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Have you got what it takes to be a Farmers Apprentice?

Wednesday 18 July 2012 13:00
Matthew Jackson

So you want to be a farmer? What kind of farm do your parents have?” It’s a typical response: tell anyone you’re planning an agricultural career and they expect you to come from farming stock.

The stereotype is peculiar to agriculture. It’s doubtful that every prospective architect shadowed a family member in the office, and to be a doctor you don’t have to have grown up in a hospital.

It is permissible to be a barrister even if your parents weren’t, and not every aspiring astronaut had a relative that worked in astrophysics. But apparently farming is different.

Perhaps it’s not surprising. Successful farmers have a multitude of practical skills, often progressively developed during a childhood spent on the family farm.

Land rental and purchase values are now so great it can feel like you’re never going to be able to afford to break into the industry if you aren’t inheriting half of East Anglia. Besides, if you don’t come from a farming family you simply aren’t going to have the practical skills or contacts to enable you to progress in your agricultural career. Right?

But there are a growing number of people in the industry who feel it doesn’t have to be that way. They point out that the industry needs to attract 60,000 new entrants over the next decade and not all of those can be from a traditional farming background.

They may not have learned farming skills from childhood, but they might have other factors in their favour. For example, if they don’t have a family farm to return to, it avoids the problem of their employers investing in their training and then losing them just as they become really useful.

Christine Tacon, chairman of UK Farming plc, former managing director of the Co-operative Farms and a judge for the Farmers Apprentice, argues that an initial absence of skills need not be a bar to success.

Video: We command the land

“Of course you don’t need to come from a farming background to be a farmer. The reason people think this is necessary is because inheriting a family farm, or a tenancy, makes it easier to enter the industry. But having that background doesn’t necessarily make you a better farmer than someone who doesn’t.”

While practical skills are essential to many aspects of farming, these skills can be developed by a variety of means, she says.

“For example, someone who has taken a car apart and put it back together will likely have excellent practical skills.

“The complexity of modern farm businesses means you need people who are excellent at logistics and are good team players; these skills can be developed in any background,” she adds.

So-called “soft skills” are also key in determining eventual success. Character traits such as having a personable nature, being ambitious and having a strong work ethic are fostered in a host of upbringings outside farming, says Ms Tacon.

In addition, a key aspect of management theory is diversity. “It is beneficial to employ people from different backgrounds who can bring different skills.”

Hertfordshire farmer Ian Pigott, who is the founder of Open Farm Sunday, agrees and says some of the most successful farmers have no family connections to agriculture.

“First generation farmers start with a blank canvas; they aren’t weighed down by preconceived mantras,” he says.

And as first-generation farmers have no family business to fall back on, they are encouraged to search for a greater range of opportunities. They are also likely to have transferable skills that they can bring from other sectors.

Mike Gooding, managing director of FAI farms, says that an initial lack of farming contacts should not stop young people from pursuing it as a career.

The lack of young people in farming is widely documented, and many progressive farmers are at least willing to discuss the subject. Contacting one, demonstrating a genuine interest in agriculture and simply requesting a brief meeting can often lead to work placements or further contacts that may have opportunities available, he says.

“For a first-generation farmer looking to progress their agricultural career, communication and developing relationships is vital.

“It’s all about having the right attitude and mindset. Progressive people don’t say they can’t do it, they simply find a way.”

Case study: Matthew Jackson 

Brought up in Manchester with no agricultural background, Matthew’s previous farming experience was confined to an after-school job on a local farm and time spent holidaying in Wales.

After his GCSEs Matthew (pictured above) took the opportunity to work on a friend’s sheep and dairy farm in north Wales with the intention of staying a couple of months. But he developed a passion for farming and stayed. Today he still works in Wales, where he has progressed rapidly in his agricultural career.

In the early years Matthew worked for a fencing contractor and shearer, and did some relief milking. He spent a period working in New Zealand, wool pressing, where he eventually chose a career path in dairying.

When he returned to the UK where he was able to secure full-time employment at the 1,000-cow dairy unit where he had initially worked. Aged 24, he has progressed to the position of herdsman on the now 1,150-cow, spring block calving farm.

Meanwhile, Matthew has been building personal capital through heifer rearing. In 2009 be bought 20 heifer calves, rearing them on eight acres of rented ground. Selling them as bulling heifers the following spring, Matthew reinvested the money he had made, buying 35 heifers and again selling them as one-year-olds.

Now renting around 80 acres of land divided across small parcels, he owns 82 in-calf heifers which he intends to lease out next spring, and is about to purchase around 80 further calves to continue growing his equity.

Out-wintering his heifers on deferred grazing and in-situ silage bales, Matthew has been able to reduce the infrastructural investment they require, prioritising investment in cow ownership.

Tending his own cattle in the evenings, Matthew illustrates what can be achieved with diligence and imagination.

He has taken a proactive approach to skills development, and was fortunate to receive the Richard John Memorial Bursary award. Matthew has again travelled to New Zealand and Australia to further his knowledge and having met likeminded people he now works towards engaging in a share-farming agreement here in the UK.

Kick-start your farming career with £10,000

If you’re a switched-on 18- to 25-year-old who loves the outdoors, is practical-minded and has a passion for food and farming, then we want to hear from you. Simply visit http:///www.farmersapprentice.co.uk to register your interest and put yourself in the frame to win £10,000 to kick-start your career in farming.

Applicants could be farmers born and bred who want to test their mettle or broaden their horizons – but with 60,000 jobs to fill we’re also extending our search beyond the farmgate. We’ll be scouring towns, cities and suburbs across the country to find talented, would-be farmers, who are low on experience but high on passion.

How to get involved