Good staff are the bedrock of any farming enterprise, whether it’s arable- or livestock-based. It may mean long hours, hard work and the ability to turn your hand to almost any task, but our three finalists make it look easy. David Cousins reports
See also: Farmers Weekly Awards finalists
Newhouse Farm, Winchester
The role of the farmworker isn’t always an easy one. You have to have the in-depth technical skills that are required by today’s farming bosses, of course, but you have to be versatile as well – and be prepared to turn your hand to almost anything.
These abilities are usually gained only over years – or sometimes decades – of experience, but sometimes a relative youngster can show remarkable versatility.
Matt Johnson, who came to work at Ian Cammack’s 530ha mainly arable farm near Winchester, Hampshire, in 2006 as a harvest student, has managed to gather an impressive list of skills.
These range from the regular tasks such as drilling, combining and putting on fertiliser, to machinery maintenance, managing the 90-head of sheep and researching and helping with technical aspects of putting in a biomass boiler. He also liaises with manager Andy Bason and worker Sam.
“We don’t really ever have a quiet time in the year on the farm,” says Mr Cammack. “There’s always something going on.”
Matt’s workshop skills are pretty good, too. You can tell that when he points out the things he has made around the farm. Projects he has taken on include welding up a cage for the forestry tractor, putting together a bean drill and doing all the servicing and maintenance of tractors and machinery.
Good machinery maintenance skills, including welding
Happy to take on new tasks, including researching the best biomass boiler
HGCA talks to local farmers impressive
“You always know with Matt that things will get done and the job will be finished,” says Mr Cammack. “He’ll always do it as you want it done, too.”
He has also done work for other farms and businesses, including setting up lights for an equestrian arena, renovating go-karts, putting up a barn for a neighbour and repairing trailers, toppers and link boxes.
Matt is keen on both the arable and livestock sides of farming. He built up his own flock from just four ewes, subsequently sold it to the farm and has since expanded it further.
He now has sole responsibility for the entire sheep operation, including breeding, rearing, healthcare, slaughter and marketing for 80-90 ewes. Each year some 80 lambs go to the butcher in nearby Alresford.
Newhouse Farm is an HGCA Monitor Farm, so Matt is involved in six meetings a year, talking to up to 50 local farmers and professional advisers.
“We have given him the freedom to make his own decisions,” says Mr Cammack. “He’s not afraid to stand up and talk about the farm in front of a big group of farmers.”
530ha mainly arable farm near Winchester, Hampshire
Sheep flock expanding, with 80 lambs a year going to the local butcher in nearby town
Biomass boiler project has recently been completed
He has also started crop-walking with the farm’s agronomist as part of his plan to gain his Facts qualification.
When the farm decided to install a biomass boiler, Matt characteristically threw himself into the project with gusto. It’s a relatively complicated system, with heat being provided for three houses as well as an office.
Matt visited other on-farm set-ups and came up with the basic design of getting the woodchips into the boiler, which can be no small operation. He is also responsible for maintaining the equipment and has taken on the task of choosing and buying a forestry tractor and forwarding trailer.
He gets involved with the estate’s shoot, too, acting as guide and host for the wide variety of individuals who attend on walked- up shoot days – not to mention making hides for duck shoots.
As if he hadn’t got enough to do, Matt has even managed to renovate a dilapidated bungalow and helped to produce the Newhouse Farm logo with fellow worker Sam. Not to mention training a sheepdog. That’s quite a thing, especially when you have three children, aged four, two and one.
Adstockfields Farm, Buckingham
Some farms stay pretty much the same, decade after decade. The same crops are grown, the same livestock are kept and the same staff do the work – it’s only the weather and prices that change.
But sometimes a farm finds itself going through a time of great change, when the very fabric of the business shifts and the day-to-day tasks change with them.
His extraordinary energy – he still gets up at 4.30am every morning and runs everywhere to get more done
His deep technical knowledge of the farm and all its many workings
He’s the man who gets you out of a fix if something around the farm has gone wrong
At Adstockfields Farm near Buckingham, the Nicholson family’s farm is a very different beast from what it was decade ago. The three original dairy herds set up in the 1970s were wound down in 2010 and the main business is now growing arable crops.
Plus there’s an important new grain-processing business that involves drying and cleaning up loads that would otherwise be rejected by millers and maltsters. Meanwhile, the land work is now all done by local contractor PS Matthews.
Farmworker Roger Knibbs has been involved with the farm right from the start. His original plan was to become an apprentice at the Ford plant in Essex (this was before it became New Holland).
But just before he started work he broke his leg in a motorbike accident. So he started work on the farm in 1968 as a general farmworker and cowman, following in his father’s footsteps.
He was, by all accounts, something of a tearaway in those days and well known in the area for riding around on big motorbikes. But his technical knowledge, helpfulness and enthusiasm have been absolutely unwavering over the years.
“You might think that he would be slowing down a bit but, if anything, it’s the opposite,” says farmer and manager Jo Nicholson. “Despite being a grandfather and having one leg three inches shorter than the other (thanks to the motorbike accident), he still gets up at 4.30am every morning and runs everywhere.”
Setting up the 7,500t grain-cleaning business as well as the 40t/hr drier has been a big (and pretty fraught) project, says Mr Nicholson, and Roger has been absolutely central to its smooth running.
