Farmers Weekly Awards 2023: Ag Student of the Year finalists

This year’s finalists radiate passion for the future of the sector and demonstrate strong academic achievements through hard work.

Each of them is a brilliant example of how seizing every opportunity, especially those outside of their comfort zones, can bring great rewards. 

See also: Nominate your 2023 Farming Champion

The finalists:

Harry Davies

Hopes Ash Farm, Herefordshire

Isla Soutter

Yew Tree Farm, Leicestershire

Oliver Stephens

Brindely Avenue, Buckinghamshire

The judges: 

Ben Chilman

2022 Ag Student of the Year

Hayley Chapman

Farmers Weekly judge 

Ally Hunter-Blair

Independent judge and farmer

Harry Davies

Hopes Ash Farm, Herefordshire

Harry Davies

Harry Davies © Richard Stanton

Harry Davies says it was the “herculean challenge” of increasing global food production while managing the environmental impacts that inspired him to head to Harper Adams to study agriculture.

He believes he is a very different person now than before he started university, as he finishes his final year, inspired to take his learnings home to the family farm to increase profitability and sustainability.

Changes already implemented at the mixed farm include introducing genomic testing in the dairy herd, which has helped to add more than £100 to the herd’s average profitable lifetime index in the past 12 months.

“I am exceptionally pleased with how one specific lecture has translated into measurable performance enhancement,” he says.

Having achieved an impressive average of 71% over his first two years, Harry then took on a placement with NE Salmon, working both in the UK and in Western Australia.

The uni years

His lecturer describes Harry as a “joy to teach” and applauds his communication, engagement, listening and passion.

As a livestock producer in the Wye catchment, he took a subject close to home – elevated phosphate levels within the River Wye – and explored it through his dissertation project, looking at the technology for stripping phosphate from animal manures.

Harry will swiftly acknowledge that his biggest weakness can be worrying about decisions made on the farm, but he tries to achieve some downtime riding his motorbike or watching rugby to allow him to switch off.

He is also an active member of his local YFC and got involved with the university’s off-road club.

Passion for agriculture

On Harry’s CV, a long list of livestock and land-based qualifications, nearly all of which were gained during his time at Harper, testify to his dedication to self-development.

His passion at home has always been the dairy enterprise, which is why he pursued an arable placement to fill the knowledge gap he felt he had in that area.

He has considered working elsewhere once he leaves university, but has decided to head back to Hopes Ash Farm near Ross-on-Wye.

“I am excited about the things I want to do at home. We have ongoing projects, such as a small-scale AD [anaerobic digestion] plant going up this summer, and we have moved from turkeys to chickens, so I just want to get my teeth stuck in.

“I felt the opportunities and learning curve I would have from managing the AD project would be greater than sitting on somebody else’s tractor for a year.”

He also wants to bring more regenerative principles to the farm, driving out synthetic inputs and using livestock more effectively.

“I don’t think regenerative farming is a fad. The name might be a fad – I don’t know what it’ll be called next week – but the principles behind it are fantastic and that’s the direction of travel I want to move in,” says Harry.

Life after university

In the short term, he plans to use scholarship funds to complete his Basis and Facts qualifications.

One of the reasons for this is to better understand what inputs he can eliminate without drastically reducing output.

Longer term, he would like to be more involved with Arla and the NFU, and undertake a Nuffield scholarship.

Harry admits he occasionally struggles to say no, but this means he has squeezed every opportunity out of his university experience, which stands him in good stead for an exciting future career.

“I’m biting off more than I can chew, and chewing as hard as I can,” he summarises.

What the judges say

Harry’s passion and enthusiasm for agriculture is infectious. He has used his time at university to develop personally and has a strong knowledge in all areas with a clear vision for the future.

Harry Davies summary

Student notes

  • Studying at Harper Adams University
  • Course BSc Agriculture
  • Study year Fourth
  • Fun fact Harry can juggle while riding a unicycle – a skill he honed for a Young Farmers competition using a corridor of upturned bales to help with balance

The judges liked

  • Multitasking between huge responsibility at the home farm and achieving strong academic results
  • Passion for showing people where their food comes – hosting free bi-monthly farm walks and visiting the local primary school to talk about agriculture
  • Engaging communicator, not afraid to broach difficult subjects such as the badger cull
  • Ambitious plans for the farm and his own career 

Isla Soutter

Yew Tree Farm, Leicestershire

Isla Soutter

Isla Soutter © Richard Stanton

Farming is in her blood, and it’s fair to say that Isla Soutter has grasped every opportunity in the sector that has come her way.

This includes jumping in at the deep end with a placement in the poultry sector.

She was raised on beef, sheep and arable farms, but turned down a more familiar placement to work with an egg producer and broaden her agricultural experience. It was a brave move for somebody who admits she “despised chickens” at the time.

Isla now sees her placement as a progressive young farmer with McDonald’s and the Lakes Free Range Egg company as a highlight of her four-year course and a key contributor to her personal development.

She also introduced six hens to the farm at home in Ashby De La Zouch.

The uni years

Her course tutor praises her willingness to repeatedly step outside her comfort zone and highlights the graft she has put in to achieve good grades. 

Isla has worked consistently hard throughout education, not falling behind despite time spent as a young carer and a move from Cumbria to the Midlands in the middle of her GCSE exams.

There is never a moment wasted outside of studying, either, with time dedicated to the UK Hereford Cattle Society and playing rugby at university and home.

She credits sport with helping her develop skills such as teamwork and decision-making to achieve a common goal.

Scholarships have allowed her to complete additional land-based training courses that are offered at the university, and helped fund travel and accommodation for visits to industry events such as the Oxford Farming Conference.

