Opinion: Workforce engagement in technological advance is crucial

The agricultural sector, and indeed the fabric of the farming way of life, is facing ever more rapid change as challenges and opportunities evolve.

According to the Harvard Business Review, global food demand is expected to increase anywhere between 59% to 98% by 2050, due to population increase and rising incomes driving changes in diet.

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Increasing public concern regarding the environment is also driving the need for more sustainable practices.

I believe that workforce engagement is key to preserving farming’s way of life while meeting this huge demand, and embracing a more sustainable future for all.

David Hart

David Hart

Sustainability is about more than environmental factors; it’s about the jobs, local economy and lifestyle that farming provides which have always been the lifeblood of rural communities.

As a result, we need to ensure that the workforces on farms are kept engaged and informed in order to adopt the best sustainable practices.

Workforce engagement perhaps conjures up images of bored or stressed office workers with poor productivity who end up resigning. But all of this holds true for the agricultural sector too.

The sector needs to attract and retain talent to sustain itself, so providing challenging, engaging, attractive jobs to a broad range of people and ages should be a priority.

The fact that these workers can support or even drive the changes needed to be more innovative, and bring vibrancy into local communities, completes the virtuous circle.

One of the challenges with farming is that business ownership tends to transition in a different manner to other industries.

Defra figures from 2017 reveal that in the UK, about one-third of all farm “holders” were over 65, while the proportion of under-35s was about 3%.

My experience with smaller farms has been that a move to more innovative farming methods happens all at once, typically when an older farmer retires and passes the farm onto their younger successor.

This sometimes results in a disconnect from a workforce and community perspective.

For the sector to remain competitive, while maintaining the way of life rural communities are accustomed to, farmers must adopt better strategies for change management, thereby sustaining the knowledge transfer to future generations.

If we don’t do a better job of this, younger generations are going to continue leaving farms for careers in the city.

We see the government pursuing science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) initiatives in education, but we as an industry do not do a good enough job of communicating just how much these skills are needed in agriculture.

Good change management should involve a process whereby farmers are consistently looking to educate themselves and their workers on new techniques and practices, while embracing new technologies so that the entire workforce is aware of what changes are necessary, understand how best to go about implementing these changes and adapt their job roles accordingly.  

Farmers need a mandate to adopt newer technologies directly from the owner or farm management, or a “champion” of innovation who works on the farm and has the ear of the management to make this happen.

Innovation, precision farming and moving towards “farming 4.0” is often seen as the antithesis of rural communities that were based around farms in simpler times.

But these two approaches are actually two sides of the same coin and it is only by keeping the workforce engaged in these methods that we can ensure a sustainable future for our industry.

David Hart is managing director, Kubota UK.

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