Jessica Tomley, NSF International’s Agriculture Manager for Innovation, tells us about the path that led her to her present career and how others can follow her example.
Jess’s family have been farmers for five generations and she grew up down the lane from the family farm at Middleton where her great-great-grandparents raised 15 Tomley children.
Her family has been farming at Middleton for over a decade now and although her grandfather is in his mid-70s, he still plays a very active part on the 1,200-acre arable, beef and sheep farm and lives right next door.
“My fondest childhood memories are of helping grandad Brian, feeding livestock and sorting out the lambs ready for market. It was often said that ‘If Brian is there, Jess is there too,’ and this is still the case today!”
Education was more of a challenge for Jess than for most, as the additional struggles she had with reading and spelling with dyslexia made her think that she needed to focus on a practical job that used her essential love of farming.
She left school at 16, with no real ambition other than to get a secure job, but, “Luckily my mum spotted an opportunity to study at Harper Adams University that offered a one-year course for GCSE leavers that could lead onto a full honours degree. I had to re-sit English and maths to qualify, but by then I had the bit between my teeth.
“Harper Adams were brilliant. They gave me lots of support with my dyslexia and I got a government grant that provided a note taker, a laptop with special software and help in my exams.”
Jess was still keen to get out into the world of work so after finishing the one-year entry course, she opted for the three-year foundation degree with a placement year, rather than the full honours degree.
“My own family background made me keenly aware of the need for farmers to be able to understand business and the marketing of their products, so I studied agri-business rather than straight agriculture.”
Her placement year with Dawn Meats involved her undertaking audits on behalf of retailers in over 300 beef and sheep farms, giving her useful insights into retailer demands up the supply chain and the rationale behind the standards they need to fulfil for food safety, consumers and a host of environmental and ethical requirements.
Jess’s first job after graduating was with ABP, which confirmed her passion to work with livestock.
“I started to understand the bigger picture of why so many demands are made of farmers and that these can be positive for the industry and helpful for individual farmers in marketing their produce, if handled in the right way.”
A year ago, Jess saw a LinkedIn job vacancy for an Agriculture Innovation Manager at NSF International, who have one of the largest farm assessor and certification operations in the UK and indeed worldwide.
She was immediately involved in NSF’s blockchain initiative, designed to bring to consumers the story of the beef they pick up on the supermarket shelf through a simple QR code on the pack.
“Blockchain provides a secure and transparent traceability process and can also be a powerful marketing tool.
In my role I can help bring the farm side of the story to the consumer, and also help farmers see that blockchain can make their record-keeping easier and more efficient by digitising and automating documentation; also that by ‘speaking’ direct to the shopper they can command a more loyal customer base and better prices for their meat.”
“When I started out, I had no idea of the range and diversity of choice open to youngsters in agriculture. My advice would be not to let education get in the way if you aren’t academic; work experience and persistence are the keys to success.
“Children today can be so remote from the farming that provides their food. My dream would be to see schools once again partnering with working farms to give all kids the opportunity to see how rewarding and vital to the economy it is.”