Passion for agriculture

Isla is a student ambassador at Harper Adams; encouraging others into agriculture is something she’s passionate about, as is educating consumers on where food comes from.

In fact, she would put food on the national curriculum given half the chance.

Through her role on the committee of the local agricultural show, she has introduced an educational stand with the local college as well as a butchery demonstration.

“In the future, hopefully we can give people a different perspective on where their food comes from, which could lead to less misinformation, supporting British farming to become more sustainable, reducing food miles, reducing food waste and improving diets.”

Cattle are Isla’s first love, and she enjoys both exhibiting and, more recently, judging at livestock shows.

Informed by her learning on sustainable animal production systems and her dissertation on consumer perceptions and attitudes, she believes agriculture has a bright, and sustainable, future if it can embrace new research and technology.

Life after university

Upon returning from Australia’s west coast this summer, where she hopes to visit a variety of different farms, Isla will embark on a two-year graduate programme with the agriculture team at ABP Food Group.

In time, she wants to continue travelling, with her sights set on the 2025 World Hereford Conference in Kansas and a Nuffield scholarship.

“Travel has allowed me to recognise the significant contribution various nations make to the world’s food production.

“Having the opportunity to experience different systems has broadened my technical knowledge and understanding of our shared challenged surrounding food security,” she says. 

What the judges say

Isla has never been afraid to get out of her comfort zone. She works hard to gain a rounded knowledge of the industry and has a passion to inspire the next generation through education.”


Isla Soutter summary

Student notes

  • Studying at Harper Adams University
  • Course BSc Agriculture with Animal Science
  • Study year Fourth
  • Fun fact Isla is allergic to cattle, so antihistamines are her best friend

The judges liked

  • Willingness to step out of comfort zone to further personal development
  • Strong work ethic and commitment to learning
  • Contribution to university life in ambassadorial role
  • Optimism about the future of agriculture and enthusiasm to recruit new entrants

Oliver Stephens

Brindely Avenue, Buckinghamshire

Oliver Stephens

Oliver Stephens © Richard Stanton

Oliver says he struggled to engage at secondary school, so when he found out agricultural college was an option instead of A-levels, he “leapt at it”.

He left Berkshire College of Agriculture with a distinction, an award for the most “ability in agriculture” and an entrance scholarship for Aberystwyth University. No mean feat for somebody with no farming background.

Instead of heading straight to uni, though, Oliver spent a year gaining as much practical experience as possible – milking, lambing, grain carting, doing general farm work and assisting at a grain store.

“I could have got away without doing it because university is very theoretical, but I am so glad I did it and would recommend other people do it,” says Oliver.

“That year taught me so much about what happens on farm, and how the farming calendar works.”

The uni years

Oliver’s grades reflect a lot of hard work. He is currently on track to achieve a first-class degree and was awarded “Best performance during a year in industry” for his year group.

His final-year tutor says he is a dedicated student, always looking for opportunities to learn and asking insightful questions.

She also says he has prepared several presentations good enough for international conferences.

Oliver was thrilled to be selected as Frontier’s commercial rotation placement student for his year in industry after an intensive selection process.

He returned to Aberystwyth to focus his dissertation on the rooting capacity of a heritage oat variety.

The results showed that the Pillas oat could be a promising new cover crop option thanks to its root biomass production under both low- and high-nutrient conditions.

His findings are now being used in further research into the variety at the National Plant Phenomics Centre.

Throughout his time at university, Oliver was elected as a member of the student staff consultative committee and has been an active member of the Aber Uni Canoe Club, enjoying whitewater rafting as well as hiking and camping in his spare time.

Passion for agriculture

When starting at college, Oliver’s end goal was to have his own farm, but this has now changed.

Inspired by an adviser on his placement, he wants to work in an advisory capacity to help farmers find the right solutions for their businesses.

He is keen to inspire others to pursue a career in the world of agriculture, too, and has already encouraged his brother to go to Berkshire, as he did.

However, having witnessed first-hand the challenges of gaining experience, he thinks it is something farmers should improve on if the industry is to thrive.

“How often do you hear of an employer complaining they can’t find staff who know how to drive a tractor for harvest, or can lamb a ewe… and yet they are not willing to teach them,” he says.

Life after university

Oliver has a clear idea where he is heading next. Kings Crops, a division of Frontier where he did his placement, has offered him a role when he finishes university.

He will be working in cover crop mix formulation and administration, and training as a technical adviser.

He dreams of doing a Nuffield scholarship, or similar project exploring the potential of novel crops for UK agriculture’s sustainable intensification, and one day hopes to find himself on the stage at Groundswell.

“My aim is to give as many farms as possible the knowledge and confidence to make real changes that will benefit their soil, environment and bottom line,” he says.

What the judges say

Oliver loves to get into the detail of the subject he is studying and excels at it. His strong desire to improve farm health and safety is refreshing to see in someone of his age.

Oliver Stephens summary

Student notes

  • Studying at Aberystwyth University
  • Course BSc Agriculture with integrated year in industry
  • Study year Fourth
  • Fun fact As a baby, Oliver crawled backwards before he could crawl forwards. “You could say that sums me up generally,” he jokes.

The judges liked

  • Brave decision to delay university by a year to strengthen agricultural experience
  • Breadth of agricultural knowledge, from policy to plant breeding to lambing and everything in-between
  • Clarity of vision for future path, including a range of short- and long-term plans
  • Passion for improving on-farm health and safety, raising awareness of the dangers and hoping to promote more discussions on the topic

Sponsor’s message

“Lightsource bp is proud to celebrate the talent, leadership and influence showcased by this award, and recognise the significant impact the winners and nominees could have on the future of agriculture.”

Declan Keiley, Lightsource bp