Follow A Farmer: Sophie Green

After a week off (due to preparing for lambing), I’m back with a brand new #FollowAFarmer interview. This week I’m discovering the challenges of balancing a working farm and an educational tourist attraction with fellow previous Tesco Future Farmer, Sophie Green. 

JB: What’s your farming background?

SG: I’m not from a farming background – I originally qualified as a teacher and got into farming when I accepted a job as Learning Officer at Stockley Farm Park back in 2012.

J: How did the job at Stockley come about? Not many people go from teaching to farming!

S: You’d be surprised! More and more people are coming into agriculture from other industries, which seems to be creating a more dynamic approach to farming; much-needed in the current political climate. Personally, I’ve always loved being outdoors and as a qualified horse riding instructor, I’m well used to shoveling muck & braving all weathers.

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I’ve always championed learning outside of the classroom & the opportunity to inspire children to explore & learn out in the countryside is very liberating. Every good teacher knows that to enable your students to engage in high quality learning experiences, you have to continually develop your own knowledge & experiences; as i have discovered more about farming & the agricultural industry as a whole I have become completely engrossed!

After three years of working in an inner city school in Manchester I was craving the opportunity to get back out into the countryside & to take the kids with me! When I saw the job at Stockley advertised in the local paper, I couldn’t resist! I am happy to say that pupils from my old school now come to the farm to take part in educational visits. I love seeing them relax, enjoy & explore – seeing them interact with the animals & get ‘hands on’ in a working farm environment always brings a smile to my,and their, face.
J: How much of a transition was it going in to Stockley? Did you have any prior farming knowledge and how much have you had to learn along the way?
S: The past 4 years have certainly been an education! I had basic animal husbandry knowledge, but I’ve had to do my research & have thrown myself into every aspect of farm life in order to gain a real understanding of what it is to be a modern-day farmer. I don’t believe in doing things by halves & know that you need a strong subject knowledge in order to be an effective teacher.
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Thankfully John (farm owner), our agronomist, vets, contractors etc have all been very patient with me & put up with my continual questions! The past 18 months have been particularly full-on in terms of learning about the industry as a whole, as I gained a place on the Tesco Future Farmers Foundation 2015 & won a scholarship to attend the Oxford Farming Conference 2017. Both of these opportunities have really opened my eyes to the global farming industry and have enabled me to share its story with all of our visitors.
J: Going back to Stockley. Could you give the readers a little intro in to the business?
S: Stockley is a 750 acre mixed organic dairy and arable farm, which has diversified to incorporate an open farm visitor attraction. It is on the Arley Hall Estate in Cheshire and is tenanted by the Walton family, who set up the attraction 30 years ago. The business has a focus upon educating visitors about British Farming by providing them with ‘hands on’ interactive activities that allow them to get a real sense of life on a working farm. The open farm attracts 75,000 visitors per year, 25,000 of which are students attending educational visits. We take pride in showcasing what we do and why we do it; providing consumers with the opportunity to ask questions & gain a better understanding of where their food comes from. Our approach has resulted in numerous awards, including ‘Best Farm Over 500 Acres’ in the Cheshire Farms Competition 2015 and most recently ‘Best in Education’ at the National Farm Attractions Network Awards 2017. To gain recognition for both our farming practices & our ability to showcase them is wonderful!
J: We’re all forever banging on about how important it is that we showcase what we do and inform or educate the public on food and farming, and that’s exactly what you’re doing day in, day out. How important a role do you think places like Stockley play in bringing the farmer and the consumer closer together?
S: I think they are vital! Like yourself, I hear so many farmers saying that they want to engage with consumers, but the thought of opening their farm up to the public is very daunting. Initiatives such as Open Farm Sunday are doing a fantastic job of supporting farmers who want to give it go & I fully advocate getting involved! Health and safety & insurance costs are what most farmers fear, but there is plenty of support and advice from the OFS team, plus Access to Farms & the National Farm Attractions Network. Consumers are becoming more aware of issues such as food provenance, and environmental issues surrounding farming – there is a thirst for knowledge out there! People like Jamie Oliver and Jimmy Doherty are bringing these issues into the mainstream, so now more than ever, the British farming industry needs to tell its story and show people exactly why it is one of the best in the world!
J: You’ve touched on a couple of issues that farmers face when opening up to the public but what are some of the biggest challenges you face at Stockley?
S: Running a working farm as a visitor attraction can be challenging. However, with a bit of positive thinking, every hurdle can be turned into an opportunity. We do encourage visitors to watch our animals give birth, but we’ve all had an awkward calving or lambing. If things aren’t going quite to plan, we explain the situation and move customers away from the area. However, we do not hide anything; we are open & honest with our visitors & encourage questions about topics that could be considered slightly ‘sticky’. We have talked many a child through the process of birth, using child-friendly language, and often get questions about the process of slaughtering animals & how we feel about it.
It is a highly emotive subject, but we stick to the facts & explain things as simply as possible. This is the most important part of our job; these processes are so often misunderstood & misrepresented through social media channels, so it’s essential that consumers have the opportunity to explore & understand then for themselves. It’s important to note that we try to approach these subjects on a factual basis, without expressing personal opinion, so that our visitors have the opportunity to make up their own minds.
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J: The job must come with some real highlights too?
S: Absolutely! The joy of this job is the activities we provide can be accessed by everyone, regardless of age, ability or background. It is very rewarding to see the impact it can have; I’ve witnessed a 90 yr old lady with dementia in tears of joy as she remembered milking dairy cows at home as a young girl, teenagers with learning difficulties begin to grow in confidence & independence as they cared for our animals, & children educating their parents about farming after they’ve been on a school visit! From technical farming debates to the simple pleasure of spending time with the animals, every day is a highlight!
J: You mentioned earlier that 2016 has been such a big year for you, with the OFC and taking part of TFFF where we met. What does 2017 have in story for Sophie Green?
S: 2017 brings lots of hard work, grit & determination! I have been afforded some fantastic opportunities & I am keen to utilise all I have learnt. There are number of exciting ideas that I am hoping to develop within my current role and I am also keen to explore the possibilities of working on a bigger scale. I would love to support the industry on a regional, or potentially national level, with the aim of educating consumers & inspiring more people to get into farming… watch this space!
To learn more about Stockley Farm Park, or to plan your own visit, head over to their website; www.stockleyfarm.co.uk !
You can also find them on social media, @StockleyFarmPk on Twitter, and on Facebook @stockley.farmpark 

