‘Take a gamble on people’

09 Apr 2021

09 Apr 2021

Career development is high on the list for those entering the workforce, but according to a Farmers Guardian survey, employees believe there is a lack of opportunities available. Clemmie Gleeson speaks to two employers who support staff in developing their careers and the benefits it has bought.

Nick Shorter is managing director of Velcourt, which employs about 150 people directly and oversees 100 more staff for the farms it manages.

Considering an employee’s career plan is essential for several reasons, says Nick.

He says: “Firstly so we can manage their expectations and help them achieve what they want to achieve and also understand how they fit into the business.” Every role in the company has a detailed job description from trainee manager through to the upper end of management, Nick says.

“These detail the skills, experience and qualifications required.” New entrants to the business can then be matched to roles, with any gaps in their CV addressed through training.

“We then have annual appraisals with all our staff.

As well as looking at performance, these discussions cover future ambitions and what is needed for them to progress.

“We encourage everyone to have an open dialogue with their line manager who are all constantly pushing to improve and develop their staff.

“It is a two-way process – we also often say to someone ‘we think you would be good at this’.

We try to have a strong development and support culture to help people move into new roles.” The benefits to Velcourt of adopting career progression plans include engagement and motivation of its staff, says Nick.

“Our job is to place individuals and manage teams of people in farming businesses.

Unless they are engaged and driven, that quickly falls on its face as a business model.” It is now more important than ever to consider employees’ career development, he says.

“Among young people there is a real sense of them wanting a purpose, both personally and for wider society, not just a pay cheque.”

Nick’s advice on what businesses can introduce for staff:

  • Have detailed descriptions for every role plus a person specification which covers the skills, experience and qualifications required; it removes ambiguity and enables staff to see how they can progress
  • Understand the expectations of the new generation; they want to understand their purpose and want a defined plan
  • Don’t be afraid of people leaving; if the business doesn’t have scope for staff to develop you need to accept they will move on

Jonny Kerr left the army in September 2013 and started a graduate diploma in agriculture at Royal Agricultural University just two weeks later.

He says: “I had spent time on relatives’ farms and driven tractors as a student and loved it.

When I left the army I knew farming was the only other job I wanted to do.” In particular, he was keen to pursue a career in arable farm management.

He says: “I looked into Velcourt and thought if I could get onto its management training scheme I would be on the career path that I wanted.” He successfully applied to the company in 2014, taking on the role of assistant manager of a Cambridgeshire arable farm alongside Velcourt’s training scheme.

This covered all aspects of farm management from crop production and agronomy to accounting and budgeting.

He says: “Like the army, Velcourt is very good at career development.

Every annual review is a review of what you like and don’t like and an honest appraisal of strengths and weaknesses.

“We discuss where we want to be in two or 10 years.” This enabled him to focus on what was needed to secure a management role.

Jonny says: “Any motivated person will make their dreams come true if they are realistic, but this made it happen faster.

“I particularly wanted to move to Wiltshire, but knew it might not happen.

However, in February 2017 I started my role as farm manager in Pewsey, Wiltshire, and manage 1,000 hectares of arable land.” Jonny is now happily settled with his wife and two children and is keen any further career progression will be in the same geographical area.

He says: “I am now established as a farm manager and have the capacity and ambition to take on something else as Velcourt grows.”

Tom Rawson is director of Evolution Farming, which runs eight dairy units with a total of 3,000 cows, plus beef, sheep and arable enterprises.

The business employs 55 people, both full- and part-time.

Tom says: “We’ve gone from 500 to 3,000 cows over the past five years and from 600 acres to more than 9,000 acres.

That can’t be done without good people.” Supporting staff and their career development is part of the company’s commitment to attract and retain staff.

Having a clear route of progression within the business is important, he says.

“We have an obvious route to management.

We are a multi-site farm and are expanding and frequently move people up to different farms.” Once in a management role there is further progression to become an equity partner if they wish to become a regional manager overseeing a few farms.

The company has an administrative and human resources team headed by Emma Cutress.

Emma and Tom both hold regular discussions with individuals.

Tom says: “Our role is to get to know the individuals and make sure they are in the right place to benefit their career.” Notes are made during such discussions with information shared between the senior managers.

Tom says: “Without growth good people will have to leave.

Whenever we are growing we are providing new opportunities for people to grow into.

So we need to carry on growing for those people.” There is constant discussion between managers about the people in the business, how they are doing and where they want to be.

Tom says: “We have strategy sessions too where we discuss people and where they want to go to enhance their career.

“Collectively, we find out about that individual and offer them opportunities.

We encourage people to have a go at stepping up and want to nurture a culture where there is no shame in trying things.

There is a stigma of failure in this industry, but you won’t fail if you never push the boundaries.”

What Tom has learned about managing staff:

  • I write notes every day I am on-farm, as you can’t beat referring back and ensuring what we discuss gets actioned
  • Our people get more thought time than the cows, so remember that people are a priority as we need them to be the best advocates of our brand
  • Don’t be afraid to take a gamble on people, as while you don’t want an entire team of novices, you need to give people a chance; don’t expect somebody to be the finished article on day one
  • Inspire your staff; we held our first staff mini conference in 2019 when we hired relief milkers so everyone could attend; managers gave presentations and there were awards for the best farm and most improved; it was an absolute gamechanger and gave younger members of staff the opportunity to see their potential


Harry Spellman

Henry Spellman is currently farm manager across two dairy units for Evolution Farming and hopes to take on a third in early April.

He initially joined the company as assistant herdsman soon after finishing his agricultural degree at Aberystwyth University.

He was keen to join a harvest crew in Australia and made this known to Tom and his business partner Charlie Crotty.

They encouraged him to follow his dream, giving him contacts to secure harvesting work followed by work on dairy units in both Australia and New Zealand.

He returned to Dewsbury two years later with new skills and experience and started working his way up the ranks at Evolution Farming.

Henry says: “It has gone really well and I certainly hit the ground running.

I had to prove myself as a dairy assistant then herdsman and then to being in full responsibility of a herd.” Henry is now a line manager himself and is keen to encourage other young people to progress in a similar way.

Training is part of it, both on-farm learning and from external providers.

“If we want good people then we need to give them good training.

“It can sometimes be hard to answer the question ‘where do you want to be in five years’ time?’ Some people need help to answer that.

“I would never have thought two-anda-half years ago I would have the ability to look after two or three farms, but having someone to push me out of my comfort zone was really helpful.

It made me expand in lots of different ways from my practical skills to having more brain capacity.

I am really interested in the people element of the business and I love being a regional manager, speaking to lots of people, travelling between farms, solving problems and negotiating issues.”