Concern about the sector's ability to attract and retain enough talent to maximise its growth opportunities was expressed by industry figures at the launch of two LEAF demonstration farms earlier this month (see p31).
Tangmere Airfield Nurseries technical manager Mark Knight said: "We and others have a huge appetite to grow and expand, and we need the best people for that."
Eric Wall senior production manager Richard Kooijman said: "There is the same problem in the Netherlands. You need the word 'business' in the job title to attract people." The tomato grower incentivises worker productivity, and hence retention, with bonuses based on yield from the glasshouse area for which they are responsible.
Plumpton College principal Des Lambert added: "It's a long slog to get young people interested in horticulture - they don't see it as sexy. Some come to it later in life. But the industry doesn't sell itself well. People still think of it as gardening - either that or they want to drive tractors. But I say to them there is more technology in horticulture than in agriculture."
Eric Wall managing director Chris Wall pointed out that in this regard opening the doors of the West Sussex glasshouse complex is in the company's own interest.
"We want students to get a positive impression of the industry here," he said. "Open Farm Sunday also gives people the chance to see the technology involved."
LEAF chief executive Caroline Drummond added: "If you can get children interested before they reach the age of 11, you have a chance of keeping them."
Ongoing labour issues mean that "harvesting robots are coming, maybe in 20 or 30 years' time", said Knight.
"It's a logical next step on the journey we are on. But they have limitations - will they pick 100 per cent of the crop without damaging the plant? It's likely that they will be developed hand-in-hand with the breeding of plants that suit them. But we will still need staff to look after them."
Kooijman added: "Robots will happen - they are already being trialled for de-leafing tomato plants."
Campaign Colleges showcase the industry
The South of England Agricultural Society (SEAS) has formed a campaign with the region's colleges - including Plumpton, Sparsholt, Chichester, Berkshire, Hadlow and Merrist Wood - to attract young people to the food and farming sector.
They will jointly showcase what the industry has to offer at the South of England Show on 11-13 June. Schoolchildren will also be exhibiting their visions of farming in the future at the event in Ardingly, West Sussex.
SEAS vice-chairman Carole Hayward said: "The society plays a significant role in introducing young people to the countryside and is committed to the ongoing support of young people in the agricultural industry through its shows, events, competitions, bursaries and scholarships."