Farming Tips and Advice – Videos and Blogs from Tommy the Vet

People can change everything

People

“I’m Tommy Heffernan a vet who is interested in cows and people”, this was my introduction on our 6 week travels with Nuffield. One of the highlights of the trip for me was the people I met along the way. While books and lectures will teach you things, what you learn from people can be life changing. This global focus trip was no different. So I want to talk about just some of the people I met and what I learned from them.

Scrawled on the front cover of my travel notebook at the end of the trip “was keep things simple and enjoy the simple things”.

Listening

I got some great advice from a good friend and mentor before I left “be more interested than interesting”. The world is full of knowledge and amazing people listen to what they have to say. Sometimes saying less and listening more can be great. Always ask good questions but the important thing is listen to the answers.

So soak it up, the knowledge is everywhere!

Passion

Another early morning start in the Philippines, we headed to a place ashamedly I’d never heard of called. I.R.R.I or the International Rice Research Institute. A place where knowledge about one of the most important crops in the world is under the research microscope. To put it into perspective there are 140 million rice farms in the world 3.6 billion people eat rice every day and it’s very much dominated by small farms. On this vast research institute they look at everything from low nitrogen, organic rice, harvesting technology to a vault or genetic bank of thousands of breeds of rice. There are probably few Ag research institutes in the world with such an important job or role.

When our bus arrived in I.R.R.I we met our host for the day a tall easy going Aussie by the name of James. Straight away you could get a sense of the passion from him and what the work they were doing meant not just to him but to the rice farmers of the world. As I sat having a coffee he told me about his time in this predominantly poor country. He told me about the people and how little they had and how he loved living amongst them because of how happy they were. As we travelled through the streets to a local market he joked about some of the unusual driving habits. The traffic will often go everywhere but end up no where he joked.

A father of two children, when this man spoke about the research they were doing you could not help but be inspired with his passion. I left feeling, there is a guy who loves what he does and you can hear it in his every word. Time and time again we met people passionate about Ag, when you find your passion for your subject you lift yourself and you inspire others. Thanks James…

So the question is what’s your passion?

Smile more

Landing into Germany late Saturday evening we met with our German host Stephan. I had met Stephan in March at our contemporary scholar’s conference. The one thing that I got with Stefan straight away, was he was always smiling. When I got to know this impressive guy, who was running a huge farming enterprise, but not only that, he was so passionate about helping and developing young farmer networks.

That week he had taken a week off to show us around Germany and connect us with incredible farms and German agribusinesses.

When we went to Stefan’s farm on Tuesday I was blown away. With nearly 20 employees, pigs, chickens, crops, bio digesters and a machinery leasing business. He seemed to carry the burden of his workload with considerable ease. Not only that, integral to everything he does is his wife and young family. We visited several young German farmers who smiled when we mentioned Stefan’s name.

This man had done so much in business, he even took us to one broiler house where he put in a viewing box for the public. He knows the struggle that intensive farming systems face and he believes to win hearts, minds and bellies you must be innovative and transparent. On our final evening together in his garden with his beautiful family having a barbecue I was very much in awe. He continually mulled and debated about his ongoing quest to engage and help young farmers develop in business and personally.

We spent five days with Stefan and don’t think I saw him without a smile, well maybe for five minutes after Germany got dumped out of the world cup soccer!!!

A smile might not change your balance sheet but it will change your attitude!

Focus

As we sat in the farm boardroom I watched and listened in amazement. We were getting a masterclass in mastery. We were with vet Rob a Nuffield scholar who had started an integrated dairy to beef system four years previously as a direct result of his Nuffield topic. He had set up and run a large veterinary practice and was now a veterinary consultant and farmer.

The attention to detail was phenomenal from feeding, housing, husbandry, grazing. It was precision beef, I felt he might be just “lighting the way” for dairy to beef production. He joked that he spent years telling people what good farming should look like and now he is actually trying to teach by doing!

Precision Ag at its finest, running close to 1000 cattle in large grazing mobs. Nothing was left to chance by this perfectionist. As I listened I noticed his focus on every aspect of his business. Few I have met have the capacity of mind of Rob, but still the devil is in the detail. If you’re going to do something, do it right? Use the tools of science at your disposal. Like everyone Rob is human although he might not admit it! He knows where he is going, what he wants and how he will achieve it.

