It’s about 11pm, unusually I’m not sat writing with a gin in hand, but I am sat in bed with my laptop (I know really sad). I’m catching a few minutes of writing time before the day ends and tomorrow arrives. I’m in the midst of the six weeks holidays and my role as a farmer has had to take a bit of a backseat along with any time for myself; as I now have become a fully fledged holiday park style children’s entertainer!
The spotlight has well and truly been on agriculture over the last few months and some pretty high profile twitter campaigns have flagged up many questions for the farming community. One that came up over and over was how do I get into farming or agriculture if I am not from a farming background?
As a first time farmer myself I wanted to share my experiences of joining the agricultural world for those who are thinking about a career change themselves. As a former Banker, no I did not cause the banking crash of 2008, and a city dweller; deciding to spend time shoving your hands up dead turkeys backsides to make money is not the carer choice that would naturally spring to mind!
With the average age of a farmer in the UK being 60, it can’t be denied that Agriculture has an ageing workforce. In the United Kingdom around a third of farmers were over the typical retirement age of 65 years, while the proportion of young people in farming aged 35 or less is around 3%. There is a declining rate of young people entering the industry and whilst those that do decide to join the industry are fiercely passionate about British farming and there role in producing food, there needs to be a hell of a lot more of them!
Some of you may have read my previous blogs about how Out and About evolved, the super quick version is; moved to house with land; wanted to do something useful with land; met man down pub who said turkeys are the way forward and the rest, as they say, is history. We have been growing in numbers ever since.
But what I’m sure you want to know is how, how did you get started? What did you do to get set up? So I was lucky, I already had the space in which to rear my turkeys. Many others are not in the same position. Farms and Farmland in the UK is at an absolute premium right now, many who would like to grow their farms or to simply own their farm are unable to, as they just cant meet the prices of land.
When I started Out and About Poultry, I started with ten turkeys. With the help of our neighbours, Bodge-it and Scarper, a luxury turkey shed was constructed. Books were read and the local gamekeeper and his fabulous wife, who had previously reared turkeys, was consulted on all aspects of the rearing process. In the early days we used to take our birds in at 5 weeks of age!
That first year we literally winged it. We were lucky to have been given a couple of feeders and drinkers, we picked up a few sacks of turkey food at the local feed store and off we went! Every last detail of those turkeys movements were micro analysed! The books where consulted, cross referenced and googled over and over. But there is really no experience like learning on the job. We started small so we could get a feel for things such as, would we actually enjoy the process and was there a local market for free range turkey if we did?
I have found that there are always people willing to give help and advice when it comes to farming, but you need to find the correct way of communicating. This usually involves a few pints, going and helping out a bit, or getting involved with local life and above all else never spouting knowledge at them that you have read on the internet. You are not the expert, they are, shut up and listen!
Processing the birds that first year was interesting. There were no tools or steel tables like we have now. We had a couple of borrowed trestle tables with plastic sheets over them and the contents from my kitchen draw as tools. To keep the birds cold we had to empty the entire contents of my fridge and a few of the neighbours as well! We hadn’t really thought things through.
Over the years we have developed and grown. We now have two huge walk in fridges so we can not only refrigerate the birds, but we can hang them too. These were purchased after much Ebay trawling, and travelling to strange parts of the country in order to dismantle them from a former Chinese takeaway. I’ve never looked at chicken chow mein in quite the same way! We have installed an automatic drinking system. I can’t tell you how much this has revolutionised my life, no more lifting and hanging drinkers and pouring 20 litres of water down your wellies in the process. The birds have large feeders in the fields, so no more carting bags of feed in buckets.
The set up we have is basic but functional and ever changing. Like many farmers we need more space, we are outgrowing our current facilities, and each year we make changes to try and cope with this. What I want to put across though is that it’s not about size and scale, there are many large farms with very sophisticated rearing and processing systems that I could only dream about owning, but what I have here has grown slowly and surely and will hopefully continue to do so.
For those aspiring farmers that are acreage challenged but want to give it a go, I have one word, CHICKENS, get some! I would highly recommend that anyone thinking about giving farming ago get some! You can rear them in a garden, they don’t take up much room! Now no cheating, no buying these fancy self closing sheds! What chickens will show you is the routine of farming; that you have to get up every day and let them out; the mucking out; the feeding; the need to get someone to take care of them whilst you are away and the racing back from dinner to shut the hatch before Mr Fox gets there first. This is exactly how we started and this is what gave us the confidence to branch into turkeys and geese.
So there you have it, the briefest of brief histories of how we got started! My last few pieces of advice would be; try and get more space than you think you need; start small and build up; it’s much easier when your learning; listen, always listen, you can always choose not to use the advice but you never know what you might find out! Gin, drink plenty of it (responsibly obliviously), when the pooh pooh hits the fan, and it does regularly when your farming; sometimes the only thing for it is to have a shot of sloe gin and sleep on it, everything seems brighter in the morning somehow! Enjoy it, farming and smallholding are unique jobs like no other and no amount of money in the world would have me sat back at that desk devising smart action plans!