It is not just the average age of farmers that is increasing. Their agronomists, too, are getting older the average age of AICC members is just under 50.
It means the UK is facing a shortage of agronomists to replace those who are retiring. A decade of poor returns in arable farming in the mid 1990s to 2000s together with an often negative media image of farming has combined to make agronomy a less attractive career.
The problem of succession is a real one, albeit one the AICC is actively addressing, AICC chief executive Sarah Cowlrick says. In the first place, it’s difficult to hand over a business usually built up by an individual and where personal relationships are important. Second, it’s expensive to train a replacement and third, candidates are few and far between.
Among independent consultants in particular, funding is limited to train a replacement to take over their business and the trade is finding it difficult to recruit.
“But now we have more collaborative and technical groupings within AICC, they can begin to afford trainees,” says Mrs Cowlrick. Some have already successfully taken on youngsters into the business.
Most consultants walk an average of 14,000 to 15,000 acres a year and because their work will always be limited by the acreage they can walk, their potential earnings are also largely limited in the same way.
“Agronomy fee structures have largely stagnated in the past 10 years which is hindering graduate recruitment and training within the industry,” says Mrs Cowlrick. AICC would like to see more support from many of the agricultural colleges to raise awareness of agronomy as a career.
Harper Adams University College produces more agriculture graduates than any other college, says agriculture course manager Russell Readman. The college enrols around 125 students on agriculture HND and degree courses each year. They can then choose to specialise in crop management and other areas such as mechanisation.
The college also offers a postgraduate crop protection course. Twenty years ago this course had 24 students, 10 years ago there were 10, while the current year has just for students.
“In addition, there has been an increase in the proportion of overseas students taking this course who then go back home and an increase in work-based learners studying the course part-time,” says Dr Readman.
At BSc level, only four students, or 7%, are specialising in agronomy in their final year of the agriculture course, he adds. More typically it has been between 10 and 15% in the past. He would like to see not only more students choosing this route but also employers looking across a wider range of students for potential agronomists.
Starting salaries for trainee agronomists in the supply trade are in the late teens to around £20,000 plus car. The last three years have seen the development of several scholarships as a means of encouraging students to consider certain career options.
For example Syngenta runs three scholarships at Harper Adams, two in the development and technical areas and one in marketing and sales as a means not only of encouraging students to specialise in these areas but also to identify potential employees.
They are sponsored by being given a year’s placement with the company as part of their course and through the payment of tuition fees in the academic year before and following that placement. However, the scholarships are not conditional on those students joining their sponsoring company at the end of the course. The Arable Group, Velcourt and Co-op Farms are also involved in scholarships at Harper Adams.
AtlasFram arable products manager John Humphreys works with independent agronomists covering 90% of the group’s arable acreage and has been concerned about a shortage of agronomists for some time. He is also investigating sponsorship of trainees.
At Agrovista, 95 agronomists are employed and the company has recently taken on eight trainees. Regional director for the south, Charles Coslett, said that had they been looking for these from the traditional source straight out of college or university, they would have struggled to fill the positions.
However, he believes that as food has become more of a political issue recently, the profile of agronomy is also being raised.