Beth Duchesne, a BSc (Hons) Agriculture with Farm Business Management alumna, graduated in 2014 but has not stopped on her academic journey. Learning more skills for her trade as an agricultural business consultant, Beth’s hard work has seen her recognised for achieving the highest marks in her BASIS certificate in crop protection being awarded the Barrie Orme shield.
“Having grown up and worked on our family arable farm in Suffolk,” Beth explained, “I have always been passionate about the industry and knew I wanted to be involved in Agriculture in one form or another.
“Although I still jump at any opportunity to get involved practically on the farm, I couldn’t see myself driving a tractor as such all the time. I studied business at GCSE and went on to do Business Management at college as this was an area I was particularly interested in.
“While studying business studies at school, it was all based around retail and leisure businesses. I can remember going home and speaking to my parents about what I had learnt at school that day and starting to relate some of those principles to things going on at the farm - which actually helped me understand my lessons better - but also made me realise that farmers need to think about all this stuff too!”
Inspired by her studies and wanting to combine this with her love of her family’s industry, Beth began to look at agri-business studies at an undergraduate level. She commented: “When I was looking at university courses and attending open days, a friend told me about the Harper Adams Experience weekend. My parents registered for me to go and the rest was history really! I can remember coming home from a great few days at Harper and telling my parents that Harper was where I was going to go.
“The atmosphere of the campus was so relaxed and friendly; the student ambassadors were great and positive; the lectures I attended were really interesting and the whole weekend was great fun! I have never been overly academic so the prospect of going to university was pretty scary and new. The added benefits of having a university farm and a placement year reassured me, as it meant I would gain practical experience and knowledge as well as academic learning which suited me to the ground.”
After completing her initial two years at Harper, Beth went onto a full year of practical learning experience with her placement employer. She explained: “I was lucky enough to be one of the three placement students in my year who were awarded the Syngenta Scholarship and I spent my placement year supporting both the research and development trials team and the commercial team.
“The majority of our role was to help out with all aspects of the trials - setting up, drilling, spraying, assessments - and I actually enjoyed it so much that I stayed on for another few weeks to help harvest all the trials! In the winter months we were tasked with a research project for the commercial team, which meant we were supporting the area managers at their farmer meetings around the country and collecting questionnaire responses which we then presented back to the team.”
While working with Syngenta, Beth started to consider becoming BASIS certified. She explained her thinking, saying: “Everyday we would be working with different chemistries, identifying weeds and assessing crop health and it made me realise that the knowledge behind the qualification was essential if I ever wanted to understand why farmers do the things they do.”
Beth explained the role of BASIS and why so many people find their certifications valuable. She said: “BASIS offers a range of qualifications for people who work with pesticides, fertilisers and related sectors to allow people to demonstrate their knowledge and competency, and become part of a recognised professional register. Most people are aware of BASIS as the qualification that you need to become an agronomist, which is true, but the organisation also covers a wide range of other competencies.
“I am not an agronomist, I am an agricultural business consultant. I don’t actively walk fields and advise people on spray programmes, but I do talk to farmers and landowners on a daily basis about their farms, how they are looking and what they can do to make their businesses more profitable or new ways of farming their land. I have always wanted to become a consultant that is trusted and respected within the industry, and I am a very strong believer that to do that I need to demonstrate I have been there and done that and I know what I am talking about.
“The BASIS certificate in crop protection gave me an opportunity to improve my knowledge and give me the skills to be able to be that trusted, knowledgeable advisor. I want to use my knowledge from the qualification to add value to the conversations I have with farmers and landowners and use it to help my clients make informed decisions on changes to their farming practices.”
Beth also spoke about her considerations of being a woman in her field. She acknowledged: “As much as I didn’t want this to be a factor, I am a female consultant in what was traditionally a male dominated industry which I am very pleased to see is changing! But there were times where I felt I was at a disadvantage, but as soon as I started talking about tractor makes or what I had been doing at the weekend on our family farm, some of those initial barriers were broken. Being able to say that I am BASIS qualified will be a conversation starter, and help towards gaining that respect.”
Beth’s training with BASIS was extensive, requiring a lot of time and commitment to her learning. She said: “The qualification itself was quite time consuming and is a level six module. As with most level six courses there was an element of self-learning.
“My training was a combination of formal training sessions, additional reading and tasks, crop walking days and experience with three local agronomists, hours in a sprayer and asking questions to my dad! Our formal training sessions were roughly two days every other week for 4 months, with a 5000 word research project followed by three exams.
“The course covered a wide range of areas so the practical days I arranged were great at helping me understand putting the theory into practice. The research project was a formal report, similar to a dissertation, but we only had 5000 words. I completed my project on how farmers can use cultural control methods as part of a sustainable blackgrass rotation. Our 3 exams were spread across two days. Day 1 was a 70 question multiple choice exam in the morning, which was followed by a practical exam identifying weeds, pests, diseases and application equipment. Day 2 was the VIVA exam, which consisted of 3 field station interviews (one being in a chemical store) and then a final VIVA panel. There was quite a lot to do in a relatively short period of time!”
Having completed all of her work, Beth’s studying paid off and saw her achieve the highest marks in her exams and be further awarded a shield for her efforts. She was completely shocked by the results, explaining: “I had an awful mock exam 2 weeks before that made me completely doubt everything and I very nearly made the decision to defer my exam to a later date.”
Beth powered through regardless with the support of her trainer and group. She continued: “My group trainer, Debbie, told us that we would know if we had passed or not, depending on the size of the envelope we received in the post! A4 and we had passed and A5 and we hadn't. I was so relieved and excited that I had an A4 envelope delivered on results day that I didn’t read the cover letter that told me I had been nominated for the award until about 3 days later!
“Even being nominated was a huge surprise to me, and when I got the phone call to say I had won, I had to sit down because I really couldn’t believe it. But I was also really proud of myself for taking the leap to try something new, that wasn’t in my comfort zone and give it my best shot. I am so grateful to Debbie for all her time and effort training me, friends and family in the industry who I called upon constantly for field walking days and help and especially to my whole BASIS group for their support.”
Buoyed by the positive experience, Beth is looking to head back and gain some more qualifications. She said: “I am hopefully - Covid pending - going to start some more studies with BASIS in the next couple of months, as I have booked on to the BETA Conservation Management courses. I spend a lot of time advising farmers and landowners on countryside stewardship opportunities and, with agricultural policy being pushed in the conservation and environmental direction, I think having this knowledge and skills is going to be even more important as the industry moves into the next chapter.”
Working in her graduate agribusiness consultant role with Bidwells, Beth credits her learning success to the skills she gained at Harper and the support of her employer while undertaking her BASIS qualification and experience international farming out in New Zealand.
For those looking to follow a similar career path to Beth, she advises to work hard from the start, saying: “You never stop learning, but having a foundational understanding from the uni experience, which can then be developed and adapted into how each business works is invaluable.
“Along with this, get as much practical experience as possible, both on farm and off farm, as I really think has helped me get where I am today.
“Don’t be afraid to think outside of the box either. Not everything works out how you want it to but sometimes one thing goes ok and you never know where it might lead you! But also take constructive criticism and admit when something hasn’t gone quite right. It is hard, but actually that’s where I have found I have learnt the most.”