The Farmers Weekly Awards celebrate the very best of British farming by recognising and rewarding innovation, hard work and passion for agriculture.
Coming from three contrasting types of farm businesses, these extraordinary farmworkers gave the judging panel a tough job to pick a winner. Each contributes a staggering amount to the farms they work for.
Tack Farm, Bromyard, Herefordshire
It’s fair to say that Tack Farm has changed dramatically since herd manager Mark Lewis joined the team some 15 years ago.
When he arrived in March 2001, the farm was milking 180 cows – a far cry from the 750-strong herd he is in charge of today.
We all know the dairy sector is facing incredibly tough times right now, with painfully low milk prices forcing some farms to sell up.
Working closely with his boss – Henry Lewis, the 2006 Farmers Weekly Dairy Farmer of the Year – Mark has been calmly focused on developing and adapting the farm to better cope with whatever the future may hold.
As part of this future-proofing, the farm saw the parlour upgrade to a 50-point rotary affair six years ago and a flying herd system is now well established, with all replacement cows drafted in from continental Europe.
- • Started dairying in 1984, now milking 750 cows, producing about 8.5m litres of milk each year
- • Moved to flying herd system with 50-point rotary parlour
- • Farm crowned 2006 Farmers Weekly Dairy Farmer of the Year
Such dedication to business and ability to work in perfect unity with his boss makes Mark a stand-out farmworker.
Farm owner Henry, who is no relation to Mark, describes him as “very diplomatic, respected by everyone he works with” and says that he “makes things happen”.
Before Mark was hired as herd manager, the farm had a high turnover for the role, with a new person having to be brought in every 12 months or so.
“When I came here I just wanted more of a challenge and this was the perfect match for me. Henry and I instantly clicked when I joined – we wanted the same things and had the same ambitions.”
These shared ambitions have driven steady growth over the years, with Mark acting as a vital cog in the team. He is always keen to action sometimes radical changes in the way things are done and challenges conventional practices, in a bid to further improve the farm’s efficiency.
The latest in a long line of concepts that Mark is excited to be trying out on farm is a move to green bedding.
In effect, this system takes the used bedding and manure from the cow sheds and recycles it by separating the liquid from the solids. The end product is a dry, smell-free, fibrous bedding that has the potential to save the farm about £3,000/month, while also hopefully reducing mastitis levels.
The farm is also part of a benchmarking group to keep costs in check and this has helped to reduce vet bills from 1.1p/litre to 0.7p/litre.
The judges liked
- • Works well with his boss, implementing and hitting key aims and objectives
- • Always keen to try new concepts in order to drive the business forward
- • Incredible attention to detail and calming influence on his peers
“We like to learn and try new things to push up yields or save the farm some money. I’m 52 years old and I’m still learning all the time.”
To feed his thirst for knowledge and travel, Mark is sometimes sent on fact-finding missions to the US and Denmark.
Mark describes himself as “everything from a nutritionist to an agony aunt”, referring to two key parts of his job that he works particularly hard on.
“Nutrition is a real passion of mine – it’s all about having healthy, profitable cows. In my dairy philosophy, the health and welfare of the cows is at the very top of the list.
“If you’ve got lameness or mastitis problems then the cows won’t milk,” he says.
Ideas for pushing up milk yields from grass silage and exploring new ways to beat mastitis are just some of the points Mark is continually churning over in his methodical mind, as he goes about his day-to-day tasks.
Managing the workforce to the very best of his ability is the second part of the job that Mark is focused on.
In the early days, he was milking three times a day in the farm’s old herringbone parlour, but wear and tear to tendons in his shoulders meant he had to take a step back from this.
Now he oversees the smooth running of the dairy unit and the 11 staff members on a daily basis.
“Finding good people to work with me has always been the biggest challenge I think. I’m now training up a 23-year-old guy called Jake as a new deputy herdsman and it is really rewarding to see his face light up when he learns something new.”
Southern England Farms, Helston, Cornwall
Moving hundreds of miles away from her home country, Lithuanian Alfija Kalpiss came to the UK in 2005 to work hard for a better future.
For the past 11 years, Alfija has worked for Cornish-based Southern England Farms, a huge vegetable-growing farm business.
She has come a long way in that time, barely able to speak a word of English in the early days, to now being a person vital to the success of the business.
She started out picking courgettes – now her favourite vegetable – as part of a team of harvest workers sweeping the operation’s vast acreage, sizing up and selecting fresh produce year round.
“I love the courgettes – they are like my babies, I can tell you everything about them. It’s funny, never in my life did I think I would do anything to do with farming.
- • More than 2,000ha of rented land across Cornwall, growing spring greens, courgettes, broccoli, cabbage, kale and cauliflower
- • 180 core staff working full-time year round, growing to more than 300 in peak seasons
- • Farm supplies Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and other food processors
“When I came to the UK I couldn’t really speak any English. I was once asked: ‘What is your name?’ I just smiled and said ‘Yes’ because I did not understand.
“After that I was embarrassed and felt so stupid, so I was determined to work hard and get a good standard of English.”
Having nailed the language of the country she calls home, Alfija is now learning Bulgarian and Polish to be able to communicate with all of her colleagues more clearly, as the farm attracts many workers from across Europe.
“I am motivated to always be improving and challenging myself for a better future for myself and my family.”
Over the years Alfija’s infectious optimism and kind, respectful nature towards her peers has helped her rise through the ranks to harvest manager in 2007, overseeing the teams of courgette pickers.
For the past seven years she has been dedicated to looking after the welfare, induction and training of the hundreds of staff at the farm.
While now in more of a supervisory role, the 34-year-old is rarely found behind a desk filling out forms and has not forgotten how she started out.
