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AgriCulture Live Podcast Transcript - Episode 7

AgriCulture Live Episode 7 with guest Alex Hardie from the School of Sustainable Food and Farming at Harper Adams University.
“Attracting New Talent Into Agriculture”


Hello and welcome to AgriCulture Live. My name's Rebekah Shields, I'm from Agricultural Recruitment Specialists and today joining -I've got Alex Hardie from the School of Sustainable Food and Farming at Harper Adams University. So today we're going to be talking about attracting new talent into agriculture. If you've got any comments or questions, please feel free to add them and we'll come to them at the end. So straight to you, Alex. So tell us, introduce yourself, tell us what you do.


Great morning Rebekah and thanks everyone for joining us. So, yes, I'm Alex. I work for the School of Sustainable Food and Farming at Harper Adams University and we are focused on supporting new entrants into agriculture, which is why I was excited to be talking to you, Rebekah, today. We are on a mission to help support farmers broadly, to meet a just transition as we move to a more sustainable agri-food system, so I'm looking forward to talking about it today.


Brilliant thanks, Alex. So you work for Harper Adams, obviously in the School of Sustainable Food and Farming. Tell us about Harper Adams University for people that don't know that might be watching and may be interested in agriculture.


Yeah well, Harper Adams is the longest, one of the longest established universities of its type in the world so well, over a hundred years of pedigree in producing some of the finest agricultural students there are. We are based here in rural Shropshire, within the easy reach of Telford, and perhaps we can talk some more about that, because the university is branching out for the first time it's in its history, actually in Telford very, very shortly. But we offer a wide variety of programs related to the agri-food supply chain. We're also in partnership with our neighbours Keele University they were just down the here, here one of the newest vet schools producing vets to the industry. So there's so much to talk about with Harper Adams and many people who, of course, work in agriculture are very familiar with Harper Adams. But for those people that aren't, as I say, we're based in rural Shropshire and we're very proud of our very high rate of employability. So we regularly feature as one of the top universities in the UK for our employability, which is pretty great and we're pretty proud of that.


I'd be very proud of that. So tell people. Why should they? You know, consider Harper Adams over the other agricultural universities and colleges out there?


Oh, Rebekah, that's the toughie, isn't it? I mean, I think we've got a pedigree, we're very, very respected in the industry and, as I mentioned, our employability statistics are second to none, but we're extremely well connected with industry, which sort of speaks to that, those employability statistics that we talk about so much. I think that what students get from a Harper Adams experience is real, real-world experience. So all of the Harper Adams University students, unlike many universities, must complete a placement year, which, of course, we find often is a direct link into employment for them, because many of them will, will work in one of their placement opportunities and be offered, be offered work for when they've graduated, sometimes before they've graduated. So I think those connections in particular are what makes Harper pretty special.


So obviously we're going to be talking about attracting new talent into agriculture. Could you tell us how many applicants you get at the university that are from non-farming backgrounds?


Well, the the university is diversifying all the time.


Traditionally, the university has recruited well from people with what you might call traditional farming backgrounds, but that that is ever-evolving. And we are, as I mentioned briefly before, launching a new micro campus out in Telford, which is about eight miles from where the Harper Adams University location is, and we're going to be delivering some programs around data science and some some engineering, which of course, is is all based upon our, our data insight that tells us that the people in the urban community there are really crying out for those types of programs. So we are broadening our, our traditional audience all the time and of course, that's what I'm really excited about to talk about Rebekah today, because we think it's critical that we do attract new talent, a variety of entrepreneurialism, new ideas, fresh thinking into agriculture, and we think that that really does spell the future for agriculture. We can't just stand still, we can't just do what we've always done. We do need new ideas, new technologies, new ways of thinking to take a sustainable food production system forward and into the future.


So why is it such a big issue? Why do we need this new talent in the industry?


Well, I think to answer that question, Rebekah, we've got to look at the big issues that are facing agriculture. I think we need to start there, and there will be many, and some of our viewers will no doubt have an opinion on what those issues are, and those issues aren't finite, but I think we could all agree that weather and climate is a pretty critical issue facing the industry. We've, of course, got the workforce challenge, and you know we're all aware of the numbers around the workforce and how we attract people into agriculture. You've then got things like consumer trends, so we can't ignore that in in agriculture. There are, 30 percent of people are eating or saying that they eat less meat, which is proving itself as we go through the checkouts.


