Changing careers in agriculture

Switching careers – either into agriculture or within the sector – might seem a daunting prospect, but it is possible.

Jess Sloss

© Richard Stanton

Case study switching to agriculture: Jess Sloss

Jess Sloss was 26 when she took the life-changing decision to switch from a career in law to one in agriculture.

As a teenager Jess had always been interested in food production, but with no farming background she found herself studying law at the University of Western England in Bristol.

See also: Read more information on careers in farming and agriculture

After completing her studies she took a job as a civil servant with Acas, a body that offers employment law advice to businesses and employees.

She quickly rose through the ranks, moving from the telephone helpline to become a senior adviser and workplace trainer.

“But I decided it just wasn’t what I wanted to do.

And as I was always very interested in food and farming practices – even at 15 – I decided to look into agriculture.”

Jess says her parents were very supportive, but some of her family did think she was crazy to give up a stable job in the middle of a recession.

“I had some very positive responses, but some others did think I was nuts.”

Keen to get some training she applied for the graduate diploma in agriculture course at the Royal Agricultural University, Cirencester.

This one-year course is aimed at people with either no farming experience, or individuals who find themselves going back to a family business after a long gap away.

“I think Acas gave me a lot of valuable experiences and the skill sets needed are quite similar, but I have far more job satisfaction now. I’m actually interested in what I am doing as the subject matter is so much more enjoyable.”
Jess Sloss

Jess says the course can be tailored to a specialism or be very generalist – and she decided she wanted to absorb as much as possible, so kept her modules wide and also sat in on extra lectures where possible.

“In holidays and at weekends I used social media to find practical work,” she says. “Groups like #clubhectare really helped me to do that. You can pick up on some really good opportunities.”

Getting as much practical work experience as possible is really important, she advises.

After graduation, Jess got a job as communications manager at Red Tractor.

She has since become technical manager for pigs, combinable crops and sugar beet.

She admits it is odd to find herself still working in an office in London when that was one of the things she was trying to get away from.

However, she has no regrets about her dramatic career change. In terms of package and prospects she says she is on a pretty similar level to many of her peers from university.

“I love it,” she says.

“I think Acas gave me a lot of valuable experiences and the skill sets needed are quite similar, but I have far more job satisfaction now. I’m actually interested in what I am doing as the subject matter is so much more enjoyable.”

Nick Davies

© Richard Stanton

Case study switching in agriculture: Nick Davies

Seven years ago Nick Davies was a full-time shepherd managing 3,500 ewes on an estate in Shropshire.

Today he manages clients and staff, rather than sheep. Aged just 37, he is operations manager for blue-chip company AB Agri, in a role that is about offering business services to the supply chain.

It is a career change that has taken hard work, dedication and a level of sacrifice along the way.

But it is one that has given Nick enormous satisfaction and his family greater long-term security.

He was at the top of his game in farming, when he decided to make the change.

Nick had not long been shortlisted as 2007 Farmers Weekly Young Farmer of the Year and was in strong demand as a speaker and to sit on industry bodies such as the National Sheep Association (NSA).

Nick’s secrets of success

  • Prepared to be brave and challenge yourself
  • Made short-terms sacrifices for long-term gains
  • Strong public-speaking and communication skills
  • Practical experience of agriculture
  • Good network of industry contacts

But he had a sense that he wanted to experience life in the supply chain at some point in his career.

And the attention that his success was bringing him gave him confidence that he could look at other avenues.

“I wanted to prove that you didn’t have to have a degree and that a lot of experience and hard work could get you a long way.”

So he took the leap into the farm assurance sector working for SAI Global as a beef and lamb scheme manager.

The move required him to work away from home from Monday to Friday for two years.

But Nick felt the sacrifice was worth it because it enabled him to get on to the housing ladder and away from tied accommodation. It felt like it was something that was buying security for his family.

Two years later he moved to Dunbia Meats as a group agricultural development manager, working to find efficiencies in the supply chain and designing continuing professional development modules for producers.

He did this for three years before moving to The Co-operative Food for 15 months to work as the agricultural development manager for beef and lamb.

Nick says in all his jobs the most important factors have been his network of contacts – which he works hard to maintain even today – and his extensive practical experience. His employers knew they could teach him the rest.

“People are looking to invest in employees and they are looking outside of the box for ways to present [information] to farmers.

“People think if you haven’t got a degree it is impossible, but I think it is changing.”

Being willing and able to stand up and talk to an audience has been another critical skill.

Nick honed his public-speaking hosting farm visits and demo days and through involvement with the NSA and Eblex.

“Be brave. If it fails – so what? If you’ve lost 12 months, who cares? As long as you don’t do it twice.”
Nick Davies

Nick believes you do need to be resilient as it is a tough industry. And any perception that you might work fewer hours by leaving practical farming is flawed, he says.

His wage has gone up, but if you factor in he is now paying for all his own housing and fuel costs he is not in a very different position financially.

However, switching careers has given him the challenge he wanted. He has also had the opportunity to travel the world.

Anyone thinking of doing something similar should just do it, he says.

“Be brave. If it fails – so what? If you’ve lost 12 months, who cares? As long as you don’t do it twice.”

That’s not to say that he has turned his back on hands-on farming.

He still does some lambing, and has not ruled out finding land so that he can run sheep alongside his day job.

It highlights once again how he is a man who likes to push himself. It is one of the secrets to his success.