Thursday, 4 August 2011

Farming needs great leaders


Throughout history there has been debate about whether a good leader is born or made. The answer is probably a bit of both with some guidance thrown into the mix. The most effective leaders are inspiring, strategic, energetic and possess a clarity of vision which can effect great change.

Certainly one of the greatest leaders of our times has been Nelson Mandela. Against the bitter adversity of apartheid and 27 years imprisoned on Robben Island he subsequently laid the foundations of modern South Africa, a single nation with a certain future.

In British farming we are not faced with a journey of such magnitude but we are on the precipice of great change. Our role has a heightened importance politically, economically, environmentally and socially. There’s a strong argument in the need for developing strong leaders within farming and why the representation of farming is fundamental to our future.

The challenges facing farming’s leaders over the coming decade are how we achieve consensus within the industry on what we say outside of it and then how we increase the voice and influence of British farming to ensure a viable farming sector. Fair prices, fair trade, fair policy and sufficient profit for reinvestment have to be fundamental to this viability.

The real benefit of good leadership for British farming, if we get it right, is we could really capitalise on the opportunities at our door. We need practical and technological strategies to address the issues of food production, water resource management and energy; and with the right vision and communication we maybe have more than our fair share of answers to the problems. But leadership can be physically and emotionally draining and picking yourself up after you have had a knock takes determination.

According to NFU president Peter Kendall, there is huge opportunity for those with the ability and desire to lead that change.

“We know farming is absolutely central to the big challenges of the 21st century. But it’s all too easy for policy-makers and the public to lose sight of that. Some of the debates, food versus fuel, extensive or intensive, GM/non-GM, are not straightforward and are certainly not moved on by scare stories from single-issue pressure groups.

“Farming needs credible, confident champions to steer the industry through the competing pressures and noise, ensuring we’re in a position to keep investing and keep producing in a way that meets the challenges.”

Of his own strengths, he’s unusually candid. “I really believe farming in this country has a good story to tell. If I didn’t I wouldn’t be able to stand up make the case for the industry.

“Yes, we may have had a bad press in the past, and we may still get a bad press every now and then, but the very worst thing we can do is retreat behind the farm-gate or our polytunnels and bemoan the fact that ‘they’ don’t understand us.

“If ‘they’ don’t understand us, let’s get out there and explain what we do and why. And if we need to change some of what we do, let’s be prepared to look at ways of doing that too.”

When you ask a business outside farming what they think, Duncan Murray-Clarke of a media agency, The Ad Plain, says able leaders have a real opportunity to capitalise on where farming is here and now.

“We must remember that key to Government and economic strategy is to encourage manufacturing for both fiscal growth and being globally competitive.

“With the service sector all but replacing manufacturing in the UK, agriculture is arguably our largest manufacturing base and a key economic and strategic resource. The agricultural industry therefore has a very strong reason to unify, deal with some of the more crippling man-made issues and promote itself as cleverly as any other manufacturing business would.”

Within farming businesses, leadership plays as big a part as it does in the wider industry and for many, particularly younger farmers taking on a leadership role can be daunting.

Stephen Watkins has an arable and vegetable farm in Worcestershire, he has also done a Nuffield Scholarship and has taken over the role of vice chairman of Nuffield. He has two bits of advice for those looking for leadership tips: “Don’t ask someone to do something you can’t or won’t do and don’t micro-manage your staff.”

“I leave the farm a lot, which means my workers have to sort things out themselves and it’s surprising how many step up to the plate. If they get it wrong, we can discuss it when I get back, if they get it right I praise them.

“I also learn. There’s been many a time we’ve changed the way we do things as a result of leaving someone else to a task.”

Alastair Leake works with farm manager, Phil Jarvis, in managing the Allerton Project’s farm where they undertake trials and initiatives to support the Game and Wildlife Conservancy Trust.

“I was brought up in the city,” he says. “The only way for me to get into farming was as an employee, and where better place to start than working for the Co-operative Farms.

“They actually discriminated against farmers’ sons when they recruited, because they knew they’d go home and take over Daddy’s farm, whereas those of us with nowhere else to go made damn sure we made a success of what we did,” he says.

For him, coming in from ‘outside’ means ‘you don’t have the baggage of others within the sector,’ allowing the conventional approach to farm practices to be challenged.

“When I switched away from ploughing I was told ‘we’ve been ploughing for centuries Alastair and you’ll find there are good reasons for it, and, 20 years later, I’m still waiting to learn what these are. In the meantime the area of land cultivated by non-plough tillage in the UK has risen from just 7 per cent to more than 40 per cent.”

“The success of the Allerton Project is down to the staff here. I try to do is to inspire and encourage innovation and then give support. As a result we’ve set up Allerton Recycling, CabCards and the Eyebrook Community Heritage Project; these are all great examples of ideas which have grown wings.”

Alastair believes good leadership is also about developing pride. “Who would have imagined our small farm plastics recycling operation would have got the world’s biggest chemical company, BASF, to change the design of its entire range of pesticide containers in Europe?”

Leadership training programmes in farming

To equip those with raw leadership talent and a will to effect change, there are a number of leadership programmes specific to farming which help to develop core leadership skills.
THE Leadership Development Programme 2012 (LDP) develops the individual’s management and communication skills to improve daily work as well as gaining a wider perspective to help the industry as a whole solve its many problems.
The course takes 12 delegates and attendance is for three separate weeks; February 19-24 at Cirencester, March 11-15 in Brussels and April 30 - May 4 in London. Closing date for applications is July 30.
  • To apply: For an application form email or call Rhonda Thompson, Tel 01285 652531, email: rhonda.thompson@ Support for sourcing funding for the course can be provided.
THE Scottish Executive Rural Leadership scheme entails group workshops, one-to-one coaching some residential learning and improved communications skills.
It also includes study trips to the Scottish, British and European Parliaments. The course is open to those playing an active part in Scotland’s rural economy, specifically rural business managers and leaders.
  • To apply: It is split into regions and takes up to 45 people annually and runs over six months. For more details contact 0845 607 8787 or email
THE Worshipful Company of Farmers Challenge of Rural Leadership Course consists of a programme of case studies, lectures and regional visits.
By course end, participants will be better informed about key issues affecting the rural economy in the UK and Europe. The 2012 programme takes 18 people and will run from January 15-21 at Dartington Hally, near Totnes, Devon.
  • To apply: The closing date for applications is September 16. For more information contact Richard Soffe on 0845 458 7485 or visit Financial assistance towards fee costs for the course is available. Limited funding support is available through the Worshipful Company of Farmers.

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