AFBI Research Points the Way on Farmer Lifelong Learning

Date published: 21 June 2020

Area of Expertise:

Farming as an industry is operating in an ever changing environment and the skill sets required to meet these challenges are far wider than ever before.

Doing things as they have always been done no longer holds. Whether as new entrants to the industry or experienced farmers, the adoption of new technologies and implementation of good farm management practices are critical to achieving profitability and sustainability regardless of the size and scale of a farm business.

Economists from AFBI have recently completed research on agricultural education and training in Northern Ireland.  The aim of the study was to gain an understanding of the challenges facing farmers around skills and training; obtain views on current provision and gain an understanding of the demand for future skills development within the agriculture sector. 

Findings from a stakeholder consultation and the farmer survey indicated that current programmes were generally considered good. However some potential gaps in provision were highlighted and areas for improvements identified and it was generally acknowledged that there needed to be pathways for life-long learning to allow farmers to update their knowledge over the course of their farming career.

The main areas for improvement identified from the stakeholder consultation were the need for higher level business management skills and technical skills in agriculture, including animal/plant health and welfare.  Stakeholder feedback put an emphasis on getting farmers to ‘take ownership’ of data in order to improve the key performance indicators of their own farm business.

There was a need to encourage farmers to approach their farming activities by both ‘doing things right’ and ‘doing the right things’.  Encouraging farmers to ‘do things right’, requires them to understand and adopt best practice when  putting in place farm level biosecurity measures, meeting legislative requirements, building accuracy and detail into their record keeping.  ‘Doing the right things’, involves farmers making the best use of their own time and other farm labour, choosing to measure the right performance indicators (both technical and financial), using their own farm level data to make improvements and looking to where and how they can innovate on their farm so as to bring about improved business performance.

Both the stakeholder consultation and farmer survey found support for training methods that are practical and allow farmers to see the benefits of new farming practices.  Farmers expressed a preference for non-formal training over a short time frame linked to the needs of their specific farming systems.  The research identified the main barriers to training as; the cost, the time required, the location (must be local), the availability of someone to look after the farm, the types of courses offered (must be relevant), age (older farmers are less inclined to engage in training) and a disengagement by some farmers towards training and skills development.

Negative experiences with courses that are too wide-ranging and unfocused influences their decision to not participate in training in the future.  In general, respondents to the farmer survey expressed a preference for training aimed at delivering outcomes to a specific task, for example training in, handling veterinary medicines and chemicals, farm-level financial planning and developing a farm business plan.  Therefore, in delivering programmes of lifelong learning, methods need to be honed to account for previous levels of knowledge in order to achieve wide participation. For example, our results showed that, farm visits are the most popular option for those farmers without formal agricultural educational background as they ‘feel more accessible’. 

DAERA and CAFRE were viewed as the most appropriate and relevant organisations to lead on agricultural training.  However, due to the pace of change in farming, technological advances and wider societal demands, there was support for collaboration with other education providers (universities and research institutes), wider industry and key stakeholders. This would ensure that the resulting programmes are meeting evolving industry requirements.    The majority of the stakeholders considered that this could be achieved through the establishment of an ‘Agricultural Skills Strategy Board’ to oversee the strategic development of an agriculture and land based training and skills development programme.  

The research findings and recommendations from this project have been disseminated to both CAFRE and DAERA. The Head of Education services at CAFRE, Mr James O’Boyle commented that “This research provides sound underpinning evidence which will help to guide CAFRE in developing its portfolio of education and training courses to meet the needs of the agricultural industry”.  Research in AFBI continues in this area and aims to examine ways to encourage younger farmers to participate in formal agricultural training and pursue continuous professional development. 

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