2015 Farmers Weekly Awards: Young Farmer of the Year finalists revealed

Touring the businesses of the three young finalists making a huge impact on their farms and the industry was a huge privilege – and proof agriculture has a bright future.

From left to right: William Willis, Rich Dayment and Matthew Sharp

From left to right: William Willis, Rich Dayment and Matthew Sharp

See the other Farmers Weekly Awards finalists

Willlam Willis

Glasgoforest, Aberdeenshire

William Willis

William Willis © Jim Findlay


William Willis took a pragmatic look at the business he inherited 10 years ago, and has not stood still since. The farm is restructured, the herd healthier and new installations he has made will set his operation, near Aberdeen, on a steady course for years to come.

It’s a resounding success for someone who had to take on the family farm after the death of his father while he was still studying at university. Suddenly, William was expected to keep the farm afloat while completing his studies. This he achieved, and the experience seemingly instilled the confidence to transform the business in the years that followed.

He graduated with a 2:1 in agriculture, and was RABDF and Barclay’s dairying student of the year.

The farm is a prime example of how fresh eyes, combined with enthusiasm for the technical side of dairying, can give vigour to a farm business.

Today, at 30 years old, he farms in partnership with his mother, managing day-to-day operations and the overall direction of the business. His guiding hand and hard work have seen the farm making money even when the organic milk price collapsed as the recession hit. Today, net profits are triple those of 2010 and there is confidence and cash available for investment, though the focus is paying off loans taken recently to modernise the farm.

Judges liked

  • Clear plan for the direction of the business, enacted efficiently
  • Strong technical knowledge that has seen cow performance lifted
  • Rational decision making and a profitable business

The 105ha holding is tidy when Farmers Weekly visits, even the oldest calving sheds are spotless.

William has effectively moved the farm by about 200m, building a new parlour and shifting silage clamps, enabling him to redevelop old farm buildings into houses, with further planning permission to optimise the value of the farm’s “non-agricultural” assets. Like all progressive farmers, William has an investment plan, and has used the value released from these assets to reinvest in the commercial farming operation. He has improved cow tracks, and partitioned fields to improve sward management and optimise grass utilisation, explaining that previously, cows would tire a field before they were moved.

His mantra throughout has been to rationalise the business and make farming it more efficient.

The quality of forage is a key element of his business model – producing the highest quality feed possible at the lowest price. “You think grass would be an easy crop to grow, but the more you get into it the more there is to learn,” he says. When it comes to grassland management, William is obsessed.

Farm facts

  • Organically farmed dairy, with 128 cows
  • Glasgoforest is 260a with a further 80a of tenanted land nearby
  • Farmed by William Willis in partnership with his mother, Anne

The farm, on sandy loam with 890mm of annual rainfall, spread evenly across the year, grows grass clover swards, and whole-crop peas and barley, using a rotation and strategic reseeding to rejuvenate the grass. With cold winds straight off the North Sea, and the reliance on naturally generated nitrogen, spring growth is typically delayed, and the herd is housed from November to April. Taking on a further 32ha of nearby land to provide conserved forage, means that the main farm around the new dairy can be reserved for grazing cows.

William has focused on his herd’s health, and the genetics. An important step was beginning to administer AI himself, and taking a more active role in the selection of bull semen. Fertility is a target for improvement and, while he hopes to be lifting milk yield from 7,500 litres to above 8,000 litres, he is conscious that pushing production too hard may hit other health measures. A further consideration is foot and leg health, and keeping cows’ size in check. This attention to health extends to taking weekly visits from his vet during calving; he considers their advice the best source of technical knowledge he has.

With the business in fine fettle, William is beginning to look at further opportunities for gaining a premium for his milk. It is the second tenet: get the input right, then find the best output price possible. He has a premium for his organic milk, but is looking at the possibility of processing a portion himself, even making artisan ice cream.

But then that’s William all over: attentive, logical and taking a rational, step-by-step approach to business. Inputs optimised, check. Farm structured, check. Next step, marketing. In short, young or not, he is an exceptional farmer.

