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Young farmers plan for a sustainable future

Alumni from the Tesco Future Farmer Foundation (TFFF) gathered recently to explore sustainability strategies and their role in the circular economy.

Everyone in the conference room – including farmers in the audience and representatives from retail, processing, science and banking as speakers or panellists – was alive to the issues facing them and keen to debate how they can be part of the solution.

As the day’s presentations and Q&A session illustrated, sustainability is mind-boggling in its complexity and far-reaching in its influence. Farmers are having to adapt at speed to consumer trends, regulation and technological change. Alongside this they face a skills shortage and an ageing workforce, when there’s an urgent need for bright young minds to drive the sector forward.

The TFFF aims to equip young farmers with the skills to rise to these challenges. Since 2014 over 350 farmers have embarked on its annual programme of workshops, mentoring and supply-chain visits, with NatWest supporting the scheme in a number of areas, including financial and business-planning workshops and the provision of 12 mentors.

“One of the great values of working with a mentor is it forces you to spend time working on your business, rather than in it,” said Laura Barlow, head of large corporate and institutional banking at NatWest. “In farming, it’s hard to step back from the day-to-day. The demands on you are incessant, but having an independent, experienced sounding board can help in all aspects of your business.”

Making contacts and knowledge sharing is a large part of the TFFF proposition – and it was agreed that a collaborative, cross-disciplinary approach is needed more than ever as every industry makes the transition to a low-carbon economy.

Making sense of the science

Professor Michael Lee, head of sustainable agriculture science at Rothamsted Research and chair in sustainable livestock systems at Bristol Veterinary School, University of Bristol, captured the complexities at work in his presentation on Climate Challenge and the Role of Livestock.

He kicked off with an unequivocal message – “We have been awful to our planet” – but went on to question the fairness of the metrics by which agriculture is often judged. The standard metric used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shows carbon dioxide equivalents per kilogram of product, with ruminants faring badly compared with peas and beans.

In farming, it’s hard to step back from the day-to-day. The demands on you are incessant, but having an independent, experienced sounding board can help in all aspects of your business

Laura Barlow
Head of large corporate and institutional banking, NatWest

“The danger with this type of analysis is it’s based on global averages,” said Lee. “But agricultural production in the UK is different from agricultural production in China, Africa, Australia and the US. Farming in Devon is different from farming in Lincolnshire.”

He pointed out that while the global rise of consumption in red meat has been associated with issues such as climate change and obesity, data shows consumption of meat has gone down in the UK since the 1950s. Other factors that could rebalance the metrics include the range of carbon footprint within beef production itself and farms’ ability to sequester carbon – something the UK’s “green and pleasant land” offers the potential for, compared with other parts of the world and their different kinds of agriculture.

Working with nutritionists and the government’s EatWell Guide, Lee and his colleagues have reanalysed the IPCC metric to focus on nutrient density. Under this new metric beef performs better than chicken based on the nutrients it delivers per carbon dioxide equivalent.

Lee – and other speakers – emphasised that sustainability is about more than just carbon. Farmers support rural communities, livestock are a part of our landscape, and animal products can reduce the need for manmade products, including plastic.

Nonetheless, faced with a growing population and public resistance to the encroachment of agricultural land on natural habits, farmers and consumers must change their ways, said Lee. The focus should be on consuming less, higher-quality, animal-based proteins. “We need to find the tipping point between human health and planetary health.”

Soil health is vital for this, and data shows 40% of arable soils in the UK are degraded.

“We need the best brains, the best entrepreneurs, thinking about how to farm differently, using technology to drive down inputs and reduce environmental impact,” said Lee. “We cannot carry on as we’re currently going. We need to work together to deliver these things.”

Recruitment challenges a pressing issue

Attracting talent was a concern for many present. Laura Ryan, founder of women’s networking group Meat Business Women, acknowledged the need to challenge the traditional, male-dominated nature of the meat industry.

“In terms of being responsive to the market we need the right people around the table making decisions. Having more women in the business allows you to be more agile,” she said.

Ryan sees the main driver towards flexitarianism as convenience, rather than welfare or sustainability. “It’s about someone going to the supermarket and wanting something quick and easy. That’s likely to be pizza or pasta. Before you know it, a consumer has gone three nights without eating any meat.”

Ian Burrow, head of agriculture and renewable energy at NatWest, stressed technology as a priority in tackling sustainability and nurturing talent.

“I’ve been working with Neil Bellamy, our head of technology, media and telecoms, to bring our two sectors together,” said Burrow. “We’re exploring agri-tech, in particular vertical farming, to encourage a new generation of farmers and entrants to the sector. The biggest barrier to entry is access to funding, so we’re looking into innovative ways of farming and learning from them. We’ve also found that farmers who diversified into renewables increased profitability.”

A word to the wise

Summing up a thought-provoking afternoon of debate, the speakers on the Q&A panel were asked by the chair, John Giles, divisional director of agri-food at consultancy Promar, for one piece of advice farmers could take away with them.

“Don’t be afraid to take risks,” said Natalie Smith, head of agriculture at Tesco. “It’s OK to make mistakes so long as we learn from them.”

Christina Downend, Tesco’s responsible sourcing manager, told delegates: “I know you take your responsibilities seriously because you’re here today, but think about the nature of responsibility and what it means to you.”

Ryan’s advice was to leverage connections from the TFFF programme. “Make that connection and keep it alive. Surround yourself with people who energise you.”

Burrow stressed the importance of support: “Don’t be afraid to ask us questions. We support over 36,000 farming businesses and have 125 specialist managers across the country, people in your location who can help or advise you on farm.”

“Innovate and keep on driving improvements,” said Lee. “The farming sector has taken a beating but we all need your great products. You should be proud.”

Delegates also heard from Sarah Bradbury, Tesco group quality director, and Kayla Lean, senior manager at customer data experts Dunnhumby.

New friends and fresh perspectives

But what of the young farmers themselves, what do they see as the benefits of the TFFF programme?

Ben Stroud, a dairy and arable farmer in Leicestershire, found the programme refocused his ambitions. “When I went into the programme, I felt we needed to diversify and I needed a new idea for the business. When I left, I realised I needed to run the business as best I could. How could I look at benchmarking, reduce cost, increase profits? Now I’m looking at diversification again, but I’m better equipped to consider objectively whether it’s a good fit for us or not.”

Keith Gue, a Tesco Sustainable Dairy Group producer in Sussex, said: “The programme is wide-ranging so whatever you’re looking to improve upon, it’ll be covered, and the breadth of skill sets within the group allows you to develop in a nice rounded way. It’s a great opportunity to network and get to know people.”

Click here to find out more about the TFFF and how to join the next cohort.

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