How a new entrant became an arable manager

David McLaughlan hasn’t taken the traditional route on his way to a management role at Bartlow Estate in Cambridgeshire, as he has no farming background or formal qualification in agriculture.

Aged only 26, he is still in his first full year of the multi-functional role, where his natural abilities are being put to good use.

At times it has been a steep learning curve, he admits, but being given a lot of opportunity and having to challenge himself most days is working well, both for his development and for that of the business.

See also: Job profile: What’s it like to be an arable farm foreman?

It’s a role that he clearly enjoys, despite the complexities and long hours. “When you’ve planned something out in detail, it’s very satisfying to see it all run smoothly,” he says. “That’s especially the case at harvest, when we have so many balls in the air.”

Starting point

While still at university, a summer job with Velcourt in Stamford gave David a taste of farming and introduced him to Jason Turnbull, who he now reports to at Bartlow.

Two further summer stints on a tractor followed, as well as a nine-month stretch at Bartlow, with Mr Turnbull spotting and nurturing his potential and encouraging him to go into farm management.     

“It was clear that David had the people skills, attitude and mindset for management,” recalls Mr Turnbull.

“He’s bright and very quick to learn. Being a blank canvas can be an advantage, as there aren’t any pre-conceived ideas. It has allowed him to think differently.”

With the estate structure changing, it provided the opportunity for Mr McLaughlan to make the transition from an operational role to a management one. Almost immediately, he had to learn to use his time in a different way; focusing on financial returns rather than fieldwork.

Top tips

David McLaughlan has two pieces of simple advice to others considering a career in farm management.

  • Make yourself do one job every day that you don’t like doing.
  • Don’t take no for an answer, there is always a solution, be innovative!

Attention to detail

Already familiar with the consistency and excellence expected at Bartlow, Mr McLaughlan has adopted the same high standards in his management approach.

This extends across the considerable area of combinable crops and sugar beet grown on the estate under a high-input system, as well as into the haulage business that runs alongside it.

As a result, he has had to get to grips with staff management and motivation, logistics, legislation and cost structures, while also learning technical agronomy skills.

Other achievements have included updating the farm’s precision farming capability and using social media for recruitment – setting up the estate’s Facebook page to successfully attract new candidates.

People skills

Empowering people has been key to his successful start, so by having team leaders in place, Mr McLaughlan doesn’t have to spend all his time and energy on managing staff.

A workforce of eight, many of whom are twice his age, report to him. Having made the move from being their colleague to becoming their boss, working relationships can be tricky and he’s had to develop his communication and leadership skills.

“That was difficult at first,” he admits. “There’s also been a great deal to learn about costings and getting every asset working to its full potential.”

His on-the-job training has been supervised by Mr Turnbull, with extra input from selected days on the Velcourt Training Scheme and the Freight Transport Association programme. He intends to work for his BASIS qualification next year and will look at other training opportunities as his experience grows.

Mentoring and support

“I’ve been lucky to have Mr Turnbull’s support. He watches the detail and is around if I need to double check anything, but he also expects me to step up.”

Mr McLaughlan’s downtime is spent on activities such as motorbike racing and rugby, which take him off the farm – something he believes is important when you live and work on-site.

“We are very busy in spring and summer, so I have to make the most of the quieter times. That comes with the territory of extra responsibility.”

When asked about any future career plans, he points out that he has been kept far too busy to have any time to consider other options. “My mind has been focused on taking everything in and doing the best that I can. No two days are the same.”

Bartlow Estate is in the process of restructuring to reduce operating costs and cope with future uncertainty.

This development has added to David McLaughlan’s workload, but also given him invaluable experience in evaluating current practices, as well as assessing operational efficiencies and different methods of working.