That same week we met with James a manager of one of the largest farming enterprises in the Uk. A business like few I have ever seen. The perception to the outside world is this is a well-funded business and may not have to be profitable. However two minutes with James and we were left in no doubt about the potential of this business and how this was no toy farm, this was the real deal. He had his eye on every aspect of the day to day running, but the other eye firmly on the horizon. The amount of innovative thinking was impressive but the focus on ensuring the simple things were done so well. While telling us about a recent trip to china where he was exploring new technology he looked at a passing tractor saying “what’s my sheep man doing drawing silage”. A down to earth style that was so engaging. I left feeling that this man is at the top of his game.

You felt like he might know every inch of this huge farm, every blade of grass but most importantly he knows and respects every one of his team. A man with laser focus and broad perspectives.

Remember your focus can determine your reality?

Identity

If you asked me as a father what would I wish for my kids as they grow older into the world? There would be many things but one is to not be afraid to have their own identity. In a world where we are pushed often to conform its refreshing to have met so many unique people. Not afraid to be themselves and have their own opinions.

Thomas the master butcher was one such person, a larger than life character. He brimmed over with enthusiasm and energy. A warm strong handshake and an even bigger smile. Why I asked him was he so happy? He pointed to his wife and she whizzed by with another serving of the meat they had cooked for us. His English was broken but when he spoke in German I felt every word. He was telling us about meat and his passion for it. His animated tales and love of meat steeped in his family history being a third generation butcher.

We left his butcher shop and eatery after a long day truly uplifted. He was incredibly unique and utterly refreshing.

Like many I can judge a book by its cover, make quick assumptions about people. I was wary at first of peter and made some quick assumptions based on perceptions. A well-spoken young gentleman with a quick tongue. A family history that went back more generations than I can remember on their estate. This was new territory for me but with an open mind I listened. I quickly realised there was somebody who was respectful of tradition while pulling it into a very different world. From the outside you could see privilege, from inside there was passion, drive and great responsibility to the obligation that inheritance had landed in his lap. He was truly unique and unapologetic for who and what he was.

I too have found and embraced what is unique about myself. Like everyone there are many parts that need work but I know what makes me. I learned that for the first time in a nightclub in Dublin when I was 17. When my still best friend imparted some wise words that have never left me….

To anyone still reading particularly if you’re young. Don’t be afraid to be you, it can take time to discover it, but it can be your uniqueness whatever that might be that sets you a part.

Compassion/ empathy

Packington free range is another farming business that is run by two brothers Alec and Rob. A unique business spread across the UK farming free range pigs and poultry. Rob was a scholar from 2015 who set out to look at adding value to his farming business but his path changed looking at social responsibility and the issue of food poverty.

Larger than life I felt an instant connection with Rob. An impressive business with a laid back attitude (with a flashy Hawaiian t-shirt to boot). As the curtain came back on their business a deep vein of social responsibility was revealed. On farm education through farmlink where children from deprived schools get to come on farm and really understand food and farming. Then every Friday a group of volunteers lead by robs better half Sally bring fresh food to schools in less well-off districts. Volunteers within the company and an idle refrigerated van are put to great use. This is not about handouts this is about help with education. This is about compassion not pity.

This is about empowering people with fresh food and fresh ideas. This about inclusion, this was about a strong empathy and understanding for people in less privileged situations. I sat with Rob and sally over beers that night for a very interesting conversation about the state of social justice and we even touched on happiness. On our departure the next morning he gifted me a book called “the Danish book of lykke”.

As I travelled the world it is clear there is strong divisions and polarisation. However I was inspired by the compassion of so many. Also the strong agricultural leaders we met, had huge empathy for their families, employees, customers and their communities.

It is well recognised there is no greater reward than to help someone else.  A strong sense of empathy is invaluable when making decisions, assumptions or having aspirations.

Always put yourself in the shoes of others look at the world from their eyes.

