Take on a trainee to boost your sheep business

Mentoring enthusiastic new entrants could help existing sheep farmers bridge a knowledge and labour gap and provide an essential “energy buzz” to help drive their business forward.

Somerset sheep farmer Andrew Wear believes mentoring is a two-way street, allowing young farmers to learn from experienced producers and existing farmers to hear new ideas and challenge their thinking.

“It does a world of good to explain what you do. It makes you consider stuff and sharpen-up on your system,” says Mr Wear.

By sharing knowledge and ideas, established farmers are also doing their bit to support new entrants struggling to get a foot on the sheep farming ladder, and ensuring the long-term sustainability of the industry.

In fact, Mr Wear believes all farmers have “an obligation” to take on a trainee. “If you are in farming you need to open up the doors, promote what you do and work with people, and you will find it will benefit your business,” he says.

It’s this attitude that has helped benefit numerous young people who have had the drive to seek out work at Mr Wear’s farm on the Mendips in Somerset.

Most notable is 20-year-old new entrant, William Hinton – the 2014 winner of the Farmers Weekly Farmers Apprentice competition.

“I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today without Andrew,” says Mr Hinton.

“Although my dad is a great mentor, Andrew’s experience provides me with a useful industry-wide picture.”

The valuable experience, knowledge and confidence gained has helped drive Mr Hinton’s sheep business forward.

Having started with two Texel ewes, he now runs 270 ewes across 141ha. He has also invested the £10,000 prize from the Farmers Apprentice in 190 store lambs, which will provide capital to help achieve his dream of setting up a sheep cheesemaking business.

Mr Wear and his wife Jen take on about 10 young people a year at Fern Hill Farm, Compton Martin, to help with the management of their 900 ewe flock.

Mentoring resources

The NSA can provide advice on mentoring. Email enquiries@nationalsheep.org.uk or call 01684 892661.

There are also a number of resources to help young people get started in the sheep industry, where you can also find out about the NSA next generation young ambassadors programme.

More career tips and advice

Watch the Farmers Apprentice episodes

The farm runs Shetlands, Texels, Romney cross Shetlands and Teeswater cross Shetlands. They also have an education facility and run events and workshops.

In 2012, Mr Wear was approached by Mr Hinton, who was attending a shearing course at Fern Hill Farm. At the time, Mr Hinton was attending Lackham College and had recently acquired some MoD land, which had provided scope to expand his sheep enterprise further in partnership with his dad.

Keen to gain more experience, he spoke to Mr Wear about potential work opportunities. Mr Wear was quick to recognise his potential and since then Mr Hinton has helped over two lambing seasons and when needed.

Mr Hinton believes part of the reason the paid arrangement has been successful is because the system at Fern Hill Farm is similar to his own and Mr Wear’s skillset fitted with what he wanted to achieve.

For example, at the time, Mr Hinton was planning on setting up his own shearing business, so Mr Wear’s knowledge as an instructor and English representative for blade shearing provided a useful source of experience.

The fact Mr Wear is hugely reliant on renting land of varying quality also fitted with Mr Hinton’s system. Seeing how Mr Wear used electric fencing to graze rougher land equipped him with ideas on how to manage the MoD ground.

“Andrew helped me view land more positively and adapt to the system you’ve got. He also made me think about matching the right breed with the right land type,” explains Mr Hinton.

As a result, he is thinking about ways to manage grass more effectively. The experience has also helped develop his shepherding skills. For example, he has used his experience of ear notching ewes at Fern Hill Farm to adopt a culling policy on his own system using EID.

Mr Wear believes all farmers have the need for a trainee on farm, even if they’re not aware of it.

“It’s a great way to get a young pair of legs on farm. You also get a great energy buzz from young people and I think you need that energy as you get older to keep your business motivated,” he says.

“It’s also a two-way feed for information. I can question William on what he’s learnt at university so I can learn the latest thinking.”

Mr Wear emphasises farmers should not get tied up with thinking they have to provide full-time employment for trainees, but use them strategically according to what needs doing at certain times. This will ensure both parties get the most from the arrangement. Providing a fair wage is also crucial to instill responsibility and motivation.

“Many farmers have two days where they need more labour so there is the potential for groups of farms to collaborate together and move a young person around different farms,” he says.

Mr Wear is always keen to find a new trainee and is also looking to develop a template to act as a guide for those wanting to become a mentor or find a mentor.

Mentoring tips

Tips for those looking for a work placement

  • Think about what you want to achieve and what kind of mentor will benefit you the most
  • Contact organisations that might be able to help find a mentor
  • Approach established farmers and talk about your aims – they can only say no
  • Get business cards made and hand them out – one farmer may not have a job, but he may know someone who does
  • Put a CV together
  • Get involved in clubs and societies
  • Work with the mentor to discuss goals and expectations.

Tips for mentors

  • Be open to the benefits of becoming a mentor
  • Think strategically about how you could best use an apprentice on farm – what time of year do you need them, could they help with specific tasks?
  • Pay a fair wage
  • Time isn’t a restraint – what a work placement requires will vary from person to person and may involve just a few days or exchanging a few emails
  • Give people the benefit of the doubt
  • Discuss and be clear of goals and expectations.