Meet the farmers of the future

Sensemaking / Meet the farmers of the future

27 Apr 2011

Geo-engineer, energy supplier or web host? Claire Wyatt asks what skills farmers will need in the future

We're always looking for the next big thing, and for people with the skills to create the new world we crave. This has never been truer in the agricultural world. Climate change, a growing global population, land and water shortages, peak oil and food security are all putting pressure on farmers to adapt and improve.

And now the Government has weighed in with visions of what the industry should achieve and look like by 2030. "Consumers are informed, can choose, and afford, healthy, sustainable food", says Defra's Food Strategy. "This demand is met by profitable, competitive, highly skilled and resilient farming, fishing and food businesses, supported by first class research and development."

But that's only 20 years away! It begs the question, how will the day-to-day lives of farmers have to change? What jobs will they be doing? What new kit will there be? And, most importantly, will they have the skills to function in this brave new world?

Farming Futures has come up with six possible new jobs or specialisms that could become a standard part of farming practice. First, we looked at trends across the entire food chain to try to see what farming may look and feel like in 20 years' time. New crops and technology, from precision farming to GM, will help shape that reality, along with the increased pressure to reduce carbon emissions, changing expectations of the consumer, and complex and fluctuating economic and trade systems.

We also surveyed agricultural students and young farmers to see if they felt prepared for the industry they will inherit. Among the students, 65% said that their course covered climate change and its impacts on agriculture. They ranked feeding our growing population as the number one challenge facing the industry over the next 20 years, with the rising cost of fertilisers a close second.

Many of them felt that open minds, climate change knowledge and IT skills set them apart from the current generation of farmers, and perhaps stood them in better stead to deal with the challenges ahead. A majority of 68% had already considered that their future role might include using the next generation of social media to build better relations with the public [see box 'Web 3.0 Farm Host', below]. Florie Bryant, a final-year student at the Royal Agricultural College, remarked:

"We really need to bridge the gap between consumers and farmers. The media has so much power to influence the public, and we need to show consumers that we aren't as bad as is sometimes made out. They can forget the fact that farming is not just a job, but a livelihood."

So here are some sketches of just what that livelihood might entail come 2030. The aim isn't to predict the future, but to set out some possibilities and kick off the debate about how we could get there, and whether we'd want to...

Claire Wyatt is the Creative Advisor for Forum for the Future. She co-manages Farming Futures and specialises in creative communication techniques.To complete the Future Farming Skills survey, go to: http://www.surveygizmo.com/s3/488166/Future-Farming-Skills-2030

Geoengineer

Alongside a thriving food production business, this farmer also specialises in carbon sequestration. One method is biochar production [see 'Burn the trees to save the world?']. Crops absorb CO2 from the air as they grow, but eventually release it when they rot. So the farmer steps in, burning all the leftover material in a kiln at a carefully-controlled temperature, so that it's converted to charcoal. This effectively 'locks' most of the carbon in the charcoal, preventing it from escaping to the atmosphere. It doesn't just tackle climate change, either: biochar has been shown to double or triple yields when added to soil: it retains moisture, gives a friendly habitat for fungi, reduces acidity, and provides access to important nutrients, such as potassium and phosphorus. The system works best with a 'low till' method: by keeping soil disturbance to a minimum, it ensures the carbon is locked away under vegetal matter.

Some farmers are already experimenting with biochar and other carbon sequestration methods, but not on the scale we could see in the future. The farmer-geoengineer also maintains the local woodland and plants trees, so helping sequester more carbon. Love of the land and improved yields are an incentive, but financial rewards are also on offer for carbon capture...

Skills required:

  • use and maintenance of a pyrolysis kiln oven/ biorefinery for biochar
  • forestry, with a focus on indigenous species and agro-forestry
  • intercropping, cover cropping, composting.

Energy farmer

Many farmers already have a few PV panels on their land, or an anaerobic digester, but by 2030 energy production and management could be a principal source of income for landowners. Cows graze beneath silently turning wind turbines, pigs chill out above geothermal heat pumps, and hens cluck away under the solar thermal system. The farm's the depot for organic waste, the hub for the local smart grid, and even the pick-up point for swipe and go electric vehicles...

Skills required:

  • ICT proficiency for smart grid management
  • maintenance skills for AD
  • some expertise in energy efficiency.

Web 3.0 farm host

Consumer demand for transparency on food provenance and animal welfare - coupled with the next generation of social media, intuitive apps and prolific online data - mean farms need to be much better at public relations. Shoppers scan barcodes for all the ins-and-outs of the supply chain. They see the herd that produced their milk or meat in real time, or the fields and greenhouses from which their vegetables spring. They're bursting with questions and expect to have someone on hand to answer them. That's the job of the farm host: building better relations right down the supply chain.

Skills required:

  • management of electronic tagging and tracking systems
  • ICT and social networking skills
  • storytelling, presentation and writing skills.

Pharmer

The success of Omega 3 enriched eggs and fluoride-enhanced water has led to 'pharming'. Genetically engineered plants are grown and harvested to produce the proteins we need for various medicines and vaccines, at a fraction of the cost of conventional manufacture. Scientists are already growing plants with genetic instructions to make drugs for the treatment of HIV, rabies and Hepatitis B, as well as crucial dietary supplements. By 2030, some nutrients will be delivered directly by eating the plant or drinking the milk.

Skills required:

  • pharmaceutical and medical training
  • biotechnology expertise
  • GM crop management.

Insect farmer

The humble bug is farming's secret weapon. Climate change has brought new pests along, but traditional pesticides are out of fashion. The need to protect valuable crops has led to huge demand for natural predators. Farmers breed insects in large controlled environments, to be let loose on the land. They also keep precious pollinating bees, and even some larger bugs for tasty snacks. As FAO Consultant Professor Arnold van Huis argues, meat from crickets and locusts is significantly less carbon-intensive to produce than a steak, and a great source of protein and vitamins... Anyone for a pack of honey-roasted beetles?

Skills required:

  • expertise in entomology
  • bee-keeping and insect-breeding skills
  • pest management.

Animal psychologist

Everyone knows the tastiest cuts come from the happy sheep. As demand for premium meat soars, farmers strive to read the needs of their livestock. A holistic approach includes better designs for yards and pens, dietary plans based on the best nutritional advice, close links to the local vet, a more personal relationship with the livestock, and some traditional remedies – from massage to homeopathy to acupuncture!

Skills required:

  • animal psychology and behaviour expertise
  • nutritional knowledge and management.

Herd homeopathy
OMSCo Farmer Tim Downes first started using homeopathy on his farms 20 years ago. "It works hand-in-hand with other management techniques such as decent nutrition and cleanliness", he says. "We use Aconite for TB testing, and Belladonna to treat a hot hind quarter. We've seen a real improvement in herd health, and it's cut down our veterinary bills."

This article is taken from the Green Futures Special Edition, Tomorrow's Food, Tomorrow's Farms.

Image credits: Grain Media

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