By Caroline Nye*
The Centre for Rural Policy Research recently published a new report, Farm labour in the UK: Accessing the workforce the industry needs, commissioned and funded by The Worshipful Company of Farmers with additional funding from The John Oldacre Foundation. The report sought to do two things. The first was to determine what the current labour situation looks like across all sectors of British agriculture and to understand how the industry has arrived at its current ‘point of crisis’. The second aim was to examine potential solutions to the labour crisis, especially with regards to matching domestic workers to the more permanent positions in the industry. While a number of reports related to farm labour in British agriculture have emerged since the referendum in 2016, few have collated the existing data in such a way as to not only represent all sectors of the industry, but to highlight the sociological drivers behind both permanent and seasonal labour shortages, as well as the economic. Rather than throw out blanket solutions to the labour crisis, as so often happens among some commentators and public figures, researchers spoke with individuals who are already running initiatives to match people from different sections of society to careers in farming, providing a deeper and more accurate understanding of how suitable these different groups are for farm work, what the barriers might be for the differing initiatives, and how best to go about facilitating the matching process.
The report drew upon previous studies, as well as providing additional empirical evidence from 21 different stakeholders in the industry, including farmers, initiative operators, industry experts and labour experts. While multiple conclusions were reached as a result of the analysis and in-depth interviews, the key message from the report is that things need to change, and this change needs to occur rapidly to prevent the potentially significant repercussions of farm labour shortages across the industry. The research team identified that such change must occur at farm-level, local-level, and national-level as there is no single solution to the multi-faceted issues around farm labour. And this is the case for both the seasonal and permanent workforce. For example, at farm-level, employers need to not only make obvious adjustments such as better working conditions and pay, but they also need to create a more attractive farm culture by becoming better managers, offering more training and creating a more dynamic and forward-thinking working environment. In addition to this, at a more national-level, it identifies how the image of farming needs to change. It details how key influencers, such as parents, teachers and careers advisors to whom young people turn in the pursuit of advice on future opportunities, need influencing so that archaic perceptions of farming are replaced with more realistic understandings of what a career in farming might entail in the 21st century. One of the key messages that the report, and the associated launch which occurred on the 17th June with a broad and well qualified panel, tried to get across was that employers should be looking beyond the limited pool of potential recruits ‘from a farming background’ and open up to offering opportunities to people from all backgrounds. With this in mind, the report examined in more detail how this might be achieved through various initiatives aimed at young people, career changers, service leavers and ex-offenders, among others. The common theme throughout was that farming for many of these groups is an ‘invisible career’ and that more needs to be done to facilitate the matching process between people from a non-farming background and careers in agriculture. How do we connect that young person who has been volunteering on a city farm in London for five years and wants to do nothing else but farm, to the farmer in Devon who needs a dairy worker? This is a key issue which needs addressing. It is all very well improving education, awareness, pay and conditions, but if the matching process itself does not improve then all other efforts could easily be wasted.
It is important to note that the report does not ignore the immigration question entirely. It acknowledges that almost all sectors in the agricultural industry have relied upon migrant labour, whether for seasonal or more permanent positions, for a number of years, and so states the importance of the current immigration policy being both fit for purpose (which it currently is not) and not biased towards any particular sector in agriculture, or against agriculture as an industry. Automation, migrant workers and domestic labour will all be required to contribute to the country’s food production, and while young people, career changers, ex-offenders and service leavers can each form part of the wider solution, no cohort in itself is currently capable of filling the shortage gaps. Farms, the agricultural industry and the government need to stay vigilant, be flexible, and get creative before the crisis damages the structure of the industry permanently.
To read the report in full, please click here: http://socialsciences.exeter.ac.uk/media/universityofexeter/research/microsites/centreforruralpolicyresearch/pdfs/researchreports/Farm_labour_in_the_UK._Accessing_the_workforce_the_industry_needs_.pdf
* Dr. Caroline Nye is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Rural Policy Research (CRPR) at the University of Exeter. Her work focuses on agricultural labour in the UK, landscape-scale farmer groups (or Farmer Clusters), farmer attitudes to conservation, and methodologies involving social research in the agricultural sector.