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Meet the farmers

PUBLISHED: 13:15 09 May 2012 | UPDATED: 21:22 20 February 2013

Freddie and Will Dickinson

Freddie and Will Dickinson

The British countryside has never been so high profile. Gillian Thornton talks to three Hertfordshire farmers about changing times and working with the public...

With every passing generation, fewer of us can claim direct links to the land that once employed so many of our ancestors. British farming has changed dramatically over the decades and yet our countryside has never enjoyed a higher profile, with a surge of interest in real food, outdoor activities, and prime time television programmes.

Events like the Hertfordshire County Show (June 2 & 3) and Open Farm Sunday (June 17) are hugely popular, but some Hertfordshire farmers are working all year round to promote local agriculture and raise public awareness.

WILL AND JAN DICKINSON, NOMANSLAND COMMON

On the other side of Harpenden near Nomansland Common, Will Dickinson is the sixth generation of his family to live at Cross Farm which he shares with wife Jan, and their three teenagers.

Farmers have to produce what the market wants, so today we grow combinable crops, keep a few sheep, and run a DIY horse livery business on 600 acres, explains Will, who is Hertfordshire Council Delegate for the National Farmers Union. We had cattle here until the 1980s, but when meat prices fell and grain prices soared, we changed to meet demand.


People work 12-hour days in the City to buy a slice of what we already have


Will has heard farmers blamed for all thats wrong with food production and our countryside, but todays chemicals are designed to target specific pests and are therefore far less harmful. British food has never, he insists, been more wholesome, and most farmers work hard to conserve their natural environment rather than destroy it.

Changing weather patterns have a big impact on bird numbers, he points out. Birds were well supplied with insects in the hot dry summers of the 70s, for instance, but suffer when its damp or cool. But we do our bit too by leaving broad field margins to protect hedgerows and habitat, so its frustrating to find people walking dogs there and disturbing wildlife.

Our land lies between Harpenden and the new Woodland Trust forest at Sandridge, and we find people crossing our fields to reach it and parking on our verges. So please, if theres no Public Footpath sign, dont walk there.

Will works closely with Hertfordshires Young Farmers Club but cannot predict what farming will be like for son Freddie, who heads for agricultural college in September, amidst an industry where price and demand are governed by global conditions.

But ours is a lifestyle choice working from home, being out of doors, and the thrill of watching things grow, says Will with obvious contentment. People work 12-hour days in the City to buy a slice of what we already have. We dont earn their kind of money, but we do consider ourselves very lucky.

BILL AND VAL BARR, DANE END

Bill Barr farms 650 acres at Butlers Farm and Dane End Farm between St Albans and Redbourn, following on from his father who moved there in 1963. We had 2,000 pigs and supplied Waitrose until red tape forced us out in 2001, says Bill, who gives talks all over Hertfordshire about local agriculture. Now we are entirely arable which is contract worked to give economy of scale, and our old pig buildings are rented out for alternative activities like storage and craft enterprise.


People are always amazed at the level of sophistication in modern farming


Bill and his wife Val are amongst many local farmers who have taken up Government environmental schemes to enhance the countryside by planting hedges and wild flowers, introducing field margins and constructing ponds over a 10-year period. Now annual surveys by the RSPB reveal an increase in bird species from 30 to 76 over seven years, including skylarks and corn buntings.

These schemes are closely monitored by Natural England, both through site visits and by satellite, but their future is uncertain, admits Bill who has 8 per cent of his land tied up in this way. As global demand for food increases, many farmers are wary of taking land out of production for 10 years.

Visitors to this years Herts County Show can find out more by listening to Bills commentary on The Farming Year, a major display in the Grand Ring that features cutting-edge farm machinery.

People are always amazed at the level of sophistication in modern farming, he says. We use satellites, for instance, to navigate heavy machinery and apply exactly the right quantity of fertiliser to each area, and with a tractor costing 1000 a day in fuel, weve largely replaced the traditional three-stage cultivation with a machine that does everything in one pass. Even 10 years ago, I couldnt have imagined what wed be doing today, so the next 10 years is almost like science fiction!

HOWARD AND GINNY ROBERTS, HARPENDEN

Across the Ver valley at Hammonds End Farm on the edge of Harpenden, Howard and Ginny Roberts have taken what could be regarded as a more traditional approach to agriculture. Howards father started farming here in 1955 and ran a traditional mixed farm with a dairy herd, beef cattle, pigs and sheep. From the late 80s onwards, the farm has been largely arable but Howard now has a small herd of Sussex cattle that provide natural fertiliser for his organic operation.

Were a small farm of 270 acres where we cant work economies of scale and we felt we were losing control, explains Howard. The fertilisers we were putting on the land were being dictated by one set of multi-nationals and the price for the end-product by another.


We believe in organic food and have been wholly organic since 2008


But equally importantly, we believe in organic food. So we started conversion in 1998 and have been wholly organic since 2008. We grow rye, wheat, oats, beans, and spelt, which is suitable for people with gluten intolerance.

Its almost retail farming and we like being so close to the end user.

One of our biggest customers is nearby Redbournbury Mill who use flour from our cereals for their bread. Local consumers can also buy our flour at Jays Delicatessen in Harpenden. Our oats are used in specialist muesli and new outlets are opening up all the time.

Howard welcomed visitors last year on Open Farm Sunday and will do so again in 2013. He also gives talks to public and professionals across the county and, during the summer, places information boards beside the public footpath that crosses his farm.

Were very excited about the future, he says. I can see the livestock side of the farm expanding and also a time when we process and market some of our own cereals as flour or muesli under our own brand to meet the growing demand for local food.

julia camp, hertford

Its been a busy few weeks for beef and arable farmer Julia Camp who manages a suckler herd of around 85 animals at Hertford. For nine weeks every spring, Julia regularly gets up at 3am to check the progress of mothers-to-be, and frequently doesnt get back to bed.

But she wouldnt change things. Jepps Farm has been in Julias family for more than a century and shes clearly proud of the reputation that she and husband David have built up for their quality livestock over the last 20 years. Now their two sons are at agricultural colleges, ready to take up the reins.


Raising animals and building a reputation are so rewarding


All our animals are crossbred, explains Julia, who has a mix of South Devon and Shorthorn, Saler and Simmental on the 450-acre farm. We have 250 acres of grassland the rest is arable and the calves are turned out with their mothers in early April, staying with them all summer. In the autumn, theyre weaned, the male calves going for beef at 12-14 months and the heifers at 18-20 months.

We sell through Thame market direct to an abattoir, but the cattle are sold by weight and assessed by their agent here on the farm, so they never actually travel to market. Consumers can buy our beef in most major supermarkets.

One of only a handful of lady beef farmers in Hertfordshire, Julia is an active member of Ladies in Beef, an organisation which promotes quality British produce through consumer fairs, county shows and recipe demonstrations (www.ladiesinbeef.org.uk).

My family wont come shopping with me because Im always looking for the Red Tractor logo that indicates quality British produce, she laughs. Id love to see more consumers do the same, especially when it comes to beef.

Why do I like livestock farming? Well, raising animals and building a reputation are so rewarding. And theres nothing quite so good on a summers evening as walking up the field and watching your herd grazing contentedly as the sun goes down. Trust me!

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