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David Heath's Column 10/1/13

I hope everyone had a restful (and not too wet!) Christmas, and let’s wish for a prosperous and peaceful new year. Speaking personally, I spent most of the holiday period feeling very sorry for myself as I nursed the bug which has been going round, and which seems remarkably difficult to shake off even weeks after the infectious stage. Not that I’m in any way bitter and twisted!
It’s always hard to get back into harness after holidays, and even though I spent the week after Christmas on call, there’s a world of difference between answering the odd phone call or e-mail and actually physically going back to the office. But all good things come to an end, which is why on the 2nd January I found myself heading off to Oxford for the annual farming conference. Quite why this happens on the second day of the new year is one of life’s mysteries, but it is always well attended, and an important part of the agricultural calendar. It’s certainly something which I, as farming minister, need to attend, if only to listen to what people in the industry are talking about.However, in this instance I had a further intention. I was there to launch a new initiative on the Future of Farming. If we are to have a sustainable future for the food industry, and if we aren’t it’s hard to see how we’ll feed ourselves in the future, let alone the rest of the world, then we need to attract young people now. The fact is we don’t, neither into agriculture itself, nor the industries which support it, nor in the wider food industry. And that’s something we should be concerned about.
I think there are a number of reasons. Firstly, farming has, whether we like it or not, a negative image. It appears to be a job which entails a lot of work for little reward, and there is some basis for that. But it’s far from the whole truth, and in fact there are good careers to be made, with most, myself included, optimistic for the future. Then there is the constant catalogue of woes. Most of the stories you read or hear about agriculture are about what has gone wrong. Sometimes that is justified, as in this year’s disastrous weather. But again, it’s just part of the picture.
Then there is the ignorance of schools and colleges and the lack of direction in steering good candidates into considering food related careers, even in rural areas like ours. And finally, there are the genuine obstacles like lack of access to capital or land, reduced opportunities for apprenticeships in rural contexts and the like. That’s what we need to put right.
Once we used to “dig for victory”. There may come a time soon when we need to “dig for survival”. I want to make sure we’re equipped to do it. That’s why the review, which I have asked west country farmer David Fursdon to lead, is so important. What I don’t want is yet another report to gather dust on a shelf. I need practical actions, whether for government or the industry, which we can take as a matter of urgency.

David in Parliament Search: speaker:David Heath
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