Are you a young farmer looking to carve a life of your own in agriculture? If so, former NFU president Ben Gill may have the opportunity you’ve been looking for.
Sir Ben is holding an open competition in the style of the BBC2 hit programme The Apprentice. With Sir Ben in the role of Alan Sugar, the competition will be open to any young farmer (subject to a few conditions) looking to get a foot on the farming ladder.
Having decided for personal reasons to sell his farm in Yorkshire, Sir Ben and his wife Lady Carolyn have recently settled in Herefordshire.
Although Sir Ben had no intention of buying any land to go with their new home, in June of this year he found himself pursuing 16ha (40 acres) of land directly behind, and once linked to, their house. It is this piece of ground that he is offering up, for someone else to farm.
So why is he doing this? In his own words, Sir Ben says he simply wants to offer someone, who hopes to forge a life in agriculture, the “bottom rung of the ladder”.
“The aim is to help and encourage a new entrant in to the industry and to support them in the establishment of a business of their own,” he says.
“Throughout my career I’ve met young people who are hugely enthusiastic about farming – people who are holding down a day job while keeping a few sheep and cows of their own. It’s that sort of enthusiasm I want to see encouraged and rewarded.”
He adds: “Forty acres is never going to provide someone with an income to survive, but if it helps them establish themselves then that’s brilliant.
“Ideally, in five years’ time they should be in a position to move on to something bigger having gained the necessary grounding. At that point I would hope to run the competition again, giving someone else a chance.”
But Sir Ben is restricting his offer to those meeting his own set of conditions.
Chiefly, the applicants must be no older than 27 years of age and not involved with their family’s farm. “They should be someone who would otherwise not have the opportunity to farm in their own right,” he explains.
To see them established, Sir Ben has secured several worthwhile deals that will benefit the successful candidate in all aspects of establishing and running a small business. In return for a seat on the judging panel, high street bank HSBC has agreed to provide banking facilities on a preferential basis.
Similarly, in keeping with the spirit of the venture, a local accountant will offer its services at preferential rates, as will an agronomist and a local veterinary practice.
Those looking to capture the added value of moving up the food chain will receive marketing advice from Heart of England Fine Foods.
Sir Ben is also willing to throw in his Single Farm Payment, currently worth about 70/acre, and a tractor with a fore-end loader and trailer.
But, for legal reasons regarding the incorporation of his SFP, the applicant will, in legal terms, be Sir Ben’s business partner – rather than tenant. But he intends to seek no day-to-day involvement. Instead, he views his role and that of his fellow-panellists as one of mentors who will offer advice and guidance when required.
However, the opportunity is not going to be completely free. “There’s got to be the realisation that businesses operate in a commercial environment,” he says.
“It may be that I require a percentage of the profit, it may be negligible, but I’m doing enough without giving it all for free.”
The land, at the moment, is work in progress. When Sir Ben took it on, it soon became apparent that the ground had been neglected for a long period of time. If it was to be returned to productive use, it would require a substantial investment in time and money.
Commencing on 1 August, Sir Ben got to work. Initially a two-man team with chainsaws began tackling the over-grown boundary hedges – in some places the farmed area was up to 10 metres inside the boundary line. They also set to work inside the three acres of Chestnut coppice, cutting out dead trees.
The previous occupier kept free-range pigs on a small plot of land adjacent to, and including, the coppice. Inevitably the pigs stripped the bark of a number of trees and consequently they died. It is these trees that are being removed and for this reason Sir Ben is ruling out free-range pig farming.
Much of the ground had also reverted to heath; overrun by gorse, brambles and bracken. Upon inspection its state is akin to that facing English and Scottish settlers arriving in New Zealand 200 years ago.
At the time of Farmers Weekly’s visit last Thursday (31 August), chainsaws were busy ripping into dead wood and an excavator was tearing up gorse. Fearful of what some might think of this apparent destruction, Sir Ben explains that he found comfort in the comments of some local residents he has got to know.
“I want it to be returned to how the locals told me it used to look. When I think of what some others might think about what I’m doing I remind myself of those comments.”
Asked if this means the successful applicant will be one who is heavily focussed on the environment he is realistic in his expectations.
“Of course, an appreciation of the environment must be demonstrated, but it should be relative to the situation. I might be cutting down some trees, but I’m considering re-planting the area with wild flowers as a way of putting something back”.
I’m also re-planting hedges and the re-seeded pasture will be sympathetic to the area using a combination of traditional varieties and clover.”
Until 31 August, Sir Ben had employed the two men with chainsaws for one month, and an excavator with operator to remove the gorse and other overgrowth for 10 days at 300/day.
He had also sprayed-off 15 acres of spring barley that was more nettles and docks than crop, applied lime at 2t/acre to balance the pH and re-sown it with stubble turnips to provide a catch crop for the incoming young farmer as well as establishing a means to provide control of the docks.
He has also negotiated terms with a fencing contractor for 3km of boundary fencing and a further kilometre of internal fencing. In total, Sir Ben reckons to have invested about 20,000.
Add to this the cost of re-seeding the pasture and an autumn application of nitrogen fertiliser, and you begin to appreciate the work that is going in. When you consider Sir Ben has no intention of farming the ground himself, and that this is all for the benefit of someone else, it is even more impressive.