Facing up to changing times

WHEN CHRIS and Jane Hornsby got married in 2003, friends and family gathered at Coney Garth Farm near Driffield in East Yorkshire. When people commented how well the farm and cows looked it reminded them, they say, of why all the hard work was worthwhile.

At the time, they were three years into a five-year Farm Business Tenancy on the 47ha (115 acre) all-grass farm at North Frodingham, establishing a 100-head herd of Jerseys. Getting the tenancy was a dream come true for the couple.

Now, however, with their landlord unlikely to renew their tenancy after it expires next month, they”re facing the prospect of having to sell the herd and possibly even quit farming. “We”re trying to remain optimistic sometimes as one door closes, another one opens,” says 37-year-old Chris.

“We”ve rung as many people as we can and they”ve been brilliant, but we”ve drawn an awful lot of blanks. It”s a big worry.”

Both are determined to stay in agriculture if possible. “The job satisfaction is so high,” he says. “There are bad days here but there are bad days in everyone”s job.

“I know a lot of people who do so-called normal” jobs who spend the week looking forward to Friday, then spend the weekend dreading Monday morning. You”re wishing your life away.”

Chris is unusual in that he”s broken into farming from a non-agricultural background. His dad was employed in a steel works and he fell in love with the way of life working on a friend”s uncle”s farm in the school holidays. He quickly rose through the ranks, doing a YTS, a three-year NDA and notching up a wealth of experience as a herdsman and a manager.

“The government and everyone in the countryside talks about the importance of attracting and retaining young people. Well I”ve given 20 years of my life to farming I”ve given it my best shot,” he says. “Our landlord is perfectly entitled not to renew the tenancy, but it”s such a big shame for us and has left us facing a big problem.

short term

“Maybe we were slightly nave taking a short-term tenancy, but it was all that was on offer at the time,” says Jane, 33, who went to agricultural college and worked for Genus, before devoting herself to Coney Garth. “We never anticipated being here for ever. We”d given some thought to relocating to Derbyshire one day, the county where my parents used to farm,” she says.

They have focused on a low-cost system, using contractors for the major operations, with an occasional relief milker. “We make money but certainly not enough to have saved a pot of it!” says Jane.

Also, having been leasing milk quota, the Hornsbys decided this didn”t add up so “took the plunge” last year and bought 90% of their quota requirement. They financed it with a bank loan, paying 18-20p/litre but since then the value has dropped to nearer 12p and 6p/litre for clean and used quota respectively.

“If we were carrying on milking, it wouldn”t matter. It”s like a house”s value if you carry on owning it, it doesn”t really matter what it”s worth. As it is, we”d be left with nothing.

“We”d make some money on the cows the better heifers might make 600-plus but that would be swallowed up by what we owe on the quota.” Besides, they”re loathe to sell their beloved herd (the stock even appeared in some of the couple”s wedding photos).

They”ve been giving some thought to what a few years ago would have been unthinkable: Getting out of farming altogether. Chris reckons he could get a qualification and become a plumber or an electrician; Jane would consider becoming a lecturer. Working for someone else might be a lot more profitable, he points out. “But I”m not interested in material things.”

“It”s been our lifelong ambition to farm in our own right,” they told Farmlife when they featured in our “Careers” focus in 2003. Now, our follow-up visit finds them facing a more immediate problem: having to find somewhere else to live as the house comes with the tenancy. “It”s our home as well as our business. We”ve got a lot of happy memories here. But 2005 is a big time for change in agriculture generally maybe it”s the right time for us to move on, too.”

See more