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2019: The Future’s Bright For British Farming

While it’s impossible to predict what the weather or Brexit will bring farmers in 2019, one thing is for sure: the pace of technological innovation is increasing fast.

From drones through robotic fruit pickers to precision crop mapping, the practical application of technology in agriculture is set to revolutionize our fields and farm yards.

Farmers face difficult choices. Should they be early adopters to get ahead of the field in an increasingly competitive market place? Or should they sit tight and wait until teething problems are sorted out and, as usually happens, the price of hi-tech equipment falls as it becomes established?

The scale of change technology was brought home to me visiting Royal FloraHolland’s flower auction and distribution centre near Amsterdam. Over 12 billion flowers and plants a year are sold and dispatched across the world in a few hours. Computers control the auctions, and direct hundreds of drivers who whizz round the buildings on electric trucks like ants.

But this wonder of the technological age is already yesterday’s technology. Its successor will use robotic trucks and buyers will bid remotely from their own offices across the world and the whole operation will be done by dozens rather than thousands of workers. Scary stuff!

For farmers who remember when cutting edge technology was more than six gears on a tractor, it’s a daunting prospect. Fortunately, our next generation of farmers is ready to rise to the challenge. At universities like Harper Adams, farming technology is attracting some of our brightest students.

As the main insurer of UK agriculture, we are working closely with universities and industry to make sure we understand and can cover the risks new technology brings.

We’re also helping provide young farmers with opportunities to study through our Bursary Awards Scheme.

In 2018 we had a record number of applications for our Undergraduate Bursary Award scheme.  The standard of male and female candidates is high, and it’s encouraging to see plenty of interest from people without a farming background.

We’re also helping spread the message beyond our universities and colleges. We’re rolling out a programme of support to help young farmers clubs run skills development workshops.

In January, we are taking a group of keen young farmers to the Oxford Conference. Held amongst the city’s dreaming spires, the conference brings together people at the cutting edge of farming, science and politics from around the world to discuss the key issues facing farmers.

It’s a great opportunity to learn and broaden horizons. So watch this space to hear what our young ambassadors take from their golden opportunity.

So what other skills will our next generation of farmers need?

It goes without saying that agriculture is the key ingredient to hold the mix together. Business and management skills are also high on the list, with the need to not only farm well but farm profitably becoming increasingly challenging as direct subsidies dwindle.

Marketing and PR is also a priority. Whether they sell to commodity markets or direct to consumers, farmers increasingly need well-honed marketing skills to spot new opportunities and give their produce an edge over the competition.

And in an age when consumers want to know the origins of their food and how it is produced, farmers will need the skills to promote and defend the way they raise livestock and grow crops, both face to face and via social media.

Traditional skills will be needed alongside the 21st century technological mindset. Tomorrow’s farmers will still need to be able to sort out a ewe lambing triplets, clear a blockage in a baler and judge a good heifer.  

There’s still another skill set to add to the mix – Above all famers; need to be able to work with family members – brothers, sister, parents, grandparents who all have a vested interest in the farm and different ideas about the way it should be run. So add diplomacy and conflict resolution to the skills required.

Farming in the UK is still very much a family affair. It’s a matter of pride for many farmers that they work land that has been in the family for generations. And that tradition is continuing with sons and daughters keen to follow in their footsteps – and use the best technology available to make their farms sustainable.

The enthusiasm and determination to use the best of technology and tradition we’re seeing in the next generation of farmers means the long-term future is bright for UK agriculture, whatever the weather or Brexit brings.

Tim Price, Rural Affairs Specialist at NFU Mutual

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