She is still just as keen to work in a team out in the fields as she was 11 years ago, and will often work side-by-side with new team members to show them the ropes and get them up to speed.
This means the entire harvest team works smoothly and efficiently and the required daily tonnages are met.
The judges liked
- • An integral link in the running of the farm business
- • Commands respect and has an infectiously positive attitude to life and her work
- • Makes light work of complex and extensive responsibilities
When asked how she manages to keep in constant contact with such a large workforce, she explains that she did find it tricky initially after being promoted to her staff and welfare role, but her meticulous organisation and can-do attitude made it work.
“I know everyone who works here, not just because I am inducting new staff members and training them, but because I am talking to all of them all of the time.”
Knowing that the seasonal workers are happy and continue to come back to work on the farm year after year makes her beam with pride.
Some staff have been returning to work the busy harvest shifts from March to October for more than a decade, keeping staff turnover low and productivity high.
This is a huge testament to Alfija’s achievements and influence at all levels of the business.
Alfija’s helpfulness extends far beyond work though, with many staff members also needing her help with bank, healthcare, accommodation, childcare and school-related problems that they may come up against.
When asked what gets her going in the morning with such a wide-ranging and essential role to play on the farm, she replies: “Normally it’s a phone call to say that a tractor isn’t working, especially if it is in the busy summer months.”
Her boss, Southern England Farms director Jane Richards, nominated her for the Farmworker of the Year award and describes Alfija as “the glue that holds everyone together. She is tiny but loud, says everything with a smile and has a real love for people.”
That genuine love for people led her to find her future husband, who also works on the farm.
They have been married for nine years, living near the farm with Alfija’s son, and consider the UK to be their true home.
Bearwood Farm, Brentor, Devon
Julie Tucker decided to set up her farm secretary business in 2013, having always done the book-keeping for her own beef and sheep farm on the edge of Dartmoor.
Three years on and demand for her help has exploded. She works for a variety of livestock and arable farms in Devon and is now so busy that she has put new farmers on a waiting list.
“As I was doing our farm paperwork I became increasingly aware of how many other farmers were struggling with the increasing burden, so with a background in accounts and business development I decided to become a full-time farm secretary.”
Having joined the mounted section of the military police after she left school, it’s little surprise to find Julie’s home office utterly immaculate, with neatly stowed, colourful files containing the records of the farms she serves above her desk.
- • Bearwood Farm has 130 breeding ewes and 35 suckler cows
- • Farmer’s wife who identified other farmers’ needs to help them cope with paperwork burden
- • Qualified farm secretary for about 130 farms, managing everything from single farm payments to animal movement records, grant applications to staff payroll
This regimented attitude is carried over from her past career, which saw her patrolling the Berlin Wall on horseback in the days before it was torn down, helping to make Julie such an invaluable farmworker.
Don’t mistake her for some stuffy accountant who’s more interested in spreadsheets than sheep shearing, though.
Working across so many different farms, as well as her own, Julie is more clued up on farming matters than most.
Julie is so much more than a book-keeper. She is a council member of the Institute of Agricultural Secretaries and Administrators (IAgSA), with her massive knowledge and experience making her extremely valuable in her role as the representative for training, common lands and farming charities.
She works with farming charities such as Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution (Rabi), helping farmers who are hit by illness, depression or family crisis and are in desperate need of help to get back on track.
“The Rabi jobs are so rewarding to do because the farmer can sleep at night once it’s all done. If I can’t find the right farm secretary locally to help, then I will travel myself because it is just so important.”
In the past, Julie has travelled to East Yorkshire to do this charity work and has been presented with feed bags crammed full of unopened letters because farmers can’t cope with the pressures they face. “I like a challenge and I like to feel that I am making a difference to farmers – it is very satisfying.”
The judges liked
- • Dedicated to making farmers’ lives easier, looking to save farms money
- • Selfless, bubbly character who is involved in charity work and local groups
- • Willing to fight sometimes seemingly lost causes for the benefit of her farmers
A big believer in mentoring others, Julie runs farm secretary evening classes at the local Duchy College, plus sessions for groups of farmers’ wives.
“I run these classes to offer direct help from somebody who can calve a cow but also knows the practical nuts and bolts of getting through the paperwork. There are some easy mistakes to make with whopping great fines to pay as a result.”
When it comes to money, her tenacity and attention to detail has helped her farmers keep hold of significant amounts of cash.
Just recently she saved one sheep farmer about £400 on his feed bill after she flagged inconsistent pricing throughout the lambing season.
“I work with so many different businesses so I have a good knowledge of pricing for most items and services, which means I can give guidance on where savings can be made.”
Julie is committed to expand her expertise and seizes rare opportunities to build on her already considerable knowledge. In the past she has helped live test new online systems before release.
This means she can get a sneak preview of the upcoming systems and use this to help her farmers.
Never one to give up when she knows something isn’t right, Julie has taken on the RPA and won, championing the farming community and fighting issues surrounding common grazing rights and BPS payouts.
She has also lobbied Defra over pre-movement TB testing, which directly sparked licensing reforms.
When she’s not putting the bureaucrats right, Julie indulges in her love of sheepdog trialling – a hobby she first got hooked on about 10 years ago.
She has five border collies and will be taking her top dog, Sweep, to the English National Sheep Dog Trials this August.
The Farmers Weekly Farmworker of the Year 2016 award is sponsored by Isuzu.
“Isuzu are enormously proud to sponsor the Farmworker of the Year award, which this year has seen outstanding entries from diverse areas of the farming spectrum. What makes all the finalists stand out is their energy, passion and commitment to their roles and their own self-improvement”
Group marketing director, Isuzu