Have our cake and eat it?

Earlier this week, former Farmers Weekly Arable Farmer of the Year, Guy Poskitt was explaining to me his concerns about how farming can attract the right talent. Chief among them were perception issues – especially that if we keep telling the story of ours being an industry in decline or crisis, then the public will believe us, and in his words, “who wants to work in a depressed industry?”

So much of our industry’s public communications right now are about the dire state of things – commodity prices, uncertainty over Brexit, Bovine TB etc. And of course, it’s right to highlight systemic problems that can only be solved with government and the public involved. But can we have our British-produced cake and eat it? If we keep up the woe-is-me stories, we may make the public feel sorry for us and that might even persuade people to buy more British produce in the short term. But in the long term, if the same narrative drives away potential top talent (which we need at all levels in farming) and even gives the impression that ours might be an inferior/underdog product, then our long-term security and competitiveness are very much at stake.  

Who wants to work in a depressed industry? – Guy Poskitt

Guy, vice-chair of the NFU’s Horticulture and Potatoes Board was also concerned that we must attract not those who simply see farming as a lifestyle, but young people with aspiration and a growth mindset. Guy is himself a great example of this, but I still had his words ringing in my ears when later in the week, I had the chance to visit the farm of Di and Peter Wastenage, the most recent Farmers Weekly FOTY winners.

If anyone had reason to be glum about the industry, then the owners of this family business, running several small to medium dairy farms in the Southwest could be excused for a little despondency. However, after three hours touring the farm and listening to them speak, I came away the most encouraged about our industry that I have been in a long while. Their approach has been to

  • Turn problems into challenges to be solved
  • See change as something to be embraced and managed, not suffered
  • Treat competition as a form of inspiration – to be analysed and learnt from, rather than feared

Attention to detail has been everything;  really clear targets and metrics understood by all their team, and everything being done for a deliberate and conscious reason. People with much more farming knowledge than me were asking really insightful questions. And not once was the question “why do you do x like that” met by anything less than a thoughtful, logical and evidence-based answer.

And their thinking stretches far into the future. Clearly mindful of what they want to hand on to their sons, sustainability (of the team, the land, the finances) was at the heart of each and every decision they have taken.

So do we have a bright future for farming? Absolutely, as long as we can attract, develop and release more people like Guy, Di and Peter.

Prior to our farm tour, Karl Schneider, Editor-in-chief of Farmers Weekly spoke about the worrying fact that careers guidance is still prone to suggesting that those with low qualifications, aptitude and aspiration should consider farming. Thankfully, Bright Crop is working directly to change this through training for careers advisors, and by providing up-to-date farming careers information in all the main places where careers advice is accessed. But we need to do more of it, and quickly. So if your farming or agri-food business believes we should be attracting brighter talent, then you can help us in three ways:

  1. Support Bright Crop directly with sponsorship and encourage others to do so
  2. Ensure you take every opportunity to publicly demonstrate the quality and professionalism of your people
  3. Think twice before complaining in public – it just may be doing more harm than good
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