Students and staff from Hartpury University and Hartpury College had their say on a wide variety of industry topics during a special Farmers Guardian focus group ahead of National Careers Week (6-11 March 2023). The event took place at Hartpury’s Agri-Tech Centre giving those in attendance a chance to debate the hot topics, challenges, opportunities, and common misconceptions facing the agriculture industry.
The event was part of Farmers Guardian’s #ThisIsAgriculture campaign that aims to give a 360-degree take on the world of farming and aims to attract more people to consider a career in agriculture.
A team of editors from the leading industry publication led a range of talking points, resulting in lively debate about the way forward on several issues facing the industry, covering everything from women in agriculture, climate change, and education, to technology, the media, and food waste. Ways in which the industry can remain attractive to young people were also explored.
Women in agriculture
One area where students and staff were in agreement was the importance of attracting and keeping women in the industry.
In the UK, the number of women engaging in agricultural jobs has been steadily increasing over the past few decades – currently one-third of the 542,000 people working in around 170,000 agricultural businesses. In line with this, enrolments at Hartpury College among students studying agriculture have increased by 17% for the current academic year.
Millie Saunders, a BTEC Level 3 Land-Based Engineering student sees opportunities for women, rather than barriers.
“Women can do so much good in farming, and I’ve found the agricultural community to be extremely welcoming,” she said.
“Whether for physical roles on a farm or a more academic role in research, there are so many possibilities for women wanting to work in the industry.”
To attract more women to pursue an agricultural role, students and staff discussed the importance of continuing with training initiatives through the likes of DEFRA and non-profit agencies like the Women’s Farming Union.
The rise of technology has played a huge part in the increasing presence of women, from GPS-monitored machinery to remote monitoring of livestock health. Students also discussed the opportunities for women in animal welfare and sustainability – two areas featuring heavily in Farmers Guardian and within course content at Hartpury.
The need for more female role models was also underlined – particularly those in leadership positions. Overall, it was felt that by promoting the benefits of working in agriculture and encouraging this trend of women entering the field, the UK can set a great example for other countries that are yet to realise the importance of equal opportunities in their farm-based economies.
One of the significant challenges facing agriculture is climate change. Students and staff were aligned in a firm belief that this is arguably one of the most pressing issues right now, and the industry must work to produce practical solutions to safeguard the future.
Students highlighted warming temperatures, droughts, and extreme weather conditions that are all affecting farming productivity, making it challenging to grow crops and raise livestock. Climate change is having a critical impact on the quality and quantity of water resources available to farmers, which can hinder the cultivation of crops and the growth of pastures.
Sustainability features and articles in Farmers Guardian were something that was felt to be extremely important, continuing to keep advances in this area high on the agenda.
Skilled labour, education, and training
The industry is facing labour shortages so needs to continue to attract people with a range of skills across technology, science, and engineering, as well as others with those practical, hands-on skills.
One of the biggest misconceptions facing the industry is that you must come from a farming family or live in the countryside to have a career in agriculture.
In fact, there are thousands of farmers and growers across the world from non-farming backgrounds and this continues to increase as pioneering technologies are developed to meet the challenges of a growing global population.
“People from a non-farming background give a new perspective on the industry and where it needs to go,” said Tomos (Jac) Parry who is studying for a BSc (Hons) Agriculture degree.
“The industry is so rewarding, no matter which part of it you choose to work in. For me, I love working with livestock and cattle. Knowing that your hard work has made the herd grow and stay healthy, as well as ultimately feeding people, is so rewarding,” he added.
Finley Wooton, a BTEC Land-Based Engineering student is one example of someone who comes from a non-farming background but loves the industry.
He said: “Anything and everything you do on a farm can have a positive impact, including producing food for people. As soon as I was introduced to farming, I loved it. It took me in and I want to carry on for life.”
Johnson Stewart, a BSc (Hons) Agriculture (Livestock Production) student was keen to raise the importance of self-motivation and hard work, no matter which career pathway you choose.
“If you want to advance your career in agriculture, you can go anywhere. You need to push yourself though and push your boundaries. You need to be in the right job and keep upskilling to command a good salary and maintain good job satisfaction.”
LinkedIn was mentioned frequently by students as a good place for browsing career-related agriculture content, while Facebook rated highly as a place to access agriculture news. LinkedIn was also rated as a good choice to connect with other farmers who are part of the same industry specialism.
