Win over teens by talking their language

The old chestnut about recruiting more young people into agricultural careers has been discussed so exhaustively on these pages that it is growing boring. It’s now almost too clichéd even for one of my columns. Note my use of the word “almost” in that last sentence.

Recognising that we needed a twist to the story, I planned a spot of undercover reporting and arranged to speak at a careers fair organised by my alma mater, Spalding Grammar School. I decided to meet these spotty-faced school leavers for myself, to look into the whites of their eyes and give them some Churchillian rhetoric about the storm gathering over international food production.

My brief was to speak to four groups of 30 students. It was the first time that I have been inside the building for 20 years. I left Spalding Grammar at 15 straight after my GCSE exams. When presented with the option of starting work or remaining locked in a classroom for another five years, I chose liberty and ran for the hills of South Lincolnshire.

I don’t find it easy to speak to teenagers these days. I say “these days,” I didn’t find it that easy when I was a teenager either. I knew that I would be swimming in shark-infested waters and reasoned that I didn’t want to be carrying the millstone of a scripted presentation. Instead I wore jeans to make myself look less like a teacher and I practiced saying non-sexual swearwords in the car to make me sound like a cool and rebellious kinda guy.

I started my sessions with the question: “How many of you are thinking about working in the food industry?” and hoped a discussion would develop. I wasn’t exactly overwhelmed with potential candidates for a start. A careless chainsaw operator could have counted the positive responses on the fingers of one hand.

“Do you have any free pens to give out?” asked a girl on the front row. Then I got a heckle. Someone called out “Ooo ah, Oi’m a faaaarmer.”

“At least I’m not a schoolboy with massive-hair and droopy-trousers,” I wanted to say, but I took a deep breath and just said “LOL” a little bit sarcastically.

Gradually, with frankness and some judicious swearing, I won them round. It wasn’t exactly Dead Poets Society. They didn’t hoist me onto their shoulders and carry me out of the room cheering “Farming, Farming, Farming” but teenagers aren’t renowned for gushing with enthusiasm about anything. All we can do is show them passion, energy and hope and then trust that they will pull the economy out of the grim mess of our making. This is the generation that will be managing the world at the end of our lives. Some of them will be running our farms, the others will be running our baths when we are in residential care. In both cases we will depend upon them.

Ultimately I am glad to have shared the simple message that I love being a farmer and that I have found it to be a financially rewarding and fulfilling role in society. This is a message which stands out for young people. I urge you to get involved in a careers event in your local school as well. It’s up to us individuals to stop talking about it and to actually go and bring a taste of our reality into the education system. And remember to take some pens.

Matthew Naylor, aged 37, farms 162ha (400 acres) of Lincolnshire silt in partnership with his father, Nev. Cropping includes potatoes, vegetables, cut flowers and flowering bulbs. Matthew is a Nuffield scholar.

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