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Pathways to work for future farmers

In this guest blog, ShefFood Urban Agriculture coordinator Fran Halsall outlines proposals to develop equitable training and land opportunities towards regional food economies.

Regather Farm, Sheffield Credit: Dora Damian

Regather Farm, Sheffield Credit: Dora Damian

Being part of the Fringe Farming programme has made unlocking the land access puzzle seem more feasible. There are good reasons to be encouraged; in Glasgow a golf course is being made available for food production - a big step in the right direction. Thinking about what this means for Sheffield and the peri-urban land that we hope to unlock for food production, I have a concern: who will farm it?  

Earlier this year I was contacted by a student who, having just finished her Level 2 horticulture qualification at Sheffield College, was now at a loss as to what to do next. The college does not offer Level 3 there's not enough student demand for it – and there are few apprenticeships or first time roles within the sector in the city. This began a chain of thought: why are we training people only for them to be unable to utilise that skill? Or are we expecting them to leave Sheffield and work elsewhere? Why are we not capturing the interest of green-fingered folks and supporting them to become future urban and peri-urban market gardeners? 

Anecdotally we know that there are people who want to grow food, in part evidenced by Sheffield's huge allotment waiting lists. Some of these individuals may have thought about growing as a profession, however there are few obvious routes open to them. Sheffield lacks a market gardening heritage, County Farms are long gone and there are only a small handful of local agroecologicial enterprises. With few role models and minimal emphasis placed on the value of horticultural and agricultural careers, it is little surprise that there is no formal framework for nurturing the next generation of farmers.

Supporting people to grow food is an investment in a secure source of nutrition for an increasing population. It builds community wealth and delivers numerous public goods associated with agroecology including biodiversity, health and education. Yet this approach is currently missing from Sheffield City Council's Food Strategy. 

Elevating the importance of food production will build resilience; many of the jobs held in prestige now will not exist in the future, whereas producing food is arguably the most futureproof of all careers.  

This is why we are asking the City Council to develop an integrated horticultural and agricultural training system that can meet future demand. The ability to produce our own food across the Sheffield region should be affirmed as a core skills priority.

This same skills gap is seen throughout the country: the National Qualifications framework is not keeping pace with emerging careers in agroecology. This means finding novel ways of working with local colleges and universities to share key skills and build the framework that the local low-carbon food system will be built upon. The ultimate vision is for the South Yorkshire Combined Mayoral Authority to announce itself as an ‘Agroecological City Region’. This status will signpost the relationship between both the climate and ecological emergencies and the benefits gained by bringing low-carbon farming and horticulture back to the urban fringe. The regional approach is the appropriate landscape scale necessary for incubating future horticultural and farming businesses.

This status will signpost the relationship between both the climate and ecological emergencies and the benefits gained by bringing low-carbon farming and horticulture back to the urban fringe. 

Education is just one part of the complex process of enabling careers in local food, but it is fundamental to initiating societal change. In tandem with the important work on securing a 'Right to Food' in UK law, easing access to land-based jobs, especially for those experiencing food insecurity and uncertain prospects, puts the means of production back into the hands of the community who are best placed to develop the food systems they need. Not everyone who has gone without food wants the opportunity to grow their own, yet providing land to those that do would restore dignity and reduce reliance on food banks. 

These opportunities have to be visible, no matter which neighbourhood you grew up in. As Sheffield moves to the Local Area Committee system we have recommended that each area is represented by its own Food Champion representing the neighbourhood's food needs and connecting with the Food Partnership. It should be a Local Authority aim to allocate green space to be developed as neighbourhood-level market gardens, with the intention of supporting enterprises supplying fresh food directly through community kitchen, box schemes or into local retail. By connecting with larger peri-urban farms, these smaller sites would act as training and employment hubs. This would represent a huge step forward in ensuring equitable land access as a vital part of developing community wealth within a regional food system.

Read the Sheffield Fringe Farming briefing to find out more about the potential and required next steps to develop agroecology farming in Sheffield's fringe.

Published 4 Oct 2021

Sustainable farming policy: Sustain encourages integration of sustainable food and farming into local, regional and national government policies.

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After a decade-long career as a landscape photographer and writer, Fran completed an MA in landscape architecture at the University of Sheffield.  She has been involved in the creation of three community growing spaces in Sheffield: the Kenwood Community Growers; the Food Work's farm and the Regather community garden. Fran is ShefFood's Urban Agriculture Co-ordinator, leading on Sheffield’s participation in the national Fringe Farming and Urban Agriculture Consortium programmes.

Fran Halsall
Urban Agriculture Co-ordinator, ShefFood

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