Here Farmers Weekly columnists Will Evans and Guy Smith consider whether farming should become a chartered profession.
While Mr Evans believes professional qualifications would lead to a better agricultural industry, Guy Smith warns against loading extra cost into a sector often struggling to compete with other countries.
Farming needs to up its game when it comes to professional status…
A few years back I got into a spat on Twitter with someone arguing in favour of having to achieve a professional qualification to become a farmer.
Ridiculous, I scoffed.
Some of the best farmers I know haven’t sat a test or exam in decades, so why should they give up their valuable time for this nonsense now?
Well, I was wrong. And, if I could remember who it was I was arguing with, I’d apologise.
Because, although I don’t think it was needed in the past, I know it is now.
It’s time for us to take a leaf out of other industries’ book and fully embrace chartered professional status.
Consumers have never been as interested in where their food comes from or how it’s produced as they are now, and as a result UK agriculture is under scrutiny like never before.
Rarely a day goes by where there isn’t a farming-related story in the national press, and they’re usually negative, often highly stereotypical in their approach to farmers. We have to change this, and it starts with perception.
We must show ourselves to be a modern and forward-thinking industry, unafraid to meet the challenges of a fast-changing world, keen to develop our professional competence.
If we’re to set ourselves apart from the competition and be the best farmers in the world, then it begins with education and training.
But before you reach for the pitchforks and burning torches and head angrily towards Bangor-is-y-Coed, consider this; having professional status could replace some of the numerous and increasingly bloated assurance schemes that we all waste countless hours taking part in.
Who among us hasn’t looked wistfully out of the office window on a sunny morning while confirming some obscure management plan is up to date?
It could work along the lines of the National Register of Sprayer Operators or the Basis professional register, where we have to prove a certain level of qualification, and then commit to a programme of continued professional development, with a flexible mix of online and in-person training.
Brexit will soon be here, and one of the biggest challenges facing the industry is going to be finding the right people, with the necessary knowledge, experience and skills in what is an extremely competitive market, to work in agriculture.
If we’re going to attract high-calibre individuals, we need to give them a clear career path, and help them to develop.
It would also have the added bonus of weeding out the kind of farms everyone knows exist, but as an industry we don’t like to talk about.
They’re almost always on the side of a busy main road for everyone to see, and there are some of them where I wouldn’t even walk on to the yard.
If they didn’t sort themselves out and gain the necessary qualification, they’d be out. A millstone around all our necks would be removed, and the industry would be the better for it.
I’ve long believed agriculture should be considered a destination industry, and not something we do because we can’t do anything else.
It numbers some of the most innovative, forward-thinking and progressive individuals in the UK workforce in its ranks, and it’s time we proved this to the wider world.
Don’t burden us with unnecessary extra costs in the process
My first reaction to chartered professional status and continuous professional development (CPD) as a dyed in the wool, son of the soil is this would amount to a state-sanctioned licence to farm which should be welcomed with the same genuine enthusiasm as the applause at the North Korean communist party annual conference.
And if the main argument for chartered status for farmers is it will make us as popular as other chartered professions – like solicitors and estate agents – then need I say more?
But then I took my anti-curmudgeonliness pills and remembered what happens when you finally sign up to the grumpy old men’s club.
I also thought about my daughter who has just recently received her chartership as an engineer, a few years after graduating with a degree in the subject.
It was a proud moment, and it’s one reason why British engineers have a world reputation and find employment across the globe.
The danger, of course, is that chartership and CPD put cost into the farm economy that remains unrewarded, especially in a world where agricultural goods are traded between farmers who operate under increasingly disparate regulations and costs.
There is no point in loading more and more cost into our industry thereby pricing ourselves out of the market as cheap-to-grow, poorly regulated imports increasingly dominate the supermarket shelves. Concepts such as chartered status and CPD must strengthen a farmer’s market position, not diminish it.
But talking to young farmers I sense an enthusiasm for some sort of increased and continued professional recognition once they have left college or university.
It is also true our industry does lag shamefully behind others when it comes to skills and training. We all need to address this.
It is important our industry continues this debate, which must be led by the younger element rather than blocked by the older.
So, I salute Will for raising this. It is time we moved on from the main qualification for running a farm, that being that your grandad used to. Let’s give it some serious thought.