Despite the challenges to arable farming of volatile commodity prices, escalating input costs, high energy bills, environmental legislation and a government department failing to deliver every year, I consider the greatest threat to the future is diminishing manpower.
It seems a far cry from the day in the late 1970s when I attended an interview at Harper Adams for the agriculture course to be told there was a three-year waiting list.
Farmers throughout eastern England have been scratching about to get sufficient harvest staff. UK agricultural students have almost dried up, so growers have been forced to source help from overseas.
Formerly, the southern hemisphere supplied much of this, but now it’s eastern Europe – most importantly, Poland. Hardly a day goes by without one hearing Polish spoken in the neighbourhood.
The shortage of staff has accelerated sharply, with 39% fewer full-time farm workers on UK farms than in 1999. This will take a long time to reverse – but it needs to if we are not to have a crisis in 10 to 15 years. We are told that the average age of farmers is touching 60. What will it be by then?
Our response has been to tailor our business so we can provide full-time employment year round and reduce our need for casual help.
We also take on school children who want work experience to give them a taste of farming. Many requests for this come from the open days that we hold on the farm.
One thing I did learn from a rugby tour to Poland earlier this summer, is that there are few sheep in that country.