The farmer's apprentices

John Goodfellow with apprentices Rhys Loughhead and Harry Monks_56994

Nationally apprenticeships are the government’s preferred training route for young people entering the industry. Rachael Gillbanks went to meet a Northumberland farmer who shares their enthusiasm. She writes:  

Agricultural and horticultural apprenticeships are coming back under the spotlight as part of the nation’s drive to develop a new Industrial Strategy. Ahead of the new academic year that starts this month, a new apprenticeship for the poultry sector was launched in May and three more are due for imminent release aimed at horticultural, arable and livestock businesses.

A familiar part of farming’s training and skills landscape, apprenticeships are seen as an important entry route into the industry for young people, although a number of entry barriers have been identified that have made it difficult for farm businesses to get involved. These barriers, identified in an NFU survey carried out in 2014, included the challenge for small farm businesses to employ an apprentice all year round, the red tape involved and the time required for supervision and mentoring.

Nevertheless, last year the government emphasised its commitment to delivering a successful national apprenticeships programme – setting the challenging target of achieving 3m starts across all sectors of the economy by 2020. Specific to food and farming, the Conservative manifesto made a commitment to treble the number of apprenticeships, meaning the industry would need to achieve around 3,000 starts a year.

The region has been home to a number of innovative initiatives to make apprenticeships more accessible - to hill farmers, for example, where businesses have shared apprentices to overcome the challenge of providing sufficient variety of experience and work all year round. Other businesses though have managed to make them work, achieving benefits both for themselves and the young people involved.

One such business is Goodfellow Farming, run by Northumberland member John Goodfellow, who has had no fewer than six apprentices over the last 10 years. Farming a total of 5,500 acres around Morpeth, John runs a number of diverse enterprises – growing over 3,000 acres of arable crops, operating a feed mixing plant and running sizeable beef and sheep businesses too.

Calves from his closed herd of 250 Stabiliser/Aberdeen Angus sucklers are finished and supplied either to ABP or Linden Foods and lambs from his closed flocks of Blackface and Texel/Abervale breeding sheep are also taken through to fat. Most of the barley grown is used in John’s feed business, however wheat is marketed off-farm, taking advantage of local markets such as that provided by the Ensus biorefinery.

Thanks to the size and scope of his business, finding work all year round is not a problem, he says, with arable work in the summer giving way to a livestock and feed focus in the winter. In fact, balancing his workload and staffing requirements was an important motivation when considering taking on an apprentice.

“Our hill farm at Bellingham, for example, is a one-and-a-half man unit located 20 miles from the main holding at Longwitton,” he said. “So having an apprentice that could be based there at lambing time made a lot of sense. This was especially the case as the farm manager there, Mark Anderson, is someone who is naturally gifted at teaching his trade.

“Another issue for me is the age range of the people working in the business. Staff either seem to be very young or in their 40/50s. Ideally I would like people of all ages in the business, so taking on apprentices has been part of my strategy to achieve a better age balance. I don’t expect apprentices to stay, but hopefully, even if they go and explore new horizons once their apprenticeship ends, they would want to come back and work here at a later date. This seemed a good way of forging strong relationships with potential staff of the future.”

Looking back, John says former apprentices are now working all over the world, but he is still in touch with them.

Recruitment has never been an issue for John – perhaps an indication of the demand for apprenticeship placements. All his have come to him through word of mouth and throughout, he’s been keen to give opportunities to young people, whether or not they come from a farming background.

“The main thing I’m looking for is enthusiasm and a willingness to learn as without that it’s a struggle to make things work,” he said. “They need to fit in well with the other staff here and take the rough with the smooth. On any farm there are jobs none of us enjoy and I need to be able to share those out between everyone.”

In return, John works hard to provide a good working environment, plenty of supervision and opportunities to learn. Every apprentice, for example, is given their own tractor with their name on in a bid to encourage them to take pride in their machinery.

He also invests time in a social element, finding time for everyone to enjoy a trip to the dogs, go-carting or a BBQ. It all adds to the enjoyment of working in a team and emphasises that farming is more a way of life than just a job, he says.

From John’s perspective his experience of employing apprentices is very positive. He says he really enjoys having young and enthusiastic team members who often expect to be given ‘rubbish’ jobs and are thrilled when they have the chance to do something more challenging and rewarding. He also appreciates the contribution they make with technology on the farm – helping older team members get to grip with new innovations.

Apprentices will also often question why and how things are done and this helps to encourage ongoing evaluation of on-farm practices and whether there might be a better way to do things.

All of John’s apprentices have completed courses at Newton Rigg College as part of their studies. This is made easier as the college has an outreach centre at Hexham Mart. Most have completed their studies doing a day a week or a day a fortnight at college, however the latest recruit, Harry Monks, is doing a full-time course (Level 3 Agriculture) so is only on-farm at the most for two days a week.

Such is John’s commitment to his apprentices that the farm was recently recognised in the North East Rural Awards, being presented with the Land Based Apprentice Award. Commenting, John said he was delighted to receive the unexpected accolade:

“Working with my apprentices has been a very positive experience and I hope I have helped provide a route into the industry for some that would otherwise have found it hard to get started. I know apprenticeships won’t work for everyone, but I would encourage people to at least explore the possibilities and help contribute to the industry’s investment in its future workforce.”

Apprentices' view

Twenty-one year old Rhys Loughhead finished his apprenticeship two years ago and is now a full time member of staff on the farm. With no background in farming, Rhys became interested at school and landed an interview with Newton Rigg College. A friend of his had worked previously for John and encouraged him to get in touch about some work experience.

Rhys says it was the right move for him as he wanted to start working and didn’t want to just continue in the classroom. He thoroughly enjoyed the whole process of ‘on-the-job’ learning and says the experience he gained on farm really helped him prepare every time he had tests to pass. This in turn gave him the confidence to explore future career options that would get him closer to his ambition of becoming a farm manager.

Seventeen-year-old Harry Monks is the latest apprentice to work with John. He started working with him while still at school after his father, a longtime family friend and previously a hill shepherd, impressed on John how much he wanted to get into farming.

Harry is a sheep enthusiast and his ambition is to work in the uplands. He thoroughly enjoys working on the Bellingham hill farm, but has learnt a lot too about other sectors thanks to the variety of learning opportunities he’s had on the farm.

Just about to start his second year of his full-time Level 3 agriculture course, he hopes the apprenticeship will give him a springboard to progress in the industry he loves.

Last edited on: 23:08:2018

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