‘If you like farming in January, you are meant to be a farmer.’
This was the advice I was given way back in September when arranging to work with Emma Collison, at Moor View Alpacas. I tried to fight her logic and go in October, when there was still a chance of sun and temperatures over 10 degrees, but in the end I couldn’t disagree with her rationale.
So in mid-January, I drove through several hundred miles of rain to distant Cornwall. My data and phone signal slowly dwindled and died, until I was entirely cut off from the outside world. It was cold, dark and there was a considerable amount of mud.
The idea of working on a farm is not as random for me as it might seem. I have always been a lover of the countryside, animals and the great outdoors – my parents have not let me forget that my favourite childhood holiday was spent on a farm in the Peak District helping to dock lambs’ tails and covered in their excrement. I was a special child.
Now as an adult thinking about careers a little more strategically, I know that I want something that includes at least some non-desk based work, by which I really mean something outdoors. From interviewing Debbie Kingsley earlier this year, I learnt how entrepreneurial, creative and innovative farmers need to be in the modern day to make a sustainable living. My time with Emma Collison and her alpacas served to demonstrate this only further.
Moor View Alpacas
Emma imported 30 Valais Blacknose sheep from Switzerland several years ago, a rare mountain breed which had not been bred before in the UK. By breeding the herd to larger numbers, she has been able to sell many of them to other sheep farmers in the UK for profit – a Valais ewe can sell for as much as £4000. Emma sells the meat privately as well, and is able to get a higher price due to the rarity of the breed.
Then there are the alpacas. Emma owns around 30 which she breeds for wool, skin and meat – yes there are such things as alpaca burgers and sausages. She sells the meat to friends, family and local pubs; she gets the skins tanned and made into rugs, and the wool is spun into yarn and knitted into high-end luxury children’s clothing for her clothing line, Moor Baby, as well as into duvet filling.
It is as much this entrepreneurial aspect of farming that I think I would enjoy, as the more obvious side.
The Ups and Downs
One aspect which was important to me was to understand more about where food comes from, and that meant coming face-to-face with the harsh reality and the roller-coaster that is farming.
All poultry nationwide, for example, must be kept indoors until the end of February, at the earliest, due to a potential avian flu outbreak; a story all over the news in Cornwall, but one which has mostly slipped under the radar in Trump-spotting London. This means that your free range chicken and eggs will soon no longer be able to be classed as free range, which will be a serious financial blow to poultry farmers.
Warmth, not fashion, was the priority
This massive potential for instability, and the impact it can have on business, seems to be common. On the second day I was with Emma, she received a call from a farmer interested in buying £25,000 worth of sheep, a sale which would enable her to fully launch her children’s clothing line. Two days later, she discovered that the farm she had just bought 5 alpacas from had gone down with TB. Her new alpacas now needed to be quarantined and potentially culled. It’s possible she won’t receive any compensation, which would be a serious financial loss. Fortunately, due to her stringent quarantine rules for new livestock, the rest of the herd weren’t affected.
So farming is a risky business and your success or failure can completely depend on external factors.
I did have the opportunity to visit a dairy farm which was booming, however. The Cornish Gouda Company was started by the 19-year-old son of dairy farmers, whose farm was on the brink of failure. He decided to diversify and produce the hand-crafted artisanal Gouda, which have since won awards up and down the UK. Whilst the smell coming from the cow shed quickly indicated that I will never be a dairy farmer personally, I have the upmost admiration how successfully they have turned their business around to create a desirable product.
I tried some cheese, it was great.
What Did I Actually Do?
Much of my time with Emma was taken up with the day-to-day running of the farm and care of the animals. This meant feeding them, adding fresh layers of straw as bedding for the ewes and lambs in the barn, and best of all, bottle feeding a couple of the lambs. It also meant getting involved in some of the husbandry tasks, such as cleaning sheep and alpaca feet and cutting toenails, de-worming and giving vitamin supplements, as well as helping out with lambing.
With a lamb urinating on her arm, Emma gave another nugget of wisdom; ‘farming is all about fluids.’
This should have turned my city-girl stomach and sent me running. But I loved my time there and getting stuck in. Even when it was raining, cold and I had an unknown animal fluid in my glove, I loved it.
I found the physical work incredibly satisfying, as well as thoroughly enjoying working so closely with the animals. I also loved learning about the farming industry and getting a better idea of where food actually comes from, along with the challenges that poses.
Turns out I loved farming, even in January.
This is the first career I have tried so far where I have sat back and thought, this could be the one. It combines the great outdoors and being close to nature, with the intellectual stimulation of innovative entrepreneurialism. It is unlikely that I would be able to make a real difference and have a strategic influence, however it is not necessarily impossible to combine these – what I would learn about agriculture and animal husbandry could be transferred to the policy advice and international development worlds, if that was what I decided I wanted.
Whilst farming is not something I could realistically do for mostly financial reasons for several years yet, I would like to start by doing something, even if it’s just keeping a couple of chickens.