Future Farmers programme aims to solve agricultural skills shortage
PUBLISHED: 09:36 26 May 2015 | UPDATED: 09:36 26 May 2015
Copyright: Archant 2015
21-year-old Beth Bennett is one of the first young people to complete a farming programme which aims to teach new recruits to agriculture about the whole process from producer to supermarket shelf.
One of the words you often hear in connection with farming is “isolated” – whether it’s farmers in their tractors, consumers who don’t know where their food comes from, or young people for whom agriculture is not an obvious career choice.
But with the average farmer 58 years old, the UK needs an estimated 60,000 new entrants to the industry during the next decade in order to feed everyone.
And East Anglian youngsters are among the first crop in a nationwide agricultural induction programme which aims to fill that gap.
Beth Bennett, a 21-year-old farm manager with her sights set on free range egg production, won a place on the Tesco-backed Future Farmer Foundation in 2014.
“I don’t come from a farming background but, when I was 13, I started painting barns locally, then did harvest work, then egg collecting, and it developed from there,” said Miss Bennett, who left Hartismere Sixth Form in Suffolk with A-levels in business and economics.
She joined Anglia Free Range Eggs in Attleborough, but lacked the extensive contacts to broaden her horizons, so she applied to the 12-month Future Farmers mentoring programme, becoming one of 15 people selected for the intensive course.
“It just really helps people get their ideas a bit clearer about what they want to achieve,” she said. “There are people out there who know what they want but they don’t know how to get it – this helps with that.”
The young farmer attended business workshops, received mentoring and has taken an international scholarship offer to pursue further experience in agricultural genetics in Germany and possibly Holland through the programme. After she completes her scholarship year abroad in 2016 she hopes to return to work in Norfolk.
Anglia Free Range Eggs buys from more than 30 farms across the region, checking the eggs for faults and cracks in a £1m grading machine before selling them on to Tesco, the company’s biggest customer.
Set up in 2010 by regional chicken producers Harry Irwin and Peter Davidson, the company now has a turnover of £12m, employs 25 staff and sees 60,000 eggs an hour go through its grading machine.
Clair Bullen, director of sales and marketing, said as a small business it would have been difficult to provide the kind of employee development Miss Bennett has received without the help of a large company like Tesco.
“For us, the Future Farmers is a brilliant opportunity,” she said. “You hear about consumers being disconnected from farmers, but also farmers don’t always understand the time and effort of getting those products out there and on the shelves. This programme helps with that,” she said. “It’s also such an opportunity for Beth. At the moment she loves being on the farm, but who knows, she could be a budding agricultural technologist.”
About 50pc of all eggs produced in the UK are now believed to be free range. Anglia Free Range Eggs said a single free range egg unit could hold up to 16,000 chickens, including outside fields and an indoor shed, and may cost the farmer about £600,000.
Bryn Woodward, regional communications manager at Tesco, which has 40 to 50 East Anglian suppliers, said the programme might expand in coming years.
“We are one of British agriculture’s biggest customers, so we thought it important to support the farms of tomorrow,” he said. “Hopefully some of these guys will be supplying our stores in the years to come, and bring new people in to the industry.”
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