Mark Lumsdon-Taylor, Human Capital and Finance Director
No industry can survive, let alone succeed, without having the right workforce, the ‘human capital’ – people with the knowledge, skills, competencies and abilities to get the job done and get it done well. The rural sector industries – most specifically farming – exemplify what can be achieved by having the right people in the right place at the right time. Kent has some exceptional farmers with outstanding workforces: we have to ensure this continues post-Brexit.
es – it’s true – here in Kent we are blessed with one of the best farming sectors in the country. Led by knowledgeable farm owners and managers, supported by skilled and dedicated workforces, underpinned by excellent professional services – by and large things have been going well. However – and it’s a big however – during harvesting and high production periods a large part of our farming sector depends on foreign labour most specifically from EU countries. Access to seasonal labour is especially crucial in the fruit industry (don’t forget Kent is by far the largest producer of top fruit) and is very important to producers of salad and vegetable crops and other farming sectors.
The industry waits with bated breath for a well-structured post-Brexit plan. Defra secretary Michael Gove has pledged support saying that the government would endorse a special deal for EU farm workers. Meanwhile Justice Secretary David Gauke has suggested that prisoners should be allowed out on temporary release in order to fill workforce gaps in specific industries such as catering, construction and agriculture. Thus far positive comments from the farming sector have been notably muted! We cannot allow misunderstandings and infighting to destabilise our crucially important industries – a sustainable, viable solution must be found.
Kent’s rural sector – farming in particular – continues to make vast contributions to our way of life. The farming industry nationally, of which Kent is a hugely important part, produces about 60% of the food we consume in the UK. Farmers are, to a very large extent, responsible for managing the landscape. Contrary to negative reportage, most farmers genuinely care about the environment – something highlighted by the wide-range of initiatives they are implementing to protect wildlife and promote biodiversity. Farmers host the greater proportion of the UK’s solar energy production and a fair number of the sites are Kent-based. All-in-all farmers do a grand job nationally and an exceptional job here in Kent.
Ever since humankind advanced from hunter-gathering, farming has been central to civilisation. Throughout time it has undergone a series of ‘revolutions’ – none of which has been more exciting than today’s ‘smart farming’ transformation. Information technology and communication technologies… robots…drones… artificial intelligence: they are revolutionising the agriculture and production horticulture sectors and the wider food chain is benefiting from the knock-on effects.
Modern practices such as Precision Farming involve radical developments that are helping to make farming more sustainable by increasing ability to produce ‘more’ while using far ‘less’ in the way of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides – and water. High precision positioning systems (GPS for example)) navigate agricultural vehicles within a field with 2cm accuracy. Automated and assisted steering systems benefit a multiplicity of tasks. Geo-mapping produces maps that can include soil type, nutrient levels and a great deal of other information relevant to the particular field location. Integrated electronic communications can be customised to suit specific needs – for example – between tractor and farm office.
Of course, technology is already reducing/cutting out many mundane tasks in the farming sector and, over time, the numbers of jobs in agriculture will correspondingly reduce On the other hand, projections indicate that job opportunities in production horticulture – most especially the sector relating to food – will multiply. The farming industries will be increasingly dependent on people with the skills needed to fulfil evolving job roles and new entrants will need to be highly skilled, forward-thinking, offer flexibility – and be determined to make a success in a fast-moving business sector.
These far-reaching changes would be important at any time but they will prove vital as farming around the globe is challenged by population growth coinciding with climate change. Projections from the United Nations’ Department of Economic and Social Affairs indicate that world population will increase by slightly more than one billion people over the next 13 years reaching 11.2 billion by 2100. The latest projected population figure for Kent (excluding Medway) indicates an increase of 125,800 by 2026. The UK Climate Change report predicts that Kent is likely to record ‘severe impacts’. The latest stats (UK Climate Projections) suggest that by 2050 winters are likely to be warmer by around 2.2°and summers are likely to be hotter by around 2.8°C. At the same time, the Environment Agency has predicted that parts of Kent will be flooded as a result of rising sea levels associated with changes to the climate. But let us be clear, some ‘impacts’ will be very beneficial and, being resilient and resourceful, farmers and growers will develop policies to cope with many of the adverse effects.
Looking at the wider picture, it would be unwise to overlook the ways the consequences will reverberate globally. Feeding indigenous populations will become a priority and countries badly affected by climate change will be forced to reduce their exports. In this scenario – considered very likely by many scientists – it may not be possible for the UK to maintain imports at the current rates. The creation of food security will then climb to the top of government agenda and the UK’s farming sector will be under the spotlight to produce sufficient food to fill some of the gaps.
Avowedly, there has never been a more exciting, demanding, challenging and fulfilling time to make a career in farming whether it be in agriculture, production horticulture or one of the support services. Young people – and their parents – are increasingly aware that the rural industries offer something ‘different’ – something ‘special’ – something ‘very worthwhile’ – something with which very, very few industries can compete in terms of job satisfaction and way-of-life.
Hadlow Rural Community School (HRCS – part of the Hadlow Group) was opened as a Free School in 2013. Graded ‘Good’ by Ofsted, the school is oversubscribed. In addition to the national curriculum, all students study a land-based subject – agriculture, horticulture, fisheries, floristry, equine, et cetera. Gaining hands-on insight and experience is enabling students – and their parents – to make the informed choices that will help to futureproof the workforce needs of farming and other rural industries. HRCS is the only Free School in the country with a rural ethos of this type and the contribution it is making is invaluable. We also need more young people – including those from Kent grammar schools and the private sector – to recognise the rural industries offer skilled and graduate entrants worthwhile opportunities.
When we refer to ‘human resources’ we mustn’t overlook the very valuable contributions made by those entering the farming sector after changing direction mid-career. Many of these entrants hold professional and other qualifications and also have valuable life and business experience. Changing mid-career, especially for those with family and other commitments, involves a great deal of thought and soul-searching but once the big decision is made, these entrants often fly. They are certainly not alone in seeking career progression: bright, motivated young people also want genuine opportunities and the industry is responding by factoring in work benefits that include additional staff training programmes and skill- progression options.
• We shouldn’t review farming in isolation: it is directly responsible for thousands of jobs and also links/overlaps other industry sectors such secondary/value added food production, tourism and leisure, et cetera.
• We must do much more to create public awareness of where food comes from and how it is produced. We must tell consumers that every section of the UK industry is dedicated to maintaining ethical standards and that our livestock husbandry standards, for example, are the best in the world.
• It isn’t only consumers we need to convince about the excellence of the industry: every potential new entrant wants to be assured that they are going to be a part of an industry that is supremely good.
• Farming – most specifically agriculture and production horticulture – is attracting bright, motivated entrants who are looking for – and expecting – progressive career structures.
• Technology is advancing every day and the pace is very fast. Education and training must keep up – not lag behind these advances.
• We need ‘excellence’ throughout the entire farming industry! We must value the fact that some entrants will opt to make a career in a support service such as research and development, marketing, agronomy and so on. The industry affords opportunities for everyone who wants to make a contribution that makes a positive difference.
• Farming is being asked to produce ‘more’ using ‘less’. The entire industry will be involved in taking up the challenge and making it happen.
• Consumers are being encouraged to eat more healthily and everyone is being asked to reduce food wastage.
• Farming and rural businesses benefit, in a multiplicity of ways, every single person in this country. We need greater public awareness and understanding combined with resolution to back the sector…buy British…spread good news stories.