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Harper Adams academic releases report on value of tailored support to agricultural professionals

Posted 16 May

“The agricultural and agri-food industry is in a period of change, and this is potentially an exciting time for new entrants, but the sector needs to ensure these individuals are supported effectively.”

Claire Toogood

Providing tailored support to agricultural and agri-food professionals attracted from outside the industry not only supports but also helps to retain individuals – strengthening sector sustainability. 

That is one of the key findings from a report drawn up by Claire Toogood, a Harper Adams University academic whose research into the issue was funded by the Farmers Club Charitable Trust as part of their Agricultural Educator awards.  

Claire’s work is set to be shared by the Trust as part of Agri Leadership Week, which runs until this Friday, May 19, and has been welcomed by a Trust Ambassador as ‘a most relevant and timely article that has greatly impressed the Trustees.’ 

For her report, Claire surveyed people across the agri-food industry, which in 2021 was estimated to provide around four million jobs – or 13 per cent of the total UK workforce. She examined how new entrants to agriculture and agri-food experienced leadership, management and employee development in their roles, and also spoke in-depth to 10 selected interviewees. 

While the report itself was primarily research-driven, Claire has also produced a suite of teaching resources and case studies that educators can use in their work. 

In her report, Claire notes: “The early 2020s saw unprecedented people management challenges, further exacerbating worker and skills shortages in agriculture and agri-food. The unexpected challenge of the pandemic highlighted both the importance of the people who work within the sector, and the need for further research to support effective practice. 

“The after effects of Brexit continued to be felt across agricultural workplaces and communities; securing and retaining the right employees, and diversifying employment within the sector, is vital to the future security of the nation’s agricultural work and food production.  

“The agricultural and agri-food industry is in a period of change, and this is potentially an exciting time for new entrants, but the sector needs to ensure these individuals are supported effectively.” 

As Claire conducted interviews for the report, key themes began to emerge - including the importance of mentors and of workplace communication of various kinds. 

Interviewees also discussed challenges they had faced around feelings of belonging, assumptions which had been made about them in the sector, and some outdated expectations from employers around gender and sexuality. 

Among the people Claire spoke with was Jodie, who found her way into agriculture while looking for placement opportunities. Her role, with a testing and support service, brought her into contact with people across the sector. 

In her case studies, Claire discusses how others’ reactions affected Jodie and how she feels there is still a long way to go to reach genuine inclusivity, and notes: “She doesn’t always find it comfortable to correct assumptions, or challenge certain jokes and behaviours, which can feel like she is “holding myself back a little bit.” 

Speaking after the report was published, Jodie added: “I really hope sharing my experiences in the industry can benefit others going forward.” 

In another case study Maisie, who discovered a role in agriculture by chance after working in Australia, explained that perceptions around her lack of experience could be turned around to become a positive. 

She said: “I suppose at first it was a negative thing because I didn’t have the basic understanding of how a plant grows or know a lot about cows. It took me a long time to pick it all up because it’s terminology that I’m not used to and a way of working I’m not used to. I’d worked in pubs but I’d never worked 18-hour stints. 

“But, if you don’t have the experience, you haven’t learned anything wrong. I think workers often pick up things from working at home that maybe aren’t used in other farms or aren’t the right way of going about things. I could be taught exactly how they wanted me to drive tractors and manage the machinery.”   

Claire notes: “The majority of interviewees were confident that, thanks to their non-agricultural background, they offered agriculture and agri-food something new and valuable.” 

Speaking after the publication of her report, Claire said: “Communication was found to be key – particularly informal communication, such as welcoming questions from those less familiar with the sector. This was useful for dispelling myths and removing barriers, which were cited as a common challenge for those from non-agricultural backgrounds. 

“Role models were also vital – many interviewees and research participants wanted to make clear how important mentors had been in their journey so far – and how they hoped for this to continue as they developed in the sector. 

“My report also notes that smaller businesses were more likely to have leadership and management issues – but also that there are specific opportunities for managerial development in the sector – and these can be a wise investment for organisations of all sizes.” 

Ultimately, the report concludes with a series of recommendations for managers, mentors and colleagues – including to individualise management and development, create opportunities for workplace learning and development, and to lead the creation of safe and supportive workplace environments and relationships. 

Claire added: “The factors and influences that successfully brought new entrants into agriculture and agri-food – and kept them in the industry – varied. 

“Participants discussed the influence of family and friends, visiting events and farms, the time they spent in rural settings, and being motivated by sustainability and helping conserve the natural environment.” 

“Building on these contact points and working to remove misunderstanding between non-agricultural and agricultural groups is vital; the stories told in my case studies and through my research are intended to support this, by starting discussion and raising awareness.” 

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