A star on the rugby pitch, England and Leicester Tigers player Tom Youngs is also passionate about farming.
Here, he talks to Emily Ashworth about his role as a Princes Countryside Fund ambassador – and his thoughts on the future of agriculture.
At 32, Tom Youngs has an impressive career history. Best known for his sporting success as a professional rugby player, he is about to enter his 15th season as a hooker with the Leicester Tigers, having also won 28 caps for England from 2012 to 2015.
But off the pitch, he is just as passionate about farming – hailing from a 560-hectare (1,400-acre) family arable farm in Norfolk – and will be the fourth generation to farm there.
Tom’s dad Nick and uncle William run the farm, along with Tom’s cousin George, who has recently returned from a stint in Australia.
It is certainly a family affair and coming from a long line of farmers is something Tom seems especially proud of, often mentioning his grandfather, Jerry, who, over the years, has seen ‘much change in the industry.’ Having started his stint in rugby at just 14, Tom says he will return to the farm full-time when ‘he can no longer run around the rugby pitch’.
But, in the meantime, he has been supporting the industry as an ambassador for The Prince’s Countryside Fund.
Keen to back what the fund does, he says: “I really wanted to help and I feel passionate about the work they do in the rural community, especially considering the grants they put out. I wanted to try to support that.
“What they do is fantastic, they’re a great trust. Farming charities are vital in helping young people get a foot on the ladder and showcasing just how amazing British farmers and the rural community are.”
Tom is not oblivious to the fire the industry has come under lately. He is eager to promote the industry to the next generation and help the general public understand food production and the welfare standards of British farming.
“I think at the moment, farming is getting the blame for global warming and all sorts,” he says.
“As a farmer, you feel like the finger is always being pointed in your direction. I look at my grandfather as a farmer who came through wartime; they were seen as legends.
“But farming has changed massively and if you say you’re a farmer now, people think you’re either poisoning them or destroying the world.
“We have to fight back a bit because now, we’re all sitting there getting punched and not really throwing much back.
“But perhaps that’s just a farmer’s way, to think, ‘well I’m just going to crack on’.
“Food is so easy to come by these days. You can have a strawberry in January, where at one time everything would be seasonal .
“It’s about getting that connection to our industry back and that’s important for the future of farming.”
Staying healthy is part and parcel of being a rugby player and conversation naturally turns to diet trends and what many farmers consider to be a worry: veganism. Tom, of course, has no issue with people’s lifestyle choices, but he is honest about the facts and benefits of a balanced diet.
He says: “Obviously I do a lot of nutrition work and have to be pretty strict – the whole thing is about having a balanced diet and that includes meat and dairy. “Activists are a huge worry – how do you connect with them?
“Sometimes there is no reasoning with people and I think they can be narrow minded, but they probably think we are, too. “We can really push the facts here – British farmers rear animals and produce meat to some of the best welfare standards in the world.
“It’s easy to get a YouTube video of things, but I’d like them to go on to local farms and see what real people are doing, how they’re looking after their animals and how they’re helping nature and realise what they’re talking about doesn’t really happen on British farms. It’s almost cool to be a vegan these days.”
But it is not the only issue facing the industry. As Brexit approaches, Tom is adamant farmers need to be proactive in their planning for the outcome.
He says: “Don’t bury your head in the sand. Without Single Farm Payment, will you be able to survive?
“You’ve got to have those figures in your head and there are an awful lot of people who work every hour of the day to make a bit of money and get themselves in a pickle.
“We have to realise farmers are under huge pressure at the minute and many are in a situation where all they’ve ever done is farm and have always done it that way.
“It’s hard to change it sometimes.”
Back home on-farm, he and his family have looked at diversification options and how they can build on ‘what else the farm can do.’ Previously, the farm also ran dairy cows and sheep and the thought is to make a livery yard out of the old cow shed, while also looking at keeping pigs in the woodland and rear them ‘old-school’.
But while the country keeps plodding on through the negotiations, Tom says he worries about the impact it could have on the farming community’s wellbeing.
“Farming is very resilient and will make the best of a bad situation. I’m very passionate about the fact that the people who work in farming are incredible and, whatever happens, I’m sure we will adapt,” he says.
“But it’s important people realise they need to get away sometimes and you can admit that you’re not okay. “You don’t have to hide and there’s no judgement.
“I think the younger generation are better at saying they’re struggling.” But in terms of making the industry seem a cool and vibrant place to work, who better to attract young people into agriculture than a pro rugby player? Tom points out that farming needs to start approaching things differently as ‘you have to sell it when there are other businesses and careers offering free cars or houses with jobs.’
“Schools are the key thing because the gap [in knowledge] has become too wide,” says Tom.
“But if you’re a young person interested in science or technology, there’s a huge opportunity to come into farming and that side of things is progressing rapidly. Technology wise, the sky is the limit.
“I think about my grandfather who is 90 and has gone from horse and cart to tractor in that space of time.
“It will be interesting to see where technology will go.
“The biology of plants and looking at new sprays and chemicals to help tackle things such as black-grass could be huge, but there are a lot more options in farming than just sitting on a tractor or being a herdsman.
“I say, don’t turn away from agriculture – farmers are intelligent.
“I don’t know many businesses where you have to cover so much as farmers do, from machinery, to agronomy to cashflow to selling. There are many parts to farming – and we have to paint it in a different light.”