 

Keeping it simple

There is something special when you meet people who have achieved so much, yet are inherently humble and unassuming. When we finished our tour of thatcher’s cider we sat in the sunshine sipping a glass of cold thatcher’s gold listening to martin’s words of wisdom (if Carlsberg did afternoons).

Martin (third generation) is the owner and CEO of thatcher’s cider a business which has gone from strength to strength under his tenure. A calm relaxed man who spoke quietly but with great intent and meaning in everything he said. He gave us his 7 pillars or principles, which at the very top was keep it simple. Far from a simple business with over 400 employees and robotics at every turn in the factory floor. However the principles of his business were simple and consistent.

A great product made in a state of the art facility. A huge emphasis on simple goals that every one of his team can buy into. As we strolled through the factory you could be left in no doubt about the immense reciprocal respect between the team and their leader.

It was funny on my first flight from Helsinki to Singapore I scrolled on the very front of my journal my keeping it simple message. I have been guilty of adding complexity to life and business, always try and keep things clear and simple where possible it adds immense clarity. It must be argued to keep things simple requires a deep understanding of your business and yourself?

Einstein once said “everything should be made as simple as possible but no simpler”.

Trust

Maybe this is the backbone of all good work and people? Where it shone through for me was with the people I travelled with, my fellow scholars. As we travelled together you can’t hide from yourself. The good the bad and the ugly. As a group we bonded so well, we went beyond the trivial and often superficial stuff. We really engaged with each other. We built a huge amount of trust. When you have trust you have strong bonds that create great friendships and relationships.

Trust is such an integral part of leadership in businesses, none more so than with your customers. I loved to see when we travelled farmers connecting with their customers. This built strong relationships that were reflected in profitable businesses.

 

Fear, risks and failure

Its sometimes easy stay between the lines. It’s safe, you can go unnoticed and perhaps no one will have a bad thing to say about you? Inside your comfort zone the world might be a safer place. However you’ll sometimes achieve little and often be frustrated. The agribusinesses all around the world we viewed all have taken risks, they felt the fear and did it anyway. They were open and honest that they had many failures along the way. So many people I met said failure is part of success. I even met someone with more potential than most, we talked about his fears? I hope he goes beyond them because his potential is limitless.

 

Have fun

I don’t shy away from the fact I like to have fun. You can do serious work without taking yourself too seriously. To my fellow traveling companions I thank you sincerely for all the fun we had.

Please have some fun it will be a long boring ride without it?

 

Family first

Twenty minutes before I went to the airport we confirmed our suspicions that we were expecting our 5th little child. To say my wife Julie is a saint is an understatement, she has supported me right throughout. As I travelled my mind was filled with the memories of her and my children. The very simplest of things the cuddles, the smiles and the innocence of our four beautiful children.

Personally this trip aligned my thinking even more about what I want to put first always, that’s family. Our time is limited and family really is where it begins and ends. Too often I take for granted how lucky I am,

This is something everywhere I went and saw with so many farming families, the close knit bond between them in their businesses. Too often farming families can have their issues, but who doesn’t? as we travelled through the corn belt of Iowa I met so many farming families with incredible close knit bonds and good working relationships. As one man said “family first my friend, it will be pretty easy after that”.

Two years ago as I strolled along transfixed on some business idea, I felt a little hand grab mine. It sounds pretty simple but for a moment in time I stopped and felt my little son’s hand, it was much more than a little hand it was everything I had to be thankful for. One of the many small moments of clarity I’ve been lucky to have over the last number of years. It’s all about perspectives?

It’s not just a little hand, it’s so much more?

 

Finally

I took to write this as a final piece for a while, where I dig a little deeper. For the next while ill stick to the knitting.

Nuffield is about developing leaders in agriculture, without the support of friends and particularly your family it’s hard to be a leader. As it approaches 1.00am and 3000 words it’s time to stop…..

I dedicate this article to the leaders I have met on my travels who have inspired me. To my long suffering wife for her love and support and to my little children who keep making me a better person every day.

As I set off on a new juncture in my career I hope I can take some of these valuable lessons with me. I do firmly believe people can change everything!

 

 

 

 

 

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