Skills shortage poses threat to county farming

A shortage of highly-skilled workers is posing a threat to the growth of Norfolk's farming industry as it seeks to build on its success in providing food for the nation's tables.

Farming in the eastern region is worth �8bn a year and in Norfolk alone there are more than 14,000 farmers and farm workers – but recruitment has become increasingly difficult.

The problem was underlined by South West Norfolk MP Elizabeth Truss after she met Anglian farmers. She said: 'It is very important to get graduates and skilled engineers into the industry. It is a great industry and we need to encourage talented, qualified people to come to Norfolk to work in it.'

Miss Truss raised the issue in the Commons, adding that the shortages compounded other problems including rising food imports – which over the decade have risen nationally at nearly double the value of exports – and a stifling amount of red tape.

Some 80pc of land within the county is used for farming and, according to 2009 figures from Defra, some 29pc of farm workers within the eastern region, or 14,410 people, work within farming in Norfolk. This includes farmers, farm managers and farm workers. The regional figure is 49,374.

Easton College, which offers vocational courses including agriculture, recently found itself struggling to recruit an agricultural engineer for 18 months.

Principal David Lawrence said: 'We've lost a lot of the institutions training people to be engineers and there's a massive shortage. If we don't have enough people going in at that level in agriculture we won't have enough people turning up as lecturers.

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'The bottom line is without this training infrastructure and the right people going into the industry, the industry won't be there.

'If we haven't got the right people in the right jobs, from people doing basic livestock operation to research work at the John Innes Centre, it won't work.'

Mr Lawrence added: 'Our range of production is a fraction of what is was 30 years ago. We're importing vast amounts and that's not good. We're facing massive challenges in terms of producing food output but our view in Norfolk is we have to do something about this and we're taking some really big steps.

'What we're not getting, though, is enough support in what is a financially difficult time. We understand how to do things but what we should do, and what we are doing, is work with MPs to influence national policy to do what's necessary.'

Norfolk has a growing network of farmers' markets with produce ranging from Binham Blue and Wells Alpine cheeses to England's only whisky, produced in Roudham, near Thetford

But the fear in the industry remains that skills and research are not being transferred to the farms.

Chairman of Norfolk NFU Christine Hill, who runs RW Hill (Farms) in Shipdham in mid-Norfolk, said Norfolk had a pivotal role to play because it had recourses such as the John Innes Centre and the Morley Research Centre nearin Wymondham.

'Britain is at the forefront of the best agriculture one can find in the world. We've got some of the best brains in Norwich,' she said.

She urged the government to offer more support for development and to appoint an ombudsman.

East Anglia NFU spokesman Brian Finnerty agreed the industry needed a change in the support it was receiving with less red tape and more de-regulation.

'The industry is constrained by red tape putting off all but the hardiest individuals from becoming involved,' he said. 'I sincerely hope we can make progress with a single farm inspection to reduce the burden on farmers.'

He said the NFU had submitted a report to the Farming Regulation Taskforce outlining areas where red tape in agriculture could be cut,

He added: 'We recognise the government is in a pretty serious position in terms of finance at the moment but we need to make sure areas such as research and development are protected.'