Tuesday, June 25, 2019

The next generation

January 2, 2019 by  
Filed under Clodhopper

Agriculture needs young farmers – so long as they are loyal and willing to learn, says Clodhopper.

One of my local banks has launched a “farm the future” campaign. It is part of a national initiative to encourage farmers to plan their future. It also aims to tell young people about the benefits of a career in agriculture.

According to the campaign, my time has passed. The average British farmer is apparently now almost 56 years old. If true, the road ahead looks like a rocky one. My best farming years are behind me – long gone – and I should move over for the next generation.

The number of farmers aged over 65 has increased by 70% over the past decade. I’m not surprised really because us older statesmen seldom know when to pass on the reins. Either that or we stick with the job because we have no interests outside farming or cannot afford to retire.

Learning the ropes

More of a concern is the lack of under-25s involved in agricultural businesses. This figure has fallen by almost 60% over a similar period. Like most industries in Britain, farming faces a labour shortage – and perhaps a talent shortage too.

With many farms passing down through families, some siblings never receive outside training. They simply learn on the job. There’s nothing wrong with that necessarily but opportunities may pass them by.

It has been said that just 3% of 18 to 30-year-olds surveyed would consider a career in agriculture. Nearly half thought they needed to inherit land while most assumed they would not be able to afford to become a farmer.

At the same time, more young people are now questioning the reasons for further schooling – and the costs and benefits of a university education. Rather than going to college full-time, more are being tempted by the number of apprentice schemes available.

It’s not just an issue for agriculture. Faced with a huge student debt before they even start work, youngsters understandably appear to favour earning and learning rather than studying. But what sort of education are they receiving? And is learning on the job the best way forward?

Apprenticeships

Apprentice schemes are back in favour. There is no doubt about that. But there is a general consensus among many agricultural employers that training youngsters to the required standard is both costly and time-consuming.

Some farm employers complain that apprentices move away once qualified – tempted by the extra money. So it can be a case of spending the money and training up an apprentice for somebody else to benefit. Loyalty seems to be a word not easily recognised today.

The bank that conducted the survey claims to have over 150 agriculture relationship managers. My problem is this: I remember a time when my financial relationship involved one single bank manager. We were on first name terms and he understood farming inside out.

Today, the bank managers of days gone by have largely disappeared – often replaced by a faceless contact.

Relationship managers appear to know very little about agriculture and when the final questions are asked – regarding an overdraft extension or new borrowings perhaps – they either have no authority to make a decision or just transfer the decision higher up the chain.

Personal touch

There is very little personal touch anymore. It is a matter of a name, account number, address and phone number. The number of years an account has been held bears little relevance anymore. And often the purse strings remain tightly close.

A good way to encourage the next generation would be for the banks to start lending money a little more freely for business start-ups. Or re-financing an existing family farm to free up cash for the next generation to start their own business.

We need these youngsters – even though it can be difficult to educate the next generation. Producing know-alls who think everything is done on a spreadsheet is easy. It is much harder to produce young people with practical hands-on ability.

Part of the problem is that you can’t get the experience without getting a job. But not many people will employ a farm manager without experience. I guess it is a matter of trust and loyalty – and that works both ways.

Maybe the two can work and maybe us old ones can give the new generation a chance. So long as they know something, that is.

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