As featured in Arable Farming Magazine
New entrants finding a way in the arable sector
by Arable Farming
Forging a career in agriculture can make for a varied and exciting journey with good progression prospects. Alice Dyer hears the different routes three new entrants took.
The joy of a career in farming is one of the industry’s best kept secrets and, despite the long hours and often turbulent seasons, it can be an enriching way of life that once you’ve had a taste of, is hard to leave behind.
From a young age, Jonathan Kerr had always fancied working on a farm but was of the assumption that ‘people who farm are farmers’ sons’.
So, instead, he studied engineering and went on to join the Army.
But when his time in the forces came to an end nine years later, the internal niggle of a life on the land returned.
“When I was leaving the Army, I wanted to be outside, working with people and in a situation that is less predictable.
“The parallels between being in the Army and farming were quite obvious.
After speaking to a farming friend, he advised that I had a look at Velcourt and it went from there.”
Mr Kerr got in touch with the company while enrolled on the one-year graduate diploma in agriculture at the Royal Agricultural University (RAU), which he hoped would grow his farming knowledge which extended to a few harvest jobs as a student.
Hands-on “With my military head on, the course sounded like the more hands-on, front-line type course which would prepare me for being on-farm day-to-day.
“I didn’t know where I would fit in, in terms of my limited knowledge of farming, but there’s a really broad church of people on the course.
It was challenging, but very doable.”
During his time at RAU, he kept in contact with Velcourt and after graduating he was eventually offered an assistant farm manager job as part of the company’s training scheme.
“It suddenly felt like it could actually be possible when somebody like Velcourt took me seriously.
“The training scheme covers everything from crop production and budgeting to machinery management and it fits in well because you can do a day’s agronomy training and then return to the farm and speak to the farm manager about what you have learned and see it for real.
“At university, there’s a huge amount of classroom and theory time and a small amount of practical work, whereas Velcourt is probably the other way round.
I found it a really good progression from my course at RAU.”
In 2017, Mr Kerr was appointed as a Velcourt farm manager and is now running a 1,000-hectare arable enterprise in Wiltshire.
Impossible He says: “At the beginning [the idea of being a farmer] can seem almost impossible and ridiculous and I think that’s the thing which needs to change about farming – this perception that it’s for a certain group of people.
“That’s not true and you can learn everything you need to know to get into that club.”
Succeeding as a tenant farmer
When a 115-hectare, ringfenced arable unit came up for rent just five miles from her family’s farm in Aberdeenshire, Harriet Ross and her partner Ben Lowe knew it was an opportunity too good to miss.
Despite Miss Ross never expecting to pursue a career in agriculture and Mr Lowe not coming from a farming background, the couple’s tender was successful and they took on the farm in 2019.
The combination of skills from their off-farm jobs – with Miss Ross working as an agricultural consultant at Strutt and Parker and Mr Lowe an Agrovista agronomist – put them in good stead for the role.
Miss Ross says: “I had good experience with budgets, so when we went for the [farm tenancy] interview we knew the figures inside out.
I think this is really important because these set-ups are all about trust.
The landlord wants to trust that you will pay the rent, look after the place and leave it in better condition than when you found it.
“Once we knew we had an interview, we got letters from banks and solicitors just to try and back us up a bit and prove we had that working capital and overdraft allowance that would get us started in farming.
Confidence “We didn’t really think we would be offered the farm because there are other local, well established farm businesses that we knew would also go for it, but we’re very lucky our landlord had the confidence to back us as new entrants.
“We’re a bit riskier than an established business, so the landlord has got to be willing to take that risk as well.”
The couple have both kept their off-farm jobs, finding a good balance between the farm and the office.
“We rely quite a bit on contractors on the farm and we have tried to keep it as quite a simple set-up.
We’re mainly arable and all the spring work is done by contractors because Ben and I are busy then.
“Harvest time is quiet for our jobs off-farm, so we take leave to get harvest done at home.
Our jobs and the farm complement each other and I think that was a big plus when we were trying to get the tenancy – we had a secure income with both of our wages coming in.”
The couple also have to strike a fine balance between keeping the business simple but making money wherever possible.
“We don’t really have the time or money to invest in our own livestock, so we started bed and breakfast pigs to make the most of shed space and give us some muck to put onto the arable side.
“We can do most of the pig work at night and they don’t take a lot of our time, other than mucking them out every six weeks.
Livestock are an important part of the business, with our aim to keep the arable set-up as sustainable as possible.”
They also work closely with Miss Ross’ parents’ farm, sharing machinery and getting contracting work on other local farms to justify the cost of the combine.
“We only buy new kit if we can justify it, so we have a tight shopping list.
My advice to any new entrant would be to really keep a close eye on your numbers.”
Hutchinsons Foundation Agronomy Programme
Despite being deeply scientific, agronomy is not a career path widely encouraged in schools.
Morven Anderson’s strong interest in biology led to her graduating with a biology degree from Aberdeen University and it was a research project abroad that led her to consider following in her father’s footsteps as an agronomist.
“I was looking at greenhouse gas emissions from an oil palm plantation in a part of Malaysia that had high levels of nitrous oxide due to urea fertiliser use,” Miss Anderson says.
“I found myself reading more into agriculture in general after that research project and decided to study for a master’s degree in integrated pest management at Harper Adams University.”
It was here she heard about the Hutchinsons Foundation Agronomy Programme, which offers some of the most comprehensive agronomy training in the industry.
Programme “I found the foundation programme was the perfect option for me because it is for people from all walks of life and builds you from the ground up.
“You develop your technical knowledge with different experts in the company contributing to your training.
Every agronomist does things differently, so it was great to be able to takes bits from everyone and evolve my own stance.”
The foundation also encourages its members to pursue their own interests and Morven has chosen to dive deeper into the world of plant and soil health and nutrition, as well as completing a BASIS advanced potatoes course this autumn.