Cumbria has found a way to attract and train the young people that the farming industry so desperately needs. Michael Prestage reports
Close to the shores of Buttermere in the Lake District, Vicky McCartney was hard at work last week marking and vaccinating the lambs of a local farmer.
The daughter of a shepherd, the 25-year-old always had ambitions to work in farming in her native Cumbria. But the industry was vanishing before her eyes as farms increasingly struggled to survive.
Now however, she is realising her dream, thanks to an innovative training scheme designed to bring young people into farming. It covers everything from milking cows to managing budgets.
After leaving school, Vicky had a succession of jobs working in pubs, tearooms and on a caravan site. But, despite gaining a Btec national diploma in agriculture and hill farming from Newton Rigg college, Penrith, opportunities in agriculture were limited.
After the foot-and-mouth crisis, the position worsened. That was when Rural Futures, a county network of farmers, set up the farm assistant training scheme in Cumbria to recruit people into farming and help them set up as self-employed farm assistants.
Staff shortages had spiralled because of two problems: first, farmers could not afford to employ and train their own staff; second, because of the lack of prospects, young people were shunning careers on the land.
After successful trials, a new training scheme to attract young people to farm work is being extended across the county. Farming communities elsewhere in Britain have also been in touch with a view to adopting the Cumbrian training initiative in their own areas. The scheme aims to pool resources and share scarce talent.
Agriculture is still the main employer in many rural parts of Cumbria, with 6,000 farms employing 15,000 people, but the county is short of 5,000 farm workers.
Rural Futures' assistant farmer network manager, Will Rawling, said of the scheme: "We are responding to the fact that the average age of a farmer is over 50 and that many farmers we are working with complain about a lack of young people coming into the industry.
"To make this work we need to find groups of between two and six farmers who are looking for some extra labour and who will take a young person under their wing by giving them help and support."
In order to train an initial 12 people from this month, the Rural Futures team needed to raise at least pound;5,000 in sponsorship from the private sector over the next few weeks, which was used to draw in pound;15,000 of public-sector funding from the Vocational Training Scheme.
The new programme will give young people 20 days' free training in the basics, plus a course to help them set themselves up in business as self-employed "farm assistants".
The trainees also get funds to buy their own equipment.
Eileen Simpson, a farmer and a co-ordinator at Rural Futures, said: "We found that a farmer couldn't afford to take on an apprentice but a group of them could offer work and training."
As a result of the original trial scheme four trainees have successfully set themselves up as self-employed farm workers, and all have full order books from local farmers.
They include Vicky, who praises the practical training she received with local farmers. What's more, their word-of-mouth recommendation has ensured the phone hasn't stopped ringing since she set up on her own.
She said: "During the course, I worked with five different fell farms, mainly working with sheep and cattle, with some tractor work. The training was excellent. I am not short of work, doing jobs from walling to gathering sheep and lambing.
"I hope to have my own farm one day, but agriculture is so up in the air at the moment that I'm happy just working for other farmers and gaining experience."