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Farming: inspiring young hearts and minds

Agriculture depends on the next generation of schoolchildren seeing it as an attractive career option. But first, they – and their parents and teachers – have to learn exactly what farmers do…

Last updated: 27 Nov 2020 8 min read

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  • With the average British farmer now aged 60, the industry needs to do more to attract young people, only 4% of whom are said to be considering food and farming as a career
  • Industry organisations are running initiatives to engage school pupils and address a perceived lack of understanding of what farming involves and the opportunities it offers
  • These initiatives range from the NFU’s Farmvention competition for primary schoolchildren to LEAF’s Future Farming module aimed at year nine pupils

When a schoolteacher took a class of children to a farm in Devon, she was horrified by the farmer’s suggestion they might like to watch cows being milked. “What about all the blood?” asked the teacher. The farmer frowned. “Blood?” “Yes,” replied the teacher. “When you kill the cows to get the milk out…”

It may sound hard to believe, but this story was told to National Federation of Young Farmers’ Clubs (NFYFC) chair Lynsey Martin by a young farmer at an education event. “What chance have we got attracting young people into farming,” Martin asks, “when some of their teachers have so little idea of what we do?”

Agriculture has an image problem when it comes to attracting the farmers of tomorrow. Just 4% of young people are considering food and farming as a career, according to Bright Crop, which aims to attract new talent into the food and farming sector. Martin says this is down to misconceptions about what farmers do.

“I’ve seen a child understand that bacon comes from a pig, but then ask: ‘How long does it take to grow the bacon back when you’ve shaved it off?’ If no one has explained it, that’s understandable for a young child, but when it comes to encouraging young people into farming, it’s the parents and teachers we need to educate.”

Educating parents about the job opportunities

The biggest challenge, says Martin, is many adults’ perception of how farms work. “I hear far too often that mums and dads don’t want their little Tommy to work on a farm because too many see farming as a low-skilled manual job – somewhere he’ll ‘end up’ if he gets no qualifications. These parents are presenting farming as a last resort, something to be avoided – without realising what a huge number of vibrant, diverse and highly skilled careers it offers.”

Farming, as everyone in the industry knows, presents myriad opportunities outside the traditional image of unskilled labour, with many careers based around IT, genetics, science, data analysis, logistics, PR, packaging, accountancy and consultancy. In fact, says Martin: “For almost every job outside the farming sector, there’s an opportunity to do the same thing inside it. I’ve been told that little Tommy ‘doesn’t want to be a farmer because he wants to work with computers’. Er, actually there are nine computers in my tractor cab.”

And attracting youngsters into the sector has never been more vital. According to the EU Farm Structure Survey, in 2000, almost a quarter (23%) of farm holders (defined as the person in whose name the holding is operated) were under 45 years old; now that figure is 14%, and only 3% are under 35. The average age of the British farmer is 60, having steadily grown over recent years, and it has been estimated that the industry needs 60,000 new recruits by 2020 in order to replace those who will be retiring.

But age is not the only factor, says Martin. “A lot of Eastern Europeans who originally came over as pickers have become skilled managers, but the Brexit vote has left them feeling ostracised and many are going home, which leaves another gap.”

Creative thinking is forging links

The industry is striving to educate youngsters and their parents and teachers about how farming works and the career opportunities it brings. National Farmers’ Union (NFU) initiatives include an educational Farmvention competition challenging primary schoolchildren to design a tractor of the future, an environment for 100 laying hens or a snack incorporating milk, beef, beetroot or oats.

The Royal Highland Education Trust aims to bring farmers and schoolchildren together through events, including the Royal Highland Show, competitions, farm visits and classroom talks. It offers free learning resources linked to Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence, and recent projects include a ‘beat the takeaway’ competition in Perth and Kinross, where pupils created a farm-to-fork story for food included in their own version of a takeaway meal.

“Our young people are missing out on being part of a dynamic and vital industry because they simply do not know about it”Carl Edwards, director, LEAF

Meanwhile, the NFYFC is working with LEAF (Linking Environment And Farming) to develop a Future Farming module, aimed specifically at breaking down misconceptions among year nine pupils that farming is “only about tractors and livestock” by covering topics such as production, import and export, and critical thinking on agricultural issues.

“Our young people are missing out on being part of a dynamic and vital industry,” says LEAF director Carl Edwards, “because they simply do not know about it. This project will help us communicate directly with young people about agriculture’s numerous career opportunities.”

One LEAF initiative that has effectively challenged the public perception of farming is Open Farm Sunday (9 June 2019), an annual event when farmers open their gates to visitors. Some 86% of those who visited farms in 2018 said they felt more connected to the farmers who produced their food, and 78% said they were more proactively looking to buy British food.

Jamie McCoy, who runs Gorwel Farm, a mixed farm in Ceredigion, with her partner, Deian Evans, first took part in Open Farm Sunday in 2016 and describes it as a “hugely positive experience”. A variety of rural and farming activities was laid on for the 120 visitors who turned up, including the chance to pet animals, sit in a tractor, and learn about the technology used on the farm. After watching cows being milked in the parlour, they could wander over to a tasting table and sample dairy products made with milk the farm had supplied to Arla.

“It really helped give people an association between what happens on a farm in West Wales and what they’d see on the shelves of a supermarket,” says McCoy. “One little girl asked whether dolphins lived in the slurry tank, which was funny, but a reminder that even in rural areas, there’s a real need to raise awareness of farming and food production.”

LEAF’s other eye-catching projects include Countryside Classroom, which offers schools teaching resources on food, farming and the environment, and suggestions and support for farm visits; but, arguably, its most engaging initiative is FaceTime a Farmer, in which youngsters check in regularly for a live online chat with a farmer.

“It’s such a great, direct link right into the classroom,” says its founder, Tom Martin, who runs a mixed sheep and arable farm near Peterborough. “I email the teacher to find out what they’re learning about and try to tie in with that, then I call them on FaceTime or Skype, give them a little talk about what I’m doing – and they ask great questions! It’s better than a one-off visit to a farm because they can understand the farming year, but we’ve covered natural selection, geography, global warming – and, of course, it’s great to be able to beam into their classrooms holding a newborn lamb.”

Farming must bang its own drum

There are other myths the industry needs to debunk around pay and qualifications. A 2015 survey of 1,300 Farmers Weekly readers found the average agricultural supply-trade annual salary was £33,583 – £6,000 higher than the national average wage at the time – and 73% of farm workers have at least A-level qualifications, with nearly half holding a diploma or degree.

The messages are getting out there – but if farming wants to attract young blood at an early age, it needs to step up the promotion, says Lynsey Martin. “Farming is broadening out, becoming more and more diverse, and bringing ever more rewarding career opportunities,” she says. “Technology is the big area – the hands-free hectare is coming. It’s a clear message: farming is a brilliant career full of choice and opportunity at every single level. We have a clear obligation to engage with children, parents, teachers, schools to make it not a ‘last-resort’ career, but a very clear first choice.”

Want to get involved?

Find out how to take part in the NFU’s roadshows, events and education initiatives here .

Further details on the Royal Highland Education Trust can be found  here .

For more information on LEAF education initiatives, visit the LEAF website .

Read more about how to get involved in Open Farm Sunday here .

If you’d like to volunteer for FaceTime a Farmer, click  here  for more details.

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