Progressive Young Farmers Reflect on a Whirlwind Year of Training
OSI and its partners in the UK play a key role in training the next generation of farmers dedicated to sustainability. Each year, OSI-linked farms and factories host a select group of undergraduates, who immerse themselves in every aspect of food production, from farm to fork, through the Progressive Young Farmer’s program. Launched in 2012 by McDonald’s, the program offers students a year of hands-on experience and mentorship. Students spend part of the year on a farm and the rest of the year gaining practical experience in all aspects of the agri-food supply chain.
It’s a formative experience for aspiring farmers, who leave the program with a deeper understanding of the work food suppliers and manufacturers do, and a clearer vision of the role they aim to play in driving industry progress.
OSI’s participation in the program reflects its dedication to sustainable farming. By empowering ambitious students, who share OSI’s desire to foster positive change, the company has a hand in shaping its future partners and the future of the industry itself.
The nine participants in the ongoing 2019-20 program are focusing on innovation and the future of the farming sector, including animal welfare and beef sustainability — two areas particularly important to OSI. They are currently working from home after the health crisis forced an abrupt change of plans. But participants still describe the experience as one of intense personal growth.
Below, Philip Stewart and Ellen Marks, both from Northern Ireland, share some of the highlights of their placements and their reflections on an enriching, whirlwind year.
The following has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity and to protect the identities of OSI partners:
● School: Queen’s University, Northern Ireland
● Placements from July 2019: Outdoor pig rearing unit; OSI manufacturing site; abattoir and processing facility
Agriculture has been a passion of mine since I was tall enough to peer out the kitchen window at my father’s cows grazing the lush green Irish pastures. Our family farm in Tyrone, Northern Ireland was the foundation that got me involved in one of the country’s most important industries. As I progressed through my teenage years, my interest led me to pursue an Agricultural Science Honors Degree at Queen’s University Belfast.
The Progressive Young Farmer program was relatively new to my university. However, myself and two other students decided to test the waters, applying online and receiving an invitation to interview in London. We arrived in London on a chilly, wet December morning, nervous, anxious and excited. After a restless day of interviews, presentations and speed networking, I spent the next two days anxiously waiting for a call. Late one morning the call came: “Hi Philip, we would like to offer you the pork placement.” I was in.
Fast forward to July, and the chosen nine students gathered together again in London. We spent our first week being introduced to everybody we would be in contact with throughout the year, as well as exploring behind the scenes of McDonald’s restaurants and posing for photos of our farmer fashion. I then spent two “induction” weeks in processing factories to get to know the facilities and people I would spend more time with later in the year.
On the farm: Developing leadership skills
For the first four months of the placement I was based on an outdoor pig rearing unit that supplies to OSI. This unit was home to 1,600 breeding sows and gilts.
Being able to work efficiently as part of a team of new people in a new country was one of the most challenging aspects of my experience at that time. At first, I did not have the confidence to lead a team in a working environment. But having the opportunity to work with two newer staff members while carrying out these roles was the perfect opportunity to develop my leadership experience. Being trusted with this enormous responsibility reflected the faith my manager had in me. The Progressive Young Farmer program exposed me to new environments, challenged me to overcome fears and develop into a more confident and knowledgeable individual.
Processing: Leading a project on an OSI factory floor
The Progressive Young Farmer program requires each student to organize and carry out a project that will add value to or benefit the [host] company and the wider supply chain. I carried out my project at my second placement, an OSI manufacturing site.
My project aimed to ensure only the highest quality meat leaves the OSI factory, making its way to McDonald’s restaurants across the UK. It involved deconstructing and testing a set number of patties from pork suppliers to ensure they met the highest standards. We invited suppliers to the factory to show them the deconstruction process and to highlight the importance of quality assurance procedures in their own sites. Finally, I presented my findings to OSI, which passed along feedback to each supplier. This gave me a sense of pride and achievement and proved to me that hard work can have a positive impact. My team working skills and confidence presenting information to groups (a great fear of mine) were vastly improved, and I’m glad I had the chance to strengthen these skills.
