Minister backs calls for agricultural centre of excellence

DEFRA secretary Hilary Benn has backed industry calls for the government to establish a national centre of excellence for agriculture.

Mr Benn has written to business secretary Peter Mandelson, urging him to include agriculture in government plans that have seen national skills academies set up to improve skills and productivity across other sectors.

Industry leaders believe Mr Benn’s support could be pivotal in their drive to improve the professionalism of Britain’s agricultural workforce, attract thousands of new entrants into farming and ultimately boost food production.

News of Mr Benn’s letter emerged at the launch of an industry-led AgriSkills Strategy on Wednesday (10 February).The document portrays a profession of highly skilled and knowledgeable farmers in an industry seen as an attractive career choice.

Forecasts suggest 60,000 people must be recruited into agriculture over the next decade. But job vacancies remain hard to fill because farming is seen as unattractive. At the same time, a food production must double to meet global demand.

The strategy was developed by the AgriSkills Forum – an initiative that includes the NFU, Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, National Federation of Young Farmers’ Clubs and Lantra, the sector skills council for the land-based sector.

A thriving industry needed to demonstrate it was highly competent in all it did, said forum chairman and NFU deputy president Meurig Raymond. Farming must build on its highly-skilled base, he added.

“While we recognise that farmers and farm workers already have a high level of skills, we understand that to attract young people and new entrants to the industry it is essential that these skills are recognised and improved.”

The uptake of techniques to improve the efficiency and competitiveness of farm businesses will be encouraged by AHDB. Meanwhile, Landex will work with employers to ensure that college courses meet the industry’s needs.

Working group chairman Richard Longthorp said professionalism and skills development should be embedded into everyday business practice. The strategy had been developed thanks to an unprecedented degree of collaboration across the in the industry.

But Mr Longthorp warned: “This is no time to be patting each other on the back. The real work and the real outcome lie ahead of us. It will be down to the whole of industry to ensure the strategy’s vision is realised.”

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council has pledged up to £15m to establish training for food security research and development. The money would help ensure Britain had the vital highly skilled agri-food workers needed to secure its food supply, said the council.

The scheme will support the development of staff and help companies with succession planning in niche skill areas. Training providers and industry partners would help deliver high-level skills relevant to crops, livestock and food, it said.

Download a copy of the strategy