When it comes to studying there are numerous ways to prepare yourself for a successful career in farming.
We talk to four young people who have taken four very different routes to find out how it has helped them succeed.
The degree route
Getting a degree is a great way of fast-tracking your career, says Annie Pushman.
The 23-year-old, who graduated from Harper Adams University in 2017, is now a technical and R&D administrator with Haygrove, a Herefordshire-based company growing berries, cherries and organics with farms in the UK, South Africa, Portugal and China.
“If I hadn’t got a degree I wouldn’t have been able to join the company at the level I have,” says Annie, who achieved a 2:1 in Agriculture.
Although not from a farming family, she grew up in rural Worcestershire, has been involved in Young Farmers and has always loved the countryside, and says she was drawn to studying ag.
“I guess I just got the bug. I’d briefly wondered about studying English, but it seemed a bit vague as to what it would lead to career-wise. I was drawn to a land-related subject and a lot of people I knew either were at – or had been to – Harper so I’d heard good things about it.”
Annie had considered a city location, but the appeal of a smaller uni, where everybody knew everybody else, was stronger. “I loved Harper as soon as I visited,” she says.
The four-year course involved a placement in the third year, which she spent with McDonald’s as part of its Progressive Young Farmer programme, getting a unique insight into the different stages of its pork supply chain.
“Placements really prepare you for the world of work and make you so more employable,” says Annie.
She reckons her time at uni really helped her discover the area she wanted to build a career in, as well as being a once-in-lifetime experience.
“It gives you so many opportunities, whether it’s meeting new people, helping with lambing on the college farm or getting involved with the Student Union. The Wednesday night socials with the shooting club were legendary!”
Annie lived in halls in first year and in a shared house in nearby Newport in her second and fourth years.
She began job hunting in the autumn of 2016, accepted the job in January 2017 and started in July of that year. “It was a big relief – going into my finals knowing I had a job.”
Nowadays, Annie is involved in everything from co-ordinating crop trials and exploring new varieties and growing methods to getting involved with crop planning and farm budget management.
Established in 1988, the company also designs and manufactures field-scale polytunnels, substrate and growing systems. “It’s very busy, very varied and a great company to work for,” she says.
“We studied a module on soft produce during my degree which helped me in terms of my decision to pursue this job. I also enjoyed the Animal Production Science aspects and, while the farm business management modules weren’t my favourite at the time, I definitely benefit from having that knowledge now.”
Annie says: “Financing a degree is a big consideration, but I managed to save some money during my placement, which helped fund my fourth year. I view student loan repayments as a bit like a tax – the money’s taken off you before see it, so in some ways it this doesn’t affect your quality of life as you don’t see the money in the first place.
“University isn’t right for everyone, but it was a massive learning curve for me and an amazing experience. I wouldn’t change a thing. I’ve come away with so many friends and so many memories.”
The apprenticeship route
Sam Cliffe loves the fact he has a job where no two days are the same.
As a master technician for independent machinery dealer Morris Corfield, based in Cheshire, he has a career where he gets to see different things and meet different people on a daily basis.
“It’s very satisfying. One day I could be working on a tractor and another day on a combine. I’m not sat in an office – I am out and about.”
Sam’s route into the industry involved undertaking a four-year Claas Agricultural Technician Apprenticeship scheme, delivered by Reasebeath College, near Nantwich, which he started in 2010.
The college runs agricultural engineering training courses for a range of leading national and international companies.
He had previously completed a Level 3 Diploma in Agriculture – also at Reaseheath – which proved a stepping stone to the role at Morris Corfield.
Sam says the apprenticeship was a great opportunity to earn while he continued to learn and he liked the fact that he had a guaranteed job at the end of his training.
“Some people go to university and come out loaded up with debt. I was getting paid while at work, but still got the opportunity to go to college to study,” he says.
The first three years of the training course involved working full time as an apprentice mechanic except for four weeks of block release at Reaseheath every term. The final year was just one week of block release.
The students were also given the opportunity to visit Claas’s headquarters in Germany and the company’s training academy at Saxham in Suffolk.
They also spent time at the Barony campus of SRUC in Dumfries and Galloway, which is another of the colleges involved with the apprenticeship scheme.
Despite living locally to Reaseheath, Sam chose to live in during his block release training sessions. “I wasn’t going to at first but I am glad I did. It was a really good social life and because we were all together we bonded really well.”
Learning on the job
He believes the mix of learning on the job and and then being able to top up his skills and knowledge at college was a good one and one he would recommend to others.
“What college gives you is the opportunity to learn about things that don’t come up very often at work and stay up-to-date with the latest developments. It means that you cover things that might not come up day-to-day.”
But he admits that he preferred the winter block release sessions to the summer ones. “It’s busier in the summer at work, so you do miss out on the overtime!”
Sam graduated in 2014 as a Level 2 Service Engineer under the Landbased Technician Accreditation scheme, and he hasn’t looked back since.
He became a Level 3 master mechanic in 2016 and secured master technician status (Level 4) this year after successfully completing a written paper and a tough diagnostics challenge.
The diploma route
When Sarah Carter went on her honeymoon to Cornwall this summer, she stopped overnight at a friend’s in Somerset on route – and ended up doing the milking.
It was a friend from her time at Hartpury – and having the opportunity to meet a network of like-minded people was one of the aspects she now most values about having attended the Gloucestershire college/university.
