Getting a foot on the agricultural ladder is becoming more difficult for new entrants, so Jack Stilwell decided to take matters in to his own hands finding help from an unlikely source.
Facing an uphill battle to get started in farming, Jack Stilwell found an innovative idea which led him to finding help and financial support from an unlikely source.
It was this discovery which is ultimately helped make his farming dream a reality.
Jack Stilwell, 25, is known on social media through his ‘Get Jack Farming’ campaign, which he set up during his fourth year at Harper Adams University.
From growing up with a few beef cattle owned by his agronomist father, Jack knew he wanted to farm full-time and he set about making it happen.
Working on arable farms while studying at university, he saved up to buy his first cows, housing his cattle on his father's 16 hectares (40 acres) of land. But things were not growing as fast as he wanted, so he set about finding a way to speed up the process.
Jack wanted to raise £4,000 to allow him to increase the size of his herd, but the obvious question was how to get the funds.
He says: “I was reading an article about a girl who wanted to raise £24,000 through crowdfunding to pay for living and tuition expenses to undertake a post-graduate degree at Oxford University.
“My initial thought was, ‘This is mad, nobody is going to buy into it’.”
Jack began following the campaign and, with 10 days still to go, the girl had exceeded her fundraising target and money was continuing to pour though. He used the internet to research whether anything like this had ever been dong in agriculture and then decided to give it a go.
“I just thought someone has to have a go at this first and I literally had nothing to lose by trying.”
While crowdfunding can work by offering equity in the business in exchange for donations, Jack knew he was in already in a fortunate position worth maintaining.
“The website I used was purely for people to donate if they had an interest in my project, with no equity given in return. Owning 100 per cent of your business is a luxury and I want to keep hold of that for as long as I can.”
Jack promoted his campaign in the farming press and across social media, where his story was picked up by an American technology tycoon living in California.
“He read about it, loved it, and put all the money in, and a bit more. It blew my mind and restored my faith in humanity.
“He emailed me saying the money was in my account. I remember lying in bed at about 11:30 at night, so I just logged in and there it was.
“He explained how someone once took a chance on him when he was stuck and this allowed him to become a success. Donating money to me was his way of paying a favour forward.”
While he is yet to meet his American contact, they speak frequently and Jack is planning to show him where his generosity has been used.
Despite raising close to £5,000 through crowdfunding, Jack says the opportunities he received as a result of the campaign have been more beneficial in the long-term than the financial gain.
This has come in the form of two share farming agreements.
The first was offered 18 months ago by a local arable farmer during the crowdfunding campaign.
"The farmer knew I had a year left at university, so we spent a good year planning and structuring a 300-acre business.
"The second share farming agreement happened 12 months ago when I was approached by an ageing farmer who was struggling to manage his 100-acre business himself.
"We put a monetary value on what both parties are contributing, then we split the overheads from the revenue. The surplus is divided between us."
Considering all his land agreements, his level of growth and the opportunities which have come his way, how much of Jack's business is down to luck?
"You make your own luck. I made sure I made enough noise about what I wanted to do and I don't think the opportunities would have happened if I hadn't.
"Farming is quite a tight-knit industry. I believe I have shown aspiration and the right attitude and people have been more forthcoming as a result."
As a testament to this, Jack's social media presence is relentless, particularly sharing photos on Instagram.
“As my personal following grew, people noticed what I was achieving and I have subsequently ended up doing some work for an online auctioneering company, consulting them on crowdfunding and social media.”
What started out as a campaign to launch his farming career culminated with Jack featuring on various TV and radio programmes discussing his unique approach.
“I was invited to debate on Radio 4 Farming Today about the future of British agriculture and, while I never imagined myself ever talking to 1.4 million listeners, I really enjoyed it.”
"I learned a lot about trusting myself and my vision. You have to ignore the naysayers and not be afraid."
- Jack Stilwell
Jack now farms about 200 Hereford and Aberdeen-Angus cattle split in to three enterprises across the South Downs, all within a 25-minute radius.
“I like traditional methods of rearing cattle so I stuck to native breeds which I could winter outside.
“The cattle work on a grass forage system with New Zealand-style rotational grazing.
“This is basically about maximising pasture and minimising inputs.”
While most of Jack’s cattle are used as stores, he also has a Hereford suckler herd and a new Aberdeen-Angus bull unit.
“I would describe myself as an opportunist, so when an empty shed and a large herd of Aberdeen-Angus bulls came my way, I grasped them with both hands and I now have a barley-fed beef unit.”
Taking this new idea to such a traditional industry, challenges had to be expected with the crowdfunding campaign.
“Because crowdfunding was such a new idea in business, let alone agriculture, I met a lot of negativity to begin with,” Jack explains.
“A lot of people thought I was wanting something for nothing and, while I knew in my head this wasn’t the case, I could totally sympathise with those who might think it.”
Instead of directing his campaign directly at farmers, Jack focused on those living in the countryside, which is where the funding started to grow.
“As it started to grow momentum and gain popularity, the rest of the farming community got behind it.
“From this challenge I learned a lot about trusting myself and my vision. You have to ignoring the naysayers and not be afraid to fail.”
Instead of taking the more traditional route of selling his produce to local markets and farm shops, Jack looks to a much wider audience, targeting the restaurant industry around his home county of West Sussex with a view to making it into the London trade.
“I do not see any limit to growth. I started as I mean to go on, and I will take advantage of everything which comes my way.”
Jack's ambition is to add value and distribute his own product via a potential restaurant launch with his American financier.
"I am currently looking into opening a restaurant at the end of the year, once again with support from my American investor. I hope to develop this into a chain of steak houses with the unique selling point being most of the food will come from the restaurant's own farm."
After what had been an innovative 12 months, Jack recently won Young Farmer of the Year at the Food and Farming Industry Awards, held at the Houses of Parliament.
Grateful for all the support he has been given from people near and far, Jack believes the key to success is in meeting your own personal objectives.
“I believe it is important to think big, dream big and never give up. If I had given up when faced with negativity, I wouldn’t be where I am now."
There are three different forms of crowdfunding which alter the investor’s position within the business equation.
Investment is taken as a donation, with no expectation of reward to investors
Investors receive their money back with interest, similar to how a bank would lend money
People invest in exchange for equity, most commonly a share in the business or project.
Crowdfunding offers small businesses the opportunity to apply directly to investors in order to build up enough funding for their project.
This means bypassing banks who may turn down funding applications for a whole host of reasons.
It also means anyone can invest in a new business or expansion, whether they want to give £5, or £50,000.
Some crowdfunding exercises require a minimum investment – such as Source Market, which specifies £500 – while others, such as hubbub.net, look solely for people to donate with no return of equity.