Devon County Council and the Apricot Centre: Future of Farming – Training the next generation of Regenerative Farmers

In January 2021 the Apricot Centre carried out a study that highlighted a huge skills deficit in Regenerative Systems, holding back farmers, growers, and food systems workers from transitioning to regenerative farming methods. With natural capital becoming a key economic and environmental driver in the sector, equipping workers with the necessary skills to protect the land on which they work is crucial. Devon County Council supported the Apricot Centre to deliver a pilot training programme, helping local businesses to develop the required skills and to create new jobs in the sector.


The challenge

Monocrop farming and reliance on pesticides and fertiliser has damaged our soils, reduced our insect population, and increased our vulnerability to climate change. To mitigate the impact of this type of farming, a regenerative approach is needed to revitalise soils, protect biodiversity, and increase carbon sequestration. Currently there is limited training in regenerative farming methods for farms looking to convert and for the next generation of farmers, limiting sector growth, and employment opportunities.

A report by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, into Labour shortages in the food and farming sector, found that “the food and farming sector has been suffering from acute labour shortages due principally to Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic”. In August 2021, the number of vacancies was estimated to be over 12 per cent (500,000) of the 4.1 million roles available in the sector. This is reflected in South Devon with businesses such as Riverford and South Devon Organic Producers struggling to fill vacancies and having to use company funds on recruitment drives to attempt to fill gaps in their staffing structures.

To be able to support businesses to transition to regenerative ways of working and support those businesses already working in the area to find skilled staff, there is a need for a long-term skills and employment strategy. Maximising sector growth, while developing sustainable employment. Starting by recognising and developing training that meets the skills gaps in the sector. Creating training for the future generation and new entrant farmers in regenerative methodologies for farming, without the need for chemicals, designing systems that prioritise soil health, increase biodiversity, sequest carbon, produce nutrient dense food and localise food economies.

The solution

The Apricot Centre created a free training programme in Regenerative Land Systems, training people in the skills and knowledge required to meet local skills shortages and enabling farms to transition to the use of regenerative systems. Increasing natural capital through regenerating soil, restore hedgerows and encourage biodiversity, by utilising methodologies in farming that not only sequester carbon but also enable farms to diversify their produce, creating more resilience to climate change.

The training was offered to career changers, the unemployed, those on the fringe of employment and young people. With trainees carrying out land-based learning on a farm or land-based business, attending 40 days of comprehensive training, providing a strategic lever to increase the number of jobs in the industry and support land-based businesses to transition to a regenerative model.

Research carried out by Exeter University found that in 2000, 3.9 per cent of farmers in the South West committed suicide. Compared with a national average of 2.9 per cent, emphasising the need for mental health support to be built into agricultural training programmes. To address this need, the course included a mentoring support and counselling service for all trainees.

Devon County Council contributed two-thirds of the funding (£96,000) for the School of Regenerative Land Systems, with the rest of the funding coming from the Devon Environmental Foundation. The funding outputs included designing the curriculum and delivering the training to 23 students. All of whom gained a certified Ofqual accredited course at level 3 in Regenerative Land Systems, leading to ten people securing employment within the sector.

The impact

The pilot has supported 23 people to achieve a certified Ofqual accredited course at level 3 in Regenerative Land Systems. Created a collaborative learning network, bringing together organisations with similar aims and facilitating a central agenda with landowners, farms, and leading practitioners in regenerative agriculture. Enabled key partners and stakeholders to work together to recognise and build further Natural Capital opportunities, growing the local agricultural business sector, creating further employment and skill opportunities.

While on placement the trainees where able to improve farms carbon sequestration, increase biodiversity, improve water management, while developing the farms natural assets. This was possible as trainees where able to develop and deliver work that was not possible prior to them arriving, due to the farm’s skills deficit. Using figures based on five years’ worth of data collected from the Apricot centre, we estimate that if the methods put in place by the trainees remain for five years, that farms will see a reduction of 430 tonnes of carbon per year.

To ensure that the results over these five years are measured effectively, we have trained all our trainees in how to use our carbon toolkit. Including how to create an implementation plan to install, develop and maintain the necessary methodologies, so that the land-based businesses are meeting the Natural Capital aims and opportunities. This has enabled all employer placements to take advantage of this tool kit, to understand how to collect and analyse the data.

The programme has also seen ten people go onto full-time employment within the regenerative farming sector, and five onto further training.

From the work they have developed and delivered the Apricot Centre has been nominated for the Earthshot prize, in the category of extraordinary achievement.

How is the approach being sustained?

The traineeship will run annually with seed funding for the initial three years coming from a variety of income streams, including District Councils, philanthropic families, grant funding and farms.

Devon County Council and the Apricot Centre are also exploring potential partnership working with local colleges and schools to enable the course to be funded by the Department of Education.

The Apricot Centre are also keen to support other organisations through paid consultation to replicate the training, and already have several enquiries from around the UK.

Lessons learned

Recruitment can take much longer than expected, due to the amount of interest in securing training. This was reflected in the first iteration of the training receiving over 480 expressions of interest and 263 applications, for only 23 placements.

The development of training can be both time heavy and financially costly. Making it vital that you secure the finances and staff required to develop the training. It is worth researching if other organisations have already developed similar work that could support yours. The Apricot Centre have already developed partnerships with organisations in Suffolk and Black Mountain College who are keen to replicate the training.

There is not only a need to train new entrants to farming but also a level of Continual Professional Development for current landowners or farmers. Supporting those who want to transition to regenerative methodologies especially with Defra’s new ELMS scheme and New Entrants Scheme.

Contact

If you would like further details please email keir.duffin@devon.gov.uk