Farm visit sparks questions about next generation

I went to Jimmy Doherty’s farm the other day. It was the first time I’d been, although I remember it from the TV programmes filmed there seven or eight years ago. At the time, I was not impressed at an inexperienced townee taking the tenancy of a poor-quality, run-down holding expecting to make a living from rare breed pigs.

OK, it wasn’t quite that simple. There were soon other types of livestock too. But the programmes seemed to be constructed by the producers more to create a crisis every half hour of transmission and leave the viewer wondering if Jimmy would survive until the next episode than to tell the real story of a young man trying to get a foot on the farming ladder.

But Jimmy Doherty is a talented young man and whatever the weaknesses of that first series, his appeal to viewers was clear and he has gone on to present excellent programmes on science, farming heroes, world agriculture and so on; programmes that have presented farming realistically and improved our industry’s image. And it looks like he’s invested some of the money he earned in that run-down little farm.

As you approach the lane down which the farm is situated, there’s a big brown tourist attraction sign saying “Jimmy’s Farm”. When you get to it there’s a huge car park and the farm buildings – that once appeared to be about to fall down – have been renovated and painted. These days they house a well-stocked farm shop in which the butchery featuring pork produced on the farm dominates. But it sells lots of other UK farm produce as well, which is clearly bought in.

The old barn has been made into a rustic restaurant with a capacity of around a hundred and there must be an efficient kitchen and cold-store hidden away somewhere. It’s all very impressive and almost unrecognisable from what it was a few years ago; a tribute, we must assume, to the power of popular television.

Sadly, Jimmy Doherty wasn’t there. I would have liked to compare notes with him on my own much more modest farming programmes. But the main purpose of the visit was to celebrate and promote the training achievements of individuals and organisations under the auspices of Landskills East, based at Easton College in Norfolk. The venue was chosen to illustrate diversification.

The guests who attended were taken on a short farm walk by Jimmy’s farm manager, David Finkle. A former lecturer at Writtle College, he picked up the theme of training as he showed us the farm’s livestock.

“As you might imagine,” he said, “We have lots of requests from students for placements on this farm. But I have to tell you I have been appalled at the poor standards of most of them.”

He went on to say that few had the practical ability or knowledge necessary to work with livestock and said he wouldn’t trust them to do jobs unsupervised for more than a few minutes at a time. We just don’t seem to be attracting the kind of people we need for the future, he said.

Was he right? Did his views reflect reality? Are things as bad as he suggested? Most there hoped he was wrong or exaggerating. But if his opinions were accurate and the lack of trained or trainable farm workers is as serious as he suggested we are heading into a crisis the consequences of which might be even more disastrous than a lack of research.

David Richardson farms about 400ha (1,000 acres) of arable land near Norwich in Norfolk in partnership with his wife, Lorna. His son, Rob, is farm manager.

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