‘My generation will need to work out hugely challenging problems’
PUBLISHED: 11:07 16 November 2019
Laura Buckingham believes her generation has entered the farming industry at a critical juncture.
"My generation have come into agriculture at a moment in time where so many fundamental questions are being asked," she says.
Among the big questions the industry faces is how to feed a growing world population, and balancing that with the need to produce healthy and safe food, cut greenhouse gases and create sustainable food and farming systems.
"These are hugely challenging problems that our generation need to work out," says the 32-year-old arable manager, who works for Framlingham-based farming co-op Fram Farmers.
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With the average age of farmers heading towards 60, real, practical innovation has been sidelined, she believes.
"With impending farm support payment reductions this is something my generation of farming are clearly working to change. I can think of hundreds of examples in our membership alone where the next generation has landed back on the family farm with huge ideas about adopting new (or recently forgotten) practices, diversification projects and wider skills in technology than their bosses/parents/grandparents - or all of the above."
Laura, whose father, Glenn, farms at Helmingham Estate near Debenham, always wanted to be an agronomist having admired the technical knowledge and outdoors lifestyle of the agronomist her father worked with.
While she was at Aberystwyth University studying agriculture with countryside management, she worked for Fram Farmers as a harvest student.
That was 13 years ago, and on leaving university she became one of the first batch of graduates to be recruited into agronomy for a while, working for Frontier Agriculture for eight years on farms in Suffolk and south Norfolk.
"I loved managing my own time and working with my farmer clients to get the best out of the land and crops they were growing on it," she says.
Laura joined Fram Farmers in 2015 as arable manager, crop protection specialist and agronomist. Her days are hectic and varied, demanding a variety of skills and knowledge.
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"One minute I will be talking to a member about biostimulants, the next the new season fertiliser market and commodity prices, then I will be asked to comment on the impact of Brexit, then I will go and hold an agronomy briefing for members in different areas of the country, resolve a dispute between and member and supplier, find myself speaking at events, help younger members of their team develop their skills, enter negotiation meetings with bug numbers in my head before crop walking and writing recommendations for my agronomy clients...I could go on," she says.
"As one of our manufacturer suppliers says in part of their marketing, 'Farming: the biggest job on earth' and it really is."
It's "infinitely rewarding", she says, as is working in a co-operative community.
"The interaction we all have with the land we live in and live off is something you certainly wouldn't see in any other career," she says.
Laura thinks the industry needs a wider understanding of the need for more long-term planning when it comes to the way we farm.
"Sadly, I believe that we have taken advantage of our soils in particular, and my generation are waking up the fact that we are the (young) guardians of our landscapes and food production systems, and that we have to build and treat sensitively those natural resources that we would be lost without," she says.
Luckily, her generation is skilled in technology and data, and she is already seeing next generation members of Fram Farmers trialling and implementing new technologies and services, often from start-up businesses with a similar age demographic.
"We are on the cusp of some incredible technologies that will use environmental and historical productivity data to forecast a crop/animals needs," she says.
"The challenge for some will be how to keep up. The challenge certainly here at Fram is how to unlock and make pass on the value to our members of the 'big data' that we inherently produce on a daily basis."
She would "definitely" encourage others to consider a farming career. "The challenges we are facing mean that we need new faces who can look standard practices and see alternatives," she says.
"I hope that I will have the skills needed to adapt to all the changes I see coming on the horizon. I am looking forward to being an ambassador for our brilliant field-to-food production factory that agriculture is, and has to be, going forward. It is what I am passionate about, and I think that will stand me in good stead.
"Politics and economics mean challenges for many farm businesses, not to mention agriculture companies full stop. I think that those who are able to adapt to these changes quick enough will survive and prosper. I also believe that those who are able to embrace this balance of our ability to produce food with our ability to lock up carbon in our soils will see benefits tenfold."