Got (local) Milk?

Like most farmers, I’m very keen on supporting and promoting the industry by ensuring I buy as much British, and wherever possible, local produce as I can. As a meat producer myself, I’m well aware of the difference in quality and the level of care that goes in to putting that beef, pork, lamb and poultry on the supermarket shelves and wouldn’t dream of putting anything that wasn’t British in my shopping basket, regardless of the difference in price. However, having just finished watching Gareth Wyn Jones Milk Man on the BBC, I’ve realised I don’t always give the white stuff the same treatment.

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Gareth’s show did a great job of highlighting the struggles and issues facing dairy farming families throughout Wales (struggles that will, sadly, be all too familiar to dairy farmers throughout the rest of the UK) and how they are all finding different ways to try and turn around their fortunes to ensure that the business not only survives in the present, but is there for the future generations too. It also made me realise just how much of a throwaway purchase it had become in our household as well.

Milk is a staple of many a fridge up and down the country. We use it every day, and would undoubtedly be lost without it, yet it has become so easy to grab a pint for a few pennies and throw it in the trolley without a thought.

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Milk Man showed how some farmers have decided to cut out the middle man and brand, bottle and sell their own milk direct to the public, and we’re very lucky that we have a 6th generation dairy farm, Roan’s Dairy, doing just that right here in Dumfries and Galloway. We’ve been harping on for months about making sure to start buying our milk from them, they even stock it in our local bakers, yet because of the convenience of the supermarket, we’ve just never followed through on our promise.

Today,  that changed. Rather than pop in to the supermarket while out getting sheep supplies at Tarff, I made the conscious effort to go out of my way to put my money where my mouth is and buy four pints of Roan’s milk at the bakery. If we all made that one small change to our routine, we could make a massive difference to dairy farmers across the country.

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So let’s all join Gareth in raising a pint to the hard working dairy farmers of the UK, struggling against the odds to keep milk on the shelves and, maybe, all do our bit to help them through the tough times.

If you don’t have BBC Wales, or just missed the show, you can catch the whole Milk Man series on BBC iPlayer.

If you are interested in supporting the dairy industry through doorstep delivery, you can find your local milkman with the handy FindMeAMilkman site from DairyUK. 

Follow A Farmer: Laura Talbot

This week my #followafarmer interview takes us off the farm and in to the food supply chain, chatting all things farming and fast food with McDonald’s Agricultural Coordinator Laura Talbot.

Enjoy!

James: What’s your farming background?

Laura Talbot: I’m not from a farming background, we have farms in the family and my grandad has a small holding however I wasn’t fortunate enough to have grown up on a family farm, Not that I’ve let it stop me!

J: When did you first get involved in farming?

