Gathering round: A four-sided view on farming challenges and how to solve them

The UK’s current economic climate is taking its toll on all industries including agriculture, with many farmers left uncertain of how they will afford to raise livestock in coming months. Calf rearer Joanne Pile joins Ben Barber from Synergy Farm Vets, Paul Bartholomew from Bart Agri, and Robin Hibberd from Hydor as they gathered at Cats Hill Farm to discuss the issues they are facing and the help they are seeking out.

l-r: Robin Hibberd from Hydor, Paul Bartholomew from Bart Agri, calf rearer Joanne Pile, and vet Ben Barber. 

Unsurprisingly, the rising cost of energy, mental health, difficulties attracting new entrants, and negative perceptions of farming were among the key topics of discussion during the roundtable meeting, which was hosted by Hydor.

Soaring energy costs have resulted in a number of barriers for farming businesses – preventing some from taking on new staff or being able to invest in or utilise new, money-saving technology.

Calf rearer Joanne Pile commented: “Currently my job is a solo role, it’s all down to me as the farm doesn’t generate enough money to employ any other staff. With the cost of energy rising, it’s become impossible to even think about taking anyone on.”

Additionally, while increased use of technology is largely a positive, it can eat into energy costs, she added. “For example, I use a machine to feed milk to the calves, but as soon as a calf steps into the machine to take milk, water has to be heated quickly which uses a lot of electricity. I’ve got solar panels and while they do help, they can only do so much.”

Speaking from a manufacturer’s point of view, Hydor’s Robin Hibberd said: “We are trying to make everything as energy efficient as possible for farmers. This includes everything from our main fan solutions, but also ancillary products such as LED lights. However, if farmers can’t afford the capital to replace their lights, they’re losing money in an attempt to save money.”

Isolation in farming

Such a challenging climate can also add to isolation and the industry’s well-known issues with mental health. Whilst farmers have an “admirable” ability to work all hours of the day, there is a lack of work-like balance which “really isn’t sustainable”, noted vet Ben Barber.

Ms Pile said talking is key: “Farming is such an isolating job. People often think it’s idyllic, imagining leaning on your fence with a cup of tea, looking over your cattle, but we are faced with so many challenges. It’s important to encourage people to talk to each other, the farming community can provide so many great opportunities to get people talking. But ultimately, we have to recognise that we don’t have a good work life balance and we need to learn to take a step back.”

Mr Barber added: “Keeping the conversation judgement free is also important. Often you can keep a lot of it in your head which makes the situation worse. Just hearing someone else say that they understand can really lift some of the pressure off.”

Education and technology

Educating consumers will be key for tackling the threat of cheaper produce being shipped from abroad – where regulations are more relaxed. Mr Barber said: “That’s another thing that consumers aren’t aware of. We have high standards when it comes the welfare and ethics of our farming. So, to allow cheaper product to come in and undercut this just doesn’t seem right.”

Paul Bartholomew from Bart Agri added: “[Consumers] need to understand the realities of farming and how much work farmers put into raising their livestock. But this is a two-way conversation and farmers need to start being more open.”

Social media has helped to keep the conversation about the ag sector moving, and highlight the importance of technology in farming, Ms Pile said. “More people are starting to understand the benefits it can bring to everyday farm life. All farmers want to do the best for their animals and at the end of the day if you don’t keep them healthy they aren’t going to pay you back in the long-run.”

Mr Barber believes we need to be able to show the benefits of technology in detecting and preventing disease in livestock – so that farmers will be more likely to invest in the technology.

Funding could be the key to making this technology available to farmers, Mr Hibberd continued. “Mechanical advances like the tube ventilation system we provided on Jo’s farm have been around for many years now but just aren’t being utilised enough. Technology can make such a change to a farm’s welfare, but farmers just can’t afford it.”

Labour problems

Labour and attracting new entrants to the industry were another key aspect of the discussion. Difficulties getting into the industry without experience and negative perceptions of farming amongst young people were cited as important stumbling blocks.

Mr Barber said farming is not typically encouraged in career advice meetings in his experience – and there is the perception that you don’t need to be very intelligent to get into farming, which is not the case. “You have to be intelligent and good at problem solving and making clinical decisions.”

Mr Bartholomew added: “You could be calving a cow at 2am and then the following day you can be making a five-year financial decision that could impact the future of your farm. You’re not just a farmer you’re an accountant, a vet, a builder – it’s such a varied role.”

Additionally, getting into farming with limited experience is challenging. Mr Hibberd said: “I see a lot of people on social media looking for apprenticeships in farming, but a lot of companies don’t want to invest in anyone with no previous skills. Finding employers who want to impart their knowledge on others is difficult.”

Joanne agreed, noting that she learnt on the job, but the opportunity she was given would no longer be available, as so many employers demand that workers have previous skill. “If employers are open to training people with the willingness to learn, it would be worth it.”

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