The search to find Britain’s brightest young farming talent is over and one very special young man has walked away with £10,000 to kick-start his career. George Brown, winner of the Farmers Apprentice, talks to Will Frazer about the competition and his plans for the future.
How does it feel to win?
It still hasn’t properly sunk in, because it was totally out of the blue. The other contestants were all really good. Some were very different to me, but I thought a few of them would walk all over me, so I was amazed to come out on top. Winning doesn’t fundamentally change what I want to do, but it brings what I can afford to do forward by about a year.
What are your plans for the future?
I am currently working on a farm in New Zealand, but I know without a doubt that I want to be back in the UK by January 2015. By then I want to be a manager on a dairy farm, have my own calves that I can lease to a farm owner and develop the herd in a share farming system. That’s the plan, so it’s just a question of how I get there. Before bootcamp I thought the best opportunities lay in New Zealand, but the Farmers Apprentice experience has drastically altered that opinion and I now know there are great operators back home. Ultimately, I want to persuade an arable farmer to build a dairy farm on their arable land, because they can provide me with a whole set of skills that I don’t have, but that is all five to 10 years away.
Where’s the prize money going to go?
The money will help me buy 30 heifer calves and with some savings hopefully I can push that number up to around 40. I’ve got the calves lined up and I’m in discussion at the moment with someone who will rear them back in the UK. Then I’ll be home next spring to get all that on the road and get them all settled in.
After that I know there are some skill sets that I don’t yet have, so I want to find a really good environment to keep learning in. For example, I’m not very good at mechanical stuff and am looking at getting some work in a garage to get more mechanically sound. I also need to learn a lot more about calving, so I’ll just be looking to develop more technical skills.
How did you find bootcamp?
It boosted my confidence and it was a great opportunity to meet like-minded people with a similar attitude towards farming. People have told me that farming can be the most positive industry in the world or the most negative, it all depends on who you speak to. This was so true of bootcamp and being given the opportunity to work with loads of really positive people gave a massive boost to my enthusiasm.
Do you still feel you need to come from a farming background to succeed?
Six months ago, I would have said not being from a farming background is a big disadvantage. But I have now 100% changed my mind on that. There are so many ties if you’ve got a family farm. In the holidays I can say I’m going to go and work on all these different farms, whereas if I was tied to a family farm I’d always have to put the work in back home. As a first-generation farmer, you have no ties, no preconceptions, no one telling you to do things a certain way.
So becoming a first-generation farmer is possible?
It’s definitely possible. I couldn’t encourage it strongly enough. There are far easier industries in which to start your own business than farming and there are easier routes into farming than starting your own business. But it’s possible. You have to work hard, you need good contacts and you have to prove you’ve got the knowledge and the skills, but that’s all inherently within your control. If you don’t make it, it’ll be your fault, no one else’s.
Will you tell your city mates there are great careers to be had in the countryside?
I’m benchmarking my progress in farming against the salary of a close friend of mine from university who did the same course as me. If he gets way ahead of me in salary then I’ll question what on earth I’m doing, but it’s not happening and it’s not going to happen. There is no way that going off to work in the City is a better choice of career than agriculture. I think the quality of life working in the countryside is great and there are heaps of opportunities to run your own business, be your own boss, earn a good salary and achieve managerial responsibility.
Many farm businesses are getting quite big and offer good opportunities to progress. Farming is a really professional business if you look in the right places and as a result there are great structured careers out there.
What advice would you offer to someone looking to start a career in farming?
- Prove you’re keen and get the knowledge. It’s all very well saying you want to be a farmer, but you’ve got to prove it. I went out of my way to get work experience and show people that I am genuinely keen and a hard worker.
- Don’t get tied down. Right now the world’s my oyster and that’s really beneficial in allowing me to chase opportunities.
- Work hard. I’m still miles off where I want to be and I’m sure there’s loads more heartache, blood, sweat and tears to come, but that’s an amazing challenge. If I do get there, it will be all off my own back.
- Ask questions. The issue of new entrants has had so much publicity and there are now heaps of people out there willing to help if you’re young, keen and enthusiastic. All you have to do is ask. So make the most of it.
Would you recommend entering Farmers Apprentice next year?
Yes of course! It’s been an amazing experience, and I still hope for loads of great things to come from it through all the contacts I’ve made.
It massively exceeded all my expectations, so do it, because there’s absolutely nothing to lose.
What’s the worst that can happen? They’ll say no and you don’t get through. But come on, that’s no big deal.
Profile: George Brown
Education: Cambridge University
Farming background: None, but has had work experience on farms across the UK and is currently milking in New Zealand
Bootcamp high: Meeting all the other finalists
Bootcamp low: Ringing his boss at 3.30am to ask how much they budget for cow health each year
The judges’ views on what made George stand out
Christine Tacon – former managing director of the Co-operative Farms
“George was well informed, ballsy and ambitious with a natural leadership style, but what really set him apart was his humility and willingness to listen to everyone’s contributions, before making a decision.”
Charlie Russell – Farmers Weekly Farmer of the Year 2011
“He was an incredibly fast learner and picked up the technical skills very quickly. It felt like he’d come from a farming background even though he hadn’t. He thought outside the box and was willing to take risks, which others might not have taken.”
Matthew Bagley – agriculture programme leader at Reaseheath
“He had the drive and determination to get things done, but was compassionate and always brought others in. His hunger for knowledge and fantastic vision made him stand out from the herd.”
Jane King – Farmers Weekly editor
“George Brown has shown that a farming family background isn’t compulsory and that the brightest young people can build great careers in agriculture. George is focused, professional, works extremely hard, is a superb communicator and sees the bigger picture.
“With all these qualities, you would expect him to be arrogant – far from it, he has enormous humility and knows he has a lot to learn. That kind of attitude and an entrepreneurial spirit are going to take him a long way in the industry he loves.”
Nina Prichard – agricultural consultant, McDonald’s UK
“It’s important to have a strong pipeline of talented young people coming into farming, particularly so we can continue sourcing quality, British and Irish ingredients. We know it can be challenging to get a foothold in the industry and that’s why we’re so excited to have been part of the Farmers Apprentice.
“George is the kind of progressive young farmer who will be vital to securing the industry’s future. His willingness to learn and the initiative he has shown in understanding the blend of business and farming skills needed to succeed make him a worthy winner. We’re confident he will become a fantastic ambassador for first-generation farmers and encourage more young people to consider a career in farming.”
Thanks to McDonald’s for making the whole project possible, to Reaseheath College for hosting the bootcamp, to the British Youth Film Academy for producing the films, to Philippa Hall for taking a break from Sky News to present the series, to the nine other finalists for their enormous energy and positivity towards the scheme and to everyone who has tuned in to watch the episodes so far.
Watch the series
You can watch the full five-part series online at www.farmersapprentice.co.uk.