Addressing the skills gap: Information and innovation opportunities

Addressing the Skills Gap. Organic agriculture and agroecological approaches to farming are reliant on high levels of skills and knowledge. How do we best address the need to improve and expand these skill sets? The workshop will have brief presentations from different approaches to addressing the skills gap (apprenticeships, field labs, SWARM) and then be opened to the floor to draw on the experiences and needs of participants. This session was organised by the Organic Research Centre with the Soil Association
Rachel Harries (Soil Association): chair.

Session summary

The three speakers addressed different ways that the skills gap has and could be addressed. Kate Collyns talked about the Soil Association Apprentice scheme (Now Future Growers) and her own experiences as an apprentice. She set the context of an aging farming population, low income and that farming is seen as a low skilled profession with low skills and not glamorous. Kate covered her experiences as an apprentice on an organic horticultural holding. The fees did seem a lot at the time but when compared with university fees they are not. The benefits were hands on experience plus theory and mentoring by the host producer. A lot of freedom to learn on her own from experimenting as well as through networking at farm visits, seminars and ORC conferences. She outlined the commitment that is needed by the employer – not much more than a standard minimum wage worker – but with a more of a mentoring role for the producer to the apprentice. Post apprenticeship some of her cohort has stayed in farming while others have left or set up their own businesses.

Steve Roderick explained and demonstrated an IT solution to addressing the skills gap. SWARM hub is a website that supplements more traditional training. The aim is to turn science into practice. It was set up with all the agricultural education providers in the South West of England – it is not a solely organic project but addresses all agriculture systems but is strongly underpinned by organic practices. Most information on the site is not unique but it is pulling together existing information in a farmer friendly way. Costs and cost benefit analysis were important. Also took existing material and put links and extracts from it onto the site. Now working on apps with a manure management one ‘CRAP APP’ in development. A series of films have been commissioned, often farmer led, to disseminate info from other sources. The audience is both farmers and advisors and the information is focused on how to do things, not why.

John Pawsey talked about his experiences of the Duchy Originals Future Farming Programme’s Field Lab (FL) on black grass control. He sees the FL as pooling knowledge from the coalface; Farmers coming up with and testing ideas. FLs improve skills as it gives farmers shared knowledge and using experts to make better decisions and teach farmers to implement better trials. Getting a group of farmers together reassures them when they all have the same problems. He explained the FL structure where they looked at cereal stands and then discussed what could do as the trial and FL. He feels he has learned that to concentrate on what the farm demands not necessarily the market. Everyone is in the same boat and that there is a lot of knowledge from the farmers in the room. He hopes the legacy of the FL will be that the group continues to meet. He left us with the statement “the answer is in the room”.

Key conclusions

The discussion that followed the presentations brought out the following points:

  • Expansion of apprenticeship into farming was suggested. SA responded that they have tried and found it difficult. It was also felt that general training needs in agriculture were already being met by agricultural colleges, although organic is often overlooked, and the real gap is in horticultural training.
  • The question of ‘How to maintain SWARM?’ had no easy answers.
  • “The answer is in the room”. Getting farmers and growers together with an expert or facilitator on a regular basis has huge value as they are often able to problem solve and find the answers amongst themselves.. The challenge is to find the funding to do this, although these events can be relatively low cost.
  • There is potential to bring together a wide range of agro-ecological farming organisations to offer farm based peer to peer events.
  • There was support for an ‘organic’ qualification to recognise the professional knowledge of organic farmers and growers. This could be for entry into the sector or continuing professional development.

Action points

  • ORC and SA to meet to explore options for training.

Individual speaker presentations and abstracts

Kate Collyns (Grown Green): Addressing the skills gap: The apprenticeship approach

Depending on which study you look at, the average age of British farmers is between 55 and 59; and increasing numbers of young people from rural areas are choosing to ditch farming as a career and search out fame and fortune in the big city. One practical approach to turn this tide was to launch the Soil Association Apprentice scheme in 2007, with the aim of training up young (as well as not-so-young-but-willing) people with an interest in going back to the land. The two-year scheme is a mix of hands-on practical work placements based on organic holdings, alongside weekend seminars to study theory and principles. Now part of the Future Growers’ Scheme, the apprenticeship has been a very successful programme training new growers and farmers, many of whom have gone on to find jobs in the sector, run organic holdings, and even start new projects from scratch.

Steve Roderick (Duchy College): Addressing the skills gap: the SWARM project

The SWARM knowledge hub is an RDPE funded project that provides a web-based knowledge transfer repository for resource management information aimed at improving the economic and environmental performance of agriculture through research, skills development and unbiased knowledge transfer. Examples of different innovative approaches used include fifty farmer case studies, film, analysis of outputs from advisory schemes, decision tools and mobile phone apps as well as on-line text and imagery to encourage behavioural change and support management decisions across six broad themes: Soils, Water, Energy Efficiency, Nutrients and Manures, Trees and Wood and Renewable Energy. The project is a partnership with industry and academia, including The Soil Association, British Grassland Society, Natural England, Rural Focus, the Environment Agency, Exeter University and Rothamsted Research and the project has encompassed other initiatives such as Low Carbon FarmingNutrient Wise Demos and A number of significant documents have been converted to user-friendly on-line materials, including the Think Manures manual and Defra-funded guidance on mitigating diffuse water pollution and reducing GHGs. Farmer feedback has been key, enabling the adoption of an underlying approach to delivering knowledge materials in a ‘How to’ as well as a ‘Why’ format, highlighting cost-benefit relationships where required.

John Pawsey (Shimpling Park Farms): Organic Blackgrass control field lab – the answer is in the room

Looking at the characteristics of different cereal crops and their effect on black grass populations. From the initial Duchy Originals Future Farming Programme’s Field Lab meeting on 11th June 2013 we agreed to select one field at high blackgrass risk, a cereal crop after beans in a non-plough situation. In that field we were to sow a strip of every cereal crop to be grown on the farm for harvest 2014. The crops that have been sown are: winter wheat, winter barley, spelt wheat, winter triticale and an ORC Population. Assessments of weed levels are to be made by participants at the planned meetings through the course of next season. Three further meetings are planned for: winter – after winter crop establishment, spring – possibly around growth stage 32 and summer to look at yield – for final assessment.


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