Explore the changing role of the farm secretary

They’re a crucial part of any well-run agricultural enterprise, but the job of the farm secretary is often overlooked by young people looking for a career in the countryside. Sarah Todd finds out what the role has to offer.

From the days of filling in leatherbound ledgers in ink, today’s farm secretary or administrator as she or he is nowadays more likely to be known has evolved almost beyond recognition. Two elements, however, remain the same.

“A smile and a pair of wellies,” laughs Bethan Roberts, 28, whose work ranges from VAT returns to paying bills, registering calves, and even uploading video clips on to YouTube.

“One of the farms I work for make their own cheese and putting clips on to YouTube is a very important part of their marketing,” says Bethan, who grew-up on a 100ha farm that her partner now runs stocked with 500 Welsh ewes.

She did a geography degree and, after a spell working for a conservation organisation, started working a few hours a week for Elin Jones, a council member of the Institute of Agricultural Secretaries and Administrators (IAgSA), who represents the Welsh farm secretaries.

“The job just clicked for me,” Bethan says. “I realised I enjoyed admin and organisation. There is a real buzz to be had from sorting through a pile of work.

“I’m starting to branch out by myself and love the fact that the work ties in with the farm at home. At busy times I can usually organise my day so I can fit everything in.”

Career continuity 

Billie Johnson, newly appointed chairman of IAgSA, says the industry is a real growth area and there is often more work than people to do it.

“It’s such a shame that the industry has sometimes struggled in the past to attract young people as there is huge potential,” says Billie, a partner in a farm business consultancy and accountancy practice with branches in Oxford and Devon.

“We often hear of farmers wanting to employ a secretary, but struggling to find the right person to fill the vacancy.”

Billie, who says farm secretaries and administrators are professionals in their own right rather than the old image of “a girl in tweed skirt and pearls”, puts the lack of new blood down to the fact that hardly any colleges now offer farm secretarial and administration courses. This is where IAgSA has stepped in, offering a range of training and professional development.

“It makes sense that there are job opportunities as farm businesses have more paperwork and legislation to deal with than ever before,” says Billie, who started her working life in a drawing office.

“I married a farmer, and although my father-in-law kept ‘the ledger’, as they did in those days, he had a brother who did the wages and I could see that it would end up being my job. So I retrained as a farm secretary. It’s fitted in well around having my family.

“I started out using an old imperial typewriter that my father had bought me when I was about 10, progressing to an electronic typewriter before computers came in.

“There’s no longer the weekly visit to the bank, which was a big part of my work, carrying quite large sums of cash around to pay the wages,” Billie adds.

Decent broadband access is, Billie says, never far from the conversation when IAgSA members get together, as they did recently at their annual conference.

“Poor broadband connection can be so infuriating. It makes the difference between getting a job done straight away on-farm or having to take work away. With the ageing farming population, our members are providing a much-needed service by helping farmers with their online returns. They can be a cause of real worry to the older generation. Improving communications is definitely a major campaign of ours.”

Communication highway

Sally Wood, who lives near Chesterfield in Derbyshire, is another farm secretary who knows only too well how important broadband has become to her profession. When she started out, if a client needed to speak to her they would “telephone my mum” who would give the phone number of the farm she was at that day.

“Now clients send me text messages or emails, or telephone my mobile at any time,” she says.

Sally’s father was a farmer. She went to secretarial college for a year to learn shorthand and typing, then on to Brooksby Agricultural College before spending time learning the ropes at an accountancy firm.

“I got offered a regular day a week on a farm and decided to go for it,” says, Sally, who is married to a dairy farmer.

“Now I do about 45 VAT returns and 80 single payments. Wages and VAT are all done online.”

Sally’s first laptop cost more than £5,000, including the software.

“Looking back, it wasn’t really a laptop but had a carrying handle, a keyboard, and a grey and black screen.”

Writing cheques used to take up a lot of 42 year-old Sally’s time.

“Now I have pre-printed cheques for the larger farms, and the software prints the cheques with the addressee on. All the farmer has to do is sign it and put it in a window envelope.

“Internet banking has also changed things. No more waiting for the bank statement to arrive in the post to see if an amount has been paid.”

Sally, who took each of her three children out with her to work until they “started crawling”, adds that the job has brought great satisfaction on a personal level.

“I’ve had some of my clients since their children were born; now they’re getting grandchildren,” she says.

“Everybody’s different. There are quite a few farms where they leave a pile of stuff in the corner and whatever’s in it I go through. It could be a gun licence renewal, an insurance claim, or filling in a form for a new driving licence for one of my older clients. A good farm secretary just gets on with it.

“It’s the best job in the world. I wouldn’t do anything else,” Sally adds. “I couldn’t be sat in the same office every day doing the same thing. For me, every day is different.”

Invaluable support 

While many farm secretaries work for multiple clients on a self-employed basis, it’s not the only route. Mary Veldhuis used to be self-employed, but is in now in full-time employment with South Lynch Estates based in Hampshire.

When she spoke to Farmers Weekly, Mary, who is in her 50s, was out and about on one of the estate’s poultry farms. The business comprises a 800ha arable farm, 1,200ha contract farming, 300 head dairy unit, six pig farms, two poultry units, and an 3,200ha hill farm in Scotland where the family recently built a hydrostation.

She works alongside another farm administrator in an environment that is a far cry from when she first started in the sector 30-odd years ago. Her parents worked on a farm and after a business course at college she spent time with an accountancy firm and began working for the local estate in Suffolk as a trainee farm secretary.

She says: “I spent the next eight years learning from the farm secretary. Everything was recorded by hand and written in ink in heavy leatherbound ledgers. There were no computers, no fax machines and only two-way radios.

“I had two children and then, due to my husband’s work, moved to Hampshire, where I continued both on an employed and self-employed basis for various local farmers; again having two more children and fitting work in and around my family.”

It was eight years’ ago that Mary started working for a farming family, who in 2007 purchased part of a large estate.

“I had been with them for two years previously and helped both with the purchase of the new farm and the sale of the old family farm,” Mary explains.

“From when I started out in 1979 to now, I have had many challenges. The biggest part of my job is the continual learning process I have to do to stay one-step ahead of the game. If I don’t know of a procedure or a policy, or how to fill in a form, I have to research mainly using the internet, which has been my best support tool. I am always attending training courses, seminars and as a member of IAgSA, have the constant support from them to help with gaining information that is required,” she adds.

Mary finds it interesting to look back at how far farm administrators have come since the days of “popping in to the farmhouse to fill in the accounts books over a cup of tea”.

“We are now involved in producing budgets, cash flows, single farm payments, gross margins, as well as the day-to-day accounting.

“I have been a farm secretary for more than 30 years and I still can honestly say I love my job it might be that I work for a great family but they work hard for their farm and their farm is our community.

“I wouldn’t hesitate in encouraging the next generation to look at it as a serious career option,” she says.

IAgSA is the only professional body representing those involved in every aspect of rural business administration. It has more than 950 members in the UK. Visit www.iagsa.co.uk , or call 01926 485 543.

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