Myfarmlink - the The Prince’s Countryside Fund and Myerscough College initiative for farmers

PUBLISHED: 16:35 30 January 2014 | UPDATED: 16:35 30 January 2014

Sweetwell

Sweetwell

not Archant

Lancashire Life is working with the Prince’s Countryside Fund to highlight work being carried out to protect and develop rural communities. Martin Pilkington reports

The farming landscape is changing and it’s not just the wind turbines that intrude on the scene. Small family farms are struggling, many already swallowed up by bigger concerns, others now merely residential. The Prince’s Countryside Fund is trying to do something to keep farmers on the land.

Robert Burrow, agriculture and rural development coordinator at Myerscough College, realised there was a need for an advice service for smaller scale farmers. ‘They didn’t know who to ask or where to go. So we applied for some Prince’s Countryside funding to do outreach work,’ he says.

‘If it’s just basic information they need, we go back and do some desk work for them, or we’ve done some one-to-one computer support with people to help them with things like computerised farm accounts - some with even basic tasks like setting up folders and files and email.’

Robert takes me to two farmers who have benefitted from the business support provided by the Myfarmlink scheme for which PCF funding was obtained. David Walker of High House Farm between Reed and Sabden is a third generation farmer. He owns 120 acres and rents 40 more, selling the milk from his herd of 60 cattle, and wintering sheep for other farmers. His farm is has rolling green fields of lush grass, stands of old trees and sturdy dry-stone walls.

It wasn’t the land or cattle that were his problem. It was paperwork. ‘For your milk buyer, you’ve got to be farm assured, with all your paperwork in order, all your records tidy, all your chemicals recorded, animal herd plan, service records for your bulk tank, maintenance records for your milking plant, health plan...’ When the person who had processed the documents for David packed in, he struggled with the bureaucracy.

‘If you trim a cow’s feet, something we do all the time, I’ve then to come rushing in, record which cow, which foot, which claw, this and that. What earthly interest has the milk buyer in knowing what you did to a cow’s feet? I come in at nine at night and can’t sit and write all that down.’

Myerscough arranged for a farm secretary, used to the work, to spend a few hours with David. She rapidly sorted out the documentation for him so he could get on with farming.

Sweetwell Farm in the hills above Briercliffe is very different. Here the core of the business is the flock of sheep farmed on the 500 upland acres Paul Atkinson owns and 80 he rents. They’ve added high stewardship belted Galloway cattle to the portfolio, the first two only recently sent to slaughter. Paul will sell freezer packs from the farm, keen to meet rising demand for meat from identified breeds.

‘You need to diversify to make a living, and to keep the family working on the farm – our daughter Charlotte works in the kennels we run here,’ Paul explains. ‘The trouble with diversification is once you start you don’t know when to stop!’

Sweetwell holds a quarry worked during the week. It had been used for off-road driving previously, and Paul wished to make it a regular paying activity, for which planning work was required. ‘It was the design and access statement that was awkward, it’s a lengthy thing, where you have to explain what it is about and your intentions.’ Different farm, same difficulty – documentation.

‘We brought John Metcalfe out from Rural Futures, and paid for the initial consultation,’ says Robert. ‘If taken further it’s on a commercial basis, but at least they haven’t laid any money out to get that initial finding.’

Of course, it’s not just paperwork that farmers have to battle. In April’s snows Paul lost 101 of his 500 ewes, a double loss as they were already with lamb. ‘There was a 40 foot drift in one spot, and for a week or more you couldn’t see the wall just outside our window.’

Another less visible difficulty threatens too, as working farms are lost and the farming infrastructure weakens. ‘Down our lane alone there used to be three farms. They’re all gone,’ says Paul. ‘There are only two of us around here now.’

Some new neighbours can be unsympathetic to those trying to live from the land. Previous additions to Sweetwell’s activities brought objections, one from an arrival of six week’s standing. Paul indicates a stretch of pines visible from the farmyard. ‘We planted them 28 years ago, when we were married.’ The inference is obvious.

Like those trees his family’s roots go deep here. Paul is determined to keep farming. The Prince’s Countryside Fund and Myerscough are determined to help him and others like him do so.

Myfarmlink can be contacted at 01995 642206 and Robert Burrow is at rburrow2@mysercough.ac.uk

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