What made these two teenagers decide to become pig farmers?
- Credit: Wil Hawkes
Two teenagers have achieved their unlikely ambition of becoming pig farmers – and now it is hoped the determination of these new apprentices could inspire more young women to bring their skills into the industry.
Lily McIntosh and Evie Wilks, both aged 17, approached Steve Hart about joining his award-winning Norfolk Free Range business based near Downham Market.
Although neither comes from a farming family background, both were motivated by the prospect of a varied job working outdoors with animals - and defeating stereotypes in a traditionally male-dominated workplace.
They were recruited with the help of £20,000 of Apprenticeship Levy funds invested by the farm's major customer Tulip, the country's largest pig farmer and producer of pork.
Their 18-month apprenticeship will equip them with the skills for what they hope will be long careers as stockpeople, with on-site training being provided by Easton College.
And it is a template which many in the agricultural industry will want to replicate as they seek to develop the next generation of farming talent, and bring much-needed new blood into the industry.
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Evie is originally from Essex but her family moved to Barroway Drove near Downham Market five years ago.
"At first I wanted to be a lawyer, I didn't want anything to do with physical work or stuff like that," she said. "But when my mum and dad bought some land up here I thought: 'This is nice, I like being outdoors, because it is more natural'. I wanted to do cows, to be fair, because they are my favourite animal - but I had pigs before I joined this job and I really like their personality.
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"I see the apprenticeship as a real opportunity to learn while I am earning. When I tell people what I do, they say: 'Really? Well, I commend you for that'. I think they realise it is a physical job and as a woman it's very different in a patriarchal society. It is normally a man's world, so for it to be a woman's world now... everything is changing and everyone is trying to get used to it."
When asked if she saw herself as an ambassador for young women in farming, Evie said: "No. When I'm on the farm it just feels like a normal job and I feel part of the team and that's it. I'm the same as everyone else. I like it when people say its different. It makes me smile, but it's not really that different is it? Because men do it, women do it, old people do it, young people do it. As much as it is a shock to some people's systems, it is just a natural thing.
"And it is not just about genders, it is about personalities. Some people are better at different things, some are better with their hands and some are better with their brain."
The two apprentices work on different areas of the business, with Lily on pig breeding and Evie on pig finishing - the geographical distance between the farms they work on, and the biosecurity measures to stop the spread of livestock diseases, mean they usually only meet during their college sessions on the farm.
Lily, from Brandon, said her family was "very outdoorsy" and her ambition to work on a farm stemmed from helping her grandfather with his goats and chickens.
"I just always loved being outdoors," she said. "Being inside just bored me.
"When you are at school they just sit you down and go through the academic side of things and I thought: 'Actually, this is not for me'.
"School moulds you into what they want you to be, but I think you need to find yourself. With this sort of job, working outside, you do find yourself. When you come out of school everyone talks about the big bad world, but you make your own future. That is the biggest thing I have learnt.
"I think it is about respect as well. A lot of people look at girls and are very stereotypical and they just think 'office job', things like that. But when you tell them you work outside they look at you and say: 'Why are you doing that? That's not what you should be doing.' But it is nice to make a difference and to look at people and say: 'I'm different to everyone else and I'm not following a chain'. It makes you push harder to prove them wrong."
Farm owner Steve Hart praised Easton College for adjusting its apprenticeship training to suit the needs of his business - with tutors coming to the farm to provide the classroom aspect of the training, rather than requiring youngsters to make long bus trips to get to the campus. The farm has now recruited around a dozen apprentices in the last five years, he said, and with it had a greater proportion of female workers compared to the industry average, with women accounting for about 20pc of his company's 150-strong workforce.
"Encouraging young talent to the pig industry is essential for its future and I am personally committed to creating opportunities for people of all ages to learn and develop through apprenticeship programmes whilst being employed on the farm," he said. "Lily and Evie are a real asset to our team and are also ambassadors to all young people who are considering a career within the pig industry and the many opportunities that it offers.
"When we started doing apprenticeships, our young people wanted to learn on farm so they wanted the lecturer to come out to them, as it would lend more practical content to the course. The college came back with this proposal. The course had moved online so students could do it when they wanted to, and it was backed up by in-house catch-ups where they come into our office. It has really grown from there.
"We need to bring Dalehead [a division of Tulip] into this too - they approached us about their training needs and they have supported us with their Apprenticeship Levy pot. Under 18s are supported by the government with their training costs and we pay them a salary above apprenticeship level because, to be fair, they are already doing the same job as everyone else, so they deserve what they earn.
"There is an gender imbalance, but that is just in the numbers. Their net worth to the business is equal to the men doing this job."
Joanne Collins, HR business partner for Tulip, added: "I think it is a real untapped opportunity to encourage more young people, but also more females, into the industry. The amount of females compared to men is minimal if we look at the workers within our supply chain.
"If we don't encourage young people to come into this business and understand the opportunities and what they get back in terms of job satisfaction, it could put the whole future at risk.
"I definitely think that Lily and Evie will be recognised as young female ambassadors and hopefully they will encourage more girls to think about joining this industry as a career."