There are, of course, the issue of the volatility of inputs for farmers. You know the cost of synthetic fertilisers and proteins in particular, and how that relates to the environment, which was the first point I raised. And then, lastly, I think the other big thing facing agriculture is technology and innovation. So you know, if we're going to appeal to a new kind of audience, then we need to show them how technological our industry is. We do have a bit of an identity crisis, don't we, Rebekah? In that, it can be viewed or rather, agriculture can be viewed potentially as an industry that's done what it does for a long time. You know, we grow food, we move that through the supply chain and we feed people, and I think young people don't necessarily know how they access that, if they're not from a traditional farming background.


So how can we attract more people as an industry into the sector? What do you think?


As I say, I think the big matters of the day around climate, around the workforce, around the volatility of inputs, around technology and innovation is where the answer lies, because I think we need to articulate our mission.


You know, as an industry and I think it's been the case now more than ever post pandemic that I think people appreciate where their food comes from, and if they don't, they really should, and I think we have a part to play in how we tell the story about careers in agriculture that leads to food sustainability, food security, which is, of course, one of the most important issues of our age.


We're going to be hurtling towards, you know, the 2050. I think the numbers are 10 and a half billion people on the planet, if I'm not mistaken. We need to feed those people and we need to do that sustainably. So I think there's a really exciting opportunity around the mission of the work. I mean, look, we all have to eat, don't we? And I know that sounds like a really reductive thing to say it's a bit of a trope, lots of people have said it, but I think it's an important trope nevertheless, because we do have to eat and if we are to ensure that we have a secure food supply chain for the future, then we really do need to bring in new ways of thinking and new ideas, and we're going to do that by articulating the mission most effectively to the next generation of young people.


So what you're saying is let's get them excited about these issues that they could help us solve. Show that we're not just the bog standard farmers. There's lots more to the industry in the future that people would get involved in.


Yeah, and I think some of the tactics for doing that are straightforward. Yes, we could talk about technology. It's easy to talk about autonomous vehicles and drones and all kinds of technology. That is really exciting to young people and I think that does play a crucial role, especially when we're talking about how we sort of realign the image of agriculture. Gone are the days, I think it's fair to say, of quite common images of plowing fields and which are, of course, important aspects of agriculture, but I think we have a fresh opportunity to bring technology and the power of AI and the information of things into the discourse, which there are some good people doing that. So I think that there is a lot to be positive about in terms of how we attract those new people.


So does it all come down to education then Alex?


I think education plays a critical, critical role. I mean, of course, based here at Harper Adams, we produce some of the largest numbers of land-based students anywhere in the UK. But I think that what we've got to really focus on, as I say, is that mission. I think we need to think about diversity in agriculture. There are a pleasing number of young females who are coming into agriculture. That number is beginning to take a turn, which is really great to see, and at universities like ours, we do have almost exactly a 50-50 split of males and females across our course provision. I mean, of course, there are variations by course, but I think if we're able to articulate our mission most effectively, I think that young people will be motivated by that. I think they'll be excited by that.


I mean, I know for me when I came in, because I'm from a non- farming background, it does feel like such a closed industry. Why do you think this is?


I would push back a little on that, Rebekah. I think that that can be the case sometimes, Certainly not the experience that we have here at Harper Adams. I mean, there is an ever diverse student body here at Harper Adams and we recognise that that is diversifying all the time, which I think is really really positive and it, as I say, it, really does speak to the mission of the School of Sustainable Food and Farming, which is very much about bringing in new talent, new ideas, new ways of thinking. So I think you could be right, in certain corners of rural UK that there are a traditional set of folks that go into agriculture.


We can't ignore, can we, Rebekah, that there are certain challenges for new entrants to access careers in farming. I mean, particularly if your aspiration is to own a farm, then there's no denying that that's quite challenging to do. I mean there are some good examples albeit there are fewer of them, but council farms that you know some new entrants can get access to. I think we do need to address the challenge of how young people might be able to access loans and I think, critically, there is a bit of an inconsistency of local support for new entrants into farming we need to do something about that. So a part of our mission as the School of Sustainable Food and Farming is to use our influence to help support that transition. We're not lobbyists, but we are here to help use our collective voice to bring those kinds of messages to the right of the people in areas of the government.


