10 July 1998

Standards of very highest…

ADAPTABLE, enthusiastic and resourceful, with bags of initiative. These were just some of the compliments paid by the judges to the winners in the 1998 Farm Secretary of the Year competition, who were announced on Monday at the Royal Show.

The competition, organised by the Institute of Agricultural Secretaries and Administrators, is open to hundreds of practising and would-be farm secretaries across the country.

All of its 900 members offer a wide variety of services to their clients.

Farm secretaries are, in fact, highly trained office administrators – the institute is keen to encourage its members to develop skills long after they have left college.

It runs a Continuing Professional Development Scheme, which allows them to benchmark progress, and identify strengths and weaknesses. Regional workshops and day courses encourage the process.

The competition is divided into three categories.

Practising farm secretaries battle it out for the title "Farm Secretary of the Year". There are also two student sections – one for mature students, and the other for students under 21.

Contestants have to complete two written rounds to qualify for the final. The first of these asked how farm secretaries would cope with traceability and assurance schemes. Most left little doubt that farmers would be leaving such tasks in extremely capable hands. Orderly records were a priority, with a close eye kept on staff to ensure they supplied the required information.

In the second round, contestants were asked how they could justify their employment, given the recent downturn in farmings fortunes. Many pointed out that employing extra help in the office could save time and money, by allowing the farmer to concentrate on farming and overall strategic planning, rather than having to worry about office chores.

Fifteen entrants made it to the finals, which were held at Lasham Woodland Training Centre in Hants. Practical tests, an informal discussion with the judges and an administration test demonstrated contestants agricultural knowledge, business skills, initiative and the ability to work under pressure.

The winners were announced at a reception hosted by major sponsor Lloyds TSB. Judging by the standards set by qualified secretaries and students alike in this years competition, UK farm offices should be in safe hands for years to come.

FARM SECRETARY

OF THE YEAR

Susan Knill Jones from Maldon, Essex, fought off stiff competition this year to win the title.

Susan, who was a regional winner in the competition in 1995, has been a farm secretary for 15 years. She set up Blackwater Training Services in 1983 with just two clients, working two days a week, but within a year she was working full time. "I occasionally take on trouble-shooting jobs which is a nice diversion. But every day is a learning day."

She trained at Brooksby College, in Leics, where she obtained a National Certificate for Farm Secretaries.

Despite falling farm incomes, she reckons she will be employed for a long time yet. She is used to putting forward ideas to add value to a business, and budgeting for them as well. Efficient farm secretaries also spot opportunities to save money, she adds. "When leading firms of accountants reckon youve done a first class job on the accounts, I believe you have gone a fair way to justifying your employment."

Runner-up in the senior section was Heather Tate, from Wrentnall, Shropshire. After gaining a credit in the National Certificate for

Farm Secretaries at Brooksby College, she worked for two years at the Belvoir Estate. She then moved to Shropshire to work in a well established farm secretarial business, and 13 years ago branched out on her own.

MATURE STUDENT WINNER

Emma Brewer, from Froxfield, near Marlborough, Wilts, took first prize in another hotly contested section, and wins £125.

Emma has spent most of her working life in London, including PA work and recruitment.

After 11 years, she decided it was time to return to the country. "Eventually, I spent every weekend trying to escape from London."

In 1996, she started an HND Business and Finance in Agriculture course at Sparsholt College in Hants, which she finished this summer. She already has three farmer clients on her books, squeezing in book-keeping, VAT returns and management reports between studies.

She reckons the farm secretary is the last person a farmer should consider making redundant. "A farm secretary can justify her cost by running the finances and procedures within the farm business efficiently," she says. "She can also reduce accountancy fees through accurate reporting of figures which are well laid out and easily understood."

Trish MacFarlane took the

runner-up slot in the mature

student section. She returned to England at the end of 1996 after 13 years in Australia, where she ran her own contract cattle

mustering business in the

Northern Territory. She was also

a veterinary practice manager for three years. She has just finished

taking a national certificate at Bicton College, in Devon.

MARY COLLINS AWARD

Melanie Williscroft, from Sturry in Kent, has just finished a National Certificate for Farm Secretaries course at Hadlow College. She already has a years secretarial work experience at a local department store, but agriculture is her first love

Working on a large mixed estate appeals when she leaves college. She is particularly keen on dairy farming. As well as secretarial employment work, she would like some practical work, too.

She is keen to develop her skills after she has left college. "In theory, the more qualifications you have, the more employable you are. To be able to move with the times and take things in your stride, continuous development of these skills needs to take place."

Farmers daughter Rosanne Rich,

from Yarcombe in Devon was

runner up in the Mary Collins

section. She already has a string of qualifications, including an NVQ in livestock production and City and Guilds in farm management and accounting, and is

hoping to add a national

certificate from Bicton College to the list this summer.

THE AWARDS

Senior section

(for practising farm secretaries):

Winner- £500, a selection of Farmplan computer software and a years subscription to the RASE. (Runner-up – £100)

Mature student

(for students 21 and over):

Winner – £125. (Runner-up – £50)

Mary Collins award

(for younger students):

Winner – £125. (Runner-up – £50)

All winners and runners-up also received a Black Horse trophy, and their nominators were awarded a bottle of champagne.