Why training and development is essential for agricultural competitiveness
Good farm management, recruitment and retention of staff are seen as essential for UK farming to become more productive and sustainable, while meeting ever-increasing consumer expectations.
The need for better training was high on the agenda at the recent National Farm Management Conference.
Hosted by the Institute of Agricultural Management, conference delegates discussed ways to broaden their expertise.
See also: What skills are in demand for 21st century agriculture?
What skills do agricultural staff need?
Caring for staff and equipping them for new ways of doing things are key to the success of the business, says David Fursdon, president of Dyson Farming and the Institute of Agriculture and Horticulture.
While wages and housing are important factors, training is key to having agricultural personnel equipped to meet the challenges of agriculture in the years to come.
Farm workers already have a wide range of skills – they are mechanics, soil scientists, accountants, agronomists and livestock specialists.
But new technologies that will pave the way for greater efficiency mean agricultural businesses will need skills such as data analysis, the use of drones, robotics, GPS systems and aerial analysis.
The right mix of skills will increase the adoption of precision farming techniques that promote financial and environmental sustainability, says Fursdon.
To do this, operations will need to develop structured training and development – and recruit from other sectors.
According to Scottish dairy farmer Sally Williams, of R&A Wilson, Earlston, a diverse skill set, rather than a purely agricultural education, is advantageous – yet many farms are only keen on recruiting agriculture graduates.
“Until there is a real shortage [of candidates], change is going to be difficult and we will continue to complain that agriculture graduates aren’t quite the match – yet often we don’t look outside our own little bubble,” she says.
“In my business, I’ve had to do this – I have people from non-farm backgrounds and people from a wide variety of countries. It’s allowed me to build a strong team that works well together, and I dread the day when one of them will leave.
Skills can be taught, says Ms. Williams. It is more important to recruit the right kind of people with the right ethics.
Even if they don’t have the necessary skills when they start, they can learn, either through formal education or on the job. “Our mindset has to change,” she says.
Apprentices and young talents
Lincolnshire farmer Simon King recruited two teenage apprentices eight years ago. Both are now valuable members of the team. One leads the herd of suckler cattle on the farm. The other is responsible for all spraying, the combine and crop management.
“One of the biggest challenges was pushing them at a pace they could handle – even though their age, for some people, seemed like a barrier.
If they were able to do the job, they had to do it – without anyone standing in their way,” King says.
Providing quality training – bringing GSCE apprentices to basic degree level on a day release at farm expense – has also been a challenge, says Mr King.
But hiring young people had brought new ideas into the company.
“We are very lucky that four of our seven employees are under 30, so it is possible. You have to recognize that when people are good enough, you have to push them. In agriculture, it’s a bit of a culture change.
Different people have different goals in life, King adds. “We find that driving the biggest tractor and making the most money is not really what young employees are aiming for. Salary is only a small part of what it takes to successfully attract and retain people.
That view is shared by Alison Robinson, principal and chief executive of Myerscough College, which operates two commercial farms. The culture of farm staff working long hours needs to be fought — happy workers are more productive, she says.
“We have reviewed our staff contracts, we have reviewed our remuneration and conditions and we have put in place career structures. We conduct regular assessments, talking with staff about their training and development needs – and where they want to go.
“We all have a responsibility to think about the best way to support people. This makes us more productive – which improves our profitability – and allows us to pay better wages and offer better conditions to our staff as well.
Professional Development for Farmers
Easy-to-access information for farmers who want to improve their business skills will be made available this year by the Institute of Agriculture and Horticulture (Tiah).
Tiah is an online platform that will give breeders and breeders the opportunity to continue their professional development and direct them to all relevant training and education opportunities, says Tiah President David Fursdon.
“People facing the challenge of an uncertain future due to changes to support payments will have a place to learn about issues such as natural capital or improving their business skills,” he explains. .
Rather than being a rival to other educational institutions, Mr Fursdon says Tiah will be a one-stop-shop where people can find the most suitable place for personalized advice, business support and training.
“Right now people are offered a wide range of training opportunities and it’s pretty uncoordinated. What we want to do is bring it all together in one central place so everyone can say, “I need to find out about this, I’m going to watch Tiah.”
“It’s a charity rather than personal profit. But that requires people to see the big picture and recognize the importance of helping our industry meet the challenges it faces – and I hope people will see it that way.
Tiah also aims to allow farmers to show that they are farming well, says Fursdon. This could have commercial benefits, including making it easier for farmers to win contracts with food retailers and other customers.
For more details, visit the Tiah website.
Advice on management practices
Small changes in management practices can increase productivity by 10%, according to the Confederation of British Industry.
Farmers can get advice on how to do this by enrolling in a program to improve business expertise.
The government-funded Help to Grow program was developed by the Confederation of British Industry and other business groups.
It aims to give 30,000 small and medium-sized businesses access to world-class expertise in everything from financial management to marketing, including the tools they need to innovate and grow.
Open to farmers as well as other businesses, the program is delivered by business schools across the country.
The 12-week course can be taken alongside full-time work and is 90% government funded, so it costs just £750.
Among those who signed up for the course are Neal Adams, managing director of food and agriculture consultant ProMar International.
“Your ability to learn faster than your competition is your only real competitive advantage – you have to be able to learn faster and apply what you learn to be better than your competition,” Adams says.
For more details, visit the Helptogrow website.
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