L: I’d always plodded around farms in my wellies but I would say I properly started getting involved when i was 10 and started volunteering at a local open farm where I got involved with all the animals but my main interests were the cattle, sheep and goats

J: So you always wanted to work in farming?

L: From being a tot I used to want to be a vet, one day I went on a school trip to Safeway, as it was back in the day, and decided that i had changed my mind and wanted to be a checkout lady! After getting my head screwed back on i continued my desire to be a vet until i did work experience at a few local practices and decided that it wasn’t for me and since then I’ve known that the agricultural industry was where my passion lay.

J: How did you end up working for McDonalds?

L: I left uni in 2015 and started working for Dawn Meats, through my work with Dawn Meats I had contact with McDonald’s through their sustainable beef clubs. McDonald’s were looking for a new Agriculture Coordinator and I was recommended by my boss to go on secondment to McDonald’s. Two interviews in Ireland and London later and here I am!

J: What did you study at university?

L: I studied Agricultural livestock science at The University of Nottingham

J: So working at Dawn Meats was your first graduate job. I assume you were based in Ireland? What was your role there?

L: It was, i started with Dawn 2 weeks after graduating. I was based in South Wales for 4 months at their retail packing site and after that moved to Bedfordshire where I worked at one of their abattoirs, where I worked my way through the lairage and abattoir and worked on various agricultural and procurement projects

J: What about your role at McDonalds? How long have you been there she what exactly does an Agricultural Coordinator do?

L: I’ve been with McDonald’s 9 months now. My role is really varied, I manage the Supply Chain Open Days which allow franchisees, business managers, crew members and various schools, collages, universities and other rural groups the opportunity to visit our farms and suppliers and learn more about the McDonald’s supply chain. I’m also heavily involved with the Progressive Young Farmer programme which gives 4 students the opportunity to complete a placement year with us seeing every aspect of the supply chain focusing on the beef, dairy, pork and crop sectors. The PYF programme is one of my favourite aspects of the job as it is great to encourage and see the doors opening to new talent, of which there is a lot of! Other things I do are the Oxford Farming Conference, sustainability groups across the different sectors and this year a large focus has been on which took our supply chain on the road through the use of virtual reality!

J: Working on farms growing up then heading to uni, did you ever see yourself working within the supply chain?

L: That’s an interesting one and I’m not entirely sure of the answer if I’m honest! I would say so, I’ve always been passionate about animal welfare and knew that the welfare aspect was important to me which I suppose i covered to some extent through my work within the abattoir. I think half the problem currently is that there are so many jobs available within agriculture and the supply chain that just aren’t well-known or thought of. I would never have thought a position like mine at McDonald’s existed before working for them

J: Do you think that’s something the industry could do more to promote? There has been plenty of pieces in the farming press stating young people don’t see agriculture as a realistic career as there is still this outdated view of the old farmer leaning on the front gate, but in reality the industry offers so many different opportunities than purely being a farmer or farm worker.

L: Yes definitely, when my non agricultural friends used to ask what I wanted to do after uni they assumed the only option was to go and farm. There are so many opportunities but I feel there is a lack of support from the companies offering them a lot of the time. I really had to push to be where I am, I’m a big believer that you only get out what you put in but if there was more support out there to encourage you to do more than I think more people would look at agriculture as a more realistic career path. It can be very daunting approaching senior people within a business and it would be great to see a desire to help more young people succeed and not just stick to the same old

J: You’re now based in London. How are you adjusting to life in the Big Smoke?

L: London is, interesting! It’s a million miles away from life that I am used to although I am embracing it. I enjoy understanding different cultures and ways of life and London certainly offers plenty for me to experience! I do enjoy going back home though and have found myself doing this a lot more now it’s winter as London can be a very lonely city at times however in summer it was beautiful. I look forward to people coming to visit and exploring new areas together!

J: Do you get out to many farms as part of your job?

L: Yes i get out to farms quite a lot, my time is split quite well between visiting farms and suppliers and being in the office. I do yearly audits on a random selection of our free range egg farms to ensure they meet our 20% tree canopy cover requirements and get out to visit our progressive young farmers on farm in addition to the supply chain visits I mentioned earlier that are out on farm too. They can be quite interesting particularly when it is with a group of people who may never have step foot on a farm before!

J: That must help ease the change from country to city life a bit?

L: It does in some aspects, I don’t think I will ever be a proper city person the sound of sirens still makes me jump, I still fail to understand ‘the rules of the tube’ and I still get looked at funny for thinking its warm at 9 degrees without my coat on whilst the Londoners are wrapped up in their fur but i try my best!

J: I went to London recently and was very much like a man from the past. Still can’t get my head around Ubers! What would you say your biggest challenge has been in farming so far?

