Last month, Eden Search embarked on a 2-week trip across the US, visiting Raleigh, St. Louis and Los Angeles. Our journey culminated at the World Agri-Tech Summit in San Francisco: a gathering of senior leaders, investors and start-ups from across the global food & agriculture community. We sat down with the leading crop protection heavyweights, technology innovators, venture capitalists and inspiring not-for-profits (shout out to the Danforth Center and NCBiotech for the incredible work they are doing). With a return to international face-to-face meetings after a 2-year hiatus, the atmosphere in every room was electric. However, when getting into the weeds, our conversations led to the same challenge – whether you’re a berry grower, chemical giant or scaling start-up – from the field to the boardroom, the talent pool is small and there are plenty of fishermen. Here are our key takeaways:

Labour is THE biggest challenge for most farmers/growers

The labour shortage at farm level is nothing new. The average US farm operator is 59 years old and approaching retirement, whilst the younger generation is disinterested in historically low-paid, intensive work. Poorly structured immigration policies, despite the agriculture industries’ dependency, have made attracting foreign labour inefficient – immigrants account for only 17% of the total US workforce, but a HUGE 73% of the agricultural workforce. It’s a similar story in the UK & Europe and the crisis in Ukraine has only emphasised this, with heart-breaking news of workers travelling back to their country to fight for freedom and democracy.

From field robotics and autonomous tractors to vertical farms, innovators and investors have taken note and are attempting to relieve agriculture of its labour headache. Venture capitalists pumped over $50BN into agrifood technologies in 2022 – an 85% increase on 2020. However, the race is still on to find the truly efficient, cost effective and scalable solutions. Stories of start-ups successfully reaching a point of exit are rare, whether M&A or IPO, particularly in robotics/machinery. You could point at John Deere snapping up Blue River Technology and Bear Flag Robotics in recent years, but other examples are few and far between. As technology develops and start-ups mature, automation will undoubtedly be the answer. Keep an eye on the likes of Bloomfield Robotics, Monarch Tractor and Tevel. But when will this have a large-scale impact? Personally, I think we’re at least 5 years away. But I’ll leave that one to the experts.

We need to think outside of the box to attract and retain leadership talent

The talent shortage doesn’t stop at the field. The strain is felt across the supply chain, all the way up to the boardroom. As start-ups scale, it’s no mean feat to establish a high calibre leadership team with the requisite skillset to drive growth. The same can be said for blue-chip corporates looking to re-organise or plan for succession. If your hiring strategy is to only consider those with a history of sector specific experience, particularly when technology is evolving so rapidly, I bet my bottom dollar you’re pulling your hair out.

Booming investment in technological development has not only been driven by labour challenges. Consumer attitudes are changing, with the social and environmental impact and traceability of the food on our plates more important than ever to the masses. As such, we have a chance to rid the sector’s reputation of being old fashioned and behind the curve. A career in agritech now has ‘sex appeal’, with seductive opportunities to have major impact on the way we feed the world. We need to capitalise upon this and be open minded when hiring to find the leaders of the future.

At Eden, we guide clients to look for the right core values when sector specific experience is not critical in a hire. Hard skills and industry knowledge can be taught, however soft skills and personal values are often ingrained and much harder to develop. Relationship-driven individuals with traits synonymous with the agricultural community, such as integrity, commitment and stewardship are not exclusive to our sector and can be found across any industry, anywhere – from fintechs in Silicon Valley to automotive OEMs in Detroit.

It would be naïve to think that talent attraction is the only issue here. As the hunt for talent intensifies, companies need to do more to retain and protect their people. The Great Resignation has put a spotlight on this; a record 48 million people in the US resigned from their job in 2021, up over 20% compared to pre-pandemic levels. People’s priorities have changed for good, and it’s not just about compensation. Clearly, the rulebook to retain talent has been torn up. Leaders need to adapt to understand and address the new requirements of their teams – whether that be flexible hours, remote working or better work-life balance. Again, alignment in core values between an organisation and its employees is a must. If these values are not lived and breathed by a strong leadership team at the top, severe talent issues will follow.

 

Eden Search is the specialist executive search consultancy focused solely on the global food supply chain. We work with international businesses of all shapes and sizes – from rapidly growing, private equity funded agritech companies to global corporations. If you are looking to hire executive leadership talent, or if you have any thoughts on the above, please contact me at joe@edensearch.co.uk or +44 7718 424 533.

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