How Millennial Farmers Are Redefining The UK Agricultural Industry

·11-min read
Photo credit: Marina Petti
Photo credit: Marina Petti

In the UK, more than 472,000 jobs are in place because of the agricultural industry. Farming alone contributes £120 billion to the country’s economy and almost 64% of our food is produced by British farms.

But it’s no secret that this much-loved industry is at threat, you only need to have watched Clarkson’s Farm on Amazon Prime to see just how challenging it is to be a farmer right now. Factors such as extreme weather, Brexit and Coronavirus have all had a major impact on the farming supply chain.

But despite challenges, the agricultural scene is also changing for the good, and at the heart of this revolution is the emergence of young farmers.

Although figures show that farmers under the age of 35 make up just 3% of the farming population in the UK, the ongoing rise in young farming communities like the NFYFC (National Federation of Young Farmers’ Clubs) and the government’s recent request for elderly farmers to retire, makes it clear that there’s a want for younger entrants and even first-generation farmers with a passion for regenerative farming and diversification.

Last year marked one of the worst years on record for the growth in young farmers, hugely in part to the pandemic. But that’s not to say it didn’t spur young farmers on to adapt fast, innovate and alter their business models in a bid to keep up with the ever-changing agricultural landscape.

From milkshake vending machines to home-grown meat delivery services, millennial farmers up and down the UK have been introducing innovative measures to their farming businesses.

They’ve been setting the future of farming in motion by relying more on tech, building connections with consumers and aligning their farms with the nation’s core values.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

Recent research by Deliotte confirms that environmental awareness amongst UK consumers has surged in the past year, with 85% of us now making more sustainable life choices, whether that’s buying locally or making a conscious effort in finding out where and how our food’s made.

As well as this, the government has laid out plans for delivering a better, fairer farming system in England, supporting farmers in sustainably producing healthy foods and taking steps to improve the environment, improve animal health and welfare and reduce carbon emissions.

As a result of this, we’re seeing more and more young farmers set up extensions of their farms with hopes of offering a lower carbon footprint and complete traceability in a bid to align with the country’s growing interest in sustainability.

Not only that, we’re seeing millennial farmers take to social media in order to educate, represent and de-bust myths about British farming.

With that in mind, we’ve looked into what the new generation of farmers really are doing to redefine the agricultural industry here in the UK.

Investing in technology and farm diversification

After a gruelling twelve months spent in Lockdown and various distribution issues across the country, farmland supply was at a record-low last year. But if there’s one thing the pandemic did do, it was fuel farmers to invest in technologies that would help diversify their businesses.

As well as in-farm technologies like driverless vehicles, remote sensors and robotics, farmers have been setting up specialised enterprises, that likely involve investing in expert technology, to help transform and expand their trades.

“To the average person, the farming industry isn’t usually associated with major technological advancement. But as more young people pursue a career in it, we are seeing a shift towards implementing innovative methods to achieve marginal gains in agriculture,” says James Hopwood, Agricultural Manager UK & Italy for Birds Eye.

One farmer who's diversified his family business, is 25-year-old Rhys Hughes from Llywn Banc farm in North Wales.

After working on his family’s farm for as long as he can remember, Rhys has spent the past year setting up Llaethdy Llywn Banc Dairy – a milkshake vending machine.

Officially open, the vending machine is linked directly to the Hughes’ farm using freshly pasteurised milk to create chocolate, strawberry and banana milkshakes.

Photo credit: Llaethdy Llywn Banc Dairy
Photo credit: Llaethdy Llywn Banc Dairy

As a family-run farm that has been around for more than 100 years, known in the local area for delivering milk between the late 60s and the early 80s, this new venture will offer long-term sustainability and expansion for the farm.

Technologies like this offer game-changing opportunities for farmers, allowing them to transform the speed and capability of agriculture in every way.

“A combination of changing public perception, substantial legislative and agricultural policy shifts, environmental issues, and modern lifestyle ambitions have naturally caused young farmers to assess what they are doing and how they are doing it,” says William J Fraser of Frasers at Coldharbour Farm.

Luke Watts from Pembrokeshire in Wales is another young enterprising farmer who used Lockdown to launch a new business. Coming from a farming background already, Luke and his partner wanted to delve into the tourism sector by offering a campsite with en-suite camping and glamping facilities located on unspoiled natural meadow.

With an aim to remain green and have no detrimental impact on the environment, the couple’s family farm is all about encouraging nature and protecting wildlife.

By turning to other forms of income outside the sphere of traditional farming practices, today’s young farmers are proving themselves as on-the-ball, innovative and willing to embrace the latest ideas and technologies.

Changing the narrative

Not only are young farmers redefining what it means to work in agriculture, they’re changing the narrative altogether.

Social media has become one of the most influential marketing tools you can use, and in recent years many young farmers have harnessed its power to facilitate discussion, educate and connect with other users online.

One farmer who credits much of their success to social media is Izzi Rainey from Bates Moor Farm. Izzi says, “Social media is my shop window, but also a platform to share information with fellow farmers and it [has] really opened my eyes to the diversity within farming.”

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

Coming from a small family-run farm in Norfolk, Izzi never expected to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a farmer after leaving for art school in Glasgow when she was 18.

But after returning home and running the farm’s business account, she decided to set up Bates More Farm Beef, selling monthly beef boxes and attending local farmers markets.