Yeah, and we've just had a comment from Lois Phillips who said: please do not overlook the value of further education colleges as a feeder route to higher education apprentices and employment. And she's right, there, isn't she?


She's absolutely Rebekah and thank you, Lois, for that comment. I mean, in fact, we're just embarking on a project that will connect a network of farms, in response to a report that highlighted the fact that farms need to talk to each other, they need to share their knowledge, they need to share their data where possible and appropriate as well. So I think Lois's point is extremely well made and well taken, which is we do need to look at further education, but we do need to look at further education, and the partnership that we're working with incorporates the LANDEX colleges, which some of our viewers might be aware of is a network of university and further education farms around the UK. So there's some active work that we're doing in that space. So thank you, Lois, it's a great point.


So what do you think then the government could do, Alex, to help attract more people into the industry?Alex:16:07

Yeah, well, as we say, I think critical, is helping us to support that image of farming, which is partly for the government to do, but I think it's for universities, it's for the industry, it's for the agri-food supply chain to talk that up, and there are some really great examples of where that's going on. You know, Morrison's are doing an awesome job with their next generation farming group. McDonald's, they've got their progressive young farmer group. The National Farmers Union have got their next generation farming group. So there is a lot of work that is being done by industry. But I think, Rebekah, we do need more support. I mean, look, food critical and our farmers, as we all appreciate, are absolutely vital to ensuring that ourselves, our children, get nutritious diets. So you know, our government is critical in supporting us to shine a light on our industry, to help us to articulate the work that we do in not just an important way for feeding our population, but also for demonstrating the myriad of exciting careers that exist in agri-food that many people aren't aware of.


So what tangible things could the government do to really shine that light? If you had to give ideas, what would you say?


Well, I mean, there's good news here, Rebekah. I think there's some work that's already being done. I mean, of course, governments support universities like us to deliver, you know, top-notch higher education to students, but their initiative with the Institute for Agriculture and Horticulture, which everybody will know as TIAH for short, is doing a superb piece of work to deliver digital learning. So this will make it accessible to a whole swathe of people that perhaps weren't able to access information about food and farming before. So I think that's a really good story to be able to tell, and I think we as industries and higher education organisations do have a part to play in, as we say, better telling the story of what we do. And I think that, you know, organizations like the School of Sustainable Food and Farming at Harper Adams can really, really help to do that and, as I say, there are food service businesses, supermarkets and organizations like the NFU who are doing really great work in that space.


Yeah, they've done some great things. But looking at, you know agriculture. Why isn't it taught as a subject in schools? Because surely that would naturally open more people up to the industry.


Yeah, well, this is a personal hobby horse and mine, Rebekah, I mean. The short answer is - it really should be. I mean, when we consider how much of our land is dedicated to agricultural land and how integral it is to everybody, not to mention the intrinsic link between what food the wonderful British agriculture industry produces and how that supports the nutrition of ourselves and our young people For me, it's an absolute travesty that it isn't part of the curriculum. I really think it should be.


Me too. Me too. We'll have to keep pushing that mission, won't we? So how can we make the agricultural industry more appealing to job seekers, would you say?


Well, I think we need to share a new image of agriculture that demonstrates our thinking. I think technology is a great place to look. I mean, look, there are so many exciting things going on in agriculture that are way beyond what a traditional view of what agriculture does would be. I mean, let's look at some examples. So we have companies like Better Origin, who are using insect larvae to enrich the diets of laying hens. That is a circular story that is, for me, one of the best examples out there currently. That tells a story of just how we can turn food waste or surplus food into food that we then feed to the supply chain that ultimately ends up on our own dinner plates. So I think there's some great examples of innovative technologies there.


You've got companies like Crover with their bulk grain monitoring robots. I mean, if you are in any way minded towards robotics, you know, what's not to like? You have companies like Nofence who are, you know, putting technologies around the necks of cattle to keep them within the boundaries of a farm without having to put up fences. You've got companies like MapOfAg who are doing amazing things with working with farmers to help them better understand how they can, you know, use their systems to be more sustainable. You've got companies like let's see vertical farming companies, companies like Let Us Grow. You know, you show a young person, that there are vertical farms where you know salads are being grown, and it blows their mind.


