Opinion: Fresh blood needed to future-proof farming

Like many readers, I suspect, I am the beneficiary of the time-honoured practice of nepotism. I farm 291ha of Leicestershire countryside because my parents did so before me, and theirs before them.

There was no interview, and no qualifications were necessary to secure the position.

Many farmers, across the world, end up in the family business through a combination of inertia, expectation and a lack of imagination or encouragement to do otherwise (which isn’t to say they don’t subsequently enjoy their lot).

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For most people, though, a familial route into food and farming is not an option. Many, with no links to the mostly closed shop of agriculture and no easy way in, yearn for a life on the land and the opportunity to become a “new entrant”.

As a trustee of the Plumb Foundation, set up in 2012 by former NFU president Lord Henry Plumb, I am fortunate to have the opportunity to meet many young people aspiring to a career in agriculture, many from a non-farming background.

The foundation acts to help such people get their feet on the first rung of the ladder with grant funding, but perhaps more importantly the assistance of a dedicated mentor to guide the applicant on the early stages of their journey.

The experience of interviewing young people starting out with nothing but aspirations and enthusiasm acts as a refreshing tonic to my increasingly fretful outlook on where our industry is being pushed in the wake of Brexit.

More than once, the optimism of a twentysomething with unbridled positivity about the prospect of grazing 50 ewes on some rented grasskeep has made me ashamed of the difficulties I see in my own comparatively gilded position.

But the foundation cannot help everybody, and as an industry we undoubtedly do far too little to encourage and accept new talent into our ranks. We all know the stark statistics about the average farmer – old, white and male.

While there is nothing wrong with older Caucasian men (I hope to join their ranks one day), we need to appeal to wider society and actively encourage people from all backgrounds to seriously consider a career in agriculture and associated sectors.

If we do not, then as an industry we’re living on borrowed time and merely running down the clock to our own extinction.

But we also need to look within, to those already present in our ranks. The organisations which represent us must be the change we need to see more widely in our industry.

Too often, such institutions can become miniature Houses of Lords, where individuals, once elected to positions both high and low, are often there for life (or so it can seem).

Too often, a gerontocracy is justified by arguing that “now is not the time for change”, or that experience counts more than fresh ideas, as if existing placeholders have a monopoly on wisdom.

With Brexit, change is upon us on a scale previously unimaginable. Fresh ideas will become the currency of the coming decade, as all that has come before falls away.

We must ensure that the pipeline of new talent is not restricted or blocked, but is encouraged to flow ever more freely. It is, after all, their future to win or lose.

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