Raising the next generation

Jack Thornton started doing work on the family farm when he was in his early teens. Today, aged 18, he is fully committed to a career in agriculture.

The industry needs more young people like Jack. A study in 2019 revealed that the average age for farmers in the UK was 55.

The report by Barclays Bank also revealed that the percentage of those under 25 who were running a farm had dropped by 63 per cent.

With agriculture becoming an ever more technologically driven industry and growing worries over labour shortages, the nation needs to grow and nurture its young farmers.

Jack works on the family farm in Billsborrow, which produces pigs and beef cattle. The business also mixes its own animal feed.

He is looking ahead with confidence and sees his future in farming. He explains the attraction: “I like working outside and seeing the efforts of what I’ve done. I really enjoy it.

“There are challenges and we’re always working to improve things, I’ve helped bring in technology that allows us to monitor the weight of our animals, which is paying off for us.

Jack is also acutely aware that he is part of a global industry, with events in other parts of the world influencing the prices Lancashire farmers get for their products.

When I started there were more than 35,000 dairy farms in the UK, now there are around 9,000

Tight supply now has seen a rise in prices in the beef market. Jack’s family farm supplies to a leading supermarket chain. He also recalls how in 2019 an African swine fever outbreak in China sent UK pork prices soaring.

Jack studied agriculture at Myerscough College, one of the leading institutions for agriculture in the UK.

The Lancashire college teaches more than 25 different subjects, including agriculture, horticulture, animal care and equine studies and boasts its own two large farms.

A £35m campus development programme included the opening of a state-of-the-art, multi-million-pound Food and Farming Innovation & Technology Centre (FFIT), the only one of its kind in the country.

Craig Thompson is head of agriculture and countryside at the college. A Lancashire farmer from Kirkham, before turning to teaching, he has been at Myerscough since 2002.

He looks back at the 1990s and early 2000s as a bleak time for agriculture, with BSE, scares over salmonella and eggs and the foot and mouth crisis all having negative effects on the industry, which was mirrored in falling numbers of young people looking to study and begin careers in farming.

Craig says: “The government and the public had no confidence in agriculture. The whole thing was a nightmare and people were leaving the industry.”

Myerscough, which was built on its farming courses, saw its agriculture student numbers slump. However, Craig reveals there has been a welcome turnaround.

This September the college will see a healthy 40-50 students on its level three course. “It’s nice to see,” he says.

“The NFU and lots of other organisations have worked hard to put a positive spin on the industry and to tell the story of food production. There’s also been a lot of programmes on television about farming. Things have really started to pick up.”

In the past many of those students may have been farmer’s sons – sent to the college to get the grounding to enable them to play their part in and eventually take over the family business.

However, Craig says that today the split between students from a farming background and those that aren’t is around 50-50. He adds: “Many of those from a non-farming background will do better, they’ve made the decision to come into farming because they want to.

There has also been a “big change” in the number of female students. Again, Craig puts that split at around 550-50 and he adds: “The idea that this is a male dominated industry is fast disappearing.

“Young people see it as an industry where it doesn’t matter whether you re male or female, there is a place for you.”

When it comes to teaching young people looking for a farming career, he says it is important to keep them aware of the need for diversification, something the college has done itself running courses today in motorsports, golf and football.

Craig says: “Small farms are disappearing. When I started there were more than 35,000 dairy farms in the UK, now there are around 9,000.

“Farms are becoming bigger, smaller family farms have either been sold or rented out.”

He adds: “It is about economies of scale, the only way to make an increased profit is to get bigger. That is why I tell young people coming into the industry that they need to look at how they add value and diversify the business.”

Craig also believes the industry must do more to improve overall working conditions to attract the next generation into agriculture. He says: “Working conditions and contracts are an area the industry needs to address.

“Young people want a work-life balance. Many farmers see it as a lifestyle rather than a business, but it is a business and a good business will look after its staff, making sure they are happy and working conditions are good. The days of working ridiculous hours are numbered.”

Despite all that he believes there is a good future for young people entering the industry.

He says: There is a career path for them. There are more job opportunities in agriculture than people coming into the industry.

  • To read this feature in full and access further Lancashire business news, advice and analysis subscribe to Lancashire Business View magazine or join the LBV Hub from just £2.50 per month. Click here to subscribe now.