Opinion: Farmers must put words into action and reward staff

Autumn is upon us here at Knockann. The cattle are enjoying the final flush of grass, calving is in full swing and we are just getting into our third cut of silage for 2021.

It is at this time of year, when things are significantly busier, that I notice and appreciate the support of the team that work with us, both family and individuals from the local community.

They allow me time off the farm, so I can take on roles such as my NFUS position here in Dumfries and Galloway. But we are not all so lucky.

See also: How to find, keep and manage good farm staff

About the author

Colin Ferguson
Colin Ferguson is a Farmers Weekly columnist and dairy farmer from the Machars Peninsula in south west Scotland. Along with his parents and brother, he milks 450 cows on two units supplying Arla Foods. Colin is also the NFU Scotland regional chair for Dumfries & Galloway and a Scottish Enterprise rural leader.
Read more articles by Colin Ferguson

The shortage of staff in agriculture is causing a headache for many and is a crisis that I am not sure the industry has truly woken up to yet.

It is certainly a crisis that government is not yet appreciating, with many businesses calling on family or other workers to cover the cracks.

Just last week, the BBC reported job vacancies in the UK reaching more than one million, putting a big strain on our economy.

With our workforce in a buyer’s market, large enticements to move either within a sector or to retrain staff may resolve a short-term problem, but they hide the real problem – a diminished workforce.

So how does agriculture compete? A job advertised on Twitter last week for £40,000 caused something of a stir, with the sector criticising the farmer for not offering enough.

But did those that were quick to judge take into account the non-monetary benefits such as a house, council tax, heating and a vehicle?

The total package, I suspect, would have tempted some to leave the stress of running their own farms and work for someone else.

The likelihood of this crisis resolving itself in the interim is unlikely. Political pressure to reduce migration, along with the end of free movement after Brexit, has created a problem no-one seems willing to address.

Hoping that the end of furlough later this month will somehow see large queues forming for available jobs seems unlikely.

As a sector, our margins are often tight, and unpredictable weather and markets mean we are always watching our costs. The option to offer big salaries is not available to many.

But a skilled, reliable team is the most important part of any business.

So how can we ensure we make agriculture a “go to” career choice for all ages? There can be no question that staffing costs will increase, but for many money isn’t always the main driver.

A rural location, quality housing and flexible working are increasingly important, and something we can easily provide.

To truly make agriculture a sought-after career, we must build clear pathways which allow progression, improvement and transferrable qualifications.

We must allow the most ambitious individuals to move as far as their abilities allow, and be rewarded fairly for it.

Much of what drives farm business owners like me is building a portfolio. It may be land assets or business streams, in order to provide future security.

It is only fair that we allow the people who work in the sector the same chance to grow and strive, to build their own personal portfolio of skills, and allow them to have their own certainty.

It is time we started acting on what we so often preach – people are our most important asset, so let’s really value and reward them.

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