Patrick and I have been taken aback by the number of people we meet who have read our blog. When we started out on this idea we never thought how much we would enjoy it nor how much other people would as well. So thank you to all our regular readers and occasional passers-by. We will try and keep you informed about life at Westhorpe and Great Ashfield for a while yet, as we have only scratched the surface on what we do!
In one of our previous posts we said that if anyone had a question we would be happy to try and answer it. A couple of weeks back Patrick forwarded me an email with the following question attached;
“I’ve been a nature and animal lover all my life and try and do my bit in my garden but I was wondering how you came about to be so wildlife friendly on your farm and sort of buck the trend of most farmers in my area?”
So, as the combine is still wrapped in a rain coat after the 15mm of rain that flooded the yard yesterday I thought I would try and explain how we got to be where we are today. I’ll do this in two parts; the first will be a bit of background of how we ended up as we are and the second is how we have approached our farm management.
Our family has always been interested in the countryside that surrounds us; it has been embedded into our upbringing by our greatest influences, our Grandparents, Parents and close family.
Our Late Grandparents Eric and Ella Barker (Pictured) who bought the farm in 1957 were true countryside custodians, they appreciated and respected the fine balance farming and wildlife required to live side by side. Grandfather was a hugely respected man in our area and I remember all the kind words that people sent to us when he passed away and how many people filled Walsham le Willows Church for his memorial service. He had farmed all his life and people still tell me that he was a forward thinking farmer and could solve any problem that he or others had in front of them. He loved and understood all farm machinery new and old; he was lucky enough to live through the massive change of the agricultural mechanization but he did not let it pass him by and become lost in the mists of time as he started collecting everything that he saw as an important part of our farming history. We still have 3 sheds full of his collection from humble spanners to horse drawn ploughs to Smythe Drills to Vintage tractors. This collection is a part of our farming heritage and we hope to develop it into an educational resource for others to see and learn from. He was also passionate about countryside management, a great shooting man that appreciated wild birds. He enjoyed inviting his friends to the farm for a day’s shooting as he offered a ‘wild’ Pheasant shoot, no birds were and have ever been reared and released for sport on this farm and we manage a wild stock by limiting the shooters to only one hen in the morning and one in the afternoon. Grandmother loved the farm, her garden and village; she was always keen for us to learn new things, even if we found them disgusting at a young age, like plucking and drawing dead game birds and skinning rabbits. Mum tells the story that when Ella and Eric travelled up to meet her parents for the first time, miles away in a suburb of Carlisle, Ella arrived with two brace of pheasants as a gift, insisting that Mum and she had to sit in the garage and pluck them, so she would know Mum had the abilities to carry on the Barker Family traditions! My Grandmother never missed an opportunity to pass on her enthusiasm for all things local and Suffolk.
This obviously rubbed off on Roy (my father) and David (my uncle) as they carried on and built upon this love for the countryside in many different ways and continue to do so in the new positions they have taken on in the past few years. David has been Chairman of the Suffolk Wildlife Trust, Suffolk FWAG, and Local NFU and was a Countryside Commissioner. He has been rewarded with an MBE for his contribution to farming and conservation. Roy has a different approach but one that complements David’s. In the last 8 years, Roy has taken on more responsibility within his role as a District Councillor, being portfolio holder for waste and recycling, a role that he relishes and wants his farm and Mid Suffolk to be kept clean of litter and fly tipping. For his 50th birthday, instead of people bringing presents and bottles of Whisky, he asked for everyone to bring a native tree and planted a commemorative wood which, 16 years on is going from strength to strength. Our mothers Di (mine) and Claire (Patrick’s) also wanted us to know as much as we could, buying us bird books, binoculars, membership to the Junior RSPB and putting up with our whining when we got wet after being dragged round a nature reserve when we were young. Patrick still has his I-spy bird book with the birds ticked off as he saw them in his garden. I was taken to pretty much every National Park in Britain on holidays when I was young and I was taught what a unique place the British Isles is and how fragile some of the ecosystems are that we have, whether we were rock pooling off Cornwall, or walking the heather moors of Yorkshire, or the remote highlands of Scotland. I still remember one small holiday cottage with the stream in the garden where we stayed one year, which had a family of Dippers bobbing under the water catching fly larvae. We have been given every opportunity to get our hands dirty and learn about all things great and small.
|The last and first tractor my Grandfather bought, started with horses ending with 180Hp. |
Today tractors go up to 500+Hp, where will it stop?
