Interview and Podcast

Bringing future talent to Agriculture 4.0

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Edition 6

Fiona Burnett, Head of Connect for Impact in SRUC’s Knowledge and Information Hub, and Ruth Vichos, Lecturer in Horticulture

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For this edition of Clima, we were delighted to have the opportunity to discuss the emerging influences on education and skills development across Agriculture and Horticulture with two senior leaders from Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC). We speak to Professor Fiona Burnett (FB), Head of Connect for Impact in SRUC’s Knowledge and Information Hub and Ruth Vichos (RV), Lecturer in Horticulture, about the evolution of Agriculture 4.0, and how technology is impacting skills evolution and teaching mechanisms.

Q) Can you tell us a bit about SRUC and your roles within it?

FB: Scotland’s Rural College is an Higher Education institution, primarily focused on the natural economy, so we cover a huge range of areas, of which agriculture and horticulture are very significant. It spans research, consultancy and teaching activity – which includes everything from intensive post graduate PhD work right through higher and further education to the CPD and training and development work that we do. Our geography is perhaps the least interesting thing about us, but we are spread over Scotland: we have six campuses, six farms and a network of consultancy offices. We also have an office in England.

RV: My focus is on crop science and sustainability. I focus on the production side, from bedding plants and hardy ornamentals, with crop production at local and global level. I teach a vast range of subjects which all fall within production as well as the impact of technology in this area.  

Q) How has your approach to teaching and educational implementation evolved in response to the COVID pandemic?

RV: It has changed a lot! We are now teaching everything online, which does have challenges with a practical subject like horticulture. I have to be honest and say I really enjoy it though. Areas that work really well are the theoretical elements, but we need to ensure that our students are still gaining the right skills to go and work in the industry. We did have some small groups doing practical work between lockdowns and the students really enjoyed that, but we have had to move these to the end of term now. We’re still evolving our approaches.

FB: It has been hugely challenging having to adapt constantly as the rules and regulations evolve. Throughout, we have tried to be very respectful. We work in remote and rural communities and we need to be very sensitive to that. However, some of our work is in food production and so some of our consultants are still able to go out and monitor crops, visit farms and animal welfare remains essential too.

It has been really challenging, but there have been advantages. For example, where events have been recorded or filmed to allow students to see meetings, content and other materials that previously they wouldn’t have been able to access. Geography in some of these respects has become less of a barrier to participation – it is a small silver lining.  

Q) What are the biggest influences affecting the future of agriculture and horticulture today, especially as we look to Agriculture 4.0?  

RV: I think that one of the biggest influences is climate change, but coming out of that are positive experiences, thinking and research. In horticulture, we have been looking at sustainable production systems both in the UK and globally. Labour is another area of challenge, particularly in the area of automation and robotics. I welcome that as I see technology as a positive, but this isn’t the mindset amongst all growers.  

FB: I work with a lot of farmers and growers and biodiversity and climate impacts are hugely apparent. We have to produce food in more sustainable ways. There is much more sophisticated thinking about food production today: the social inclusion, culture and creativity that goes around food. There is interest in both the heritage and future of food and how it is evolving. This is a big part of our research. The roles of digital, data and technology are important. Is this what people want with regards to their food? Do people want their food produced more locally? We are thinking in much more open ways and bringing together more groups of people to talk about these topics in a way we haven’t done before, crossing many areas of science. I think it is exciting to see where this is all going.

"Biodiversity and climate impacts are hugely influencing the future of agriculture and horticulture. We have to produce food in more sustainable ways and think sophistically about food production today: the social inclusion, culture and creativity that goes around food."

Q) How are skills and educational requirements changing for the agriculture sectors? Will there be greater diversification or consolidation of skills?

RV: In the four years that I have been a lecturer at SRUC, I have seen a considerable change in what students are interested in. Each year group is different and there is a lot of individuality, the skills that people are interested in are definitely changing. There has been a greater appreciation of a move towards automation. There is a skills shortage being created by those people who don’t want to do repetitive tasks. We still have to provide our students with those skills, but there is absolutely a shift towards using machinery and robotics happening, and we are looking at countries like Amsterdam and how they have automated for inspiration.

There is a gap within what we deliver, but fundamentally for SRUC, we are still committed to providing those rural skills. A complete shift to robotics would be a departure from what our true values are. Bridging that gap is essential. We need to introduce our students to the technology but we cannot forget the fundamentals and basis of learning.  