Matthew Sharp

The Rising Sun Farm, Tyneside

Matthew Sharp

Matthew Sharp © Jim Varney

It is exhausting just sitting in a room with Matthew Sharp. He brims with enthusiasm, confidence and eagerness to learn everything he can about farming.

Matthew wasn’t born with an acreage to inherit, or even a family that farmed. In his own words, he is “not from a farming background whatsoever”. He really is an example of someone with single mindedness, and a drive to succeed that belies his 22 years.

He began mowing grass for neighbours at 13, but even then aspired to farming and found work experience on a mixed commercial farm at 15. From there he earned a tractor licence and worked over the two summers that followed, gaining experience across arable and livestock. Through Young Farmers he found the Guild of Agricultural Journalists’ training course, and with characteristic zeal won a scholarship to learn how to write.

The experience gained allowed him to broaden his contacts and knowledge, and the cash generated from this work funded his first independent farming venture – four acres and six Hebridean sheep. This flock was built to 130 breeding ewes, all while studying for A-levels.

He swapped sheep for cattle around the time he started at Newcastle University, and so was studying while managing a small herd of cattle and relief milking to generate cash. It was three years of “stress, hard work and plenty of hassle”.

Judges liked

  • Unbridled enthusiasm and energy; determination to be a farmer
  • Hard working and has sacrificed a lot to get where he is
  • Great ambition and plans for the future of his businesses

Exhausted yet? His latest project is even more bewildering. While still finishing his course at university, Matthew took on the management of a dilapidated council-owned charity farm. “Little maintenance had been done, the livery clients weren’t very happy, the farm wasn’t making enough money,” he says of the farm’s condition when he arrived.

As Farmers Weekly’s judging panel toured the 80ha holding, he described quite shocking problems: a 6ft-deep hole in the yard filled with miscellaneous pollution; a blocked ditch that housed a rat infestation next to the small animal petting cages; a micropig named Mr Grumpy that had grown to 150kg and been abandoned by owners – as well as overfat sows unable to conceive.

The size of the challenge Matthew took on is huge, but he has made progress, having won control of a daycare centre for challenged adults that is set to grow in the coming months. It is a worthy endeavour that offers those with learning difficulties a day in the fresh air looking after stock and tending to vegetables. The offer is also there for young offenders or any other individual that might benefit from a chance to farm.

Matthew’s success at The Rising Sun Farm demonstrates a deep commitment to community and an inherent desire to bring agriculture to the urban population. His farm forms a bridge between the estates in full view of his office and the countryside.

He has also partnered with Askham Bryan College, which will bring agricultural students on to the farm – another new revenue stream – and increase the livestock on the holding.

All this has been achieved with little time and even less cash to spend on improvements. Matthew has restructured the horticultural operation on the farm and is now selling produce to businesses in Newcastle, just eight miles away.

He has also found a regular fixed-price contract for the pigs (now breeding), so rather than losing money, they are making some. Quail have been added to the roster of small animals – and Matthew has found an eager market for their eggs in delis and farm shops across Tyneside.

Farm facts

  • Council-owned farm tenanted to a trust on the edge of Newcastle
  • Operates principly as a livery, also has a day-care centre for challenged adults
  • Matthew also keeps a herd of sucker cows nearby, which he hopes to expand

Gradually, the finances are being brought under control, difficult tenants have been evicted and the livery customers placated.

All the while his separate business, the suckler herd, grazes patches of rented land dotted around the surrounding countryside. It was built up from a hotchpotch of species bought from friends and contacts, and gradually a commercial breeding herd is being developed.

A final point worth mentioning is that Matthew has thrown himself into the agricultural industry as a whole. He is active in the NFU, Young Farmers and has spoken at the Oxford Farming Conference in recent years.

All this only a decade since he first picked up a lawnmower and dreamed of driving a tractor. It’s not hard to see Matthew making real waves in farming in the 10 years that will follow.

