Three Nuffield Scholars

Published 16 January 15

Three Nuffield Scholars rounded up the LIC Pasture to Profit Conference, sponsored by DairyCo, in November, with a worldwide perspective on some of the issues facing the dairy industry today. 

Robert Craig, who was recently awarded the 2014 Farmers Weekly Dairy Farmer of the Year Award and is a new contributor to Forage for Knowledge in 2015, milks 1,000 spring calving cows on two units in Cumbria. For his Nuffield Scholarship on the true cost of cheap food, Robert looked at how sustainable some of the most agriculturally productive parts of the world are.

The extra demand on global resources is huge as we try to provide for a combination of growing affluence and growing population. Major change is unavoidable as 2.5 billion Asian consumers fast track towards a western lifestyle.

Robert believes that with the current rate of abstraction the world is rapidly approaching a potential water crisis. Over half the world’s population now lives in countries where the water table continually falls. Many countries have been forced to reduce their irrigation areas and food producing capacity.

He visited the Punjab in India, where 97% of the agricultural land is irrigated and the irrigated Central Valley of California, where a third of all US dairy, fruit and vegetables are produced, and where farmers are experiencing their fifth year of drought. From both these visits it was clear to him that areas which have historically produced much of the world’s food will struggle in the future.

As the available water gets deeper it becomes increasingly uneconomic to abstract it for crop irrigation and food production. Most of the easy-to-reach oil has already been used, so it is highly likely it will only increase in price. Food economics are going to be increasingly determined by oil economics in the future.

Climate change is already having a major impact on food production. Its unpredictability and severity is more challenging to agriculture than the gradual rise in global temperatures.

The food industry has largely failed to incorporate the true cost of food production into the value of the product. Cheap and abundant food production has led to consumers being misled as to the real value of food. The long term environmental cost of industrialised farming has been largely ignored but will still need to be funded. Four fifths of dairy produced in the world is done so in enclosed systems. In future, we may have to challenge the efficiency of these systems that are putting feed through the animals to obtain milk.

We need to educate the consumer about the sustainability of their food. They need to be informed in order to make choices – it’s very difficult to gauge how sustainable food is from current labels or packaging.

The UK is very well placed to produce high-quality sustainable food in the future, if we are asked to and we choose to. Few places can compete with the climatic advantages we have here.

Andrew Brewer, who grew his milking herd from 60 to 650 cows, studied what needs to be done to encourage high-quality individuals into the British dairy industry, and how to ensure that dairy technician is a viable career choice.

The focus of his study was to find out about best practice among employers, both within and outside dairy farming, in attracting and retaining the best possible staff, starting from base level.

All successful businesses utilise their natural advantages, be they climate, soil, proximity to market or availability of cost-effective labour.

The capacity of business owners to develop people skills is often outstripped by the rate at which their business grows. Famers milking over 200 cattle will find themselves managing people, not cows. Farming businesses need to start valuing all labour as a high-quality resource and not as a disposable commodity. Labour should be valued as much as a new tractor.

The cost to the business of the lack of human resource management ability is largely hidden and often just accepted. As an industry, the loss of skills developed on farm by staff and the loss of knowledge from businesses, needs to be addressed.

The lack of interaction by agricultural businesses operating in the UK with secondary education has led to a disconnection with students, many of whom are receptive and actively looking for careers. How often do you see agriculture represented at secondary school recruitment fairs?

Andrew states that the industry needs to make it attractive for students to enter. If they only hear moaning farmers, they will not see dairy farming as a positive career to embark on.

New staff must be treated as a renewable resource and not just a mine that will be exhausted. Success is both an employee who has been with you for 15 years and the one who has left you to farm in his or her own right.

Jamie McCoy, milks 160 crossbred cows with her partner in West Wales and studied the opportunities for the small family farm for her Nuffield Scholarship. As part of her study she tried to answer questions such as whether large organisations will come to dominate world food production and whether the small family farm will be available to our children and grandchildren.

In 2007, 89% of the 16.4 million agricultural workers in the EU were the farm holder or a family member and globally, agriculture is a family business.

Jamie genuinely believes that the future is bright for small family farms, but only if farmers are willing to embrace change, innovate and focus on profitability. If family farmers mean business and treat farming as such, they will certainly survive. Profit is not the only meaningful key performance indicator in family run businesses but it must be number one. The business must meet its cash needs, whatever they may be. Small businesses do need to think in the same way as big ones – business is business.

Strategy, capability, communication and evaluation are key. Succession must be addressed early on family farms.

Families can still be at the heart of food production through collaboration and innovation, diversification and intensification. Farming families can also offer something different to large organisations. They give the farm soul, a personality and a story, which is in high demand amongst affluent consumers.

Keeping the rural community alive needs to start at home. Get out there and get involved in whatever is going on in your rural community.