A YOUNG Northumberland farmer who took over and expanded the family business after the tragic death of his father has won through to the last stage of a national competition.

Ralph Thompson, 21, from Silvermoor Farm, Alnwick, is one of only two finalists in the young farmer of the year category in the NFU Farming Excellence Awards.

The winner will be announced at the NFU annual lunch in London on Thursday.

As well as taking over the running of the tenanted 380-acre family farm, he has set up a contracting business, quadrupling the number of customers in less than four years.

Both regional and national judges felt he was a brilliant self-starter who had demonstrated his maturity and business acumen by running such a successful business.

Mr Thompson said: "It has been particularly difficult in the past year with the loss of my father, but I have kept myself busy and given the business my best effort.

"I am the third generation of farmers on this land. I've never felt a duty to work it, because farming is something I've always wanted to do."

The NFU's young farmer award, sponsored by Tesco and Farmers Weekly, recognises the important contribution youth makes to the farming industry and rewards young pioneers who have made a promising start.

Mr Thompson's main enterprise is growing arable crops - wheat, barley and oilseed rape. He also uses the grassland to produce silage for cattle and 6,000 bales of haylage for horses. As well as his own 16 beef cattle, he raises 136 cattle for two local farmers.

He began his contracting business in 1999 with ten customers, baling and wrapping silage and baling straw. Today he has more than 40 customers and is also responsible for ploughing 2,500 acres and sowing 1,000 acres of other people's land.

The contracting business, which trades under the name of A Thompson & Son, employs up to four people during busy seasons.

Mr Thompson said: "I have a huge responsibility to my contracting customers as any mistakes will affect their business and profits, as well as my reputation."