Farming industry targets the next generation
- 26 July 2012
- From the section Business
Noisy groups of teenagers wearing a strict uniform of hot pants, aviator sunglasses and wellies stream past security into a music tent.
They could be at any one of the summer's music festivals.
But this is the young farmers' area at the Royal Welsh Agricultural Show, in Powys, Mid-Wales.
Despite the huge numbers of enthusiastic young people here, the average age of a farmer is 58.
More than 60,000 new farmers will be needed over the next decade in order to provide enough food for the rest of us.
Despite unemployment among 16-24-year-olds standing at just over one million, few consider a career in farming where a good one might earn up to £60,000 a year.
This is partly because farming has an image problem.
A survey of young children carried out by Careers in Farming and Food Supply showed the industry was perceived as "boring, repetitive and low-paid".
In just one row of stands here at the Royal Welsh, fluttering banners advertise animal micro-nutrients and heavy machinery and offer a multitude of financial plans.
This tiny area of the show demonstrates that agriculture has become an increasingly technical, complex and challenging industry.
"You can use all sorts of skills as a farmer these days," says Christine Tacon, Chairman of UK Farming plc.
Beyond an obvious passion for the outdoors, farmers also need to excel at logistics and planning as well nurturing "softer" skills, like people management.
"Imagine you've hired 2,000 workers from various countries in eastern Europe. Getting them to work harmoniously together is going to be a challenge," explains Ms Tacon.
The shortage of young farmers is also starting to worry big businesses.
Fast-food chain McDonalds has also just launched a programme aiming to help young people into the industry.
With an initial first-year investment of £1m, Farm Forward offers agricultural students a placement year working in every part of the supply chain.
"We will help them develop the blend of skills and experience that progressive, modern farmers want and need," says Brian Mullens, senior vice president of McDonalds UK.
Many young people are also put off farming because they think you have to come from an agricultural family to succeed.
"This absolutely isn't true," says Rachel Jones, from Farmers Weekly magazine.
"People don't realise how much of a business farming is, you have to have an eye on margins and costs every step of the way.
If you have really acute business and entrepreneurial skills there are opportunities out there. "
In a bid to tempt some fresh meat into the industry, Farmers Weekly has launched Farmers Apprentice - a competition in which 10 people aged between 18 and 25 will battle it out in a farming "boot camp" for a week, carrying out some of the toughest tasks.
Resisting peer pressure
Gareth Barlow grew up in Reading, and when his non-farming friends and family found out that his dream was to become a farmer, they tried to put him off.
"They said there was no future in it and I'd never make any money. I guess I wanted to prove them wrong," he said.
He has continued to add to the small flock of sheep he bought as a 17-year-old, and now has more than 500.
Gareth also trained as butcher and has sold his meat to Michelin-starred chefs, like Marcus Wareing.
"Farming has to be a business," he says. "You're a businessman first, then a farmer".
He acknowledges that farming is not always the most glamorous of jobs, and can be very hard work.
"You're working with and against nature," he says. "You have to be prepared to do anything, so if a ewe's having trouble birthing, you do have to get stuck in."
'Don't be deterred'
The recent dairy protests highlight the challenges faced by small farmers in today's volatile markets.
They also show how necessary it is to display good business acumen when negotiating prices with supermarkets.
The National Farmers Union says cuts in the price paid to suppliers, combined with rising feed costs, could force hundreds of farmers out of business.
However, Christine Tacon does not think that should put anyone off the industry.
She says in the bigger agricultural companies, graduate trainees are paid upwards of £20,000, are given a vehicle and often a house.
Alongside schemes like the Farmers Apprentice and Farm Forward, the industry is trying to do more to change the public perception of farming.
Kevin Thomas, national director of Lantra, the sector-skills council for land-based and environmental industries, says: "A lot of career information is gained online, but we need to increase the opportunity for 13-14-year-olds to get a taster of working on the land.
"It's about informing careers advisers and individuals to show that there is a career opportunity at all levels."
If that does not persuade young people to think about career in farming, perhaps the industry could point to a new ONS survey which shows those who live and work in the countryside are happier than the rest of us.