‘Farmers are interested in training, but have so much else to do’

Staff are the key to any business, but why can farmers, who are also employers, be sometimes reluctant to secure the best team around them? And why is it so important to a business’ bottom line? Clemmie Gleeson finds out more.

As agriculture is continually developing and becoming increasingly technical, lifelong learning will need to be the norm. But with the pressures of post-Brexit Britain and a forthcoming onset of recovery from a global pandemic, how will the need to upskill those working in the agricultural industry be managed and encouraged? It is no secret much still needs to be done to encourage farming businesses to prioritise investing in their staff’s skills and knowledge and to make that as simple as possible. Janet Swadling, independent consultant, author of the Swadling Report on workforce development and one of the founder members of the AHDB’s Agricultural and Horticulture Skills Leadership Group (SLG), says: “Frankly we will be left behind if we do not develop new skills. “Farmers need to continuously update and keep abreast with new information and, without that, some farm businesses are going to struggle. “Businesses which invest in training and skills tend to be the most successful. “We will fall behind with productivity and will not be attractive to retain skilled staff and we will not be competitive with other industries like construction.” Richard Longthorp, pig farmer, fellow member of the SLG and long-time advocate of training and ‘professionalisation’ of the industry agrees, but warns of the inevitable sceptism it brings. He says: “Sometimes farmers say ‘if I train him he might leave’, but investing in an employee’s skills is highly valued by staff in my experience. “The risk therefore is that if you do not train your staff they will leave and join a business which will. “As an industry we will fall behind and lose the best and most go-ahead staff.”

Closing the gap

Investing in skills can help close the gap between the best and worst performing farming businesses, says Lantra’s Scotland director Liz Barron-Majerik. She says: “In most sectors there is a big productivity gap between the top 25 per cent and the rest, which is not solely down to size of farm. One of the big factors is skills.” Training needs to cover advancing technology, but also interpreting resulting data, any bolt-on tech, best practice and so on. Liz says: “This should trigger a change from agriculture, and many other land-based careers, being perceived as what some people refer to as ‘the destination for the bottom 10 per cent’. “We do not yet know what Brexit will mean for UK agriculture and/or farming subsidies, but whatever it is it is very likely that upskilling and re-skilling will be key to success.” Richard says many farmers are indeed mostly sold on the benefits of training. He says: “I believe the general attitude of farmers is pro-training, when they get round to it. “When I go to meetings and I am promoting training, I never have a farmer saying I was talking rubbish. They say I am right. “They are genuinely interested in training, but when they get home, despite having the best intentions, they have so much else to do that the skills folder gets pushed down the desk until it falls off the end.” Reluctance to invest or prioritise training can stem from a worry of ‘admitting what you do not know’, adds Liz. She says: “Going into an environment and admitting what you do not know can be quite hard. I am heartened by the growth of online delivery, which I think will make a real difference, ranging from threshold or taster courses through to longer courses. “This gives us a lot of potential to break barriers and it would be great to have more support for that. “There also needs to be a change in mindshift from thinking of training as a cost to the business rather than an investment leading to safer working and better productivity. This culture needs to change.”

Source: Farmers Guardian