Agricultural education too ‘stale’ for tomorrow’s farmers, says expert

While Heffernan acknowledged that data can be a “powerful tool” which can help influence behavioural change at a “huge level”, he said it can also be overwhelming without the proper direction and support.  [SHUTTERSTOCK]

Agricultural education is “stale” and in need of a shake-up to help tomorrow’s farmers meet the challenges ahead, according to a leading veterinary consultant and educator, Tommy Heffernan, who warned the sector is facing a decade of “massive change”.

Faced with the complexities of farming combined with increasing pressure to meet the ever tighter green demands, the next generation of livestock farmers will have their work cut out for them.

To rise to the challenge, young farmers are increasingly looking to innovative new tools and technology, but support is not yet always there to facilitate the kind of “out of the box” thinking that is needed to meet the challenges that lie ahead, according to Heffernan.

“When it comes to young farmers, I think our agricultural education systems are really stale, especially if you put them beside technology and the way it is moving,” he said, pointing out that the sector continues to be “too conservative” in its approach.

“The new way of doing it is going to be thinking outside the box down the narrow lane,” he said, pointing out that what is required is the marriage of old and new ideas that will move the farming sector forward.

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Winning hearts and minds

Highlighting that the sector is facing a decade of “massive change”, Heffernan said that changing mindsets in the sector is challenging but necessary.

“If I’m resistant to change, I’m going to struggle at every step of the way,” he warned.

Emphasising the need to win hearts as well as minds, Heffernan stressed the need to offer young farmers a purpose.

“If you want to get people inspired, you have to give them purpose, and you have to give them a goal,” he said, arguing that the constant agribashing seen in recent years is eroding this.

Instead, the conversation must radically change to make the sector exciting and inspiring to be a part of. 

“To say that you’re feeding the world is okay, but to say you’re involved in human health, you’re a custodian of the environment, you can get to work with the land and nature – that’s giving a purpose,” he said. 

“We’ve got to make agriculture exciting for a generation of people who are not from farms, we’ve got to reposition it to make it about production of human health foods,” he said, criticising the fact that the conversation surrounding farming, especially at the policy level, is often so far removed from an emotional and empathetic understanding of people.

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Too much of a good thing

This kind of purpose and direction is required to help farmers make the most of technological advancements and navigate a sea of data, he said.

Heffernan acknowledged that data can be a “powerful tool” that can help influence behavioural change at a “huge level”, but it can also be overwhelming without the proper direction and support. 

“Technology does have a role on farms if it makes life easier, but I can only get it to work for me if I know where I’m going,” he said.

Drawing on his own experience, Heffernan highlighted that his farm gets invaluable data from using stomach bolus’ to measure temperature and rumination in his cows but that the first time his team used the technology, the data completely overwhelmed them.

“The guys were presented with all this data, and they hadn’t a clue when it got all the alerts. So what they actually did was they stopped looking at it completely,” he said, highlighting the need to measure “only what matters”. 

“When I’m a bureaucrat, I can talk about data flowing here and there, and it’s beautiful digitisation, and they’re lovely words, and it sounds great because the data can impact us. But when I’m on the farm, I’m looking at soil, I’m sorting out milking, I’m living my life around it, so I need the data to really work for me,” he said.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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