2017 FW Awards: Ag Student of the Year finalists

The 2017 Farmers Weekly Awards finalists have been announced and the judges have visited each of the finalists for a three-hour interview and tour.

While each of our finalists is unique, all share a keen understanding of the challenges facing farming and know exactly what they want from university to push their agricultural careers forward and make their mark in the industry.

See also: Book your table for the 2017 Farmers Weekly Awards night

The 2017 Ag Student of the Year finalists are:

  • Helen Brown
  • Josh Dowbiggin
  • Robbie Stevenson

The judges:

  • Claire Simonetta, last year’s winner
  • Emma Northam, Farmers Weekly
  • Ian Pigott, independent judge

Helen Brown, Kirkbampton, Cumbria

Helen Brown

Helen Brown © Tim Scrivener

Student life

Student notes

  • Age 22
  • College Harper Adams University, Shropshire
  • Course BSc (Hons) Agriculture with Crop Management, fourth year
  • Ambition Work as an agronomist in Cumbria

On paper, Helen Brown, who grew up on a mixed family farm in Cumbria, has more of a livestock background. But work experience at 16 with a local agronomist cemented her desire to become one herself.

Outstanding academic performance helped part-fund her course through a scholarship and grant, while her third-year placement was secured when she called Hutchinsons on-spec in her first year.

Her bold approach impressed, they stayed in touch and eventually gave her the placement, even though they don’t normally take on students.

This characteristic fearlessness has contributed to much of Helen’s success, including winning the Agrovista placement award for her work on a project looking at blackgrass control through variable spring barley seed rates.

Her competitive nature also saw her flex her agronomy skills as a member of the Harper Adams Niab Tag Agronomy Cup team and as team captain for the university’s Cereals Challenge.

Young farmer

A keen YFC member, Helen is shortly to take on the role of secretary of Carlisle YFC. Previously she won the Northern Area Junior Young Farmer of the Year, and the YFC farm planning competition.

She also served in a national role as the vice-chairman of the National Young Farmers’ Youth Forum.

Helen believes the National Federation of Young Farmers’ Clubs holds the key to improve the public’s perception of farming.

She was involved in a “farm-fork” initiative aimed at improving city dwellers’ knowledge of where food comes from, and has appeared on The One Show as part of a feature on Forage Aid after the wet 2012 harvest.

What does the future hold?

Self-confessed adventurer Helen has spent time on farms in New Zealand, Canada and Switzerland, where she experienced very different economies of scale.

“They were getting less than 1t/acre in Canada, but that was OK because they have so much land,” she says, “while in Switzerland, farms were much smaller but nothing was wasted.”

In New Zealand, Helen witnessed the benefits of share farming and sees it as a solid succession model that could be applied on her family farm in years to come.

For now, Dad remains at the helm back home. She is still involved, though, and through her new trainee position with Hutchinsons has set up a varietal/fungicide/herbicide trial site on the family farm.

The judges liked

  • Passion for agronomy, and understanding of the need for precision technologies, such as variable seed rates
  • Extensive YFC involvement, including Youth Forum
  • Agronomy trials on family farm to establish best varieties for local area
  • Keen to champion the role of farming to the public
  • Good understanding of the figures – as shown in her success in numerous competitions
Helen throws herself into everything she does. An A-student with a passion for agronomy, she has the crucial ability to distil a technical subject so others can understand it and put theoretical understanding into practice.

Josh Dowbiggin, Barnoldswick, Lancashire

Josh Dowbiggin

Josh Dowbiggin © Tim Scrivener

Student life

Student notes

  • Age 21
  • College Harper Adams University, Shropshire
  • Course BSc (Hons) Agriculture, third year
  • Ambition Continue to build up his stud business, and one day buy land and farm it

Summer holidays spent on his grandparents’ dairy farm made Josh Dowbiggin “farming obsessed” at an early age.

He saved up to buy two pedigree Hereford heifers and in 2011 started a business, Ghyll Beck Herefords, breeding bulls to sell to local dairy farmers.

A travel bursary for young Hereford breeders allowed Josh to join the UK contingent at the World Hereford Conference in Uruguay.

He also visited the USA and Canada, where he worked on a ranch to gain experience.

Encouraged by farmers he met at home and abroad, Josh applied to Harper Adams University. He sold the heifers to fund his studies via a new venture, Ghyll Beck Hereford Stud, which supplies beef bulls to Lancashire dairy farms.

Last year, he also set up a flock of 30 Easy Care ewes and aims to expand numbers to 100 by 2020.

Balancing the demands of his business with college work has not been easy and Josh often has to work weekends. Despite the pressures, he has found time to be student ambassador and social secretary of the Harper Yorkshire club.