So there's certainly an image of agriculture that exists that is quite apart from what we recognise as a traditional image of agriculture, and I think this is before we've even talked, Rebekah, about careers in research and development, marketing, sales, you know, HR and other systems that exist. I think we need to talk about farms more as a business, because there are a lot of young people who are excited about business. You know it's why we have an agri- business course here at Harper Adams, and I think often farms are thought as food production organisations and not necessarily as businesses. Now, of course, farms themselves think of themselves as businesses, but that's not necessarily the perception of the wider population. So I think that we do need to do more to position farm businesses as innovative, entrepreneurial, exciting places to be where break new ground, make new discoveries, do new things and drive forward something brilliant for the future.


And what could we do in the urban areas?


Yeah, well, I think that's the million dollar question, isn't it, Rebekah?


And what you're highlighting, is there is a real disconnect between farm and sorry city and country, and of course, there are many folks who have detailed this particular challenge over the years.


But we recently ran a study with our friends at LEAF and and McDonald's, who supported a study into asking young people in urban settings whether they would consider a career in agri-food, and when we asked them before we started the study, almost none of them said they would consider a career in agri-food. In fact, their view was quite frightening in that they viewed it as well - You know I don't want to milk cows, or you know I don't want to go and make butter on a production line. You know it was a completely reductive view of what agriculture and agri-food was, and we invited them to Harper Adams. We showed them our future farm, which is doing amazing work with robotic milkers and investigations into soy feed, which, of course, is another major issue. And when they left us, having had an audience with the Duchess of Edinburgh here at Harper Adams, they told us more than 60% of them told us they would now consider a career in agri-food.


And this speaks again to our entire motivation for setting up the sustainable farm network that I was talking about before, and it was in response to the fact that not only can we connect farms and benefit from sharing data between farms, but we also have an opportunity to kick the doors wide open for people from urban settings to be able to see what sustainable food production looks like and what farm production looks like, and I think the more work with the organizations like ourselves and LEAF and City Farms for Children do with these organizations will help to create a different image of agriculture that makes it a really viable career prospect, not just for people from traditional farming backgrounds, but also those people that may never have considered farming before.


So let's say there's people watching or listening that would love to get into the sector. Where do they start? What should they do?


Well, of course, I'm reminded and other universities are available to invite them to come to an open day at Harper Adams. Harper Adams, since I'm here, I'm going to talk about it. Rebekah, we have an animals experience day on the 18th of April where people can come and if they're particularly interested in small or large animals, they can engage with that. We have another open day on June the 22nd, so people just need to register for that via the website. We even run an event that we call the Harper Adams Experience, which is a residential experience where they get to come and stay overnight at Harper Adams and actually be a student for 24 to 48 hours. We're doing that on July the 1st this year.


So that's the first thing I'd say is go to a Harper Adams or another university that you know is engaged with animals, food and agriculture, and just go and see what they do, because you'll be enormously surprised at what's on offer and it's a really exciting way in. And, of course, the other thing you can do is step out into the countryside and approach local farms. Ask them if you can come and experience what it's like to work on a farm. Many of them will be really excited to have you. And then, finally, I would look at companies affiliated to or allied to agriculture, so that could be anything from feed companies to veterinary practices. It goes on and on and on. So there are lots and lots of different ways in which people can engage with the agricultural industry.


And some people who don't know about the issues we've got with regards to attracting people into the industry may say, why do you need people from non- farming backgrounds? How would you answer that, Alex?


Yeah well, I think that's a critical question, Rebekah and I think the straightforward answer is you know we want all kinds of people in agriculture. You know we've got to do that. We need to be diverse because with diversity comes new ideas and with new ideas comes new innovations and with new innovations comes great leaps forward. You know we can't stand still, we can't do what we've always done. We do need to inquire and bring science into agriculture and we need to innovate if we're going to move forward.


And there are some amazing people doing some superb stuff in this space. You know you've got our friend Theeb, who you know very well, respected of course, farm Vet, Oxford Farming Conference board member. You know he's doing amazing work in diversifying agriculture. You've got some phenomenal women who are doing wonderful things in agriculture and, as we said before, it's great to see that there are more females in that younger 16 to 24 demographic going through into agriculture.


