How education and agriculture must work together to find the farmers of the future
- Credit: Copyright: Archant 2017
The Spring Fling gave young children a starting point in their farming education – but how can the industry maintain their interest through high school, university and into increasingly technical careers? CHRIS HILL reports.
For the hundreds of children gathering at the Norfolk Showground this week, the chance to climb into a combine harvester cab or play with spring lambs taught valuable lessons about the world that feeds them.
But the agricultural industry is grappling with the challenge of how to sustain their interest as these youngsters grow into the next generation of shoppers, voters – or even farm managers, crop scientists and engineers.
The 18th annual Spring Fling, hosted by the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association (RNAA), is aimed predominantly at children aged between four and 11.
For UEA vice chancellor Prof David Richardson, it was the final public event of his 12-month tenure as RNAA president – a year in which he had set out goals to promote education and innovation by building bridges between science, academia and business.
And he believes the key to filling the sector's future skills gap would be by promoting three aspects to students: the breadth of skills required, a global perspective and the lucrative market for innovators and entrepreneurs.
'I think these sort of events are very useful,' he said. 'They are aimed at four to 11-year-olds, and it is important to show them that there is a lot to agriculture, even at an early stage.
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'What I feel we need to do is build more effectively on that. We get children to a particular place, and a level of high enthusiasm for agriculture up to the age of 11, but we need to keep that going up to the age of 16 to ensure we still have students interested in pursuing agriculture.
'In my year as president I have been having a lot of discussions with these communities about how we might do that. They fall into three areas.
'Firstly, what sort of skills do we need at a higher education level over the next 15 years? We have been looking at what a highly technological industry this is, so an understanding of computing and how we use big data more accurately and effectively. It is easy to accumulate data, but we need a better understanding of how to use it.
'Alongside that, we need to understand the relationship between agriculture and global issues like food security, climate change and energy security. So, we're talking about Norfolk agriculture in global terms.
'If you talk to a lot of pre-university students, they are interested in big global issues like this. They are interested in the developing world, but they might not know they are interested in agriculture. But if you say the solutions to half these issues lies in agriculture in the developing world, that because of their interest in these issues in the developing world, they realise that agriculture in Norfolk is not just agriculture in Norfolk. It is part of the whole world. So if you can give it a more global flavour, people will start to get excited about it.
'Third is portraying the opportunities for innovative thinking in agriculture. Agri-tech is a huge area going forward. It is a multi-billion pound industry and people with ideas can make a real difference. So getting people to see the attraction of agriculture from an entrepreneurial perspective is very important.'
After he completes his year as president later this month, Prof Richardson said he intends to continue working with the agricultural community to develop more detailed proposals on education and skills.
'As a scientist, I see this first year as my research year,' he said. 'Now I have to distil it and come up with proposals for what we want to achieve.
'I always said this is the start of something that will continue after I have passed on to my successor. That is what we will do. I have got support from colleagues at the university and from many sectors in the industry and I know that the RNAA will continue to support me as I work on these challenges.'
FINDING THE RIGHT PEOPLE
A Norfolk dairy farm is already dealing with the challenge of recruiting young people with the right combination of traditional farming skills and the ability to embrace modern technology.
Jonny Burridge, of Manor Farm in Fundenhall, near Wymondham, said he is struggling to recruit an apprentice with the right skills both to look after his dairy herd, and analyse data from the farm's robotic milking machines which were installed in 2014 at a cost of about £100,000 each.
The machines operate autonomously 24 hours a day, recognising each animal from its ear tag and recalling its milking history before the laser-guided robotic arms apply the milking cups and record the yield.
Mr Burridge said: 'There are a lot of people looking for work, but it is very difficult finding the right person.
'We are looking for someone that loves working with animals, is enthusiastic about improving standards of welfare and productivity – and willing to learn about technology and embrace technology.
'I have got very good cows and very good technology, so you need to know about both. We have got a lot of data, but it needs to be analysed to know how to react. That is the challenge.
'We are trying to reduce our costs all the time to be competitive and we needed to think outside the box and do that with technology. These robot milkers are part of that.
'In some ways it is easier because the machine gives you a lot more numerical information in front of you, whereas milking them in the old way was more of a question of judgement. There is more information now but you still need highly skilled people to do the job. And you still need good stockmanship.
'With the negative vibe of dairy farming, it has got harder to encourage good people to come into the industry, but there are plenty of positives that come from this job. We have invested heavily in our future and this shows we are here to stay and we are a good strong prospect.'
THE TECHNICAL CHALLENGE
The need to improve productivity will require East Anglia's farming workforce to be much more skilled in future, said Richard Self, project manager of the Norfolk-based Edge Careers initiative.
'The government has recognised that our productivity is poor in relation to our competitors,' he said. 'The way to improve that is through agri-tech, but we need the skills too.
'We need to do something dramatic about our skills and we need to do it urgently, because we are going to have to find ways to survive on our own merits after 2020. So we need to work more closely together across Norfolk and Suffolk to recruit the people we need.
'We will need a different sort of person than we did in the past. Every job will have a technical aspect.
'Other careers are seen as more exciting but also other sectors are better organised in working together to promote their sector as a skills and careers destination. That is what we need to improve on.'