Patrick Hook is a Director of PD Hook, one of the UK’s largest independent hatchery businesses, a Nuffield Scholar, past County Chairman of the Oxfordshire Federation of Young Farmers and 2017 Emerging Leader at the Oxford Farming Conference. He is the third generation of the Oxfordshire family business, PD Hook, which rears, breeds, hatches and grows broiler chicks across the UK and supplies major retailers. The family partnership also includes a mixed arable, beef and sheep enterprise.
People. That is the biggest challenge to our industry. We, like many other sectors in agriculture, have a major skills shortage in the broiler industry. The problem is big now, but it’s bigger going forward, and it’s alarming. If we don’t have skilled workers in our factories, our farms and our vet practices, we, as an industry, cannot operate.
Broiler sector growth
The UK broiler industry is thriving. We have growth of 2-3% every year. Consumers are demanding more British, and as a customer-focused industry, we are constantly adapting and innovating to meet consumer demand. We have some of the best quality, traceability and food safety standards in the world, which set an example that other countries follow. We are not self-sufficient as a nation at the moment but we could be in 10-15 years’ time.
Youth is key
However good our standards or strong the demand, though, we cannot operate without people. We need to champion our industry to youth, both at home and across the world. We need to engage with the right audience and at the right level, through schools and universities, showing pupils and students the different jobs and careers open to them in agriculture, encouraging and inspiring them to get involved.
As an industry, we are ideally positioned to offer apprenticeships as an alternative to university, the perfect combination of learning skills while being paid. We can team up with colleges and universities to give their students a year in industry. At PD Hook, we already do this with Harper Adams, Hartbury College and Bishop Burton, and we both gain from the initiative.
The broiler industry can’t do it alone, though. We need agri-food to work as an industry and a brand, to recruit the next generation into agriculture. We need to work with initiatives like FACE (Farming and Countryside Education) and Bright Crop to get in front of youth and inspire them to join our industry. We must capitalise on consumer events like Open Farm Sunday, telling the whole story of where food comes from and engaging the consumer - and future farm manager, quality controller, driver, area manager or MD - to look for a job in agriculture.
Health & Safety
We need to work with government to maximise on the opportunities we can offer. We have 16-year-olds working who would do more but are restricted by Health & Safety legislation, and while I respect the protection of young people in the workplace, there could be a happy balance which would allow them a fulfilling role that they thrive in.
I have avoided mentioning Brexit, but aside from the serious concerns I have about access to essential markets, particularly for a fresh product, it also poses a serious threat to our access to skilled labour. Unemployment in the UK is at an all-time low and we have an aging population, so we have limited resources of candidates within the UK. Foreign skilled labour is a core element of the UK agricultural workforce, from farm and factory workers to scientists, and without them we would not be able to operate. As an industry, I believe we can cope with disease and market fluctuation; we are ready for that, but without people, a skilled workforce, there is no industry.
The 2017 Oxford Farming Conference Emerging Leaders Programme was sponsored by Massey Ferguson.