Combining a want for more young, vibrant representation across social media, and a gap in the market for a home-grown meat service that prioritises the wellbeing and welfare of its cattle, Izzi has gone on to build a community of over 11,000 likeminded people.

Zoe Colville, also known as @thechiefshepherdess on Instagram, is a hairdresser gone farmer who uses social media to educate her 30,000 followers on what life’s really like working on a farm. She posts about the good and the bad and often takes part in campaigns that champion what British farmers do, all in a bid to give consumers a window into the lives of young farmers.

Describing farming as a “gruelling lifestyle,” and something you need to “truly, wholeheartedly want to do,” Zoe and her partner Chris, run the little farm fridge – an online outlet that allows consumers to buy directly from the farm, cutting out the middleman and offering a lower carbon footprint and complete traceability.

Working across two accounts, Zoe uses her influential status to encourage consumers to buy locally and sustainably, while advocating for other small business owners.

Through regular live streams and Q&As, she builds personable relationships with her followers in the hope of ending the age-old myth that all farmers are 50-something males and showing that – actually– you can be both young, and female.

By sharing what it’s like to work in the agricultural industry, young farmers are playing a huge role in rekindling the interest in where our food comes from and how it’s made.

“Let’s use platforms to put authentic messages out there. If the public learns more about agriculture on a daily basis they will understand it,” says Jane King, Chief Executive at AHDB (Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board).

Through vlogs, pictures and anecdotal stories, millennial farmers are slowly chipping away at the common misconceptions associated with farming in the UK.

Not only that, they’re now able to make judgements on the future of farming by constantly reassessing what their consumers want and how they can work to align with how the agricultural landscape is changing.

A focus on sustainability

Side by side with the nation’s increasing interest in cutting-edge farming technologies and authentic and transparent voices, we’re seeing an upsurge in agricultural workers wanting to practise organic and sustainable farming methods.

Although, this is not to say that sustainable farming hasn’t already been on farmer’s radars.

For the past decade we’ve seen farmers up and down the country following more environmentally-friendly approaches when it comes to farming. From protecting wildflower meadows to limiting pesticides and making a point to improve animal welfare.

Julius Roberts is a prime example of a millennial who transitioned from a life in the city to living rurally and becoming a fully-fledged, self-taught, first-generation farmer with a passion for sustainable and ethical farming.

In an interview with the Telegraph, Julius says “we have so much power as the consumer to create change. If we all shopped in the right way it would make massive changes.”

With a social media following of over 100,000, Julius uses Instagram to spark discussion about the meat industry as a whole. Passionate about sustainability, seasonality and animal welfare, he hopes to inspire others in becoming more self-sufficient.

“Sustainability has never been more important and its through how we eat that we can have the most positive impact on the planet. It all starts and ends with the provenance of our food” explains Julius in an interview with Pipers Farm.

28-year-old farmer, William Fraser from Kent also advocates for sustainable farming. Passionate about renaturing and using native ecology to produce sustainable farming methods, William has been implementing low-input grass systems throughout his farm. This works by letting his suckler-beef herds graze in the summer, and sheep in the winter.

By relying less on external production factors and maintaining natural grassland, this sustainable method of farming not only reduces labour but, more importantly, protects the integrity of the land and ensures excellent soil quality.

“As younger farmers qualify and start to run their own farms or join farming businesses across the UK, the next decade will be a turning point for innovation and sustainable advancement in the industry,” says Bronagh Dempster, farmer for Noble Foods.

Organic farming statistics for 2020 released by DEFRA (Department for Environmental Food & Rural Affairs) corroborate this trend, with the overall UK land currently turning organic increasing by 12%.

To keep up with world’s ever-growing appetite for sustainability, AUGA, Europe’s largest vertically integrated organic food producer, has even introduced the world’s first hybrid biomethane and electric tractor for professional farm use – AUGA M1. The new eco-friendly tractor aims to set new standards within sustainable farming and help reduce agricultural pollution.

“Our innovations will bring together a global community of responsible consumers, smart farmers, and bold investors. It will ensure real change by creating an environmentally friendly food supply chain” explains Kęstutis Juščius, CEO of AUGA group.

Now, more than ever, consumers are becoming more engaged with sustainability. And at the brink of that engagement, is a requirement for more efficient, eco-conscious technologies.

“The adoption of new technology will help agriculture reduce its environmental burden through the ability to carry out operations more precisely and with less resources, further reducing its impact on the natural environment” NFU Future of Food 4040.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

The future of farming

From unapologetic shepherdesses to myth-busting influencers and first-generation farmers, the agricultural industry is changing at a rapid rate.

But what does this mean for the future of farming?

We’ll no-doubt start to see a push towards more sophisticated technologies, with more and more companies striving to develop agricultural machinery that will make “production more efficient for farmers and produce crops with a minimal effect on the environment.”

Alongside this drive for more specialised agricultural enterprises and technologies, it’s clear we’ll also seen an increase in sustainable farming methods, from low-input grass systems to biodynamic farming and agroforestry.

It goes without saying, millennial farmers will continue to harness social media’s power to facilitate discussion and educate the nation on what it means to work in agriculture.

Either way, in the not-too-distant future, it’s fair to expect even more changes in the farming industry, along with better representation and the championing of millennial farmers. And who knows, maybe we’ll start to see some gen-z farmers too?

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