Ben Theaker’s dynamic approach to learning and creating opportunities has secured a promising future in agriculture. Danusia Osiowy finds more about the winner of last year’s Agricultural Student of the Year Award.
Ben Theaker is not from a farming background, but it has never once hindered his efforts or determination to progress his career.
Now aged 23, his journey began when he was 12 years old, visiting to help out his father, who was head gardener at Worksop Manor, Nottingham.
Upon being introduced to the owner and farm staff, Ben undertook a range of tasks, including a summer’s harvest, and following the completion of his A levels, he secured a 12-month work placement with the team.
Ben says: “The response I received as a new entrant was very positive and the team were pleased to see a fresh face with no idea about farming, but who showed enthusiasm and interest in agriculture.”
Realising his potential, the owner sponsored him to attend Brackenhurst University studying agriculture, where he graduated with a triple distinction and a host of practical qualifications.
Ben acknowledges such faith and financial commitment from an employer, at the early stages of his career, is unusual, and spent a long time working above and beyond expectation to demonstrate his dedication to the business.
“I always had a positive can-do attitude no matter what job I was doing. I would throw myself forwards for any job, good or bad, and I am always trying to learn new things, whether it be asking the dealership mechanic questions, reading books, joining forums or watching relative videos on the internet.
“Having this attitude and striving to improve and succeed is what I believe gave my employer confidence I would benefit and be a high achiever at Brackenhurst.”
It is also this ethos which helped earn Ben the title of Agricultural Student of the Year at last year’s British Farming Awards.
He says: “I never thought I would even hear back from my application form. I kept thinking back to the time of filling in the form, thinking to myself should I shouldn’t bother, but I am so glad I did. I wish I could do it every year and it still leaves me speechless.”
During his time at university, Ben also became involved with showmanship and led the Brackenhurst Lincoln Red herd at Newark and Lincolnshire, achieving champion breed in 2016.
He says: “I enjoyed showing cattle, as it was something far out of my comfort zone, but I loved it.
“I find tasks like this increase your confidence and your self-belief of what you are actually capable of if you put your mind to it.”
As an active member and vice-chairman of Nottingham YFC, Ben was previously vice-chairman of Nottinghamshire County Show.
He says: “I was heavily involved in the organisation of the Nottingham YFC part of the show. I regularly attended meetings and was involved with how events were ran, making decisions which affected Notts YFC. I also attended charity meals and events as a representative for the county.”
Ben went on to gather support and establish Brack YFC after spotting an opportunity to bring fellow students together and establish a calendar of competitions, activities and fundraising.
Prior to this, students who lived in accommodation had little to do on an evening, but now the club is in full swing and is enjoyed by 30 students.
He says:“I wanted to set up the club as I knew how much YFC had changed my life. I have learned, I have met people and I am a big advocate of the organisation’s beliefs and values.
“I thought it a huge shame how these young people coming into agriculture could not experience this as some were too shy to go to another club where they didn’t know anyone. Or there was the fact it was unrealistic for them to get to the other club’s meetings.
“Brack YFC brought students of all courses closer together and helped them meet new people from other clubs.”
Since leaving Brack, members have gone on to join clubs in Nottinghamshire and membership has increased.
After a college trip to the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust in 2016, Ben was inspired by the achievements he saw in linking the environment and farming, for example agroforestry, which incorporates grazing livestock and increasing numbers of trees.
Keen to implement what he saw, he returned to the farm full-time in June last year and now contributes to its future development, including improvement of soil systems and grazing of livestock.
He says: “Since I returned full-time, we have had sheep come into graze fields to improve the growth and yield for this spring.
“They have eaten it right down which encourages fresh growth and helps against competition for weeds. We are potentially looking into more minimum tillage methods for the future and increasing the amount organic fertiliser we put in the land in an attempt to increase soil health and fertility.
“Having fresh ideas is very beneficial, as it is easy for people to just get used to doing tasks a certain way because it is the way they have always done it.
“The ideas I come up with now to implement into the business I can back up with knowledge to support my theories.
“I appreciate the opportunity I was given by my employer is not one available to most people. I have tried to succeed as much as I can to prove I was worth the investment, but also to do well and to say thank you.”
Looking to the future, Ben hopes to remain with Worksop Manor and one day become estate manager. In the meantime, he wants to gain more practical qualifications and develop traditional skills, such as ploughing, while promoting agriculture to new entrants.
“I think it is hugely important agriculture is taught more in schools. Especially with the public being as disconnected from farming as it is, education is key. Currently there are activists spreading preposterous rumours about farmers being cruel and torturing animals and, unfortunately, due to the public not being educated on farming, they hear these rumours and think they are true.
“With the possibility that Britain is going to have to be more sufficient with its food production post-Brexit, future farmers are going to need to be well educated as they are going to have to produce more food with less land for an increasing population.
“Diversification and maintenance of the agricultural environment will also be important parts of agriculture future farmers will need to be able to excel in, as well as the ability to use and produce new technology which will benefit the different sectors.
“It is vital that promising future farmers are well educated in all sectors of farming, especially with the legislation which now goes hand-in-hand with farming. The future of farming is, without doubt, through education.”
With many land-based colleges reporting record student numbers studying agriculture, this award recognises the importance of students to the future of the industry.
Open to all agricultural students studying in the UK, we are looking for individuals who can offer examples of their determination and self-motivation for agriculture and student life.
Candidates will also be able to demonstrate a commitment to agriculture outside of academic life and identify the challenges and opportunities within UK farming.