Oxford Farming Conference: Are we in the last generation for farmworkers?

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The relentless march of technological advancement stands to make life a lot easier for all sectors, not least the world of agriculture, but is this potentially at the detriment of an experienced and adaptive workforce?

Discussions will no doubt rage on the topic during the Oxford Union Debate at this year’s Oxford Farming Conference – which this year is again co-sponsored by Thrings and faces the motion “This house believes that humans will not be needed on farms in a generation.”

It is clear that agriculture faces a serious labour shortage in the UK – owing in part to tighter controls on immigration and skills development – and technology may well be the answer but what are the issues that are presented when considering the trade-offs of staff versus machinery?

As with any other sector, technological improvements are fundamentally to improve the efficiency and quality of production in farming, whether it is the jump from workhorses to tractors or from hand milking to automated mass milking parlours, with higher productivity and less chance of illness or absence meaning that farms are more able to keep up with ever-growing demand.

But machines are not just there to maximise output, there are numerous environmental benefits to investing in new tech. This can include more precise technology that minimises waste or more targeted use of pesticides to improve accuracy and cause less environmental harm. There are also technological advancements, such as driverless tractors and combines, which are already available and reducing demand for labour.

Improvements to technology and an increase in automation also present opportunities for improving safety in a sector that experiences too many deaths and accidents. Despite all the advances that continue to be made, the Health and Safety Executive reports that the average five-year annual rate for agricultural worker fatal injuries is an astonishing 21 times higher than that across all industries.

Conversely, and for countless generations, farming has survived the world over through being a very hands-on profession, with wisdom passed down and experience earned in the fields. But is this still the case?

The sector has always been open to new technology, yet it still attracts lots of talented people and the divisive issue can often be around what additional value that technology brings and what it costs in terms of a skilled and innovative workforce.

Then you have the fact that every farm is unique, whether due to activity or landscape and not every single one lends itself to technology. Machinery producers aim to give farmers the tools they require but there are always those that don’t fit the mould. There will also always be a place for specialist producers who may not be able to benefit from new technologies and/or the scale simply does not justify the investment.

But while the Oxford Union debate is set to argue two polarising arguments, is there scope for middle ground with the make up of modern farms changing and the workforce changing with them?

As well as the production, technology is helping farms to change administratively with staff potentially being hired to maintain and run machinery, as well as to run the business through improving IT processes.

The science behind farming also continues to change and people entering the sector with differing backgrounds and experience could also stand to challenge the conventional wisdom. This potentially leads to is a rise in automation, but with a smaller and more skilled workforce.

So, is the debate over machinery versus farm workers black and white or are there shades of grey? Is the best outcome a sound decision or is it subject to hearts-over-minds and a penchant for traditional methods?

The Thrings Agriculture team has been chosen by the NFU to act for its members in more counties than any other firm. Find out more about how we can support farmers, food producers and rural communities on our Information for Farmers page.

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