Farmers offer their younger selves some pearls of wisdom

The benefit of hindsight is a wonderful thing, and everyone makes mistakes. We can all learn from each other, too.

With this in mind, Farmers Weekly and rural charity The Farming Community Network invited five figures from the farming industry to write “a letter to my younger farming self”, in the hope of uncovering some pearls of wisdom. The result has been most enlightening.

Bryan Edgley

Dear Bryan,

Is it right that you are having second thoughts about your current job, and that you are thinking of farming?

Well, you should know that farming is full of ups and downs, often the result of weather, or political decisions, or global shortages or surpluses, over which you will have no control. The control that you will have will be what product you decide to grow and sell, to make that farm profit which is so essential. 

Farming is competitive. Other farms, both at home and overseas, will be producing the same commodities; if there is too much for the market to absorb, then prices will go down. Only the most efficient will survive.

Trading on your own account means there will be no one else to look after you. You must therefore plan well ahead, and the basis of all your decisions must be potential profit. No one else will pay your wages or salary, or pay you to have a holiday, or pay you if you are sick or unable to work. 

You may think you already have good technical know-how of growing crops and keeping livestock. But I’d still recommend finding a successful farmer who will let you work on his farm – don’t think of studying at an agricultural college until you have that experience.

Finally, some old-fashioned general advice… find the right girl, someone who wants you and your farm to be a success, and is determined to share all aspects of your future life with you.

If you are still determined to live from the land, then go for it!

Yours, Bryan

Bryan Edgley MBE, 90, has farmed on the Chiltern Hills of south Buckinghamshire since 1955, the first 65 years with his late wife Alison. Having started with 40ha, producing milk and eggs, Kensham Farms now extends to more than 1,000ha, majoring on milling wheat and farmed in partnership with Bryan’s son and two grandsons.

Joanne Pile

Dear Joanne,

You’re in your early 20s and have just been thrown into the world of agriculture – a complete contrast from the world you were brought up in.

Don’t be afraid to give everything a go, embrace it all, always try your hardest and take advice from people you respect.

You’ll get a lot of comments about being a woman in agriculture, driving machinery and being out working with contractor groups. Remember, you are just another member of the team, so prove yourself capable and don’t be afraid to ask for help. There aren’t any barriers when people take you seriously.

Livestock will be your strength, so never stop looking for ways to improve on cattle management. Sometimes it’s the smallest of changes that can make the biggest of differences. Visit lots of other farms. It really does help with new ideas, or just confirms that you’re doing things well.

Be proud to fly the flag for British farming, make time to engage with the public about what we do, and always be there to support other farmers if they’re struggling. They will do the same for you.

In your personal life, you are at the start of years of mental and physical abuse. It will be a living hell, but you have immense strength just to keep existing through it. Reach out for help. You are not a worthless, useless person. You can stand on your own two feet and create a new life for yourself, and run a farm single-handed. You are stronger than you could ever imagine.

Make time for yourself off farm. Exercise, ride motorbikes, get a dog, surround yourself with good friends. We all need a break and there’s no shame in that. You’ll come back stronger and more focused to farm.

Above all, remember it’s OK not to be OK.

Yours, Joanne

Joanne Pile, 48, is a beef farmer in Wiltshire. Originally born in London and from a non-farming background, she contract calf rears and grazes cattle, having a passion for cattle health and welfare. She also works with a neighbouring suckler herd and does harvest work. She cares deeply about mental health matters in agriculture.

Meryl Ward

Dear Meryl,

Farming is a wonderful career. The opportunity to be out in the quiet of the early morning, the landscapes, the sunrises and sunsets, and the satisfaction of a job well done with that litter of 26 piglets, or loading a lorry with quality livestock.

The secret to a successful career is finding passion in what you do. A lot of time is spent at work, so enjoy it!

Farming practices will evolve and it is not always obvious how to reconcile the triangle of farming practice, government regulation and consumer demands. Remember, your customer is king, but beware the smoke and mirrors of our food supply chain.

Listen carefully to the consumer as their “gut feeling” is often the right direction of travel. If you put animal health and welfare at the centre of your decision making, you will be on the right path.

