Agricultural transition in Scotland - first steps towards our national policy: consultation analysis
Analysis of the responses received to the Agricultural Transition in Scotland consultation. The consultation was carried out between August 2021 and November 2021.
9. Knowledge and skills
This chapter presents an analysis of Q8.1, Q8.2 and Q8.3 which explore knowledge and skills in the agricultural sector.
Q8.1: What importance do you attach to knowledge exchange, skills development and innovation in business?
Q8.1 received 287 open-text responses. Comments were largely positive, with most respondents attaching a high level of importance to knowledge exchange, skills development and innovation in agriculture. Some responses covered issues that were more relevant to the other questions in the knowledge and skills section of the consultation; these comments have been considered in the analysis of Q8.2 and Q8.3.
High importance of knowledge exchange, skills development and innovation
The main theme among responses to Q8.1 was recognition of the value of knowledge exchange, skills development and innovation in business. Many respondents described them as vital, critical, salient, fundamental and essential for the future of the agricultural industry. Some referenced what they perceived as knowledge and skills gaps in the industry, including land management, ecology and regenerative agriculture.
Several respondents felt that knowledge, skills and innovation will be crucial in achieving transformational change in agriculture, helping the sector to embrace modernity and move on from established, old-fashioned or traditional practice. Others agreed that they help to ensure that the sector adopts best practice and stops ineffective methods.
Some discussed how knowledge exchange, skills development and innovation are particularly important in agriculture. They cited the broad and growing knowledge base required by farmers, rapidly evolving technologies, and the complex policy and legislative landscape of the sector which farmers and crofters need to keep up to date with. In these comments, respondents emphasised the importance of innovation, noting that the sector would stagnate and no new techniques or technologies would develop without it.
Particular value was attached to grass roots knowledge exchange led by experienced farmers. Some argued that collaboration, peer-to-peer learning and networking events are key to driving knowledge exchange in the sector.
"If we are seriously considering transformational change, knowledge exchange, skills development and innovation in business will be absolutely critical to success." - Individual
"Peer-to-peer learning through, for example, farm visits, networking groups and online training are most important to help farmers build or develop their skill sets." - Individual
One respondent drew attention to the importance of the Scottish Government's investment in knowledge and skills in the farming sector in recent years, particularly the provision of free access to Open University courses. They noted that this has led to an increase in skills, innovation and confidence among the workforce.
Important for environmental targets
Some mentioned that knowledge exchange, skills development and innovation will be critical to maximise the agricultural sector's impact on achieving the Scottish Government's environmental targets and reversing the negative effects of climate change.
Impact on health and wellbeing
Attention was drawn to the impact that knowledge and skills can have on the health and wellbeing of the agricultural workforce. One noted that effective training can improve health and safety standards within the sector and reduce the number of workplace incidents leading to ill health, injury or death. A few mentioned how training courses and networking events provide opportunities for social interaction which can have positive impact on the mental health of the workforce.
Very few respondents discounted the importance of knowledge exchange, skills development and innovation in their comments. Those who did, who were mostly individuals, stated that there are currently other more important priorities for the agricultural sector, e.g. sustainable food production, meeting demand, profitability and attracting and recruiting new members of the workforce.
Others cited barriers which they feel undermine the development of knowledge and skills. These included: resistance to change in the sector, reluctance to undertake formal training and learning; a lack of relevant and high quality training and upskilling opportunities; and business owners' hesitance in exchanging knowledge with competitors.
Q8.2: What form should tailored, targeted action take to help businesses succeed?
Q8.2 received 246 open-text responses. Most respondents reaffirmed the need for targeted, tailored action. They advocated for greater provision of individualised support, facilitating peer-to-peer knowledge exchange, setting up local discussion groups and improving access to knowledge exchange and skills development opportunities.
The most prevalent theme in responses to Q8.2 was demand for more individualised support for farming units, including the establishment of mentoring schemes and funding expert advisors who can provide farms and crofts with one-to-one advice and support them to design individualised business development plans. A few suggested that this support could be delivered through the Farming Advisory Service, SEPA, SRUC and NatureScot. It was stressed that support needs to be tailored to the size, location and type of farm.
"Support through the provision of well-trained farm advisors, as well as support for young people entering the agricultural sector. Farmers must have access to advice that is professional, objective and evidence-based from advisors who are competent to deliver this." - Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management
Peer-to-peer knowledge exchange
Many respondents advocated for more peer-to-peer knowledge exchange and learning initiatives. Suggestions included open days, local discussion groups/peer forums and collaboration programmes. Monitor farms were celebrated as successful examples of peer-to-peer, farmer-led knowledge exchange initiatives. Most felt that local or regional hubs would be the best medium for sharing information and promoting best practice; however, a small number also requested more national events.
"Seeing something in practice on farm is the best way to see things and to understand it. Using monitor farms and discussion groups is a great way of doing this and sharing knowledge which I have had some experience and I'm keen to do more of." – Individual
Improving access to Continuous Professional Development (CPD)
The value of CPD was described by many respondents. They called for more high quality, relevant and specialised training for the workforce, at both beginner and advanced level. Some stressed the importance of creating opportunities and resources for learning which are accessible and widely available to the workforce. Respondents highlighted the need for free or low-cost training opportunities which are either available online or require minimal travel. A few felt that CPD opportunities should be funded or subsidised by the Government. A more detailed analysis of the role of CPD is provided under Q8.3 below.
