and instilling passion to both learn and farm.  Such encouragement must continue throughout their university education, right up to the point of entering the industry.  We also need to be telling young people about the diversity of careers that are open to them within farming.  This is the only way to nurture and encourage the next generation.

Recently Farmers’ Weekly ran a campaign to support young people into farming through its Farm Apprentice online series.  Ten finalists competed to win £10,000. What a fabulous concept - I wish it had been available to me a few years ago.  Farmers’ Weekly sought to get across the idea that a farming background is not necessarily the only route into the industry; anyone who is passionate and works hard can be a successful farmer.  A non-farming background can actually provide different skills and perspective.  Certainly a rural career requires particular skillsets and attributes: a strong work ethic, a willingness to learn, an ability to apply business and practical thinking. But other skills learned outside the agricultural sphere can be useful and can make young people more flexible in their approach.

When I graduated in 2009, I actually felt overwhelmed by the scope and opportunities that were available to me. I had started out at Harper Adams with no farming background at all and after three years of teaching and a one-year placement I came out at the other end with a first class agri-business degree, but with little idea of which route I wanted to take: journalism, consultancy, the agri-food sector, or a path I was still not aware of.  I think many young people are in the same position.  There are opportunities in the world of farming, but they aren’t being told about them, the industry isn’t promoting the wide range of careers available in farming and what they can lead to in the longer term.

Because I wanted to try and do something about this on a personal level, I have recently signed up to be a volunteer STEMnet ambassador.  It means I get involved in educating and promoting the use of science, technology, engineering and mathematics in primary and secondary schools and they are all relevant for modern farming.  When I was at secondary school agriculture certainly wasn’t a subject we were encouraged to pursue; it wasn’t regarded as “academic”.   I want to be able to explain about farming to young people who may be in that position now.  

I wholeheartedly believe Landbridge can help bridge the gap between academia and professional working because I know there is a demand for this. However, it’s not a result that one project or one person alone can deliver. The whole industry, starting from the top down, needs to sign up to such a commitment. We have seen elements of it in various forms, such as Open Farm Sunday, the Farm Apprentice, and the different colleges and universities getting out on their stands at the large agricultural shows. But only when the Government, the NFU and other stakeholders including me and you, pull together can the industry be pushed forward by a new wave of ideas and keen young minds, passionate about farming.  The “Feeding Future Careers” initiative just launched by Farming Minister David Heath for Defra is one encouraging sign that the Government is starting to do its bit, so I hope that the farming sector will also take this to heart.

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