Embrace the enthusiasm of youth. Worry less – mistakes are a learning opportunity. Get off farm and learn from others. Collaborate where you can and stand up for your beliefs. Getting involved can only broaden your understanding.

Top tips? Be kind to yourself and others. There is a saying that “if you don’t make time for your wellness, you will be forced to make time for your illness”.

Yours, Meryl

Meryl Ward farms with her family in north Lincolnshire, with a pig enterprise (Lincolnshire Pork Co), a farm shop and events centre (Uncle Henrys), and an arable enterprise. She is past chairman of Lincolnshire Rural Support Network and AHDB Pork, is current chairwoman of Lincolnshire Rural and Agricultural Chaplaincy, and has an MBE for services to animal welfare.

Derek Kelly

Dear Derek,

What a pity that a wise head could not be put on your youthful shoulders! While you will get a degree in agriculture, I’m not sure you deserve it. Skipping lectures for life on the farm – what a waste of an educational opportunity!

Yes, you will get a job managing the first US broiler chicken breeding company to be established in Europe, and you may enjoy the pressures of business. But don’t let the time spent between work and family get out of balance. It’s not true that “if you seek the rainbow, then you must put up with the rain”. Don’t miss out enjoying your young family growing up.

At the age of 41, you will decide to quit the corporate world and start up in business in turkeys, choosing a niche away from the vicious commodity market. Choosing traditional fresh turkeys for Christmas is the best decision you will ever make.

Needing to borrow money, you must learn how to bank, and seeking advice will prove invaluable. Always be truthful, warts and all, and make sure you repay the loan strictly, as agreed.

However, you will learn the hard way that people are more important than money. A couple of “bad eggs” will cost you money, but treating staff well will be the best investment you ever make.

There will be a few years of rapid expansion, demanding the addition of some middle and senior management. Don’t delay just because the cash is not there, and don’t promote people before they are ready. Be prepared to pay to hire the right people.

As for succession, the sooner this is tackled, the easier it will be. That is correct and something you will get right.

But perhaps your ultimate accolade will be handing over management control of the companies to your son when he turns 40. Relinquishing control may seem unthinkable, but he will have more energy and be more in tune with the new digital age. What’s more, he could manage the company better than you…

Yours, Derek

Derek Kelly, 92, left Durham University to become a farm manager until, at the age of 29, he joined the poultry industry, heading up various large companies. He started his own Kelly Turkeys in 1971, which has grown to become the principle breeder of bronze turkeys. He was awarded an MBE for his services to the poultry industry in 1998, and is an associate director of Norwich City Football Club.

Stephen Briggs

Dear Stephen,

Despite all its challenges, farming is the best job in the world.

As a latecomer to the sector, my advice is to worry less about “imposter syndrome” and be prepared to do things differently. No situation, good or bad, is permanent. Change is constant and the ability to adapt rather than resist is essential.

Travel and take time to learn from others and exchange experiences regularly – it’s more important than you think. Learn more languages, too, and rely less on Google Translate.

Go outside your comfort zone more often. Fresh ideas often come from the edge of thinking, so worry less about making mistakes from implementing new ideas. We often learn more from our mistakes than from our successes.

As farmers, we are custodians of many things – soil, biodiversity, landscapes etc. But never fail to invest in people as, other than land, they are our best assets. But remember to hire slow and, if it goes sour, fire quick.

Farming in the years to come will have many similarities, but will also have many new features, so get up to speed on computers and automation.

Plant more trees and establish agroforestry as well. The many productivity, environmental and economic benefits that agroforestry brings just get better with time.

Yours, Stephen

Stephen Briggs, 56, is a farmer, farm shop retailer and consultant, providing farm business consultancy for more than 20 years. He is also head of soil and water at Innovation for Agriculture, a Nuffield scholar, and a non-executive director of AHDB. He pioneered an apple intercropping system into his arable operation at Whitehall Farm in Cambridgeshire.

The Farming Community Network (FCN) is a national charity that supports farmers and farming families during difficult times, providing free and confidential support to anyone who needs help. Its helpline is available 7am-11pm, 365 days a year on 03000 111 999, or email