NEXT generation farmers have had their say in research which aims to take a look forward at how they can future-proof their business in terms of farmstock trading.

The UK’s largest livestock trading company, Harrison and Hetherington, recently led innovative research which engaged figures under 40 from across the industry to voice their views on the future of farming.

Through its ‘Farmstock futures project’, CEO Richard Rankin initiated a much-needed conversation well before lockdown, with work on this comprehensive review of young perspectives across the agricultural sector moving online following the pandemic.

Given the changes that Covid-19 has forced in terms of the functioning of the marts, this discussion on the direction of travel for the agricultural sector can be viewed as more than timely.

Mr Rankin said: “The future will always bring change and evolution. The rural sector is no different and in fact could be argued is long overdue such a change.

“However, Covid-19 has accelerated, or even forced this change, creating the chance for us to take stock and think about what is to come. We all know that the main attendees of our marts tend to be of a more experienced and mature age, and that they have been the ones to mould the current way things are done.

“But, the young generation coming up embrace change more readily, are tech savvy and have a desire to be part of the future. They are also going to be the ones that will be interacting with marts. So, I had the question: How do they see the sector moving forward? And what would they want H and H’s role to be?”

He chose to partner with the Family Business Network to recruit the individuals from across the UK and Ireland. This then developed qualitative research interviews to draw out the aspirations and challenges of the next generations within this sector.

More than just engaging with farmers, it sought to include perspectives from across the agricultural supply chain, including supermarket buyers, and food processors, and those not necessarily from a farming background. To give a more expansive and holistic overview of current trends and challenges to come, this broad cohort of participants came from a range of roles, with geographical diversity being key.

One of the participants, Richard Walker, of Paradise Farm, near York, said: “This project has helped us all network and absorb knowledge from several sectors of the agricultural industry, encouraging confidence in uncertain times ahead. This is a positive and energetic networking group, pooling knowledge and enthusiasm, from all corners of the country.

“Being selected as part of the H and H Farmstock Futures group proved invaluable for adapting new business formats in uncertain times. From a personal point of view, when our business did not survive the changing times, it is great to offer knowledge to a younger, ambitious, and positively driven group of rural people, and see the networking benefits it has provided. It is an honour to be involved with the team.”

Thinking to the future has been a hallmark of H and H’s recent activities, including the deployment of both digital and physical types of mart during lockdown. At the forefront of innovation, the company spearheaded this research in order to better establish its longer terms priorities. This was part of a drive to begin aligning the farming sector itself to the perspectives of the next generation.

Mr Rankin continued: “We have a diverse group of agriculturalists and responses were far more encompassing, and far more positive than we could have imagined. We interviewed young farmers and agribusiness figures from across the whole of the UK, and a number of themes emerged as common objectives for the future.

“The main topics to focus on going forward were technology, education, the climate and associated consumer concerns, and mental health.”

Positioning the marts as positive catalysts for change, the 23 participants involved highlighted the potential for the evolution of livestock trading spaces to include agricultural networking and emotional support services, as well as a place for organising young farming voices to have a bigger say in the industry-wide debates.

Marts were seen as potentially an ideal venue to help with the development of training and hosting key topic discussions, as well as a place to deal with stress and build stronger inter-community engagement.

The educational offering proposals included:

• Further education and masterclasses;

• Educational talks both in the marts, and to local schools to educate the ‘end-user’ on where food comes from;

• Discussion groups and webinars;

• Upskilling for agribusiness professionals: negotiation skills, marketing skills, people management skills, and staff recruitment and retention workshops.

Considering the aim was to get closer to this next generation and understand them, their priorities and objectives for the future, the results were quite conclusive.

Farming at home alongside her father and uncle, Stephanie Dick, Mains of Throsk, Stirling, is responsible primarily for the cattle side of their family enterprise. Alongside her father’s pedigree herd of more than 800 Limousin and Aberdeen-Angus cattle, the 26-year-old now has her own herd and is actively involved in preparing their bulls for market.

Commenting on the impact the project had on her, Stephanie said: “I found it really great to meet so many like-minded people and it is very interesting to see how different people are doing such different things.

“I have loved being part of a group where we can all interact and learn from one another, from both a mental perspective and a technical one, in terms of new practices within the industry. I really do think it is hugely beneficial to everyone’s businesses.

“It is so important for the younger generation to have choices in such changing times. The younger generation are far more technologically and digitally minded. Now, to keep progressing forward, our voices need to be acknowledged as technology is the future.

“Farmstock Futures offers a chance to meet new people and to learn from them. The past year has shown just how much you need people, and now if any of us ever encounter problems we know there are people there to reach out to if there is no one else.”

In a bid to ‘futureproof’ its operations, H and H was keen to scope out areas where their experience and expertise could benefit farmers and the wider rural economy, beyond buying and selling of livestock.

Richard concluded: “Speaking to this core group of people who are really aspirational was inspiring, and highlighted the exciting possibilities the future holds for our business. We can lead on shaping not just the marts but all rural businesses to the needs of the future farming community, and that includes supporting local educational endeavours and upskilling.

“I see the marts of the future as spaces that are technologically connected, that promote industry-wide debates, take young voices seriously, and actively provide mental wellbeing and offer emotional support networks.”

With the participants enthusiastically engaging with one another and keen to continue involvement to take the Farmstock Futures Project further, this will not be the last we hear from the next generation. Keen to ensure their voices are heard, H and H is to expand the group and will focus on mentoring it.

Plans are also there to make group members ‘ambassadors’ for the industry so that they can effectively lobby decision-makers and speak on behalf of young voices to influence the farming sector on issues that matter to them.