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Social sustainability and farming

Date Published: 09/05/2024

The concept of sustainability includes financial, environmental and social aspects. It is easy to see how the first two aspects apply to farming businesses, if a farm is not financially sustainable then the business fails, and if it is not environmentally sustainable, this is at the detriment to soil health and subsequent yield potential. But social sustainability and farming is discussed far less frequently, which was why the topic was chosen for a recent Farm of the Future webinar.

Below we explore some of the perspectives that were shared in the webinar, including what social sustainability means in the context of farm businesses and what this can look like in practice.

A three-legged milking stool

Speaking in the webinar, Andrew Brewer from Ennis Barton Farm in Cornwall compared sustainability to a three-legged milking stool, where balance is crucial for the farm as a whole to function.

With regards to social aspects, Andrew sees people as being crucial to the growth of a successful farm business. “In your twenties you think you can do everything, but then you hit your thirties and learn you can’t do everything, so then you have to rely on people, and getting the right people is really key,” he said.

He also shared that staff  turnover is always to be expected, so building a reputation as a good employer to be able to attract people with a good work ethic is essential. “Stars shoot, and it’s about not holding people back and giving them the opportunities,” he said.  He added that his farm hasn’t needed to advertise for staff for 6-7 years now, as people come to them.

Creating opportunities

The idea of creating opportunities for people came up multiple times throughout the webinar. Kate Henderson, agricultural lead at FarmED, spoke about the importance of making people feel welcome on the farm. “The more people learn about it, the more respect they have for it. We can’t expect people to buy British food if they don’t have the chance to know about it,” she said. This is why the team at FarmED have enabled public access via guided walks, as well as putting on various events and courses enabling people to come and learn about agriculture.  

Stacked enterprises

Creating opportunities is also about enabling people to earn all or part of their living from the land. At FarmED this is achieved by stacking enterprises, so in addition to the main demonstration farm activities, courses and café, there are micro businesses based on the site. These include The Kitchen Garden People who run the 5-acre kitchen garden, a micro dairy business and a bee keeping micro business. With the micro businesses, Kate added that the hope is that they will grow and expand elsewhere once they are ready, which in turn creates a space for someone else with an idea to come and have an opportunity to get into farming and food production. In total the farm now employs 30 people on the 107-acre site.  

Apprenticeships

Apprenticeships offer another way to create opportunities for new entrants in farming. Speaking in the webinar, Corrina Urquhart from Lantra shared learnings from recent research on farming apprenticeships which has been carried out by Lantra. She highlighted that there is opportunity to create social value around apprenticeships, by creating opportunities for people from all walks of life to begin a career in farming, while also providing a solution to labour shortages on farms across the industry.

“Apprenticeships can provide widened access to jobs in a local economy, and farm employers can draw on a wider pool of talent,” she said. One key outcome from the research was finding that there is appetite for farmer to share the hosting of an apprentice, as it can be a challenge for one farm to keep someone continuously occupied throughout an 18-month apprenticeship.   

School visits

Dr Johnny Wake from Courteenhall Estate, another speaker in the webinar, spoke about the importance of catching people young and creating opportunities for children - especially children from urban areas - to come to rural communities and start to gain an understanding of where food comes from.

At Courteenhall Estate, this has included hosting school visits via the Country Trust, hosting a running event for Northamptonshire Schools and supporting local 6th forms with finding experience opportunities. It has also included hosting New Leaf Learning, a charity that brings children from Northamptonshire primary schools who are not currently engaging in learning in mainstream schools for one day a week for five weeks at Courteenhall Estate. Working with the local special educational needs coordinator, the participating children have the chance to complete a range of outdoor activities, which helps them to re-engage with learning in mainstream primary schools.   

Looking at the bigger picture, creating opportunities for people to spend time on farms and learn about where food comes from has a role to play in the social sustainability of the farms of the future. Linked to this, it’s important to create opportunities for new entrants to work in farming, and for the development of mechanisms that support farm businesses to provide these opportunities. The webinar provided examples of how farm businesses can enhance social sustainability. To find out more from the speakers, watch the full webinar in the members’ resources section of the website.