Rich Dayment

Crouch Farm, Sussex

Richard daymant

Rich Dayment © Tim Scrivener

Take a tour of 29-year-old Rich Dayment’s organic dairy farm and you’re likely to be offered pearls of wisdom from the likes of Warren Buffet, the men who built up McDonald’s and other business magnates.

It’s the process of running a company, more than the technical practice, that is the principal driver behind his enthusiasm for the 364ha holding he took on in April 2014.

But stand on a patch of high ground in the centre of his farm and his prowess in managing grassland becomes apparent. The acres under Rich’s control look green, lush and are a stark contrast to the burnt-out landscape around it. When talking about his stewardship, he exudes a calm confidence. Tough questions are met with straightforward answers, and detailed figures about the farm he has managed for just 15 months are always to hand.

Indeed, his pastures green have been so well received that neighbours have offered difficult land to him, taking the total area he farms to 526ha.

Rich grew up on a conventional dairy unit in the South West, but like many others could not become enthusiastic about simply joining the family business. After graduating in 2008, he set out for New Zealand, where his love for farming was rekindled.

Judges liked

  • Strong grasp of both the technical and commercial side of dairying
  • Passion for training staff, and developing opportunities for new entrants
  • A man with a strong business ethic, evident in his learning about successful enterprises

Returning to the UK in 2011, he found work on a progressive Cumbrian dairy unit, and it was around this time that he met two people who would shape his life over the following few years. The first was his partner, Holly, and the second was Joe Delves, a Nuffield scholar who had examined ways to get young people set up in dairy farming.

Joe had been sitting in his “thinking chair” when he came up with the arrangement that attracted Rich back from a second stint dairying in New Zealand. It was a split equity partnership that aims to build a valuable asset base – not just in the herd of dairy cows as in many traditional equity share arrangements – but in the business as a whole. While Joe provided the capital, Rich is paid to manage the farm. He was offered 15% equity and the opportunity to grow his share in the business if he meets performance targets.

The business plan extends to the full term of the seven-year farm business tenancy, by which time Rich could, if he delivers on performance, hold up to 44% equity. A very real incentive for an ambitious young farmer.

In just over a year, he has begun to transform the mismatched herd of 230 dairy cows and 180 youngstock bought from the incumbent at the start of the tenancy. Rich is actively breeding a more uniform herd, selecting for a more robust animal, with good mobility – increasing milk solids is also a target.

He will calve two-thirds in the spring and the remainder in the autumn, as bringing them round to the same time of year wouldn’t make sense over seven years. The calving season is targeted to be below 10 weeks.

Farm facts

  • 1,300a farmed in a tenancy set up as a business partnership
  • Over time Richard gains shares in the dairy herd – the company’s principle asset
  • The farm is home to a herd of some 230 cross-bred dairy cows, farmed organically

“It’s a difficult farm to run,” concedes Rich. Fields are not in a sensible order, and are split by woodland, making the distance to the parlour that of a farm double its size. He has employed an assistant manager, Sam, and is clearly proud of the skills he has imparted. “I just want to share my knowledge and experience – if he can learn how to run this farm properly, one with more sensible proportions would be easy.”

Compounding this is the litany of Sites of Special Scientific Interest, Entry and Higher Level Stewardships – Rich provides a large habitat for the English cricket. The organic farm buzzes with wildlife as a result and he says the lifestyle and farming method has won him over.

But Rich is most enthusiastic about the future of the business model he has set up with his mentor Joe. “As a partner in the business I am able to build assets while I work to develop my management skills.”

It is apparent that with a fair wind behind him, he may soon be offering the same opportunities to would-be farmers in the same situation he had just 18 months ago. Giving others the chance to fulfil their dreams in a sound, pragmatic business model that is commercially robust, is clearly at the front of Rich’s mind.

Young Farmer of the Year is sponsored by Tesco.

“We are proud to be British agriculture’s biggest supporter and through our Future Farmer Foundation programme we know the importance of investment in young farmers. I was impressed at the calibre of finalists this year”

Hannah Donegan, agricultural manager, lamb

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