23 November 2001

Hopes on goose gains

Nevil and Rona Amis are a young couple making the most of their

opportunity to farm – albeit on severely disadvantaged land – and are

optimistic about their latest venture, organic geese. Tessa Gates reports

IT can be very chilly up on Exmoor, even on a sunny autumn day. Nevil Amis and his wife Rona, dont seem to notice.

They have acclimatised in the two-and-a-half years since they took on the tenancy of Higher Riscombe Farm, Exford, Somerset, which they farm organically.

Nevil hails from Sunderland, "we know about cold there, too," Rona from Oxfordshire, and they met while taking their agricultural degrees at Harper Adams Agricultural College. After working for other farmers, the pair realised their dream to farm in their own right when they came to Higher Riscombe.

"It was lovely to find a landlord who would give people like us a chance," says Nevil, who has found a welcome among the locals too – once they realised they were not rich, city-types.

"After six months they worked out that we dont have a lot of money. The local saying is that if you survive a winter here, you are all right. They seem happy with us and people will give you a hand if you need it."

&#42 Poor land

The farm has 73ha (180 acres) and they rent an additional 16ha (40 acres) of grazing. All the land is poor. They run 250 ewes, marketed as organic lamb boxes, and 40 suckler cows, selling the calves on. "This is not an area renown for fattening and there does not seem to be any store market at all," he says. "We lamb late – mid-April – outdoors, as we are pushed for buildings. It works out, as getting straw can be a problem up here. It is warmer in April and Rona can help with the lambing, although from Easter onwards it can be a busy time for her with our B&B guests."

But the best-laid plans can be scuppered by the weather. The first year the couple came to the farm there was a tremendous fall of snow in April, the barn roof collapsed and ewes and lambs on other farms were lost. The area also gets more than its fair share of rain – last year it had 100in – the norm is 80.

"Sheep can be difficult here and we see geese as a way forward," says Rona. "They stand the wet and are gone by Christmas."

The goslings are bought in. "For them to be reared as organic we must buy them in the week of hatch and we brood them ourselves," says Rona. "We keep them indoors for six weeks and then turn them out to free range. They are very pampered, as they are in a field suitable for about 300 and we only have 70."

The couple, who have two young children, have started with a modest number of geese to see how they cope. Already they realise that for next year they will have to make changes. The farm does not have mains electricity and they lost goslings when the generator fuses blew. "We were away from the yard for two hours and they huddled. Next year we will use gas brooders," says Nevil.

Things will be a lot different next year if their quest to gain grant funding is fulfilled. They need it to help them put in a new barn and slaughter, plucking and refrigeration facilities. This year a contractor will do the slaughtering.

"If we get the funding, we may keep ducks, as well," says Rona.

The couple are confident they have a future in farming. "It can be hard to market from here as we found last year when we were selling our cattle, but this year it was better," says Nevil. "The B&B is down a bit this year, like everywhere, but it could be a good earner. We do really well with the B&B on our website – already half our bookings come through there. And we are hoping that the geese will sell well."

They are determined to succeed. "It has been hard enough getting here and you cant give up at the first hurdle," says Rona.

Inquiries (01643-831184) www.exmoor-organic .co.uk