How an individual wants to learn and the skills they want to develop is up to them. There needs to be a consolidation on core skills, but they do need to diversify. I think that may be better than a total change.  

FB: It is becoming increasingly important for students to have interest in the business and entrepreneurship sides of agriculture and horticulture. But to expand on Ruth’s point on labour, it’s important that you can now have careers seen as rewarding and high value and not too repetitive. The whole piece around developing new food products, optimising the clean and green approach is really exciting. It is really nice to see students becoming more business savvy – much more so than I was as a student.  

Q) How important is technology in agri and horti environments? 

FB: It is huge. In some ways, we can borrow what has been applied in other industries and take advantage of certain approaches, for example digital imaging and robotics. With that does come the flip side that we are possible trailing behind some industries, however. We need to establish better connection with markets which will allow us to understand the demands and supply, as well as the more engineered sides of technology. The chance to connect better is a really important piece.  

Q) Will a technological emphasis change skills requirements in these sectors in the future?

RV: I think there has to be a change here. One of the things I focus on with my students is the controlled environment piece, including vertical farms, glass houses and even polytunnels. We know that LEDs are essential in these environments. There has to be an understanding of what that means before you can start to implement the use of these systems. That is where lecturers like me come in. We need to think about why we are using these technologies and what they are for. We are very much encouraging critical evaluation and analysis: those are the fundamental core skills that I am most interested in.  

Q) What impact is this having on the way you attract, educate and equip talent for this evolving agriculture landscape?

FB: We still get a number of students coming from traditional family farming backgrounds, but increasingly they are much more open to new approaches. From horticulture, we are seeing a greater interest from people who are more interested in where food is coming from. I think it has been really interesting to see that switch from primarily people with backgrounds in farming to a broader pool, and that is really welcome. We do need new approaches.

Q) What excites you most about the future talent coming through agricultural and/or horticultural education?

RV: We are seeing a lot more students who are engaging with the bigger picture. The emphasis on sustainability is considerable. They are interested not just in becoming gardeners, but the much bigger picture from a local level to a global level. We need to think beyond practical skills, we need to encourage meta skills much more than ever before. We want them to be much more resilient to deal with the challenges in the sector and to be well-prepared for the world of work. The online environment is even driving learnings in this area in the way we engage, for example the need to give other people a chance to speak and wait their turn to talk. I see that as a real benefit.

"We are seeing a lot more students who are interested in the big picture from a local level to a global level. The emphasis on sustainability is considerable."

Guest Bio

Fiona Burnett, Head of Connect for Impact in SRUC’s Knowledge and Information Hub, and Ruth Vichos, Lecturer in Horticulture

Fiona Burnett is Professor of Applied Plant Pathology and Head of Knowledge Exchange and Impact at Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC). Her expertise covers most aspects of applied plant health and she plays an active role in the advice and diagnoses offered in SRUC’s crop clinic, and the crop health monitoring schemes in Scotland. She has particular research interests in Integrated Pest Management and pesticide stewardship. Fungicide resistance and efficacy are core activities for her research team and she chairs the Fungicide Resistance Action Group–UK, which produces advice and recommendations to manage emerging resistance issues. The steering groups, boards and committees she contributes to are extensive and include the UK Plant Health Forum (Defra), the Scottish Voluntary Initiative and the British Crop Protection Council’s Diseases Working Group. She chairs the Association for Crop Protection in Northern Britain and she is a Director of Scottish Quality Farm Assured Cereals Ltd. She is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Biology. She is also Agriculture Sector Lead in the directorate for Scotland’s Plant Health Centre of Expertise.

Ruth Vichos is a Lecturer of Horticulture at Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC). Her expertise is in controlled environment plant production, from bedding plants to edible crops. Her main focus is on the use of technology and mechanisation to improve efficiency and crop quality. With an MSc in Food Security, she is actively engaged in research projects that have sustainability of food production at the core, as well as engaging in capacity development with local communities in both Scotland and Tanzania. Through this capacity development, her pro bono contribution to The Eleanor Foundation has led to improved livelihoods of impoverished widows and orphans in Tanzania. Beyond Horticulture, she contributes to the enhancement of learning and teaching within the digital learning arena of SRUC’s Education division, providing advice and support to staff who are new to online delivery of teaching.

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