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New entrants - the chicken or the egg

Agronomist Ollie Johnson looks after Agrovista customers across the midlands. In his latest blog post, he discusses barriers to entering the industry, particularly for those from non-farming backgrounds.

Ollie Johnson, agronomist

"As seen recently, many growers seek an extra pair of hands to help during the busy summer harvest period. There's been post after post on social media forums trying to draw interest, but one thing continues to pop up - ‘experience required’.

We talk at length in agricultural circles about how we should attract talent from outside our industry, and yet at the same time, the barriers to entry can be so high! 

I’ve previously wondered what it might take to train a fresh-faced non-agriculturalist into a competent tractor driver and machinery operator. And some time ago, aged 17 and from a non-farming family, I would have been the perfect guinea pig. 

Starting out

Back then, I soon found that finding work was difficult and many couldn’t spare time to offer me training despite a willingness to work and passion for farming. 

Unfortunately, I never found the experience I craved and with an impending course in environmental science at university, I stopped looking. Instead, I turned to a career in agronomy and began my BASIS training having very little practical farm experience, This proved extremely tough. 

Even for those who’ve spent a lifetime working in arable farming, the BASIS course is designed to test competency in a highly technical role and can be a challenge. For someone having to learn the ‘basics’ too, it seemed an insurmountable barrier at the beginning of my career. Therefore, I was overjoyed when I passed first time and was ready to start my life as a qualified agronomist. 

Gaining agronomic experience

It’s fair to say that my agricultural knowledge soon improved, and before long I was working harvest alongside friends who had spent their youth on the seat of a tractor. What still strikes me though as an established agronomist, is how many growers ask where I farm?

The answer surprises them more when I say that I don’t, and never have, despite my best efforts as a youngster. But it doesn’t hold me back and, in many ways, helps me to think outside the box. In particular, I bring knowledge of environmental science to the job as part of Agrovista’s Soil Health Team, giving growers advice on soil management and regenerative agriculture. 

New talent

Imagine if the same was applied in other industries, veterinary medicine for example. If to train to become a vet you must already be ‘experienced’ in veterinary science, barely anyone would train. The reality would be fewer and fewer vets as the years pass, until before long, no new talent was being added to the industry. 

The average age of a British farmer is 59. If a business had an employee average age that high it would be time to recruit new talent, and fast! So the next time a fresh-faced wannabe farmer plucks up the courage to ask for some experience, maybe give them a chance, you never know what value they might add.”