As someone who took advantage of the two-year horticultural apprenticeship run by the Soil Association a number of years ago, I’m perhaps more aware than some of the need for more growers and farmers in the agriculture industry. The average age of farmers is around 59 (more like mid-60s for organic farmers and growers), and this average age trend is still rising, with horticulture showing one of the highest age averages. Coupled with this, the continued shutting up shop of small farms and market gardens has meant a shrinking job pool and fewer opportunities for new entrants to the industry, when right now, looking ahead to 2017 and the Brexit to follow, self-sufficiency should be top of the agenda (not to mention cutting carbon emissions by growing and farming locally and more sustainably).
So over the last 10 years it’s great that programmes such as the Soil Association’s Future Growers’ scheme has trained over 80 new growers and farmers; plus there seem to be more and more business-focussed programmes springing up looking to help people get started in farming and growing businesses: from the FreshStart Academies countrywide and Kindling Trust business courses near Manchester to Roots to Work in the London area. However I have noticed that over the last 18 months, actual job opportunities have all but disappeared: all I can see at the moment are a cluster of ‘trainee’ positions. This used to be an interchangeable term with ‘apprenticeships’ in my mind: new entrants (like myself) with little experience would get a basic training wage, with the idea that they would learn on the job and start earning more after, say, six months or a year, and also get a couple of years’ really good experience on the job. However, the positions that I see advertised are slightly different, in that hardly any of them actually offer a wage as such: just a stipend of perhaps £50 pocket money a week, together with on-farm accommodation (and usually free food too), usually just lasting the main growing season of March-October.
These trainee positions are of course a valuable way in the industry for someone with little or no experience, who is happy with the WWOOF-type lifestyle rather than actual wages, and is keen to learn what they can over a six-month season of growing veg; and I would never want to stop those kind of opportunities existing. I have been offering a trainee assistant grower’s position myself over the last two seasons as I’ve expanded the business, originally lasting April-October (although this year my assistant has stayed on over the winter too), but in return for wages rather than accommodation and pocket money; and I have tried to offer a range of jobs and tasks to offer some useful experience. Now I feel more able to offer a more responsible role starting in 2017 (click here for details), and am looking for someone who already has some skills; the next step in the career path. Some excellent applicants already prove how many people are out there looking for this kind of opportunity.
So while I have no beef with farms and businesses offering semi-volunteer roles and trainee positions, what does concern me however is that these positions seem to be pretty much the only kind of opening available into the industry at the moment. As a business-owner myself, I of course know how tight margins are and how difficult it is to make a living wage for yourself, let alone creating a waged position for someone else – especially as taking on workers is always a gamble in terms of how skilled they actually are and how much they can contribute towards to the business. However I strongly believe that paying a worker a real wage (albeit still lamentably low compared to some industries) is incredibly important too, and a much more sustainable way of running a business; and the difference a good worker can make to your business does pretty much pay for itself in the end. More than anything though, I worry that there are simply no opportunities for the semi-trained and trained growers at the moment: what are these trainees supposed to do after their six months? Go to another farm the following spring and do the same there, and continue in this way for a few years? Not only are they not earning a wage, but they are not experiencing all aspects of running a business in winter, so still ill-prepared for starting their own place or taking a fully skilled head grower role (should such a job ever be advertised!).
It can’t be healthy state of affairs when the only route into an industry is effectively to buy your way in – ie buy some land, buy all the equipment you need, then spend a few years putting your business together and learning the hard way – or by doing six-month stints at farms for very little money, an option only really open to those without ties such as family, rent or mortgages to pay. Again, I’d emphasise that this is a desperately needed way in and gratefully snapped up for many people of the hundreds keen to get into the industry; and many do as I did as an apprentice and make the most of their opportunity and contacts to take their career in agriculture a step further. But if these are the only ways in, how can we not feel embarassed for our industry, shake of the nagging feeling that we are all playing at farming, and then be taken seriously?