Closing the skills gap: could better public engagement be the answer?
Public engagement involves all sectors of the supply chain collaborating to show what farming is about

Closing the skills gap: could better public engagement be the answer?

Rachel Anderson
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LEAF - public engagement Ian Pigott OBE
LEAF demonstration farmer and FACE chairman Ian Pigott

By forming new partnerships and continuing to support events such as Linking the Environment and Farming (LEAF)’s Open Farm Sunday (OFS), fresh produce buyers can reconnect people to their farming roots – and even help plug the industry’s skills gap

Over 250,000 people visited British farms as part of OFS on June 5. The annual event was sponsored this year by many familiar names, including Sainbury’s, Asda, Tesco, Waitrose and Marks & Spencer. And, acknowledging the growing success of this initiative – which LEAF has been running for a decade, organisations such the Biotechnology & Biological Science Research Council (BBSRC) backed the event for the first time while others cranked their level of involvement up a gear. Sainsbury’s, for instance, created a series of “Orifarmi” activity sheets specifically for its LEAF ambassador farms – one of which was Kent top fruit producer AC Goatham & Son.

“Orifarmi encouraged children and their families to make little origami farm animals and tweet messages about how they constructed them,” says Beth Hart, Sainsbury’s head of technical – fresh foods. “It was very well received. This year we participated in OFS at a much higher level than we ever have done before. We recognise that there’s a greater need for us to get out there and demonstrate our knowledge and our passion to our customers – but through the vehicle of our farmers and growers. We are not communicators within our team – we are scientists, we are strategists, we have a lot more data management capability, but we are not marketers. But we are endeavouring to look for ways to come out and show who we are and what we stand for to our customers.” 

LEAF - public engagement Orifarmi-PIG-v2

Knowledge quandary

So what is the value in buyers such as Sainsbury’s going out of their way to show the public what farming is all about? One good reason could be the need to tackle what Hart describes as the “enormous skills gap in our industry.” Arguably, reconnecting people with their farming roots could help raise awareness of the choice of careers in horticulture and other farming sectors. As LEAF demonstration farmer Ian Pigott OBE observes: “I find through the work I get involved in with education that actually it’s a peculiar state we find ourselves in; people have greater knowledge but less understanding.” Recalling a recent trip to McDonalds, he says: “The restaurant has iPads throughout so children are not even engaging with their peers or their parents – so how are we to assume that they are engaging with their food?” 

Education – the future of public engagement exercises?

Fortunately, fresh producer buyers and growers, and many other organisations are already looking at the engagement question with fresh eyes by collaborating to find new ways of engaging with, and educating, the public about their industry.

For example, this year’s OFS saw LEAF work with the BBSRC to create LEAF’s Science on the Farm learning resources. After the event, some 58% of farmers reported to LEAF that they would not have featured science in farming without this resource. Patrick Middleton, BBSRC’s associate director for communications and external relations, says: “There are so many different players in this but we all have similarly aligned objectives and we should be working together.” 

Pigott, who is also the chairman of Farming & Countryside Education (FACE), agrees. He says: “The industry has a great opportunity at the moment. We all know the importance of public engagement but we have got to have greater collaboration.” Pigott is also helping to improve farming’s connection with science through some of the FACE projects he’s recently run on his farm in Hertfordshire.

One such project saw a group of Year 7 pupils from Sir John Lawes School in Harpenden spend the day with him on his farm – and being set the challenge of tackling the slug problem on his land. “They [the pupils] went away, they had to work in teams, they went to Rothamstead Research and worked with the scientists and learned about the life cycle of slugs. They were showing their leadership skills by working together, they were better understanding the career opportunities [in the farming sector] on a wider scale and then they had to deliver [their results] to the heads of departments, parents, teachers and school governors. It was a great way of showcasing what we as an industry can do by working together.”

What are you waiting for?

Pigott states that he has a clear vision of the future whereby each region in the UK focuses on its own farming identity. He says: “We should be working on that and getting farmers to work closer with the schools in their regions.”

Such an approach could possibly work very well in those areas of the UK, such as the Lea Valley, that have a strong tradition of fruit and vegetable production. Pigott adds that everyone in the food supply chain should get involved because “fundamentally everyone in the industry has a responsibility to improve our public engagement.”

Certainly, there are many more opportunities that fresh produce buyers and the wider food supply chain have yet to seize – but perhaps the public would embrace their efforts. As Fran Barnes, the National Farmers’ Union (NFU)’s director of communications, points out: “Farmers are popular. Every year we ask the public what they think and the popularity of farmers is increasing every year – and that’s despite the number of challenges that farming has to deal with. We know that when farmers go out there and tell their story it really does resonate with people.”

Hart, Middleton Pigott, and Barnes, were speaking at LEAF’s public engagement conference, on September 12 at Sainsbury’s headquarters in London. Open Farm Sunday 2017 takes place on June 11.

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