I recently wrote a post entitled “Where to now for ‘chemical agriculture’?” and hearing the term ‘Bachelor of Science in Agricultural Science’ got me asking myself if we do not need to change the emphasis of what we are teaching the next generation at university.

Now I am not anti-science. As I farmed for a few years before I returned to university and having studied economics at school, I could spend more time on the sciences at university than was normal for one studying agriculture and business management. Hence, I managed to fit in subjects like soil science and plant physiology. Later as an academic I worked on bridging the gap between management and economics and technical agriculture and horticulture. I also spent several years working with the National Institute of Agricultural Botany in Cambridge.

Over the years, my own faculty was responsible for much of the development of farm business accounting [i.e. budgeting, planning and business and investment analysis]. This was eventually encompassed in a BSc degree that linked management and agricultural husbandry together. I was its first First Class Honours graduate.

When it came to teaching within the same faculty I was lucky enough to be highly involved with the applied management training of final year undergraduates and postgraduates. It was about encouraging students to question and to analyse. At one end, it was about investigating the markets and at the other it was about what technology to apply within the business [be it agriculture, horticulture or food]. The constant was how to understand the many factors that influence farming and food production. It was about joining the dots.

My concern is that farming is becoming too ‘science’ leaning. It is too much about the spray can and the fertiliser bag and the expectation that science is the ultimate problem solver. Is it too much about using a far too narrow genetic base? Is the farmer in danger of becoming too reliant on outside technologies and external advisors?

Will the farmer of the future have the skill set to operate with less dependence on external resources? We talk about sustainable food production but is ‘sustainable’ a misnomer if the farm is overly dependent on imported technology, advise and resources? If consumers are ‘going local’, will they expect to source their food from farmers doing the same?

There is no specific answer to the above; farmers still just tend towards doing it their way. What will be important is that the farmer [as a manager] has the skills set to analyse what is best for his or her own farming / horticultural / food business? They need to be able to assess what is right or wrong and to make informed choices built upon a knowledge of the markets, the technology [the science and husbandry (which is really a science)] and the economics.

I was lucky enough to spend my childhood on a family farm run by my Grandfather and staffed by his generation. In the 50s and 60s beef cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens and house cows were the norm. I witnessed the change over from mixed farming to arable only.

Even back then many of the farm staff were quick to tell me that moving from mixed farming to arable only was a move in the wrong direction. Interestingly, thirty years ago, they were telling me how the soils had deteriorated in the previous two decades. They would be horrified at the state of the soil’s health now. As ‘chemical agriculture’, has come to the fore, have we lost the plot when it comes to our soils; not the mention the wider flora and fauna that inhabit our farms [including that within our soils]?

I am also very concerned that our food security and, by default, our farm incomes are going to be compromised by an inability of ‘chemical agriculture’ to withstand the pressure coming upon it from resistance to the broad gamut of pesticides. The ‘sustainable’ solution must be a regeneration of our husbandry skills and less reliance on the ‘science’. I see no other way forwards.

Hence the reason for writing this post. Do we need to re-emphasis the role of husbandry again? And do we need a new generation who are less reliant on those outside the farm gate?

I have also often spoken about the need for farmers to regain some control of the supply-chain after produce leaves the farm. Likewise, ‘below’ the farm. For the latter, it is about developing the husbandry skills that will enable the farm to be more reliant on its own resources.

Yes, this can be viewed as a step backwards but it is not about ‘dumbing’ down the role of the farmer, far from it. It is still about deploying the science and the technology but it is about being more critical and cautious about doing so. And it is about knowing how to better utilize the resources that are to hand; it is simply about developing more ‘sustainable’ farms.

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