For too long the lack of new blood in farming has been viewed by most as somebody else’s problem.
No one would deny an enormous chasm exists between agriculture’s need for new entrants and the process that turns school-leavers from non-farming backgrounds into industry employees.
But this chasm is not one that will be bridged solely by glossy brochures and snappy careers talks.
From personal experience, school children are intrigued by the prospect of a careers talk given by a real farmer. It’s indicative of how far removed farming has become from their psyche.
For most students, it is like going to a restaurant and seeing frogs’ legs on the menu for the first time. They are curious of the presentation, sceptical of its content, but have never contemplated it as something they want to experience for themselves.
But students are naturally inquisitive and so may equally wonder: “What does a real farmer look like?”
Yet careers talks have a fundamental flaw. Extolling the virtues of a career in agriculture is one thing, but are job opportunities and apprenticeships readily available for school-leavers with no experience?
Farmers Weekly‘s leader column on 25 February spoke of a “raft of smart initiatives” being “a step in the right direction”.
But so much remains to be done. Many land-based colleges offer apprenticeships in agriculture, but the process is over-complicated for both the provider and employers. The provider must overcome many hurdles to receive funding. First, the apprentice must complete the course and second many employers do not want to commit to a full-time apprentice.
A paltry 100 apprenticeships or thereabouts are currently available within farming. What of the other 74,900 new entrants needed in the next 10 years?
We cannot bleat of a dearth of young blood if we do not have adequate means to take them under our wing.
Student fees and tightening economies will accelerate an appetite for apprenticeships. But, sadly, most UK farms are not large enough or structured to employ and manage a full-time apprentice.
UK farming is good at collaboration. Why can we not deliver an apprenticeship scheme that allows more than one business to share an apprentice? An extra pair of hands for two days a week for a couple of months at a time (with half their wage paid by the government) could be very welcome and much easier to manage on many farms.
An apprenticeship could rotate quarterly between sectors to offer a broader spectrum of experience. This diversity may be more appealing to a young person and reduce the onus on both employer and provider.
My idea has already hit a stumbling block. I telephoned the government’s National Apprenticeship Service for advice. “I’m sorry, Sir, your suggestion would not be allowed under the current scheme. The apprentice may get conflicting training.”
I despair. Collaboration, empowering of individuals, encouraging social responsibility and “bottom up” thinking are meant to form the bedrock of David Cameron’s Big Society – and they cut my proposal off at the knees.
We hear an additional £250m of funding is getting pumped into apprenticeships across all industries – or do only those with big business need apply?
If we are serious about encouraging a future generation of farmers we need to have something to offer.
A shared apprenticeship scheme could create opportunities for both school-leavers and farmers. Mr Cameron and Caroline Spelman should stand behind their promises for the Big Society and unpick their ludicrous red tape.
It shouldn’t just be Alan Sugar who is allowed an apprentice.
Ian Pigott is 40 and farms 700ha in Hertfordshire. The farm is a LEAF demonstration unit, with 130ha of SPorganic arable. Ian is also the founder of Open Farm Sunday.