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Farming conference asks “what’s holding back the next generation?”

Almost 300 farmers, students, landowners and agriculturalists came to the South of England Farming Conference to join the debate.

south of england farming conference

Over 300 farmers, students, landowners and agriculturalists made up the audience at the South of England Farming Conference

Almost 300 farmers, students, landowners and agriculturalists came to the South of England Farming Conference to join a debate on ‘What’s holding back the next generation of farmers?’ chaired by Charlotte Smith, BBC1’s ‘Countryfile’ and Radio 4’s ‘Farming Today’ presenter, at the South of England Showground in Ardingly recently [November 16].

A panel of young speakers who are highly regarded in the food and farming industry presented their views on how the next generation can take forward British farming in the future.

Debate ranged from whether the older generation is holding back the next generation and if succession planning is being addressed properly within families; whether young people are willing to put in the hard work and take on the personal sacrifice needed to have success. It covered the importance of managing reputations and building brands in an age when communications can make or break a countryside business, as well as the importance of promoting the huge range of exciting career opportunities in agriculture.

Charlotte Smith described the debate as having a ‘relatively positive outcome’, saying, “Tonight we had a good, lively debate addressing some real issues and it was great to have so many young people in the audience. The farming industry needs a better reputation because we’re losing skills to other industries, but there was some very positive enthusiasm in the room which gives us hope for the future.”

Topics discussed included the importance of business plans, good financial management and managing farms as professional, entrepreneurial businesses; a focus on attitude and how, for many, the aspiration of owning your own farm or land is something that is at times put ahead of making a good living as a tenant farmer or working for a larger land owner or a joint venture; as well as the importance of creative thinking and innovation and how travel and study and learning from others can inspire and open your eyes to new ways of doing things well.

Amy Jackson, owner of a specialist communications business involved in running successful campaigns in the agricultural sector, was first to speak.  Amy was involved in the controversial Nocton Dairy initiative and has an excellent understanding of the power of good communication in this rapidly moving world we live in. One of her goals has been to separate fact from fiction about intensification of agriculture and to encourage the industry to communicate more effectively with communities and the public and to better familiarise consumers with modern farming systems. Her focus was on attitude and the importance of the reputation of farming today and building good relations around your business.

Second to speak was Tom Rawson, a second generation dairy farmer from West Yorkshire, whose company Evolution Farming now has a 20 year tenancy, a contract farming agreement and a share milking agreement milking a total of around 900 cows on a pasture based block calving system. Tom is also a partner in his family business, as well as being a farmer board member of AHDB Dairy and an active Nuffield Scholar who has travelled the world studying innovate farming systems which has allowed him to develop his business in new and exciting ways. Having faced considerable challenges on the way, he provided an insight into what the next generation of farmer needs to succeed.

Third to speak was Rob Hodgkins, a second generation sheep farmer, who started his career in engineering before returning to the family farm in 2008. In 2013 Rob set up his own 60 acre sheep unit in Hertfordshire with 200 New Zealand Romney sheep and worked full time as an Engineer at Ford to support his farm.  In 2014 he was able to leave Ford and has increased sheep numbers to 600 ewes and he hopes this will rise to 1000 ewes with funding secured for more land before the end of the year.

Rob is an active Nuffield Scholar who has travelled the world and has learnt that you have to take every opportunity and challenge head on. In 2012 he won the Farmers Guardian sheep innovation of the year based on his Nuffield report and completed his Worshipful Farmers advanced business course two years later. He is currently two years in to his PHD in Agriculture at Aberystwyth University. He warmly thanked the South of England Agricultural Society for the many thousands they have invested in helping him with his training and Nuffield Scholarship which had a huge impact on his successful career.

The final speaker was Doug Jackson, agribusiness director for Savills, who brought his knowledge and experience in providing strategic business advice covering sectors such as dairy, arable, livestock, fruit, food and poultry. As founder of the national Fresh Start Academy programme, which provides business and succession advice to people looking to establish and sustain a career in the industry and over 22 years active involvement with Young Farmers, Doug will add his insights into the next generation of farmers and farming.

He said, “We need to change our attitudes on succession planning – succession in farming is not a right. You need to be committed. The biggest barrier to succession is lack of pension provision which undermines the potential for the next generation.”

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