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Rural Economy

Agriculture, Logistics & Food Processing

Report Segment: Sub-sectors or the Rural Economy

The farming sector is characterised by some very large businesses and many very small businesses. The number of people working in farming has declined over the last century, as mechanisation has taken over the work of farm labourers. Much farm equipment (e.g. Combine harvesters) is extremely complex and requires specific training (provided by the supplier); even tractor drivers now need specialist skills. So the farming sector is smaller but more highly skilled. However there is still a significant requirement for low level skilled labour which appears to be unattractive to the local labour market and so much of the work in the fields is undertaken by non-UK European workers. Staff turnover is relatively high but labour supply has been plentiful in recent years. The extent to which the recession will affect the movement of labour across Europe is not known but one can assume that people from less developed countries within the EU will continue to seek work in more developed countries whatever macro-economic conditions apply.

The agricultural logistics sector is a vital part of the farming equation. Businesses such as the 3 Musketeers (Suffolk – see Section 4 in the main report)take responsibility for storing and marketing commodities on behalf of farmers. This brokerage work is highly skilled and requires staff to understand commodity markets, world price movements, and opportunities for achieving greater margins by either holding on to stock or selling at a particular time.

The food processing sector is one of the most challenging to analyse because of its diversity and profile. The sector spans the whole spectrum of labour organisation from fundamental labour intensive production lines to high volume ‘just in time’ manufacturing, automated packaging and highly skilled labour providing engineering support.

Food processing is rarely out of the headlines. Whether its alleged human rights abuses at work (Guardian front page 13/03/2010) or new ‘scientific’ evidence of harmful substances entering the food chain (e.g. see - because of its essential role in our lives, issues tend to get easily polarised.

Moreover the food processing sector has undergone considerable change in recent years, and purchasing power from the big 4 supermarkets continues to lead to “improvements” in delivery times, and freshness. While consumers never seem to tire of fast food variations, an increasing volume of prepared food floods on to the retail market every day. This higher value end of food processing has become a growth sub-sector all on its own.

So many factors make up the food ‘equation’. In this report we focus on the training needs of farming, food and drink businesses in East Anglia (Norfolk & Suffolk) and attempt to find the critical factors which could make a difference to the rural economy.

In section 2 of this report the local context for the farming, food and drink manufacturing sectors is explored, and Section 3 provides a summary of the research with businesses and colleges in preparation for this report. The skills base of the two counties in relation to the rural economy is explored in Section 4 of the report, and some conclusions and recommendations are drawn together in Section 5.