What if you don’t have any background in farming and yet have a strong urge to make this your career? Are the possibilities really as limited as we’re often given to believe?
A good person to ask should be 26-year-old Nick Williams. Though it’s only five years since he left college, he is now the working farm manager on a 125ha (315-acre) organic sheep, beef and arable farm near Hungerford in Berkshire with some interesting diversifications and lots of responsibility.
“Farming is really what I always wanted to do,” he explains. “Mum was a nurse and Dad a teacher but we lived in a small village in south Gloucestershire and came in contact with farmers.”
At 16 he faced that difficult decision encountered by many youngsters. Do you go straight to work on a farm in a relatively lowly position (but earn some money) or do you go to college, live like a pauper but hope to jump up a rung or two on the career ladder?
He opted for the latter, taking a straight-agriculture degree at Harper Adams with a placement year on the University of Leeds mixed farm at Tadcaster.
While many of his contemporaries at college had their sights fixed on farm management-type jobs, he adopted a slightly different philosophy. “I decided I wanted to learn about all aspects of agriculture first. I don’t think you can ask other people to do a job if you haven’t already done it yourself.”
As part of that quest to learn about all aspects of agriculture he had some unusual and CV-enhancing jobs – first doing maize and grass trials work for the NIAB, then a job shifting zebra and impala from one side of a game reserve to the other in Swaziland. “I went all that way then ended up castrating cattle,” he laughs.
After finishing college, he spent three years on a 600ha (1500-acre) organic estate near Stow-on-the-Wold in Gloucestershire as assistant herdsman.
The fact that the farm where he is now farm manager, the wonderfully-named Little Hidden Farm near Hungerford, is also organic is no coincidence.
The farm is like many these days – partly about production, partly about marketing and adding value, partly about non-farming diversification and partly about environment and conservation.
That’s a far more varied – and in many ways more challenging – mix than you might have found on the average farm a generation ago and it’s certainly to Nick’s taste. It means that there are always new areas to develop and new skills to learn.
“A large part of the reason why I came to this farm was that I liked the owner Bill Acworth’s outlook and philosophy and have learnt a lot from him. He’s really into the environment and conservation and very forward-looking.”
As Nick lists the farm’s activities you can see why farm management these days in many ways is even more multi-skilled than in the past. There are the organic oats and beans they sell for seed.
Then the organic spring wheat that becomes Doves Farm Foods flour. Plus 200 sheep, 60 beef cattle, a 35-horse riding school run by Bill’s wife Sue, a tree nursery that supplies 10-15yr old specimen trees like London planes to specialist buyers and a wildflower seed and plant business.
Plus they have a wide range of conservation schemes and host school visits.
Nick is currently getting his teeth into a box scheme for the lamb. It’s early days yet, but he’s hopeful. And with potential returns of 120/lamb compared to the average of 50 they get now, it’s a goal well worth aiming for.
While some on their way up the farming ladder alight for a year or two at one place, then move on, Nick sees this as a long-term project. “There are lots of projects to get my teeth into here. One day I’d love to have my own place but the capital investment is so huge.”
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