But you've got some real leading lights, haven't you, Rebekah? I mean, you know, not just yourself, but you also have people like you know Minette Batters, the outgoing president of the NFU, is a really great example. I'm reading in the Guardian just yesterday about the family who are really representing females in agriculture. So I think that diversity of talent has to be a focus for us as an industry. You know, we are also an ageing industry. Again, that's something that's been talked about for some time now but it is a fact that many of our industry are more senior, and so we do need we do need younger talent to diversify the workforce.


Absolutely. And so let's look at it say, if you're an entrepreneur, what opportunities are there for people who are entrepreneurs within agriculture, would you say?


Yeah, well, we talked, didn't we, about some of the barriers around money. I think we need to be talking to government about how we're going to make access to loans easier, and I think we've got a number of actors who can help us, and I know the NFU, in particular, are doing some really great work in that space. I think we also do need to look to our technologies and our new ways of thinking, but part of that stems from how we tell the story about our industry and how we tell fresh stories about what we're doing. So, whether it is about using Inset Larvae to feed to our laying hens or if it is about using seaweed to improve the methane emissions of our cattle, I think we need to be talking about technologies that move the needle. I think we've got to be talking about ideas that move the needle, which brings an entirely new narrative around what agriculture is, and I think that mission as I said right at the very beginning, Rebekah is where we'll find our answers there.


Yes, we've got challenges around how people access loans and other ways in which they can get into farming. Yes, we've got issues around pay. Yes, we've got issues around working conditions and workforce, but I think, critically. We have to be able to communicate just how important our sustainable supply chains are, and the way we do that is by telling a new exciting story about how innovative our sector is and the exciting career prospects that exist within agriculture.


Absolutely. I think I've got a problem with my camera it seems to have gone off, but we'll carry on anyway, Alex. Ok, so in terms of AgriTech you spoke about that that is huge in the industry. It's really exciting for people. Going back to what you were saying about diversity, why is there less diversity in this sector, would you say?


Yeah, well, I think there are a number of factors there, and I think one that is particularly important is how we tell that story, and I know we said it a lot already, but if there were young people who were able to hear the message that some of the more progressive corners of our industry are sharing with the wider population, they'd be able to see just how much exciting work is going on in agriculture.


I mean, you've only got to look. Less than half a mile from where I'm sitting here now, Rebekah. We have the AgriTech AgriEpi Centre, which, of course, has soon to be, as of April 1st, the AgriTech centres right here at Harper Adams, and there's some seriously exciting work going on in technology over there that will really be making the difference. I think that technology is one part of what we can talk about, but I also do think that we have a real opportunity around talking about what we're able to do with the sustainability of our food supply chains and how young people are able to access careers that help them to be a solution to that problem. Look, we all know that agriculture plays an enormous part in the solution to the climate challenge not the problem that it's often badged as and we can be part of the solution that creates a thriving workforce but also a really amazing career opportunity for young people who are looking to have a meaningful lifelong career.


I mean, Alex, there's no denying this is a really exciting time for people to join the industry, isn't it? It is, yeah, it really is. So obviously I'm from recruitment myself, so what do you think all this means for recruitment?


Well, I think that recruitment agencies like your own are a really important part of the story that we tell to people who are looking to come through, and I think we've got to get our heads together and be able to articulate that story. You know, I think of course there are many different aspects of the recruitment process. You'll be recruiting for people who are farm workers, to farm managers, to company directors and so on and so forth, and I think we've got to be able to show people what those careers look like. We just need to do that better.


Absolutely. So what do you think you know in terms of looking forward? What are other big issues that are going to come forward in agriculture, would you say?


Yeah, well, I think that we have got to think more about the climate and, of course, you know we can't talk about the climate without talking about the weather. We'll try to avoid talking about the amount of water that's lying on our fields at the moment, because I know that's a bit of a triggering issue for many farmers who could be watching. But the climate is critical and, I think, a big issue for agriculture, which does sometimes come under fire, for how we sequester carbon, how many emissions that are going into the atmosphere. I think we do need to shape a new narrative about how that looks and the part that agriculture can play or contribute to being, as I say, a big part of the solution to the problem, rather than the problem for the problem. And I think it's been quite easy for certain corners of our discourse to point quite long accusatory fingers at the agricultural industry, and I think that's reductive, I think it's not a true representation of the bigger picture, not withstanding the big, the big issues that we do need to face. You know, we all recognize that we do need to find more sustainable sources of protein for our cattle. We recognize that, we know that we need to drive down our greenhouse gas emissions and we know that we need to sequester carbon.