He is active in several youth organisations, too, including the UK Hereford Youth and the Aberdeen Angus Youth Development Programme.

Young farmer

Now in its fourth year, Josh’s stud business imports Hereford semen and embryos from around the world and sells them to breeders across the UK and EU.

His course has helped Josh get to grips with agri-marketing for his business – with 78% of orders taken through Facebook – and made him savvy enough to do his own accounts.

His latest venture saw him organise an elite sale of pedigree Herefords, from selecting the entries to producing the brochure. The sale last year broke a number of records to become the UK’s highest averaging Hereford sale.

What does the future hold?

While Josh eventually wants to buy land and run his own farm, his placement year at the Co-op and ABP has opened his eyes to opportunities in the supply chain. He wouldn’t rule out working for a genetics firm or breed society, either.

But whichever route he takes, he will keep running Ghyll Beck and building contacts through visits to global events such as Western Agribition, Canada’s largest livestock exhibition. Josh will host 30 UK cattle breeders on this year’s trip, which he has been organising annually since 2012.

The judges liked

  • Innovation and entrepreneurism that have paid his way through university
  • Organised a pedigree sale, set to become an annual event
  • Impressive knowledge of Hereford breed
  •  Keen to make an impact on the beef industry globally
  • Proactive approach – rang Canadian ranch to get work experience
  • Not afraid to admit mistakes and learn from them
Josh is passionate about agriculture and making a difference to the industry. He isn’t afraid to try new things and learn from them, and his mantra ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get’ has clearly driven his business success.

Robbie Stevenson, Holm, Orkney

Robbie Stevenson

Robbie Stevenson © Tim Scrivener

Student life

Student notes

  • Age 21
  • College SRUC, Aberdeen
  • Course BSc Agriculture, third year
  • Ambition To help provide a sustainable future for Orkney agriculture

At age 18, and with help from his accountant mother, Robbie Stevenson put together a business plan to buy out other family members after his grandfather died.

In the past two years he has put a team in place to help him run the farm while he splits his time between coursework and farm work, travelling to and from Orkney and Aberdeen on a regular basis.

Not everybody would be able to juggle such a priority list, but Robbie’s belief that getting an education in agriculture is essential to the future success of his farm business has helped him stay focused on his studies as well as his duties as SRUC student representative.

Meanwhile, his competitive nature has seen him take bronze in the Pinnacle Awards for Excellence in business management and make the semi-finals of the AgriScot Business Skills Challenge.

Young farmer

When he is not at university, Robbie runs 70 easy-calving Simmental-cross and Aberdeen Angus-cross cows and 175 Texel-cross breeding ewes on his 105ha Orkney farm, and is looking to increase stocking density and improve infrastructure through environmental schemes.

He has worked tirelessly to cut fixed costs, contracting out big jobs to reduce machinery overheads and hiring his slurry spreader to other farmers to help it pay its way. In addition, silaging – once a seven-man operation – is now a two-man job, reducing the feed bill by half.

Robbie is helping put Orkney on the map through his YFC stock judging, which earned him Beef Stockman of the Year in 2016. He also volunteers with the Orkney Agricultural Society, which organises the annual county show.

Outside of farming, his interest in traditional Scottish music has won him awards from the age of 14 and seen him perform in the Music for Youth Proms at the Royal Albert Hall as well as in smaller bands abroad.

What does the future hold?

A great believer in the business supporting itself, Robbie is full of ideas for diversifications such as holiday lets.

He also sees a future for Orkney-branded meat and hopes one day there will be enough local support to reopen the abattoir.

This sort of thinking is typical of Robbie, who looks beyond his own farm gate in everything he does.

His degree now complete, Robbie has just started with feed specialist Norvite. This not only provides a secure income for the farm, it gives Robbie yet another opportunity to develop and grow his knowledge to the good of his business – and the islands as a whole.

The judges liked

  • Applied for loan and prepared own business plan
  • Thinking long term and not relying on subsidies
  • Deep understanding of his business and the industry
  • Recognises the need for change to drive things forward
  • Ideas for abattoir and diversifications
  • Approach to resource management and fixed costs
Robbie is a mature and modest individual who has a great handle on his business and the industry. He has a clear awareness of how he comes across and appreciates the importance of collaboration.

The Woodland Trust is sponsoring the 2017 Farmers Weekly Awards Ag Student of the Year

Woodland Trust logo“Woodland Trust are delighted to support the Ag Student of the Year category, which has seen some outstanding entries. We’re an innovative charity. We want to back and support pioneers of innovative farming who are championing new, exciting ways to keep farms strong for the future.”

Helen Chesshire, senior farming adviser