Why future careers in agriculture may lie far away from the farm

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In the second of two reports on the future of farming, Ben Barnett finds more technical agri-careers are proving a draw.

Plenty of young people are pursuing careers in agriculture but few will end up working directly on the farm unless the profitability of food production in the 21st century is not seriously addressed, industry experts warn.

Financial disincentives to direct farming and the limited availability of land to newcomers are, it seems, failing to deter huge numbers of young people from studying for agricultural qualifications. For the brightest candidates with a real passion for agriculture, the technical sectors related to farming, in research and development, may well be their likeliest chance of a rewarding career.

Alan Goldie, president of the Yorkshire Federation of Young Farmers, the regional branch of the national rural youth organisation, is concerned that low profitability has driven too many young people away from farming over the last 20 to 30 years.

“There is plenty of young blood out there to come in but my concern is that for a generation young kids have seen their parents struggle to make ends meet on farms and they are having to resort to the likes of going to picket outside dairies to get a fair price for their produce,” Mr Goldie said.

“Until the pressures are lifted by supermarkets; particularly in the dairy sector, using producers as loss leaders to get people into their shops, we are going to continue to struggle.”

Andrew Wraith, head of agribusiness at property management firm Savills in York, sees the answer to retaining young talent may be away from traditional routes.

He said: “The main barriers to most new farming entrants include lack of a farming background and the sheer expense of starting out in a capital hungry business. Creating rewarding opportunities to be involved in agriculture without having to own or rent a farm must be a focus if progress is to be achieved.”

Jeanette Dawson, principal at Bishop Burton College, says there are opportunities for young people who are showing they are increasingly keen to embrace technology and the scientific side of agriculture to forge careers.

She said: “The facts speak for themselves for the need for young people in the industry but my experience at the college is there are larger numbers coming through now than ever before.

“It’s important we highlight the issue of owning land and the dilemma for some 
families that are in farming but we’re certainly finding that young people are coming forward quite enthusiastically and are now looking at a greater depth and breadth of jobs.”

Twenty-five-year-old Katie Kirkby is a case in point. With no option to make a living from the family sheep farm near Hornsea she has found herself at the start of a less traditional farming career having secured a job with Bird’s Eye in Hull. She is about to graduate with a BSc Hons in Agricultural Resource Management at Bishop Burton College.

She said: “I come from a livestock background so I started studying straight agriculture as a degree and then topped it up with Agricultural Resource Management. When I went to college I didn’t ever think of anything other than livestock but the farm’s not big enough to support me and my brothers as well so I realised I had to go down other areas of work. The college opened my eyes to areas of agriculture I wouldn’t have considered before and it was a great stepping stone to a career.

“I did my dissertation in conjunction with Bird’s Eye on the recurrence of foot rot when growing vining peas and I’m now overseeing a foot rot testing programme with them. If I hadn’t been to college I don’t think any of this would have happened.”

As a member of the Future Farmers of Yorkshire management team, farmer Charles Mills is involved in hosting events for young people interested in agriculture.

Mr Mills said: “Colleges are doing an extremely good job and are full to the rafters now. There has been a definite lack of young people entering the industry over the last ten to 15 years and it’s directly related to profitability within agriculture.

“I have three children and my wife and I own where we are and my son works for the NFU so young people have looked away from direct farming. The last ten years have been ten dead years really. That gap does need to be filled for agriculture to be a forward looking industry.”

There are plenty of reasons for optimism, said Barney Kaye, the National Farmers’ Union’s director for the North East.

“The last ten to 15 years have been tough and mothers and fathers have encouraged young people to look elsewhere for careers with high salaries but looking to the future there are amazing opportunities.

“Now we have the celebrity chefs like Jamie Oliver who’re very pro where food comes from. We have the highest welfare system in the world, an incredible variety of produce grown in this region alone and consumers are more interested about where their food comes from, and are looking beyond price.

“We could look back and find that ‘horsegate’ could be one of the best things that’s happened to farming. Tesco for example are now making a commitment to going 100 per cent British chicken on fresh produce and rolling it out into frozen, so retailers are making serious commitments to changing their supply chains.

“Our challenge within the industry is how to describe career paths better, career paths that have a real life-work balance where couples can take time off together and to demonstrate how young people can come back to their parents’ farms and farm differently in the future by embracing new technologies and making businesses more professional.”