Gill Oliver discovers that mud and wellies are out and technology is in for new recruits

Less mud and wellies and more science, technology and engineering. That’s the message the farming industry is determined to hammer home in its drive to attract new talent.

A growing UK population, less space to farm and an ageing workforce mean the agricultural industry needs to sign up 60,000 new employees by 2020.

Among this new generation of young professionals is Katy Allen, of Blewbury.

The 29-year-old is among 100 under-40s to have been chosen for a new training scheme called the Future Farmer Foundation programme.

As part of the year-long initiative run by Tesco, she has learned business and entrepreneurial skills which she hopes to put into action at her parents Carol and Anthony’s pig and arable farm, Winterbrook.

The programme includes workshops, visits and classroom sessions on subjects such as business strategy, leadership, communication and negotiating contracts with retailers and processors.

After a year studying for a degree in anthropology at Durham University, Ms Allen switched to a rural land and estate management degree course at the Royal Agricultural University in Cirencester.

She explained: “I realised I wanted the farming lifestyle and to carry on the family farm.”

Her twin, Lucy, went through a similar ‘road to Damascus’ moment.

She did a degree in sports science at Edinburgh University and worked as a PE teacher, before returning to the family farm, while studying part-time at Cirencester.

The youngest Allen sister, Jess, who took the same degree as Katy, works as a chartered surveyor but plans to return to the family farm at some point.

Ms Allen believes their experience is typical, as more young people opt for a career in farming.

She pointed out: “Farming is a lifestyle, it’s not just a nine-to-five job, it’s more of a 6am to whatever.

“You are working outdoors and you learn so many different skills and there is funding available to go to university or do post-grad courses.” But she is under no illusions, adding: “It’s always going to be difficult but that’s part of the challenge which is to be precise and efficient so you can make it work.”

Improving skills and making sure future agricultural workers harness new technology is seen as key. Spearheading efforts is cross-industry initiative, Bright Crop, tasked with inspiring youngsters to consider a career in farming.

Originally set up as a Government Business in the Community initiative, is a one-stop shop with information about training, apprenticeships, college courses and jobs.

With the National Federation of Young Farmers’ Clubs, it is taking its message to schools through young ambassadors who talk about their own careers.

There’s no doubt the agricultural industry has an image problem. In a survey carried out on behalf of Bright Crop, just four per cent of young people consider a career in farming. Part of the problem is a misconception that most jobs in farming are boring, repetitive and low-paid.

The industry has been traditionally beleaguered by low pay but farm workers earn up to £25,000 a year, while managers can expect between £32,000 and £60,000.

Some industry insiders argue there has never been a better time to go into farming, because it has been revolutionised by technology in the past decade.

Animal and soil nutrition, crop rotation and the machinery now available make it science and business-based.

With overseas markets becoming more important, there are more options for exporting.

Food scandals have made the public more interested in where food comes from, allowing food producers to become business savvy by selling direct to the public, developing niche products that command a premium price.

There are also grants and scholarships to encourage youngsters to enrol on graduate or post-graduate courses.

The Future Farmer Foundation has been running since last year, while Sainsbury’s launched an agricultural apprenticeship scheme this month.

Farming is big business and contributes £100bn a year to the economy.

Isobel Bretherton, of the National Farmers Union, believes it is becoming more popular with the younger generation.

Helping to sell them the idea of a career in farming is the media, including TV programmes such as BBC’s Countryfile and Channel 4’s First Time Farmers, which have made farming ‘cool’ again.

She said: “ I’m sure it’s helping to attract new talent and to show youngsters what modern farming is about.”