Processing factory: Diving into data
After Christmas break and three days at the prestigious Oxford Farming Conference (where my view of the agriculture sector was expanded to a new level) it was off to an abattoir and processing factory for four weeks. During my time here I was able to start another small project, and also spent time using data management tools to improve on-farm data recording efficiencies and make the information readily available for the factory staff. This experience showed me how advanced the agriculture industry is becoming.
‘Best year of my life’ despite a change of plans
After two months in completely different environments, I moved on to my second stint on a farm. However, with the increasing risk of COVID-19 spreading across the UK, I was forced to pack my bags and head home, cutting short my final months on the farm.
Currently I am working from home on beef and pork sustainability projects with OSI. I have been extremely fortunate that this has been a possibility due to the changing circumstances.
The program so far has been the best year of my life. I’m grateful for the people I have come into contact with, the connections I have made and the knowledge I have gained within the industry, not to mention the vast level of personal development I have undertaken, from gaining confidence in public speaking to enhancing both my teamwork and leadership skills. I cannot recommend this program enough for future young farmers seeking to make their mark on the agri-food industry.
● School: Queens University, Northern Ireland
● Placements from July 2019: Beef farm; OSI manufacturing plant; primary processing facility
I remember getting on the plane heading to London for the interview process like it
was yesterday. I had only ever had one real interview before and felt nowhere near ready for a full day of introductions, interviews and presentations. How wrong was I. We were made to feel so comfortable.
After a full day talking about my favorite thing — beef farming — we said goodbye. On my journey home I thought about the deliberations the suppliers would be making about my future and career path. I see myself as a beef farmer. Beef farming is what I love to talk about, debate, get involved in and someday aspire to make better. Little did I know that my career journey had already started. It took me a few days to fully appreciate how the interviewing process itself was going to benefit me on my journey, even if I did not receive a place on the program.
But a few days later the phone rang. I got offered the beef UK placement with OSI. Without hesitation I gladly accepted.
An immersive introduction to beef farming
After a three week induction period, I headed to a small village I would call home for the next few months. The farm I was assigned to has 300+ beef suckler cows.
My role on farm was varied; I helped a lot with the animal husbandry side of the
Business including, rearing of the calves, feeding, vaccinations and rotational grazing.
I loved every minute on the farm and learned so much about beef farming, the beef industry as well as regenerative farming.
OSI Scunthorpe: Traceability
At my second placement, an OSI facility, I got involved in one project aimed at identifying areas of change within the traceability process to make it better, easier and quicker. I felt as if I was making a valuable change and as if I was a member of the team.
I also spent a few weeks at an abattoir that is jointly owned by OSI. This allowed me to gain experience within the primary processing aspect of the supply chain. I got involved, from my very first day, in every aspect from the lairage to finance. After an initial tour of the site, I was left to my work. The independence I was given taught me so much about everything from navigation to communication and organization. At the end of the two weeks, I got to take one of the other Progressive Young Farmers on a guided tour of the factory and was surprised to realize how much I had absorbed.
Studying cattle behavior in the lairage
After a break for Christmas and the Oxford Farming Conference, I then moved to the south of England to a primary processing facility. I spent the month of January getting involved in various aspects of the business from procurement with the livestock team to conducting behavioral research on animals.
Adjusting to something new
Due to the impact of Covid-19, I moved back home to Northern Ireland in the second week of March. I was delighted to be at home with my family in this strange, worrying time, however I couldn’t help but think about all the things I would be missing, as spring is a hub of excitement on the farm.
But I’m continuing with the Progressive Young Farmer program by working from home. I now work on various projects with webinars and video calls being the new norm. I’m working on various projects for OSI that I feel strongly about: beef sustainability, meeting European Roundtable for Beef Sustainability targets, farmer engagement and environmental effects of beef farming. I didn’t know what to think about my new role but after a few weeks I’m really enjoying it and I feel like I’m contributing to benefits within the beef industry.