New farmers need grit, determination and a good sense of humour
During the early part of my farming career I faced every barrier you could imagine – a lack of knowledge, a lack of finance ... everything! It really was a steep learning curve.
I looked around at what was happening in the farming industry at the time and everything seemed so negative – there was all the trauma of foot and mouth being experienced which created a lot of negativity.
But what was also happening was a rise in the popularity of farmers’ markets. People were looking for authentic stories in farming with positive messages, and they were trying to get back to the grass roots of food production.
At that time the vast majority of farming was purely about large commodity production but farmers’ markets offered a way into the industry for those who had a unique product. It wasn’t simply about being a commodity, it was about uniqueness, a story, a brand.
With all of this going on I asked myself what was a good product to start with. For me pigs were a great option because the gestation period isn’t that long - three months, three weeks and three days. Pigs also have a lot of young, as opposed to one calf or a couple of lambs. And then with pigs you’ve got fresh pork, sausages, ham, and bacon, which means you can process the meat to make a number of products.
Building from the ground up
Although that might sound straightforward, it wasn't. The first thing I actually had to do was get a farm and the only option I had was to rent a farm that nobody wanted. Where we are now had been derelict for 25 years and consisted of pretty poor land. It was part of a much bigger estate where the large, decent flat areas of land were turned over to arable. A lot of it had been set aside for a number of years.
So given the situation, I was able to secure a five-year lease for not a huge amount of money. Because there was no accommodation, and all the buildings at that time were derelict, I started off living in a caravan on the site.
Times were hard and also a little surreal at times. I remember living in a caravan with my girlfriend (who is now my wife) and we had three dogs and a pig living in that caravan with us. That little pig just ruled the roost and I remember one morning asking myself 'what am I doing? I’m a pig farmer, why have I got a pig living in my caravan?'
So I was living in a caravan full of animals and people and washing in water from a well. I had to install my own septic tank and dig a trench for a pipe to connect to the mains water up the road.
I worked out that I had the summer to get things up and running, and that included some very basic accommodation, a few pig pens, a processing room, and a refrigerated van. So I got a beaten up old fridge van and I built myself a little butchery room, which I did by using anything I could beg, borrow or steal.
I was feeding the pigs, curing the bacon and driving to farmers' markets to sell. I would be working through the day, packing the sausages at night, getting up in the morning and going to the market.
You get there by hook or by crook, learning as you go and also by making a lot of mistakes – such as the time I went to Hadleigh farmers’ market. I drove to Hadleigh in Suffolk and discovered there was no farmers’ market - I should have gone to Hadleigh in Essex!
The truth is that to survive those early days in farming you need a lot of grit and determination, but most importantly you need a good sense of humour - without that ability to be able to laugh at yourself, and at bad situations, you’d never be able to get through it.
I think these days there are still many difficulties that need to be faced by those trying to get off the ground.
Even for farmers taking over an existing family business there are difficulties because you’re filling somebody else’s shoes. The land and the set up might already be there, and some people might think that’s easy, but you’ve got to make your own way in it and if you want to change direction then there may be family conflict to overcome.
For others wanting to get into farming the land price is a huge barrier – it’s so expensive the only other option is renting. I visit the US and all over the world to look at new entries into farming and renting land is the major way of doing it. There used to be lots of council farms in the UK to rent but they got rid of them which I think is such a shame.
If you’re wanting to get into farming from scratch and you want to be a commodity farmer it’s extremely difficult because of the sheer scale of investments required. It’s not feasible to many who might want to start as an arable farmer – you’re looking at £200,000 for a new combine and, say, £6million on land. Given the returns you would never be able to facilitate a mortgage to buy that land.
But in my experience if you want to rent a farm and become a diverse farmer with a retail section and an ability to brand yourself and sell direct to end users then there are great opportunities.
- Farmer and TV presenter Jimmy Doherty has become an ambassador for Farm Essentials - NFU Mutual's new insurance product for smaller farms.