In 2009, armed with strong GCSE qualifications, Sarah began what has now become the Level 3 Extended Diploma Agriculture course.
It was a three-year course, with a strong practical element, she recalls.
“I don’t mind paperwork and do the accounts and record-keeping now, but I’ve always been more interested in the practical side,” she says. “I definitely didn’t want to be sat in a lecture hall all week.
“As well as regular duties on the college farm, every week we’d be doing something practical at least a couple of times, whether that was fencing, shepherding, clearing trees or dehorning calves.
“We’d be taught about a topic then we’d all discuss it and share our thoughts. This opens your eyes to new ways of doing things. You learn a lot, but you also gain the confidence to ask questions and question the status quo. It was a fantastic insight into agriculture.”
Now 25, Sarah recalls how she’d got the farming bug on the family farm on the Gloucestershire-Herefordshire border.
“My sister and I had to do our daily chores every morning before school for pocket money, but we certainly weren’t pushed into farming. When I was about 14, though, I decided I wanted to make my career in farming.”
Another attraction of the course was getting to spend the middle year working full-time, and Sarah did this on another dairy farm.
“That taught me a lot and I was definitely more mature when I went back for my final year. If you’re potentially going to be an employer one day, it’s really valuable to have worked for someone else so you’ve been an employee.
“We live about half an hour from Hartpury so it was an ideal venue for me. I could travel there from home which meant, as well as meeting all those new people at college, I could carry on seeing my old friends.
“Living at home meant I saved money on accommodation bills, I could continue being an active member of Tekwesbury Young Farmers and, as I had a horse at home, it made sense from that point of view, too.”
Sarah also seized the opportunity to get extra qualifications including her PA1 and PA2, plus chainsaw and telehandler certificates.
“Going to college also opens doors you can never imagine. I won an all-expenses paid trip to Germany with a genetics company and I even went to Kenya because the college had sent a tractor there so I joined a bunch of the mechanisation students who went out there to service it.”
After finishing at Hartpury, she had a spell in New Zealand to get an insight into farming in a different country.
Nowadays, she and her husband Richard (who also studied at Hartpury) are partners with her parents, Calvin and Rachele, in the business, milking 270 cows through recently installed Lely robots.
“I love working with livestock – it’s so rewarding and you really feel like you’re making a difference,” she says.
The postgraduate route
Having come back to the family farm in his mid-20s – and having studied History as an undergraduate – Joe Stanley was keen to get a “formal” training in agriculture.
He opted for the graduate diploma in Agriculture at the Royal Agricultural University, which he completed in 2016.
“I was impressed by the breadth of the syllabus,” says the 33-year-old. “It covered pretty much everything that you would in a degree, but compressed it.”
Some students opt to do this as a one-year, full-time course, but Joe chose to do it part-time over four years, giving him the flexibility to juggle it with commitments on the farm.
“In farming it’s easy to do what you’ve always done, so it’s good to be challenged and the course opened my eyes to new thinking and new approaches. It’s really broadened my horizons.
“I particularly liked the variety of different systems we got to see – everything from large arable enterprises and shooting estates to organic enterprises and goat dairying.”
Range of backgrounds
As a course, it’s especially useful for those not from a farming background or for those who are but who want to learn more about the big picture and business aspects, he says. “I was with people from their 20s right through to their 60s and from a huge range of different backgrounds.
“I drove from north Leicestershire to Gloucestershire one day a week, and there was about the equivalent of another day’s study, spread over the rest of the week. Sometimes it was pretty challenging doing the two in tandem,” he recalls.
“You need to think carefully about the demands doing this will place on your time, particularly if you’ve got a family. You’ve also got to think carefully about the cost, but if you can make it work, it’s a brilliant experience.”
After his history degree at Durham, Joe had had a few different roles outside agriculture, including a spell in London.
“Those other roles just weren’t floating my boat and I realised I wanted to go home and have a crack at farming, which really feels like a worthwhile job,” he says.
“I’m very glad I did history at undergraduate level because it’s important when you go to university to do something you’re passionate about at that point in your life.
“If you study something you’re interested in, you enjoy it more and, if you’re not certain you’re going to go into farming, as I wasn’t at that age, a more general subject can keep your options open. Any degree gives you many transferable skills, too.”
The postgrad experience was, Joe says, hugely different to the undergrad one. “The postgrads were there solely to learn whereas for the undergrads it was about the whole university experience.
“You push yourself more than you do as an undergraduate, but when you’re doing it in tandem with a full-time job, you also have to be pragmatic. Sometimes I just had to get stuff done and off my desk so I could get on with what needed to be done on the farm.
“In some ways it was much more fulfilling second time around because, when you’re older, the whole process of learning and expanding your horizons and skillset can be much more enjoyable. You’re also more demanding – you put more into it, but you expect the institution to give you more, too.”
Ag Careers Live
Ag Careers Live is a Farmers Weekly event showcasing some of the most exciting and rewarding education and career opportunities in food and farming.
It brings together leading academic institutions and some of the sector’s most dynamic companies, all looking to recruit new talent, either through open vacancies or apprenticeship opportunities.
Join us at the event, on 15 November 2018 at Villa Park in Birmingham and find your new dream job.
See highlights from last year’s Ag Careers Live.