Farming, and the sustainable stewardship of the countryside it provides, is an essential building block of an independent Wales.
We must ensure that this key industry, which provides quality and nutritious food for our plate and which keeps some 58,000 workers actively looking after our environment on which tourism, small businesses and communities also thrive, has a vibrant future.
It is also central to any vision of a bilingual Wales, or one million Welsh speakers, to remember that farming is the workplace with the highest proportion of Welsh speakers: 27%.
The future, of course, is dependent on the influx of new, highly trained individuals into the industry. New blood brings new ideas and innovation into the sector and promotes the foundation of sustainable, profitable and resilient farm businesses in Wales.
It's young people and new entrants who provide much of this new lifeblood. And if we are to have any chance of adapting and bending to the winds of a post-Brexit future we will need the enthusiasm and commitment of young people in droves.
Unfortunately, the average age of farmers in Wales is over sixty – just three per cent are under 35.
So I was keen to ensure that any agreement between the Welsh Government and Plaid Cymru over the budget delivered for young people in farming. Between 2010 to 2014 Plaid Cymru, though our minister Elin Jones, helped over 520 young people in the farming industry with a £7m scheme.
Under the budget deal I secured £6m over two years to get a new grant scheme to help young farmers’ get on their feet. This is a clear signal of Plaid Cymru's commitment to the next generation of farmers and our belief in the industry as one of our nation's building blocks.
I will be meeting young farmers, the unions and others to plot the way ahead. I’m starting this conversation about what people want for a young entrants’ scheme next month with South East AM Steffan Lewis in Abergavenny and with colleagues in Newtown when we discuss how we create a more sustainable Powys.
Attracting new talent to the farming industry and supporting new enterprises, the scheme will have to chime with long-term food and farming strategies.
County Council smallholdings could be a ‘first step’ on the ladder for new or young entrants. To this end, tenants should be encouraged to move onwards and upwards in order to release these farmsteads to the next generation of farmers.
Over recent years there has been increasing concern about the number of council holdings that have been ‘lost’ to new entrants through sell-offs and amalgamations. We believe that the decline in the County Council farm network has meant the loss of a major asset to encouraging people into the industry.
Whilst, ideally, we would like to see local authorities reinvesting in council-owned holdings, we would strongly encourage remaining holdings to be retained and enhanced at a local level through identifying the ways in which their management could be streamlined across Wales.
The major strength of the council holding network is its ability to provide start-up facilities of land and buildings at a competitive rent to enable starters to build up capital and experience.
Access to finance remains a problem to new entrants into farming and we will investigate ways of encouraging more investment opportunities.
The tenanted sector could provide important opportunities for new entrants in Wales and we believe that landowners should be encouraged to let out more land for longer periods for farming because tenancy arrangements can offer an important route for getting people into the industry.
If we are to encourage young people to take up a career within the agricultural industry, we must break down the perception that farming is an unrewarding, low paid, manual labour sector. It undoubtedly is hard work, but it is also at the cutting edge of innovation and technology. Robotics, harvesting renewable energy, biodiversity, tourism, hydroponics, horticulture, high animal welfare; all these and more will be needed to be exploited by the next generation of farmers. We will need our schools, colleges and universities to be part of developing and maintaining the skills in these areas.
Business and management skills are also essential to those entering the sector and are vital to continuing professional development. Mentoring can also have an important role in training and development and can help new entrants to build successful businesses and develop their business capability.
I’m keen for anybody who has the best interests of Welsh farming at heart to get in touch so we can devise the best scheme for new entrants.
It is part of my vision for a sustainable, independent Wales that we invest in the next generation now who will build and develop our rich natural resources and do that in a way that will be a template to the world.
Come discuss the future of farming with me at the following events:
November 20, Pen-Y-Pound, Abergavenny 7pm: https://www.facebook.com/events/155534908520736/
November24, Elephant & Castle, Newtown, 2pm: https://www.facebook.com/events/1979434998993469/
Meeting will also be held in Porthmadog and Cardigan in the near future.