Dairy herd set up in the 1970s was wound down in 2010; main business arable
New grain-processing business involves drying and cleaning up loads that would otherwise be rejected by millers and maltsters
Land work is now all done by local contractor PS Matthews
It’s a complicated system and he had to use all his vast experience and skills (especially in getting things such as conveyor speeds) to get the whole thing to work properly.
He also co-ordinated the selling of the dairy herd, the purchasing of a beef herd and the conversion of the buildings from their existing use to their new role.
But no one is immortal (and anyway he has three children and seven grandchildren to organise) and Roger and the farm have jointly agreed a 10-year handover plan.
It won’t be easy, though, since every worker, contractor and lorry driver in the area has Roger’s mobile number on their speed dial and relies on him to get them out of trouble.
“He’s also the person who keeps everything running,” says Mr Nicholson. “He’ll ring up and say: has this been done? Has that been done? If there’s a problem on the farm in the evening, he’ll have come up with the answer by the morning.”
Walk around the farm with Roger and you notice that you keep falling behind him – he just moves too quickly. He’s not one for hanging around, but he doesn’t skimp on things either.
“I’ve never missed a single day in all the years,” he says. “Most people sit on the sofa when they get to their 60s, but that won’t be me. My father used to smoke 40 cigarettes a day but I’ve never smoked or drunk.
“When I went to the well-man clinic they said they had never seen such a healthy man. The only bad side is that, if we’re going to the pub, I’m always the designated driver.”
Crichton Royal Farm, Dumfries
Being a farmworker on a dairy farm is a demanding career choice. There are the early starts and late finishes, for one thing. Then there’s the milking equipment to deal with, sorting out feed, the endless collating of figures, plus the usual inclement weather.
But imagine that, as well as all this, you also have to take parties of schoolchildren round the farm and have to liaise with lots of research and postgraduate students. Not to mention helping with the night milkings and working with the contractors doing fieldwork. It’s a punishing schedule and one that not many people could cope with for any length of time.
Yet all of this workload (and more) is carried out with professionalism, efficiency and good humour by senior herdsman Peter Little. And he has been doing the job superbly for almost 30 years, says boss Hugh McClymont.
The way that Peter copes effortlessly with a heavy workload and a lot of staff
Unfazed by having to deal with big groups of schoolchildren aged 13-14
Tremendous loyalty to Crichton Royal Farm, and the way he deputised for his boss for 10 weeks
SRUC Crichton Royal Farm in Dumfries, south-west Scotland, is certainly a different type of farm from the norm. It produces and sells milk in a fully commercial way but the business also has an important remit to do research on all aspects of dairying. There’s a teaching role as well, with regular visits from groups of schoolchildren.
It’s a big business, too: 500 cows at the moment and plans to expand to 800. And – as you might expect with a government-owned research organisation – there’s plenty of paperwork to deal with.
However, Peter takes all of this in his stride. He has been working here for 26 years and – by all accounts – he’s got it cracked. In fact, when Mr McClymont was off sick for two-and-a-half months Peter had to take over the reins – and he did a great job.
His father and grandfather were also herdsmen and farmed next door, so he is very much on home ground. And he has certainly warmed to the task of coping with lots of visitors.
“He has to deal with lot of school visits,” says Mr McClymont. “It usually involves 150 kids at a time, mostly 13- or 14-year-olds. It’s not easy and he does it really well.”
SRUC Crichton Royal Farm has 500 cows, with plans to expand to 800
Big emphasis on education of school-age children, often involving 150 kids at a time
Three milkings a day (with the first staff arriving at 3.30am) keeps everyone busy, especially Peter
Three milkings a day keep everyone busy, especially Peter. Early staff arrive at 3.30am, with the rest of the team coming in at 7am. There’s checking of bulling cows and calving, plus feeding and liaising with the six full-time staff and eight part-timers.
An hour a day is taken up by record-keeping, but Peter had the system cracked a long time ago. However, accommodating staff holidays is always a headache and he gets called in do a late stint once a week. He gets the odd late-night phone call, too, usually to do with a sick cow
“His 26 years of experience means he has really earned their respect,” says Mr McClymont. “He doesn’t wear the wellies that often but he has a massive job of keeping up the records. There’s no roaring and shouting. He just gets it sorted quietly.”
Peter’s farm tours are slick, informative and fact-filled and he loves doing them. “It’s fantastic to see people’s interest in what we do here,” he says. “Most visitors aren’t from a farming background but it’s really surprising how good the questions are. I show them AI and how it’s done – there are surprisingly few giggles…”
He has also helped push ahead with a change in milking teams from single-person milking to two-person milking at each unit. It has removed a potentially tricky lone-worker situation and creates a better team culture for everyone involved.
Mr McClymont says Peter has also provided invaluable help with bringing on a new apprentice, who has successfully progressed to an HND in agriculture while continuing to work under Peter’s mentorship at weekends and college holidays. She is soon to be offered a full-time position on the farm.
Farmworker of the Year is sponsored by Isuzu
“Isuzu UK understands that British farmers need a tough, versatile workhorse that can take on any job and do it superbly well. That’s not too different from the abilities of the three candidates in this category, who brought remarkable skill and staying power to all the tasks they tackled”
William Brown, general manager