18 December 2015

Human Capital & Finance Director’s Report

Despite television embracing ‘rural’ in ways that achieve excellent audience ratings and captivate viewers, far too many people still associate the rural sector with ‘cottageindustries’; something akin to pre-industrial and agrarian revolutions. Certainly the majority of schools, careers advisors, parents and the young people themselves have (at best) limited understanding of the vastness, the diversity, the technology and the absolute excellence of our rural industries.

‘Modern’ farming is making massive advances that are helping to feed the growing global population whilst at the same time implementing better environmental controls. Farmers and others whose workplace is in the rural sector know first-hand that we cannot progress farming without at the same time protecting the environment; biodiversity is an essential factor (hence the UN designating ‘2011- 2020 – Decade on Biodiversity’). The increase in world population including the UK (Kent is far from immune) puts further demand on farmers, growers and the support services. The key concerns relate to shortages of productive land, natural catastrophes (on the increase in the UK and the countries from which we import food) and ecological unsustainability. We also have to take into account the UK’s dependence on the fishing industry; at the current time demand exceeds domestic landings. Global population growth coincides with economic growth; good for the world’s poorest people but not without consequences. China for an example remains the world’s second largest economy despite its current sensational economic problem. Yet it is still regarded as a developing country and per capita income remains a fraction of that in advanced countries. But the incomes of many of the 1.3 billion people in this vast country have already risen and one of the most notable offshoots relates to changes in dietary preferences. China and other developing countries are eating more meat, dairy products and processed foods.

What has this got to do with Kent’s rural sector and ‘human resources’? Look at it this way: the latest statistics indicate that the UK is self-sufficient in very few foodstuffs and production of some fruit and vegetables has actually decreased. (At the same time, it is good to note that self-sufficiency related to strawberries, raspberries and both cooking and eating apples is improving; all produce at which Kent excels.) We continue to labour under the delusion that we can make up shortfalls by importing more food, however, even the most optimistic statistics covering global food production suggest this is very unwise. It isn’t all worryingly black and there is some very good news. Hadlow College which is the county’s elite land-based college is recording an increase in the numbers of young people opting to study agriculture, at both higher and further education levels. The numbers applying for production horticulture have also increased. The right numbers combined with the right applicants combined with the right training combined with the right technology combined with the right research will ensure Kent’s rural industries are at the forefront. Over hundreds of years farming depended on knowledge that was passed from father to son and it involved long hours and very hands-on, hard-toil. Then, in the 18th century, the Agrarian Revolution transformed the landscape, most specifically in relation to the Enclosure Act. Stock breeding became more regulated, crop rotation was controlled, iron implements replaced wooden ones, scientific research stations were set up and the industry produced regular reports.

Now in the 21st century farming is again undergoing massive changes and advances – we have what is being termed the ‘New Agricultural Revolution’ or ‘Precision Farming’. Very simply, this involves producing more food using fewer resources whilst simultaneously reducing production costs. Variations in the field are managed accurately using high precision systems. IT applications and hightech engineering are removing guesswork from the syndrome and the result is far greater exactness. Precision Farming has already made substantial advances – it is said to have moved from ‘good science to good practice’. Precision Farming results in Greater sustainability and environmental protection, higher productivity with greater economic benefits. Large companies, SMEs and sole traders are investing in technology that is designed to improve and support agricultural processes. The size and complexity of the machinery and the range of technologies involved are mind-blowing. ‘Data’ has never been more important – this is not a reference to the endless form-filling required by DEFRA but upto-date information that dictates decisions, produces strategies and results in multiple benefits. Inevitably the sophistication and multiplicity of the technology that is destined to become a day-to-day part of farming is resulting in a reduction of staffing levels needed in some, but not all farming sectors. At the same time, employers are increasingly wishing to recruit graduates and other highly skilled entrants who understand the complexities of today’s high-tech machinery but are also well versed in a range of information technologies and other management resources. Hydroponics are already making very substantial contributions in Kent. The UK’s largest, most hightech glasshouse complex is Thanet Earth where all the crops are grown hydroponically. The system is highly productive and pepper plants reach several metres in height and tomatoes reach over 15 meters in total. They are fed a mixture of water and plant food with the amounts carefully calculated and account taken of the time of day, outside weather conditions, light levels and desired growth rate. The individual grower’s skills are related to getting the right balances and aided by technology and computer science in order to produce perfection.

Another method, currently in its infancy, relates to aeroponics – growing plants in the air. It is a long way from being a new concept having been developed by NASA to grow food in space. Land is a vital commodity and some scientists believe that, with environmental controls, aeroponics could dramatically reduce energy requirements and eliminate the use of fertilisers and pesticides. This form of technology involves ensuring CO2, water and light are monitored precisely and controlled to produce maximum yields with minimum wastage. Expressed simply, aquaponics are a combination of aquaculture and hydroponics. Fish and plants grow together in an integrated system, the fish waste providing organic food for the growing plants and the plants provide a natural filter for the water in which the fish live. The third participants are the microbes (nitrifying bacteria) and composting red worms that thrive in the growing media. They convert the ammonia from the fish waste into nitrites, then into nitrates and the solids into vermicompost that provide food for the plants. Neat? At the current time, aquaponics are in their infancy in Kent but interest is growing along with recognition that demand for fish is expanding. Some estimates indicate that 70-80% of new farm equipment contains components directly related to Precision Farming. At the same time, ‘drones’ / helicams are providing farmers with real-time aerial imagery that identifies areas affected by drought, pests, diseases, irrigation malfunctions, flooding and other problems. Farming – agriculture and horticulture will remain a way of life that will continue to attract dedicated people who produce an essential none of us can do without: food. Something at which the county of Kent has long excelled – currently excels – and will excel in the future.