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The skills needed to make land work

Tom Kenny

Lacking any one of the many skills needed to run a land-based social enterprise can block progress. This applies to social entrepreneurs without the requisite land management experience, experienced land managers who need to develop new business models and even landowning organisations who may lack the expertise to manage their land strategically.

Lack of land management skills:

The amount of people with land-management skills is declining in the UK. The average age of farmers is now 58, and the land-based sector as a whole has an ageing workforce.  Employers in land-based organisations report that 42% of vacancies are due to skill shortages (compared to a 23% average in the economy as a whole). Many land based industries, for example forestry, are struggling with declining numbers of people with traditional land-management skills. Organisations such as the land-based skills council, Lantra,  are trying to address this issue through improved professional development and lifelong learning. However, it is a large task, with an estimated 39,000 more skilled land-based workers needed to meet demand in the UK.

Lack of land management skills can be particular issue for land-based social enterprises. Small organisations in particular struggle as they lack the economies of scale to make regular training more affordable. Some social entrepreneurs also start without backgrounds in land management. Lack of skills was found to be a key barrier to the success of community food projects in a report by Sustain. Our research with the National Trust on community energy schemes also found lack of skills and access to specialist expertise to be a major barrier. Organisations we have worked with have told us that in some cases their main problem is not a shortage of available land, but rather a shortage of skilled workers to work it.

Other skills needed to run a successful land-based social enterprise:

It also takes a range of other skills to run a sustainable land based social enterprise. For some land managers, income generating activities are a new step – sometimes only made necessary by reductions in government funding. In general, social enterprises frequently need to move beyond traditional land management to develop sustainable businesses. This means recognising that land can have many uses, such as recreation, education, tourism, events, therapeutic activities and more. In addition to the wide range of technical skills required to diversify their land management and land use, practitioners also increasingly need people skills to enable them to manage visitors, service users and volunteers.

The Campaign for Real Farming argued that developing financial and management skills are crucial to creating enterprises that are secure and sustainable. Lantra point out that land-based organisations also need to understand UK and EU policy changes and developments in research. Land-based social enterprises we have worked with have also had to develop, or source, a range of other expertise in areas like the planning and legal systems, and community engagement. Obviously it may not be realistic to expect individuals to have all these skills, so team-building is another important ability.

Lack of land management skills in landowning organisations:

Large tracts of land are left undermanaged by landowners who lack the organisational culture or skills to put it into more productive use. For some, for example the NHS, it is partly because their traditional mandate is on service provision rather than land management. For others, for example some local authorities given recent cuts, they have reduced their land-based departments so much that they risk losing the ability even to commission services well.

So how can people and organisations develop their skills?

In addition to the tailored training courses offered by Lantra and other providers, there are a number of other ways land-based social entrepreneurs can upskill:

  • Land sharing – in some cases where landowners and social entrepreneurs have gaps, the best way to address them can be working together. For example, Landshare’s Land Partnership Handbook, discusses how late career farmers and social entrepreneurs could help each other. The former can reduce their workload and pass on land-management experience, whilst the latter might have other relevant skills such as a business background that they can share. Likewise, organisations that own a lot of land but lack the capacity to manage it productively can bring in social entrepreneurs to put it into more productive use.
  • Apprenticeships and on the job learning – many land-based social enterprises cite education about land-management as a core goal. OrganicLea for example, provide accredited and informal land-management training, deliver training to schools, and provide volunteering opportunities. This City and Guilds report discusses how land-based skills can be developed through community food growing and urban agriculture projects.

Shared Assets is keen to explore how we can work with others to raise the profile of land based skills and ensure that the sector has access to the training and development support it needs. We have already supported a range of organisations and are running a training workshop for land-based social enterprises in June. We will continue to make connections between land-based social enterprises, to signpost them to other support organisations and resources, and to explore and promote the learning opportunities for land-based social enterprises and landowners. Overcoming the skills barrier is crucial to #MakingLandWork.

Please get in touch with any thoughts on this issue or any of the other areas we are looking at. The next and final blog in this series describes the land-based social enterprise sector and why we think it’s a valuable focus. Previous blogs in the series are available here.

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