‘How I went from tractor driver to farm manager of 3,000ha’

Beset by more challenges than most as he chased his dream of becoming a farm manager, Michael Balls has refused to give in to hurdles that his severe dyslexia has placed between him and his coveted career goal.

His struggle started at primary school in the mid-1980s. Michael recalls a damning assessment from a teacher one parents’ evening, where a life of hardship and possibly prison was forecast because of his poor performance in class.

These were tough words for a hard-working farming family from Suffolk to take.

See also: How experience outside of farming can advance your ag career

“I probably was being quite disruptive and lazy at school, but that was because I was struggling,” admits Michael, now aged 42.

He wasn’t behaving in class because his learning difficulty, which was undiagnosed at the time, meant he had considerable trouble reading and writing; something he suffers with to this day.

Dyslexia is a condition where the brain has trouble with the way graphic symbols are seen and processed.

For Michael, written words and letters move around as he tries to read them and can appear jumbled or be missed entirely.

This has never stopped him from working on a farm, however, in fact Michael has a brilliant mind for visualising and solving practical problems.

Critically, Michael’s tenacity and love of agriculture has steadily driven him towards the role he enjoys today at one of Albanwise Farming’s large arable enterprises (see “Albanwise Farming”, below).

Albanwise Farming

The farming company operates four farms – west Norfolk, a 2,000ha north Norfolk estate, 2,300ha at Low Mowthorpe on the Yorkshire Wolds and 1,650ha near Beverley in East Yorkshire.

The 3,050ha Barton Bendish estate in west Norfolk grows winter wheat, winter barley, oilseed rape, spring barley, spring beans, sugar beet and vining peas, together with maize and rye for an anaerobic digester plant.

Land is either owned or contracted and Michael manages a team of six workers.

Growing up, Michael’s spent many happy hours with his dad and grandad on the home farm 90ha farm near Lowestoft.

It was his mum who pushed for extra support for her son as teachers gradually clocked that Michael was capable of giving detailed answers to questions verbally, but problems arose when pen hit paper.

With the additional help at school, Michael finished his compulsory education with nine GCSEs, grades C to E.

It was enough to get him to Suffolk’s Otley College, where he earned a BTEC in agriculture and a second qualification in crop production.

Discounting the now standard route of a university degree on account of his dyslexia demons, Michael dived into the workplace, with a job at a Bernard Matthews plant in nearby Halesworth in the late-1990s.

“Back then it was hard to get a job on farms, even on day release,” he explains.

Following a brief stint as a general farm worker near Peterborough, he landed a job at a large Suffolk estate working very long hours, which inevitably put a strain on his family life with young children.

Michael Balls

© Oli Hill/Proagrica

To get a better work-life balance he took a career detour, working as a recycling manger at a prison.

Here, he inadvertently unlocked his raw managerial talent.

While overseeing litter picking duties, he fathomed how to manage a group of prisoners, earning their respect.

This was to be a key translatable skill for the future.

Long way round

While Michael was still working evenings and weekends on a farm to keep his hand in the industry, he longed to be there full-time.

Following a tragic period where three of his friends died in unrelated accidents, he realised that he needed to commit to achieving his career aims.

“I thought to myself, you never know when your number is up so I’ve got to do what I love,” he says.

“My wife was so supportive, because I finally decided that I wanted to be an assistant farm manager.

Knowing that without high-level qualifications he would need to work his way up the ladder, he started out at the Stody Estate in Norfolk and later Albanwise’s north Norfolk enterprise near Saxham, he had a clear plan for career progression.

“I covered off all the jobs on the farm to build my experience.

“That meant doing those jobs that others would rather not do, like running the grain dryer.”

As he became more accomplished as a general farmworker, Michael finally felt ready to apply for assistant farm manger roles.

To his disappointment, he found that his lack of a university degree was still blocking his elevation to more senior roles.

“The rejection did sometimes get me down, but I knew that I had to find an employer who would value my practical experience over qualifications,” he explains.

He eventually found that employer – an arable farm with a large agricultural haulage business.

Michael was appointed foreman, but soon realised this enterprise’s staff turnover was high and this was unlikely to be an easy role to fill.

A blistering nine months in, working under immense pressure from his boss, his baptism of fire taught him how to re-energise demotivated staff and solve complex problems at speed.

This was the management experience he needed to add to his CV.

In 2015, he quit to work for Albanwise once more, this time as a drillman and sprayer operator at Barton Bendish, the unit he now manages.

A year later, he was summoned to the head office for a meeting with Tom Dye, the farming company’s managing director, who had managed Michael during his time working at the other Norfolk farm.

He was offered the assistant farm manager role, as recognition of his strengths in motivating staff and streamlining systems and his practical arable farming experience.

“I’ve also done all the jobs on the farm, so I know when other people are taking the mickey,” he jokes.

Earlier this year, Michael took over as arable manager, with technology and his supportive employer helping him manage the admin side of the top job.

“I dictate to my computer, a secretary comes in to help out with Gatekeeper and I take breaks to walk the fields and clear my head. I’m also taking private English lessons,” he says.

Having exceeded his career goal, Michael says his next challenge is to study for Basis and Facts agronomy qualifications.

Michael’s advice

Get advice from other farmers
Throughout his career, Michael has sent his CV to farm employers along with a letter explaining his ambitions and asking for their feedback.

He has found other farmers to be a willing critical, but ultimately supportive, influence.

Decide what you want
Right from the start, Michael knew he wanted to become an arable farm manager and was determined to get there.

He says it’s a good idea to start with your end career goal and then work backwards, creating a roadmap of experience, roles and qualifications you will likely need to gain along the way.

Talk to your boss
Don’t be shy about sharing your career ambitions with your employer.

While Michael acknowledges that it can sometimes be an awkward topic, but as a manager of staff himself he says any good employer should take onboard your ambitions and help you to achieve them.

Take setbacks in your stride
During his career, Michael has had several knocks.

He says it is important to not be afraid of failure or things not going to plan.

Ask for help
It is always better to seek help rather than run away from your problems or produce something that does not reflect your true ability.