Young Farmers Week: Q&A with Defra and NFYFC

As Young Farmers Week (9-13 October) draws to a close, Farmers Weekly questions Defra farming minister Mark Spencer and NFYFC chairman Rosie Bennett to discuss current and future prospects for young farmers and new entrants.

See also: Young farmer finds niche as a small-scale grassland contractor

Why should young people consider a career in agriculture?

Mark Spencer: As someone who has farmed all their life, and whose family continues to farm today, agriculture is in my blood.

I know first hand it can be challenging, but I also know just how rewarding a career this can be. It is an exciting time to enter the sector.

We are investing millions into automation and robotics, giving the younger generation a revolution in the way we farm in this country into the future.

And our new farming schemes are up and running, supporting farmers not just to produce food, but to protect and enhance the environment at the same time.

Rosie Bennett: It is an exciting career opportunity and it isn’t just manual labour like many outside of the industry perceive.

A career in agriculture can be in many different forms, which are scientific, innovative, multidisciplined, and meaningful.

And while there’s no doubt it can be challenging, it’s an industry that plays a significant role for the nation’s health and sustainability, and is not disappearing.

What attributes do young farmers need to succeed in the industry?

MS: First and foremost, not all farmers are the same, and people will bring their own skillsets and experiences.

But if I were to pick three attributes, I would say: determination, resilience, and an openness to embrace innovation and consider new ways of doing things.

RB: What they have already – passion, a positive work ethic, and resilience for business volatility.

What are the main barriers would-be new entrants face and how can these best be overcome?

MS: I know people who want to get into the industry can face challenges such as accessing land, financing their business, or feeling they do not have adequate training. It’s my job to break these down.

We tested a potential approach through our new entrants pilot – more than three-quarters of respondents on leaving the pilot scheme felt either confident or very confident in their ability to pitch their business plan to land and finance providers.

We have also done a lot of work to ensure tenant farmers can more easily access and benefit from our new farming schemes, helping put all farmers on a level playing field.

So there’s more to do for us to break down those barriers, but I feel that we and the industry are going in the right direction.

RB: There are increasing demands for capital and land. The market is volatile with inflated prices and policy changes.

We wait to see if the widely highlighted challenges from three years of research projects have increased, or new opportunities materialise. 

Do people need a formal qualification to succeed in farming? Is college essential?

MS: No. Many people gain valuable skills from qualifications, but it’s not for everyone and you don’t need a formal qualification to succeed in farming.

What you need is a strong work ethic and a passion for producing food and looking after our environment.

Our new entrants’ pilot has shown that those without previous experience or a college background can gain valuable knowledge by learning from other more experienced farmers or taking part in site visits, and I’d encourage everyone to choose the option that works best for them.

RB: The short answer is no. If you have passion and drive, anything is possible. The learning opportunities range from work experience and apprenticeships right through to degrees.

Continued learning and professional development as well as personal development makes sense – we all learn something new every day. Social and professional networks are key for mentoring, advice, and opportunities.

Where have we got to with Defra’s new entrants’ scheme?

MS: Since the new entrants’ pilot finished in May, we have been busy evaluating the responses from more than 200 participants. The results have been encouraging.

Participants told us that they took part in the scheme for three main reasons: to access expert advice, develop business and entrepreneurial skills, and create or improve their business plans.

We’ll set out more information about the schemes in early 2024.

Does this sound good enough to the NFYFC?

RB: NFYFC, as well as many other organisations, has shared a wealth of information, including research results, examples of effective training and support networks.

We also focus on the next generation’s ambitions and needs with Defra. We can’t second-guess what will be offered following the Defra new entrants’ pilot schemes (until the review is announced) or how effective this will be.

Is the industry doing enough to encourage the next generation?

MS: I would encourage the industry to do all it can to support the next generation of farmers, working to give young people chances to build their skills and provide them with a clear pathway to develop their career.

On a broader point, we need to worker harder to sell the positives of a career in agriculture to the next generation.

There are clearly issues in the industry that need to be heard and addressed, but I worry that focusing on these all of the time could put off young people from rural areas who now have such a broad range of career opportunities available to them.

So let’s balance discussions of the issues we face with positive stories about the brilliant opportunities that await for those who will be taking the baton of British agriculture out of our hands in the years to come.

RB: From a YFC perspective, yes. We already have so much industry collaboration and support. I’d like to think that our industry is more than aware of the importance of the next generation – it’s what I’ve experienced and hope we continue to do more of the same.

How can older farmers best share their knowledge with new entrants? 

MS: I’m very grateful for the knowledge I had passed down to me. Working with both my grandparents and parents as well as other experienced farmers has given me a depth of experience that is invaluable.

I hope I can play my part in passing on that knowledge to my children and other young farmers.

RB: The existing and well-established collaborative networks support next generation, and new entrants demonstrate positive intergenerational work and mentoring, and this can only be built upon.

The current policy changes may well encourage more share farming consideration, and an increased understanding and support for apprenticeships is welcomed.

Ensuring that we encourage the older generation to be open and honest about their careers and challenges will only strengthen the intergenerational relationships.