Farmers – the ultimate multi-skillers

As a shy teenager, I learnt a few magic tricks. I soon discovered that being able to pull a card from the air was popular at parties and, while some turned to alcohol to provide them with chat-up lines and confidence, I turned to magic. I even wondered if it was my ideal career.

When I quit my corporate job at Ford Motor Company to work on the 200ha family farm, I didn’t realise that magician would, in fact, end up becoming my unofficial job title. It was going to require magic to make this work.

I stood in the farmyard in the rain that first morning wondering if I had done the right thing. I had left behind a secure and well-paid job that had involved purchasing engine components and buying contracts for the Ford rally team. I was used to being wined and dined in top London restaurants by clients who wanted to impress me.

Ford employs 166,000 people and, as a senior buyer, I was the equivalent of a cog in a combine – a small but necessary part of the whole machine. We all had tightly defined roles that worked together to produce the end result.

I was not alone. My PA would arrange my meetings and look after my diary and paperwork. If I was having problems with a contract, then the legal team would be there to help me. A cost-estimator would advise me on what to pay for a new engine component. If something went wrong or I needed more information, all I had to do was phone highly trained experts in human resources, finance or computer support. And importantly, they weren’t charging me by the minute for their services.

Now it was just me and my dad. We had not worked together for years and I couldn’t imagine how we would manage all the jobs that needed to be done.

Having kissed goodbye to my support systems and embraced the role of a multi-tasking magician, I’ve been giving some thought to what I think every modern farmer needs in their job description.

danskinnerI need to be a nature warden, farming for wildlife not just for food. Our farm is in HLS so this is right at the top of my list. I’ve needed to learn my native species and decide the best ways of providing a year-round food supply for red list birds.

I’ve also learnt that a variety of people skills are necessary. Farmers have to be able to be the 3 Ps: people manager, peacekeeper and policeman.

We employ part-time labour, but there is no HR department to phone and no performance management course to go on. Many farmers are too busy thinking about how to get all the jobs done without stopping to worry about staff motivation, their career progression and how to legally fire someone. It is these things that can really catch you out. Ford wouldn’t have let us loose without various training courses – why not find out what’s available in your area?

Being a peacekeeper is tough work. With a farm diversification like our livery yard, then there can be horse owner issues and disputes. It’s my job to keep the customers happy and on speaking terms with each other. If that involves sticking up another fence to keep horse A from kicking horse B, then I do it.

I used to work near Basildon, an area with high crime rates and lots of police activity. Despite our rural location, I now find I have to be the policeman, protecting our land. Whether it’s from fly-tipping, joy riding, or “courting couples”, I’ve seen it all in the past few months. When the burglar alarm went off at 2am, guess who had to spring out of bed? Still, it gave me an adrenalin buzz that you just don’t get with a nine-to-five job.

Being a financial expert is essential; anyone who has watched Dragon’s Den knows there is no substitute for understanding the financial workings of your own business. At Ford, we had clear performance targets. When it came to appraisal time, we were assessed against them. Farming should be the same, with business targets for profit and turnover and a clear business plan in place for achieving growth.

With diversifications planned for the farm, I also need to get to grips with PR and communications to build a customer base. That means Twitter, blogs and websites, as well as more traditional media. I send Facebook updates live from my tractor cab, sharing a picture of a barn owl I’ve just seen, or letting people know the new stable block has opened.

Careful communications can also smooth the way for difficult changes. We will need to fell a beautiful line of mature poplars to meet our HLS requirements. How we explain this to the people whose windows look out over these trees is critical for avoiding those angry conversations. I plan to talk first and get the chainsaw out second.

An average day on the farm involves using the skills of many professions. For example, in one day recently, I was an engineer, electrician, builder, entrepreneur, delivery driver, farm cottage landlord, tree surgeon and tea boy. Farmers need to be able to do it all.

In fact, the corporate world seems safe and easy in comparison. However, there are the three big lessons it has taught me:

1) Invest in your biggest asset

That’s not my soil, animals or machinery. It is my dad and myself. Nothing will happen on the farm unless we – the team – do it. At Ford, I knew I was imminently replaceable and someone else could be trained to fill my role. On the farm, it is not so simple. A corporate organisation wouldn’t let anyone cruise through their career without regularly reviewing the training they need to keep up with a fast-paced industry. Similarly, I need to ensure I have all the skills a modern farmer needs, whether that is computer literacy, business management or techniques in how to motivate people.

2) Work-life balance

There is pressure to do it all. I thought farming would be relaxing after corporate life, yet I discover it has much higher suicide and accident rates. Working hard goes with the job, but I need to do it without becoming ill or doing my back in. Farmers don’t seem to like delegating, but it isn’t a sign of weakness – and holiday is not a swear word.

3) Celebrate success

I need to know what counts as success for our farm, and that means measurable targets. That makes it possible to acknowledge achievements (and the flip side, review why problems have occurred).

It’s been a while since I made a card appear in someone’s pocket, but I’m hoping I can work some magic on our farm and makes a success of this challenging and varied job.

Follow Dan on Facebook and Twitter @HighAshFarm

Here’s what Farmers Weekly website user ‘concreter’ believes are the skills needed by a modern-day farmer:

Solver of other people’s drainage problems, provider of cheap food, houser of the village panto set, supplier of scrap to rogues, unpaid map for people with no sat nav, herder of other people’s straying livestock, collector of dead badgers from road kill, mediator in boundary dispute, nutritionist, agronomist, carpenter, employer of numpty, first aider, safety analyst, risk assessor, concreting (all aspects), structural engineer, toilet assistant to animals, specialist telehandler operative, consultant tractor driver, feeder and bedder of animals, puller-out of newborn animals, vet, surgeon, chiropodist, welder, roofer, plumber, co-ordinator of livestock lorries, dispatcher of very sick animals, filling in government forms, rodent controller, electrician, PAYE expert, NI adviser, pension adviser, car fixer, tyre consultant, overall farm strategist, Euro/dollar/pound futures expert, gambler on soft commodities, appeaser of buyers, bill payer, tool-buying specialist, calculator of forage requirements for the rest of winter, fencer, egg collector, meteorologist, general trouble shooter, mender of feed auger and being nice to people when they ring you up on the mobile (including the wife).


What skills do you think a modern farmer needs to demonstrate? Have your say on our website forums.

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