Through school at Framlingham College, we both studied Biology at A-level; I also studied Geography and Design and Technology. Patrick took Business Studies and Physical Education. University was sort of next; I travelled and worked on the farm for two years before finally going to Lancaster University to read Environmental Science. I did not study Agriculture straight away as this all coincided with the Foot and Mouth outbreak and farming was not attractive and in a good shape. Mum and Dad told me to try my hand at something else, as the farm would always be there if or when I decided to return. After two years of Lancaster I decided that Environmental Impact Assessments on a Chinese Pipe Line was not my calling in life, so I decide to come home. I was told that if I was to take on the farm, I would need a qualification the same or greater than anyone I employ. So I enrolled at Writtle College and gained my degree in Agriculture and Business management. When I enrolled, I kicked up a lot of fuss about my modules. Writtle wanted me to do the set modules and I didn’t because I had no interest in learning about livestock. I was interested in business and conservation. Business was vitally important as, unlike many at school, I did not do business studies, so I wanted to get to grips with accounts, budget, marketing etc. I wasn’t seeing farming as a way of life, I was seeing it as an agri business. I ended up doing more business modules and conservation modules than anyone in my year at Writtle, on top of only the bare minimal arable modules required for my degree. I think this put me in a better position than just doing the regulation degree and if I were to recommend anything to anyone choosing a degree in Agriculture, I would push them to do as much Business as possible as you need to know how to make and manage money in this tight economic climate.
Patrick took a more roundabout route to get back on the farm, studying Sports Science at Brunel University. For a few years he did a couple of jobs coaching sport which he is passionate about but when Grandmother passed away and an extensive house renovation started on the farm, Patrick found the draw too much, as he had always been interested in elements other than agriculture on the farm and took on the responsibility of managing this project. Soon things started to snowball. Stepping up to the mark and actually believing we wanted to take on responsibility, both Patrick and I had new, sometimes stupidly radical, but usually simple changes in our approach to how we saw the family business functioning in the future. Gradually, even our Dad’s saw the worth of our approach and gave us more and more of a rein - and the rest, as they say, is history!
Some say it is unusual to see cousins working so closely and successfully, but we have two very different approaches. I am a Farmer foremost and secondly a conservationist, Patrick is a Conservationist and secondly a farmer. We share an ultimate goal of improving the business output while at the same time improving the countryside we live in but we will always get there by taking very different routes. We are both very competitive with everything we do, even between each other. This is helps us to push ourselves and the business from year to year, always looking to better ourselves and each other to keep ahead of the game.
We saw an opportunity of coming into the business but we had to show our parents that we had a plan, so one night, down the local over a few beers, Patrick and I did a very simple analysis. We looked at our farm, our business and our families’ work, from the outside in. We identified areas that needed to be improved, areas than were not making money and areas that we saw as working well. We then chatted about how we could improve what was in front of us and drew up a plan. Taking this to our fathers we explained that this was how we wanted the business to develop. One big factor we had to consider was the new environmental scheme that the government was to bring in over the next couple of years. Our fathers have been hugely supportive and it is unusual in farming for the younger generation to be given the reins at a relatively young age. Historically though, in our family, early opportunities have arisen for control to be taken: Grandmother was living with her grandparents on a farm in Langham when she and Eric married and he was able to help in a major way there; when Eric was taken ill and in hospital for a length of time while Roy and David were in their twenties, they took over the running of the farm and I don’t think Grandad had a chance to take over all the reins again after that! However, this does mean that both Dads are very aware of the huge advantage it gave them to take responsibility at a relatively young age and yet have the experience of Eric still there in the background. We both feel very fortunate that they have been so patient with some of our ideas and they still are our backup as their knowledge is vast and we are still learning our trade, but it gives us the confidence to back ourselves and our decisions because they will quietly point out if we are about to make a serious clanger and we have sometimes been left to learn from a number of mistakes!!
|The Barker Family (Plus a Couple of Light's on the far left)|
So, hopefully, this has given you a bit of an insight into us and how we have come to be where we are today. We are still very much a traditional family farm and everyone is involved at every stage of the decision making process, as we all understand that different people see problems from different angles, so the best decision is one made with many views voiced - normally that is!!
I will soon post part 2 of how we have implemented our new approach across the farm. BWB