In this news article, Robert Sullivan, Head of Farm Business at GSC Grays, shares his view on the continuing labour force crisis in the UK farming sector.
It is my belief that changing perceptions about working in the agricultural field will be key to tackling the drastic farming workforce shortages
The workforce crisis saw a Government review launched in August chaired by industry veteran John Shropshire.
Shropshire is a farmer and former CEO of horticultural firm, Gs, who is gathering data on labour shortages.
The government has already boosted the number of visas available through the seasonal workers route to 40,000.
However, there is a need to fundamentally change the industry’s image to attract more labour.
I warn that there is another significant problem looming.
Labour is becoming more and more of an issue – especially in the fruit and veg sector and intensive livestock, but all sectors of agriculture are impacted to some degree.
It is becoming a very scarce commodity, particularly of the quality needed to undertake the work that we are asking people to do.
There is a great deal of uncertainty as to where we are going to find replacements for existing farmers or farm workers who are going to retire in the next 5-10 years?
The main perception about farming is that it involves long, unsociable hours regularly.
However, as businesses get bigger and require more labour, this actually provides more flexibility.
Many larger businesses can now offer flexible working with so many days on, so many days off.
This often leads to a better work-life balance than was the case previously.
People have always considered agriculture a low-wage part of the sector, but that actually is not the case now.
Some of the top operators in this country are earning significant sums of money – £40,000-£50,000/year.
The problem we have is that it is very hard for an individual business to overcome this perception.
That is probably something the agricultural community needs to address and improve at the more strategic level through farming organisations.
I also warn that the skills needed to operate expensive farm machinery is an area that also needs to be addressed before the current operators retire.
In my view, regenerative farming may be one solution. Technology has moved on fantastically over the last couple of decades.
We are now asking people to drive and operate machines that are worth hundreds of thousands of pounds.
Therefore, they are highly technically competent operators and what we are seeing is the fact that whilst there is a good number of these operators around at the moment, they are getting on in years like the rest of the farming community.
One of the things about regenerative farming practices is the fact that because you are moving the soil less, you are requiring less machinery and hence require fewer people to sit on that machinery.
If businesses are struggling for sufficient, quality labour, regenerative farming may well be a possible solution to the labour requirements of the business.
It offers other benefits, such as improving the health of the soil.
The shape of farming
There is no question in my mind that this issue, alongside inflationary pressure and subsidy changes, will fundamentally change the shape of farming in the long term.
Farmers need professional advice and support to meet these challenges.
GSC Grays can offer free consultancy designed to tackle these issues through our FBAS scheme.
We would urge farmers to take advantage of the advice, grant funded through Defra’s Future Farm Resilience Fund, to start making the changes now that will make their businesses fit for the future.
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