Overall, social media was discussed as a powerful tool to break down barriers, allowing farmers to connect with buyers and customers all around the world. They can showcase their farms, products, and share their knowledge about farming practices.
The increasing role of farming influencers was discussed, with ‘day-in-the-life’ features proving particularly popular. These are useful even for the smallest of farming operations when looking to connect with their local community. Students talked of the recent Covid-19 pandemic and how many people re-engaged with farming, taking advantage of local suppliers to start up milk and vegetable deliveries. As we emerge from the pandemic, students discussed the importance of keeping these relationships alive.
Kitty Hardman, a BTEC Level 3 Agriculture student said: “There’s so much more to farming than driving tractors or getting muddy – that’s just one part of it. YouTube, TikTok, and the other social media platforms can be a powerful way to show the lifestyle we all love and to show that every day is different.”
While TikTok and Instagram videos are often entertaining and work to attract people into the industry, students highlighted a need to show the ‘bad days’ too to ensure a realistic picture is painted for anyone wanting to move into farming.
The role of the media in encouraging consumers to eat seasonally and reduce food wastewas another topic many students were keen to raise, as well as the need to remove packaging wherever possible.
When it comes to publications such as Farmers Guardian, there seems to be a clear desire for the printed publication to continue whilst being complemented by a comprehensive range of online content.
Students were broadly united in addressing the issue of food waste. A significant amount of food goes to waste each year contributing to environmental pollution and economic losses.
Students and staff discussed ways that food waste could be reduced. These could include using precision agriculture technologies that help farmers monitor and manage crops in real time, meaning that farmers can reduce overuse of fertiliser, water, or other resources.
Working with community organisations and food banks can also help to reduce surplus produce, reduce hunger, and promote the sustainability of farming operations.
The high cost of acquiring new technology, its complexity, the risk it brings, and the lack of technical skills can all contribute to reluctance when it comes to embracing the latest advances in farming.
Students felt that addressing perceptions around the use of technology is something they can help with. By ensuring they have the skills to embrace and operate the latest technology, as well as making sure they communicate its many positives with their older peers, the future should be secure.
Technologies including automation and robotics, precision farming, biotechnology, data analytics and climate-smart agriculture are all being rolled out.
The event itself took place in the Hartpury Agri-Tech Centre, a place dedicated to sharing knowledge, research, and best practice when it comes to technology in agriculture, in particular livestock farming. Students and staff are engaged with the Agri-Tech Centre frequently, and the advantages of this for their own future was mentioned.
The future of farming
Students made several predictions around the future of farming. Technology-driven agriculture is almost a certainty, and organic and sustainable farming is unavoidable. Conventional farming practices will need to adapt to allow for more sustainable methods to progress, resulting in better soil health, energy efficiency, and biodiversity.
Education must adapt too. Lecturers were keen to promote the importance of an open mind when looking at the agriculture sector.
Phil Watson, Associate Head of Agriculture at Hartpury University, said: “We need to think about agriculture as much more than just farming. It’s an exciting time to join the industry and make a real difference.
“You can influence policy, legislation and even health care. You can address issues such as climate change, farming in a post-Brexit world, or take advantage of the huge advances in technology we’re seeing.
“We have a diverse range of students who bring in new ideas that can only benefit the industry in future.”
The focus group lasted more than three hours, with students also taking part in myth-busting video interviews for Farmers Guardian. Editors of the magazine were also given a tour of Hartpury’s Home Farm that provides students with a true taste of life in a commercial setting.
Speaking after the event, Katie O’Hagan, Account Manager at Farmers Guardian said: “We received some very interesting insights from both students and staff, and it was incredible to see how passionate each student was about the industry and their desire to develop agriculture further.
“Here at Farmers Guardian, we’re on a mission to improve the image of farming and agriculture, making it more appealing to a younger audience. It was positive to see so many students expressing a desire to help us in spreading the word and inspiring other youngsters to pursue a career in agriculture.”
Perhaps Matt Bell, our own Director of Agriculture put it best when he said, “Hartpury is a place where future agriculturalists, policy makers and leaders gain an internationally recognised education in an industry relevant setting, developing the skills, vision and confidence to explore the new ideas and smart technologies that will drive our agricultural economy forward.”