Cobrey Farms: Utilising Trainees for the Easter Peak
March 31, 2021
“It’s good for us to have young, intelligent people asking us questions and challenging our thinking,” says Catherine Chinn, HR Director of family fruit and vegetable business, Cobrey Farms in south Herefordshire.
For the 12th year, the UK’s largest asparagus grower, Cobrey Farms has appointed two MDS Trainees to join its management team to see them through its harvest months.
This starts with rhubarb and asparagus in March, through to sugar snap peas, French beans, tenderstem broccoli and blueberries ending in September.
“We need smart, motivated people to embrace the role for a challenging and extremely busy six months,” says Catherine. “We don’t have the capacity within the permanent staff to take on these roles, and MDS Trainees are ideal. They’ve been through a strenuous selection process before they get to us so we know the calibre is up there, and MDS is brilliant at knowing the type of person that we want and need. The roles are not project-based, from day one they are part of the management team, attending management meetings, taking on hefty responsibility and making planning decisions. We are all busy, and we all have to get on with it.”
Established in 1925, Cobrey Farms is a Chinn family partnership farming 1,000 hectares in Herefordshire, Gloucestershire, Monmouthshire and Suffolk. The business invests heavily in the research and development of new crops, varieties and growing techniques. John Chinn is a passionate scientist, and Cobrey Farms is at the forefront of innovation and season extension for traditional UK produce, growing in both tunnels and open fields. His two sons, Henry and Chris manage the production, and packhouse and marketing respectively, selling to major retailers and wholesale.
The two MDS Trainee roles – Packhouse Assistant and Trials Officer – support the small core permanent team of 35; and there are up to 1300 pickers on site at this time of year.
As Packhouse Assistant, current Trainee, psychology graduate Sophie Reay, is responsible for stock control, dispatch and wholesale orders.
“We really believe in stretching the Trainees, as that benefits them as well as us,” says Catherine. “We have got better over the years at defining their role and giving the Trainees the support and challenge that works and meets both of our expectations.”
When a Trainee starts, for the first month they will focus on learning the business, the terminology, be encouraged to use the analytical side of their brains, getting used to systems and how to communicate; then it’s full-on consolidation for the next five months.
“It’s great to see the free training MDS is now offering for Secondment Managers. Knowing how to best progress placements, give clear direction and define what you both want to achieve makes a huge difference. The real coup in all of this is the support that Gretta and the team at MDS gives both us and the Trainees so that we both get the most from it. That is invaluable.”
Cobrey Farms’ trials lead the way in the industry. They have pioneered season extension, while improving taste, consistency, production costs and environmental sustainability. They are currently involved with trials with Cranfield University to maximise the output per litre of water, developing practical large-scale water harvesting and recycling systems for protected cropping; and are also exploring how to mitigate soil erosion.
The trials’ role, currently filled by International Business Management graduate Angus Bartlett, starts with three months of trials reporting, followed by three months assessing performance and areas for improvement in the blueberry fields.
Giving the Trainees exposure to all parts of the business, including importantly the skills that are absorbed rather than taught, accelerates capability, says Catherine:
“Being a small business, Trainees with us quickly develop an understanding of how it all works. They are part of management meetings, have desks near the partners and other colleagues so they learn from overhearing conversations or calls to customers which helps them understand the buying and selling, for example. In the packhouse, they are learning to identify good people skills. There are some skills that you can’t teach. They never stop learning when they are here and develop a wide skill set quickly, which ultimately helps our business.”
The two MDS Trainees report directly to their line managers but have regular catch ups with Catherine as their Secondment Manager. This allows her to ask questions that those closer to the job might not, and vice versa.
“It’s a two-way process,” says Catherine. “They challenge us with questions that make us think about what we are doing and is it the right way. That is so important.”
Passionate about inspiring and developing young people, Cobrey Farms hosts regular farm visits as well as opening its gates for LEAF Open Farm Sunday. Cobrey Farms will usually have MDS Trainees on their first placements, as they need to start a month before the usual start date to get them up to speed by the time the season is in full flow.
“When the Trainees first arrive, they can be like rabbits in the headlights, and I love seeing how quickly they develop,” says Catherine. “It’s really rewarding when they present back to MDS at the end of their two-year placement to see how much their experience at Cobrey Farms has shaped them. On several levels, MDS Trainees are a genuine asset to us. They are a fundamental and essential part of our team every year.”