"Never underestimate the power of networking and surround yourself with the right kind of people - those with a positive and constructive attitude, those who want to help and those who want to find new ways of doing things."
An overview from the Farmer Network:
At 23, Matthew Blair showed drive and determination and always knew what he wanted to achieve in the longer term – a farm of his own. Matching him with the right mentor gave Matthew confidence in his decision making, along with the loan, helped him accelerate his opportunities.
Matthew said hearing from others like Tom Noblet who already completed the programme, had a real impact, highlighting that determination and perseverance can pay off.
Matthew is passionate about young people getting the opportunity to farm and has been offering advice to young people wanting to explore contract farming and tenancies. He has volunteered to speak to future groups - and like his predecessors, we hope his story will be an inspiration to the next group of farming entrepreneurs.
Matthew has done well and says he has had luck along the way, but he is a hard-working young man with a clear vision of what he wanted to do. Everyone on the programme has a different journey so the elements of the programme make an impact in different ways.
Here's what Matthew had to say:
In the beginning: I had 100 acres and around 100 sheep and had been self-employed for 4-5 years working on my Grandads farm and various others. I always wanted a place of my own, so when a member of the Farmer Network mentioned the programme, it made sense to see if I would gain anything.
How the programme helped:
"It really gave me confidence and a great network of people who continue to help along the way”.
Explore enterprise course - the business basics: I’d been self-employed for 4-5 years so already had basic business skills, but for those starting out, the sessions were even more valuable. To farm, you really need to develop a business head and awareness of accounting. You can’t do accounts on a bit of scrap paper.
Business Advisors: The advice and overall course acted like a good shedding gate – helping us work up business plans and test our ideas – and even for those that didn’t take their business idea forward, it was a good opportunity to network and let people see what you can do – and it can lead to positive encounters in the future as we found out ourselves.
The Will It Work Grant: "I used it to investigate if I’d be able to take on the tenancy on my Grandad’s farm. Once I realised it wasn’t a viable opportunity I refocused and looked at other options".
The mentoring: Getting the right support is key and I was matched with a great mentor in Mervyn Edwards. The support officially continued for two years, but in truth, it continues. Building a good network is the biggest thing – along with good relationships with suppliers, banks, your auction. Being part of the business programme, the Farmer Network and Young Farmers opens doors and you could say it helps create your own luck.
The Loan: I used the money to buy more of my own sheep and bought a polytunnel to house and lamb them – it meant I could expand quicker, giving me a stronger foothold that allowed me to later buy into a partnership with Grandad.
Initially wanting to investigate taking on the tenancy of Grandad’s farm, Matthew discovered this was unobtainable, so he looked at becoming a partner, buying into the farm by increasing stocking levels. From here he took on contract farming and then two farm tenancies.
Matthew said "The course came at the right time and I was in the right place for future opportunities. I became a partner on Grandad’s farm, but it wasn’t enough to sustain us. In my Grandad’s younger days, a 120 acre farm with sheep and 20 cows could make money and feed the family. Today you probably need five times more land.
Consequently, when the opportunity came up to contract farm for the RSPB tenant at Naddle Farm, Haweswater I had the confidence to go for it.
It’s a large estate - well over 5,000 acres, running 1,000 lambing ewes. The interviews were a real grilling (even after I had talked to people and thought I knew what to expect). You can’t underestimate the support of a good network. I had been farming it for five years when tenancies on two Lowther estate farms came up.
My wife Dani and I took on Thrimby Hall and Thrimby Grange on 29th September 2019 (Michaelmass), where we run 800 cross bred and Swaledale ewes and 150 calving cows and youngstock – plus a hive of bees. With a full time shepherd and our 9 dogs we now work all three farms together.
We've been lucky to have financial backing and a seriously supportive family - we’re also looking forward to my Dad retiring from his job to start working with us on the farm.
Wherever possible we want to employ young people, giving them a chance to gain experience and perhaps one day, take up the opportunities to contract farm or take on a tenancy. I’ve already been able to offer support and advice to one or two young farmers looking to take those next steps and I’m looking forward to visiting those on the next business support programme. I just hope I can inspire them as much as I was when on the programme myself.
Overcoming obstacles: The programme happened at just the right time and I got a lot from it, but along the way there are always people who are negative, suggesting you can’t achieve what you want. I say don’t let the negativity affect you – but do work out which people have something to offer - and learn the lessons from their positive criticism.
What advice would we give to new entrants?
- Make sure you look at farming as a business - you do need the business skills too.
- If it stacks up on paper - go for it and don’t sit back.
- Never underestimate the power of networking and surround yourself with the right kind of people - those with a positive and constructive attitude, those who want to help and those who want to find new ways of doing things.