Information and advisory services
Many respondents called for enhanced information and advisory resources to be made available to the agricultural workforce. They suggested that farmers should have access to free professional, objective and evidence-based advice.
"Creating the correct advisory and support structure is critical to enable businesses to succeed whilst going through a period of transformation. The critical elements to a successful advisory and support structure include business advisory capacity, skilled technical expertise, peer to peer learning opportunities, CPD, supply chain discussion and knowledge sharing, and technical and business planning." – Quality Meat Scotland
Attracting new entrants
Some respondents identified a need to attract new members of the workforce and suggested this could be done through creating more apprenticeships, introducing agriculture into school curriculums (e.g. a National 5 in Food and Farming) and organising school careers fairs which promote agricultural jobs.
A few responses focussed on communications and advertising; some felt it was important to promote opportunities for CPD, while others stressed the importance of communicating the benefits of taking part in knowledge exchange and skills development to the sector.
Q8.3: Should continuing professional development be mandatory for businesses receiving public support funding?
|Among all (314)||Yes||No||Don't know||No answer||No. of comments|
Half of respondents (49%) agreed that continuing professional development (CPD) should be a mandatory condition for businesses to receive publicly-funded support. Just over a quarter (27%) disagreed, and the remaining quarter were unsure (18%) or did not answer (5%). Similar levels of agreement were recorded by individuals (50%) and organisations (46%). However, individuals were more likely to disagree with mandatory CPD (compared to 21% of organisations), and 13% of organisations did not answer. Follow up comments to Q8.3 were provided by 254 respondents; the main themes are set out below.
Support for making CPD mandatory for public funding
The most common theme among responses to Q8.3 was support for making CPD mandatory for public funding. Many respondents discussed the benefits of CPD for the agricultural sector, arguing it leads to increased efficiency and sustainability of farms through the wider adoption of best practice, increased skills among the workforce, the implementation of new techniques and technologies, and the fostering of innovation and collaboration. Some pointed out that technology in the farming industry is constantly evolving and therefore CPD is necessary to keep up with best practice. The importance of education in sustainable farming practices given the agricultural sector's role in addressing climate change was also emphasised. Others supported the proposal as they felt it would ensure that public money is invested in businesses which are committed to improving the sustainability of their operations and making positive change.
Some suggested how CPD could be best delivered in the agriculture sector. They felt it should be affordable, easily accessible with online options, farmer led, with content that is relevant and tailored to different audiences and regions. A few suggested mandatory topics for training, including biodiversity, animal welfare and sustainable soil management.
"There are multiple professions for whom continuing professional development is not only mandatory but a prerequisite for continued certification. As such, it would not be unreasonable to hold the agricultural sector to these same standards." – Royal Society of Edinburgh
CPD should be voluntary
However, several argued that CPD should be undertaken on a voluntary basis, without consequences for those who do not wish to engage with formal, government-approved training or upskilling. Some of those who disagreed with the proposal did recognise the benefits of training and upskilling, but argued that it should be encouraged rather than made a mandatory condition for public funding. They suggested that uptake could be increased by offering free or subsidised, high quality, relevant and convenient CPD opportunities throughout the year. A few suggested that CPD should be incentivised.
Preference for informal learning opportunities in the sector
The proposal was described by some respondents as being at odds with the culture of the agricultural sector, which values peer-to-peer knowledge transfer and context-based learning, and embraces more informal avenues of professional growth and development.
"Since so much professional development within the agricultural sector is informal, peer to peer based knowledge sharing, this approach would be deeply inappropriate." - The Galloway Cattle Society
Doubts over value, relevance and quality of CPD opportunities
Several doubted the value of undertaking CPD and felt that there are more urgent priorities for the agriculture workforce including sustainable food production, meeting demand, profitability and attracting and recruiting new members of the workforce.
Some expressed concern that making CPD a formal requirement would reduce it to a meaningless box-ticking exercise, with many only attending courses to ensure they are not excluded from publicly funded support.
"Yes, but only if they are useful, specific and worthwhile to the participants." – Farmers for Stock-Free Farming
"Mandatory professional development will in practice become nothing more than a record of attendance, no matter what the original good intention was." – Individual
Doubts were raised over the quality, suitability and relevance of CPD opportunities available in the sector, with a few commenting on the lack of advanced training courses available in Scotland for experienced farmers.
Accessibility and affordability of CPD
Some described the process of undertaking CPD as burdensome, expensive and time consuming. They discussed the disproportionate level of difficulty in accessing CPD for those who operate small, remote or rural farms, commenting on: long distances to travel to in person courses; poor quality broadband access (if virtual CPD); significant expenditure compared to larger, more profitable businesses; and a lack of resources (e.g. fewer staff to cover essential duties).
Assessment and monitoring
Questions were raised about which CPD pathways and courses would satisfy the minimum criteria to receive public funding if the proposal were taken forward. Some stressed that it would be important for a broad selection of CPD opportunities to be deemed eligible (e.g. recognition of informal peer-to-peer knowledge transfer as CPD), with discretion built into the process (e.g. showing understanding that smaller/less profitable operations cannot afford to invest as much in CPD as larger farms). A few respondents also queried how compliance with the requirement would be monitored and what measures would be put in place to check that those in receipt of public funding were actually complying with the requirement.
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