What makes the top third of farm businesses different from the rest? It’s not the latest gadgets, technology or innovation. It is simply the skills and knowledge necessary to implement that technology in the right place and in the right way, says Richard Longthorp OBE, the driving force behind the Pig Industry Professional Register (PIPR), chairman of the Agriskills Forum management group and chairman of the English Council of Lantra.
“You hear so many farmers lament that there is not enough access to new technology, research and development. But none of that has value to your business if you and your staff cannot implement those innovations effectively,” he says.
He points out that an Aberdeen University study has shown that farms investing in skills development enjoy a subsequent 10-20% growth in profits.
Attracting and retaining bright talent is another imperative behind professionalising the industry.
Young farmers of today are often graduates rubbing shoulders with a diverse group of college peers that goes on to become professionals in the City and abroad.
“These farmers need to feel they too are in a profession that is as professional and worthy as their friends’,” he says.
Farming is a fast-paced industry where new learning and skills are needed to keep up with ever-changing regulations as well as harness new technology and adapt to customer tastes. But more importantly, says Mr Longthorp, “People are inspired by learning. They appreciate investment made in them; they feel valued if you allow them time, and funding, to develop their knowledge and skills.
“It used to be the fear that if you trained your staff they would move on, but now I hear farmers say, ‘My next-door neighbour is a member of your training organisation and my staff are moving to him’.”
Training registers, such as PIPR, and accrediting professional development schemes have a potentially massive role to play in underpinning farm assurance.
Mr Longthorp says: “The integrity of farm assurance is at the heart of the objectives of these schemes. Professional development enables you to keep pace in real time with innovations and regulations without having to go through the hassle of formal qualifications.”
And he has noted a marked shift in attitude and pride towards professional development.
“You know something is working, when people boast about the number of points they hold,” he adds.
So is a chartered farming status the natural development of professionalising the industry? “Where agricultural colleges and universities have land management graduates leaving with chartered status, I can understand the desire to have a similar chartered status for agricultural graduates,” he says.
“However, this is probably only relevant to graduate level. What I want to see is professionalism and the acknowledgement of that professional status throughout all levels and across all parts of the industry, including those sectors that supply into and support primary production.”
It’s discussions like this that led to the formation of the Agriskills forum set up four years ago. The forum has been an industry-wide show of commitment to recognise and improve farming skills. Lantra, NFU, AHDB, Landex, RASE, DEFRA, City & Guilds, Institute of Agricultural Management and Young Farmers Clubs meet quarterly.
Their aim is to encourage new learning and skills that deliver value and confidence to farm businesses. The first step is communicating skills and training already taking place on farms to demonstrate competence to customers, employers, regulators and also crucially to new entrants and students, explains the NFU’s skills policy adviser, Lee Osborne.
Skills recording schemes, such as PIPR and the recently launched DairyPro, or registers such as NRoSO, FACTS and BASIS, are crucial for self-development but also important to tackle the public perception that farming is low skilled, adds Mr Osborne.
Lantra’s agricultural partnership manager, Alistair Johnston, confirms that the average farm business spends £2,500 a year on training.
“But there is still a tendency to invest in staff training to address immediate technical or legislative needs rather than use it to provide gains in productivity,” he says.
The Professional Skills Framework is a new online tool, which enables businesses to identify the right skills and requirements for specific job roles and aims to address the issue.
“Until now there has been no recognised integrated system to check skills, allocate appropriate training and ensure that all staff are used effectively,” says Mr Johnston.
“This tool can support efforts to professionalise farming, by providing a career progression pathway for people working right across the industry,” he adds.
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