OPINION: Farm mentors are as needed now as ever

I didn’t enjoy Norwich grammar school. I was not a star pupil and I couldn’t wait to leave and go farming. The fact that through most of my teens I kept a few pigs which I fed before catching the bus to school and again when I got home, and mucked out on Saturdays, made me even more impatient.

I was making profits from the pigs, so staying on into the 6th form and then going to college or university seemed to me then a potential waste of time. So, after taking my GCE exams I ended my full-time formal education.

My father knew better than to try to stop me. But he also knew what was needed to make me a better farmer. “I won’t force you to go to college,” he said, “but before you try to become an employer you must learn to be employed.” He arranged for me to work for a year for one of the toughest but most successful and forward-thinking farmers in our district.

My employer did not agree to teach me, take me to market and show me his books, as was common practice in those days. Indeed some fathers paid top farmers to take their sons as pupils. The deal done for me was to work alongside the other men on the farm and be paid the wage for my age.

My gross pay was three pounds and four shillings a week before deductions for national insurance. The farm was four miles from home and I cycled it morning and night. But I had Wednesdays off for a few months at the beginning of my year to attend a day course in agriculture arranged by our local farm college.

So, no pupillage for me. It was up to me what I observed and learned during that year. And I learned a lot. I learned how working men thought and that lesson has stood me in good stead since.

Some of the lessons were negative, but they too were valuable. And as my father had predicted, I learned how to be employed. Most of my farming education came subsequently from the time I spent in Young Farmers and later when older colleagues became my mentors.

In truth, I don’t think I knew the meaning of the word “mentor” back then. But when someone you like and respect is prepared to listen to your questions and answer them based on their experience; when they take an interest in what you do and encourage you to develop your skills further; when, with no thought of personal gain, they quietly advise what they would do faced with the situation in which you find yourself, there is no better basis for building a business.

Sadly, the pressures of modern farming and the scarcity of help on farms have drastically reduced the number of farmers with the time or inclination to take on such roles. Few farms can even afford a benign foreman to undertake the training of young farm workers, as used to happen in the past. But mentors have not disappeared completely.

I am honoured to be a trustee of the Henry Plumb Foundation which awards grants to young aspirants but even more importantly provides them with mentors. My fellow trustees and I are encouraged not only by the quality of candidates we are getting but also by the top industry operatives who are volunteering to be mentors for them. It gives us renewed faith in the future.

David Richardson farms about 400ha of arable land near Norwich, Norfolk, in partnership with his wife Lorna. His son Rob is farm manager

What do you think about the role of mentors? Have your say on our website forums .

See more