As British agriculture faces its biggest changes in decades, Tim Price asks what role education will have in shaping farming’s future.
With the recent Agriculture and Environment Bills, the post-Brexit shift from an EU Common Agricultural Policy system to a domestic policy and society’s growing interest in climate change, use of land, and knowing where food comes from, it is obvious to see big changes lie ahead for the farming industry.
While many acknowledge the change, it can be difficult to adapt and build a sustainable future, while managing the day to day.
For example, the modern farm manager needs a much wider view of what is going on than they needed in the past, when the world was simpler, the focus was on production and requirements clearer.
The Worshipful Company of Farmers (WCF), which runs bespoke business management courses, recently interviewed influential business leaders on the skills and capabilities that will be needed to help make the shift.
Philip Wynn, director of agri-food and farming businesses and a change-management specialist, says: “The old way of managing staff no longer works.
"The young people coming into the sector expect more – for instance an understanding why we do something a particular way, the opportunity to make a difference or to connect agriculture to the environment sustainably.
"They also want a work/life balance from their career and an employer who gets this. In return we need people who will come in, challenge the status quo, who accept change as a norm rather than as a barrier.
“Often I help organisations make structural change and find people usually struggle with it. Yet today’s business world moves fast and is about using assets to the best potential in the current context.
"This is a different skill from putting a crop in a field, selling it and getting paid, and needs a completely different approach.
"For example, looking at the cost structure, thinking about how to be more efficient, spotting opportunities and making them happen is the mindset now. And if you do not have these skills naturally, think about ways to acquire them.
“One solution is to embrace or follow some core business beliefs."
Philip Wynn’s pointers he shares with clients and students, to provide them with a framework for taking a farm or agricultural business from where it is today to a future that maximises those assets:
- Use technology and innovation to progress
- Remember the importance of people
- Remember the importance of communication
- Strive to be the best you can be
- Understand the importance of profit
Tom Green, chairman of Leaf Marque and portfolio non-executive director, is another influential figure in farming and shares his key themes for success.
He says having high quality general management skills are now at the fore.
"Farming used to be a vocational career choice," he adds.
"Today it is very professional and one needs a wide range of business skills – everything from HR and administration, to being commercial and managing the finances. The very best excel in general management as well as recognise and make sure they have specialist knowhow.
"Depending on which field you are in, you need deep expertise in say nutrition or husbandry or crop protection.
"It is not easy to combine both general and specialist skills, so it is worth thinking about how you make sure you access both. Can you delegate to others, or is it best to outsource if you do not have the expertise yourself?
“Something else to think about is prioritising which challenges impact you. Not all of the changes impacting agriculture will be relevant to your business. The danger is allowing change to frighten you into inaction. The best advice is to focus on the things with immediate impact to you.
“If you need help thinking this through, think about education and how it could create value. Often it enables people to develop personally within a framework of goals and which draws out new capabilities as you build them. Although one of the most significant benefits of going on courses is accessing a new network and being amongst a group of peers, who you can learn from, take advice from, and enjoy knowing.”
Mr Wynn says above all else, the common factor in maximising the benefits of education is the attitude of the person.
“If you have the willingness to improve yourself and move on in your career, you will instinctively understand the importance of investing time in your education," he adds.
"You will find a way to continue your career while investing in your development. It is those people who will make a real difference to the future of agriculture.”