Now I would argue that agriculture is looking at this more than the many other industries.


You know I mean the very fact that you have a school of sustainable food and farming and I can't go anywhere in the industry at the moment without many, many companies and organizations looking at this, and the consumer will demand it. You know, I think that the consumer is very climate sensitive and they are looking to our big companies and our universities and our other organizations to help solve the problem, which is what we are doing, and that's why I would make a plea to anybody who is a new entrance to agriculture or is considering a career in agriculture to say -this is a time like no other. This is a time where people, young or old, who are entering into this profession, have an opportunity to make a true difference, because we really are at that peak of transformation in our industry and you're going to see things happening very, very quickly from here on out. They have to, because we all know that we need to get to that place of a just transition for our farmers, and I think it's an exciting time to be involved with it.Rebekah:38:41

Absolutely it is. I mean, it's been a great discussion, Alex. Thank you, I've really enjoyed it. It's one of them where you could talk about so many different elements to this, couldn't you? And we could. We could spend all day and still enjoy it. There are a couple of questions and some comments. Let's have a look. So Nella Jacobs says: what makes one employable in the industry? I feel that there aren't many opportunities for us. Some companies are avoiding taking in newly graduated students.


Well, that's an interesting question, Nella, and, as you may hopefully you might have heard before that we, at our problems, do have a really high rate of employability.


Now, that's not to say that it can be challenging for people to get into agricultural positions and, of course, like any other industry, there will no doubt Nella and others will come up against challenges around experience, and geography can be another challenge for some people, especially as we move into a more hybrid style of working for some areas of the farming industry.


But I think what I would encourage people to do is especially if we're talking about new entrants here this morning is to really consider a university degree or an apprenticeship or other training opportunities, because that will not only give you letters after your name, which I think we could all agree is still a really important factor in the workforce but also, I think what's really important is those networks, and networks are the underrated hero actually of employability, and if you can come up with a strategy or work with a university like ours or somebody in the sector who can support you to build your network, it's one of the finest things any young person can do, because networks offer you knowledge and an opportunity to learn from people that have been there before you. So I think those are two of the most critical things, Rebekah. Think about your education and think about how you grow your network.


Absolutely, and Andrew Goff has made a few good comments. He said if anyone would like to market their career opportunities in the sector to all schools in the UK then please make contact. He said when I visited 10 schools in Dubai last year they already have robotics being taught in the classroom picking plant leaves. We need that here in the UK. He's right. And he said we've done 22 secondary school presentations this year on careers in agriculture and all have asked us to come in again and present to their students on career opportunities, mostly from urban settings.


So it was what we were saying. When it comes back to education, education, doesn't it?


Absolutely, and thank you, Andrew, for those comments and I think organisations like Andrews and like LEAF are doing amazing work to get into schools and really connect those young people in a meaningful way as an embedded strategy into the curriculum. To tell the story, my own daughter's school, just a couple of miles away from here, recently had a mobile farm visit her school, and so they were able to pet lambs and hear about the food production system in the playground. They're fairly urban school, albeit in a rural corner of Shropshire. So I think that it comes back to what we were talking about earlier, doesn't it, Rebekah? About how integrated food and agriculture are into the school curriculum, and I think it's vital that we do that.


Absolutely so. I want to just thank you, Alex, of course, and everyone, for watching and listening. It's been a great show today. If you are watching or you're listening and you have got an interesting topic in agriculture that you would like to talk about, please get in contact with me at Agricultural Recruitment Specialists via our website, which is www. agriRS.com. So all that's left to say is thank you so much for joining us and goodbye. Would you like to say goodbye, Alex?


Yeah, thank you, Rebekah. I just wanted to say thank you very much for inviting me on. Thank you to everyone that listened. Do find the school of sustainable food and LinkedIn page. Join us over there and if you've got any questions, please don't hesitate to get in touch. Thank you, Rebekah.


Thanks, Alex.


Great to see you, thanks.

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