You get to meet some of the best farmers in the UK when you’re a judge of the Farmers Weekly Awards. The finalists really are the best of the best, so it’s fascinating to spend time with them. I always learn loads and come away buzzing. Their enthusiasm is infectious.
I’ve judged a few categories over the years and have noticed that finalists tend to share certain characteristics. Commercial acumen, technical know-how and a preparedness to take risks are three that often crop up.
They also tend to show a desire to keep learning – and, perhaps more surprisingly – a willingness to admit to their mistakes. Strikes me high achievers don’t try to hide their shortcomings: they’re open about them and confront them.
The judging process begins in earnest the moment the entry deadline passes. The entries tend to get whittled down to a longlist by the Farmers Weekly team member responsible for the particular category. This involves a lot of reading as there’s as huge amount of information to digest. I lock myself away somewhere quiet to do it. I’ll read every one that comes in at least twice.
Some entries just jump off the page at you. Others you feel could be contenders, but don’t supply enough information. It’s a trade-off – my advice would be to supply enough facts and figures to make the judges confident about what you do.
The longlist then goes to the judges. A few (sometimes a lot) of phone conversations later and we’ll have agreed on our final three.
Together with our independent judge, the previous winner of the category and sometimes the category sponsor, we’ll visit these three. Often it’s a bit of a road-trip, zigzagging across the country, with overnight stays in Travelodges and scampi and chips in village pubs.
It is also a chance to see some new and beautiful parts of the country (whatever did we do before sat navs?)
We spend three hours with each of the three finalists. We don’t want them to feel rushed, but it’s important that everyone gets the same time with the judges. Frankly, we could spend a whole day on each farms and still not have seen absolutely everything.
This judging visit tends to involve an hour in the office (usually around the kitchen table, with copious quantities of tea/coffee) and a two-hour farm tour.
You’re always hoping they’re as good as you imagined they would be from their application – that, as a colleague of mine puts it, the transition “from paper to person” does not disappoint. Usually they’re even better that you had hoped.
Then we’re faced with what can be the hardest task of all – picking the winner. The judges often meet immediately after their last visit, while all three are fresh in their minds to discuss. Often, we’ll then sleep on it and talk the next day. There’s always lots of discussion about the pros and cons of each. Sometimes it’s unanimous. Sometimes there’s a lot of healthy debate. To the best of my knowledge, there hasn’t yet been an argument or shouting match!
It’s a responsibility we all take very seriously. We’re all acutely aware that winning this prestigious accolade can make a big difference to people’s business and, in some instances, to their lives.
No one, I should point out, has attempted to bribe me yet – and anyway, having worked for Farmers Weekly for 15 years, I can confidently say I am immune to bribery!
Are the two finalists who don’t go on to claim the winner’s crown disappointed? The honest answer to that is not usually, no. Or, if they are, it’s only very briefly. They soon remember what a massive achievement it is getting to the top three. And the Awards night itself – a massive gala celebration in London – is a fantastic occasion to celebrate all that’s best about farming. One or two people have been known to have a drink or two there, too
One question people always ask me is: What are you looking for? The answer obviously depends on the category. But my sense is that a proven track record and a clear vision for the future are at the heart of any good entry.
There’s one other thing about being a judge I usually don’t admit. It’s that, if I’m honest, I often come away from the visits feeling slightly depressed. The people you meet have achieved so much they can leave you feeling very inadequate!