L: I must admit Uber is the one thing I love about London! So much easier and so convenient! I’d say my biggest challenge has been my own self confidence. Having the confidence to put forward a suggestion or an opinion can be tough.

J: That seems to be a recurring one! How about your highlights? What’s been your biggest achievement in farming so far?

L: That doesn’t surprise me! I think my biggest highlight/achievement has been following steers through from farm to slaughter and accurately having visually graded/weighed them. Gives you that kick to encourage yourself and go with your gut on what your eye sees! If that makes sense!?

J: That makes perfect sense! There’s nothing quite like having your stockmans eye proven correctly. That’s no different!

L: Exactly! That was one of the things I found really interesting was seeing the cattle over the scale in the abattoir and learning ways in which you can better the carcase quality, something I would encourage all farmers to do. Instead of moaning at the grade sheet go in and see the grader do their job and get their feedback!

J: From your experience, do you think that ‘the end product’ ie carcass quality,grading, etc is something farmers need to take more of an interest in? We often read headlines in the farming press about farmers producing a product that doesn’t meet the right market criteria/spec. Is this something that farmers and the industry need to work together on?

L: I think a more collaborative approach is needed, if better information was provided to enable farmers to understand what it is the market wants they may take more of an interest in the end product. It can be difficult to ask farmers to produce an animal to a certain standard if they don’t know what that necessarily looks like as a carcase. Meat going into a local butchers may be of different requirements than that supplying supermarkets. In order for the industry to get better results from farmers to better meet their specifications they firstly need to be clearer of their expectations.

J: Team work makes the dream work! It’s clear you really enjoy working in the supply chain and are passionate about what you do, but do you ever miss being out in the farm?

L: Yes! There are days in summer when I’m sat in the office seeing twitter and Instagram posts of everyone out on the farm and I think about how much I would love to be out on farm but at the moment I’m happy doing what I’m doing. The long-term plan is to get somewhere of my own and get a small herd of cattle, maybe some sheep if I’m feeling brave! Alternatively I’d make a brilliant farmers wife!

J: Finally, what are your hopes/ambitions for 2017?

L: I just want to keep absorbing as much knowledge as possible, there are so many opportunities that are available at this stage in my career and I’m enjoying being a sponge and soaking everything up. I’m really looking forward to Oxford Farming Conference and meeting industry leaders! Who knows what the future holds, watch this space!

You can keep up with Laura on Twitter: @Lauratalbot94 

Cornwall

They say time flies when you’re having fun, and I can hardly believe that January, and my first lambing of the season, has already been and gone.

As the title suggests, I fled the frozen North at the turn of the New Year for the tropical climes of the south west of England to lamb an early flock of Poll Dorsets, Charollais crosses and pedigree Blue Texels.

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This was my first January lambing, but thankfully the weather was fantastic and the ewes were, for the most part, very well behaved, so it was a nice way to ease me in to the next three or four months of lambing.

Every day’s a school day and this job gave me a few new experiences, including lambing in a polytunnel, working with two new breeds in the Dorsets and Blue Texels and sampling the wonderful Cornish pasty. I was actually very impressed with the Dorsets and briefly contemplated setting up an early lambing flock at home before realising they probably wouldn’t fare too well in the Scottish winter! I think I’d better leave the frozen lamb to the supermarkets.

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Thanks to the weather, ewes and lambs were quickly turned out in the fields and I was able to enjoy watching the lambs thrive in the three and a bit weeks I spent shepherding them, growing well, forming wee lamb gangs and bounding around at breakneck speed. The paddocks and fields of the surrounding Cornish dairy farms were full of grass and, naturally, it did the lambs wonders.

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From South West Scotland to Britain’s most southerly point

The farm was situated just 6 miles away from the most southerly point of mainland Britain, so having made the 1000+ mile round trip, there was no way I could turn down the opportunity of seeing it. Luckily, I was able to find a spare hour to head down to the Lizard Point and stand looking out across the sea, feeling like I was at the world’s edge. It’s well worth a visit if you ever find yourself in that neck of the woods.

I was also able to sneak away on a Saturday morning to spend a few hours in Breage with Steve and Ryan of the Cornish Lamb Co. Being about 15 minutes away the opportunity to put faces to the two lads behind the social media accounts and see their farm and sheep flock was fantastic.They plied me with coffee, for which I will be forever in their debt, and I hope I’ve made two virtual pals into real world ones.

I had a few enquiries about work from clients old and new while down in Cornwall, so I’ll have plenty of work to look forward to at the end of the 523 mile slog back up the M5 and M6, starting with scanning a few thousand Romneys.