Farming must fix its image problem to attract workers, says study

Norfolk dairy cattle

Farming needs to change its image to prevent 'disastrous' labour shortages, says a new report - Credit: Matthew Usher

The farming industry needs to urgently change its image in order to prevent "disastrous" labour shortages, a new report warns.

The poor image of farming as a career - associated with low pay, long hours, poor work-life balance, bad conditions, lack of progression, heavy physical labour and unskilled work - needs to be reformed, experts said.

The report, commissioned by the Worshipful Company of Farmers, suggests potential new entrants for permanent jobs in the industry might include career changers, military service leavers, ex-offenders and people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Brexit, the coronavirus pandemic, fluctuations in the value of the pound, and new immigration laws are likely to exacerbate labour shortfalls in the coming years, it warns.

Dr Caroline Nye from the University of Exeter, one of the report authors, said the industry needs to improve its self-promotion and open up opportunities to enthusiastic people who may need extra training or time to develop new skills.

"Farming is an 'invisible career' to anybody who isn't from a farming background, and this needs to change," she said.

"Potential career opportunities in agriculture go far beyond simply picking fruit, and often involve working with complex technology and machinery, with some farm managers earning over £90,000 a year.

Most Read

"Farms will need to become more competitive, flexible and attractive places to work in order to drive recruitment. This applies to both domestic and migrant workers."

While the report highlights future workforce worries, there is already a shortage of farm workers in East Anglia.

Helen Reeve, who runs the 60-strong Waveney Dexter Beef herd at Alburgh near Harleston, is also a work-based learning assessor and lecturer for agricultural apprenticeships at Easton College.

Helen Reeve, who runs the Waveney Dexter Beef herd at Alburgh near Harleston

Helen Reeve, who runs the Waveney Dexter Beef herd at Alburgh near Harleston, is also an assessor and lecturer for agricultural apprenticeships at Easton College - Credit: Sonya Duncan

She said: "There is always demand for people - this week alone I have had three or four farmers in touch with me looking for employees on their farm, and I am expecting to hear from a few more farmers desperate for harvest staff in the next few weeks. So there is already a shortage of people coming through, and that is a concern.

"As an industry we need to educate school leavers and people looking at career choices. There is this preconception of long hours and getting covered in nasty things, but there are some really good careers out there.

"This is the hundred-million-dollar question - how do you get people to change from another career to come into farming?

"Some people have quite a quaint and rose-tinted image of what goes on, but there is a lot more to it than milking a few cows or having some sheep on a field.

"A lot of my apprentices don't come from farming families, so that is not something that should hold you back."