Farm workers are the unsung heroes of British farming and without them much of UK agriculture would grind to a halt. David Cousins highlights three great examples of the genre.
Orway Porch Farm, Cullompton, Devon
It’s not unusual for farmworkers to stay with one farm for many years – in fact it’s one of the great strengths of the farming industry. But Melvyn Britton’s 44 years on Orway Porch farm, Kentisbeare, Cullompton, Devon take some beating.
- 134ha farm, 30ha maize, 70ha of grass + fodder beet and barley
- 130 cows milked by robot
- 150 Devon and Cornwall Longhair breeding ewes
Orway Porch has been farmed by the Snell family since the 1880s. Melvyn came to work first for Ron Snell in 1969 and then for his nephew David and his wife Jane and their sons John and Mark.
Things have changed in that time, of course. The 130 cows are now milked by a Delaval robot rather than the old 1980s 8×8 parlour. The 134ha farm now grows 30ha of maize, 20ha of fodder beet and 20ha of winter barley, as well as 70ha of grass.
Melvyn’s tasks have changed over the years too, but they still require just as much skill and devotion as in the past. He feeds the calves, checks the stock and does those 101 jobs around the farm that make for a successful livestock enterprise.
He also keeps the ditches and hedges up to scratch. He’s happy to use modern methods, but he retains those important old-school skills, too – like being able to use a hook to keep hedges under control. He’s always busy and his MF148 and linkbox are well known in the area.
But perhaps his greatest achievement has been in building up and maintaining the farm’s sheep enterprise over the years. These aren’t any old sheep, though. The farm has bred Devon and Cornwall Longwool sheep since 1896 and has one of the top flocks in the country. There are 150 breeding ewes at Orway Porch, plus 70 or so ewe lambs each year.
Melvyn’s skill and dedication at looking after these unusual sheep has been extraordinary, says David Snell, and has no doubt helped the survival of the breed. There are only 1,000 to 1,200 Devon and Cornwall Longwools left, so it’s an important task.
Though docile and well-trained (and easy to fence in) Longwools are not always the easiest sheep to look after. The tremendous weight of wool means that when they get on their backs, they are often unable to get up.
However demand is also increasing from breeders in Holland and Belgium who want to show these extraordinary-looking sheep.
Melvyn’s enthusiasm for the breed (which is very much shared by the farm) also extends to him showing the sheep at many shows around the UK. Over the years he has taken the farm’s sheep to the Devon County Show, Bath and West Show, Cornwall Show and the Royal Show when it was still going. He does all the preparation of the sheep for shows – a big task but one that he is hugely enthusiastic about.
He’s also very successful when it comes to selling the sheep, whether they are the farm’s or his own (he has a small flock too). The highest price he achieved for one of his own sheep was £1,300 in 2000, but wherever he shows he generally tops the market.
“It’s been my life,” he says. “I may be a bit of a die-hard and have a bit of an obsession but the stock and the characteristics of the breed have to be maintained,” he says. “I’m encouraged that the youngsters are taking more of an interest, though.”
Such is Melvyn’s enthusiasm for showing the longwools, that his only holidays are agricultural shows. He always takes some sheep with him, even though some of the events are as far away as Yorkshire.
“He’s dedicated his life to farming – that’s real devotion,” says David Snell. “He also has an unsurpassed passion for the Longwool sheep and has helped keep the breed society alive.”
So what of the future? Melvyn may be 65 but that’s no great age in farming terms. He hopes to work for a few more years – there’s always plenty to do – but most important of all he’d like to come home with another supreme champion rosette for the farm. And with his love of the breed and superb stockmanship there’s no reason at all why that shouldn’t happen.
Red House Farm, Nottinghamshire
Most farm workers are well used to looking after the farm for a day or two, maybe a week. But how many bosses would go on holiday to somewhere fairly distant and be completely confident that the farm is being well looked after?
- High-output dairy farm averaging 11,000 litres
- 150 dairy cows
- Two full-time staff and a part-timer
For Nottinghamshire dairy farming couple Jacky Nullis and Steve Leveridge, taking a holiday in Gran Canaria involved no hesitation. They were completely happy for farm worker Frank Beresford to take charge while they were away.
That might be unremarkable if we were talking about an arable-only farm where the landwork goes pretty quiet in winter time. But with the farm’s 150 dairy cows achieving a prodigious average output of 11,000 litres (and 4.1% butterfat) each, the two full-timers and one part-timer don’t exactly have much spare time.
And then there’s the 240ha of arable cropping, plus a mountain of silage to make each year. So 16-hour days are not unusual at busy times of the year.
And the funny thing is that while Jackie and Steve were in Gran Canaria, a genuine crisis did actually rear its head back at the farm. The silage clamp, which contained a lot of very high dry matter grass, spontaneously combusted, setting fire to the straw bales that separated the first and second cuts.
The fire brigade came and Frank used the farm’s telehandler to break out the burning straw and allow the firemen to douse it down. It was a long and frustrating process and not without a degree of danger.
Most farm staff would have been on the phone to the boss, but Frank had no intention of ruining their holiday. In fact he didn’t tell them what had happened until they were back in the UK. How many staff would have that degree of confidence?
This combination of organisational skill and cool-headedness is no doubt part of Frank’s character, but his previous career as a specialist driver in the Royal Corps of Transport probably helped too. Two tours of war-torn Bosnia, which involved driving all sorts of vehicles, not to mention unloading cluster bombs from ships with a crane, have plainly given him a thoughtful and analytical way of looking at things.
“You had to think on your feet,” he says. “I’m a meticulous keeper of paperwork, too – I think that came from the army too.”
Frank’s responsibilities are considerable. He does all the arable work, the arable record-keeping, liaises with the agronomist on spray choice, maintains all the farm machinery and buildings, rears the weaned calves, trains new members of staff and deals with the farmers for whom Red House Farm does contract baling.
How does this analytical streak manifest itself? Well, all farm buildings and equipment have their quirks and oddities and Red House Farm is no exception. But Frank doesn’t just ignore them like the rest of us – he invariably comes up with a better way of doing things.
It could be reverse-hanging a gate used to hold a cow while farm staff assist with the calving or removable hinges for attaching gates to RSJs rather than having to weld them.
This constant striving to improve the smooth running of the farm also extends to teaching himself skills that most other people would leave to someone else. He saved £400 a year, for instance, by watching the fitter changing tyres and then learning to do it himself.
“I hate standing around and watching someone do something that I could do,” he says.
He’s always cheerful , say his employers, and he’s not had a day off sick in nine years. In fact, they point out, they can’t remember a single occasion when he raised his voice in anger or frustration, either. And he’s happy to turn his hand to almost any job you’d care to name.
Park Farm, Curry Mallet, Somerset
One of the great assumed truths of agriculture is that farmers and their staff are either arable/machinery orientated or livestock orientated, but rarely really good at both. But Dominic Hutter is living proof that you can enjoy – and be really good at – everything from milking to machinery maintenance.
- 365ha farm with 100ha of ryegrass and maize, 100ha of wheat and 40ha of barley
- 250 dairy cows producing 2m litres of milk a year
- 300 beef animals and 250 ewes
Which is a good thing, since Dominic’s workplace is an exceptionally busy one. Park Farm may nestle in the attractive countryside at Curry Mallet near Taunton in Somerset, but there’s not much time to enjoy the view.
The farm is a 365ha unit with 250 dairy cows producing 2m litres of milk a year, 300 beef animals and 250 ewes. There’s also 100ha of ryegrass and maize for silage, 100ha of wheat and 40ha of barley for home consumption
Dominic and his two colleagues have a busy workload, but he’s fine about that. “I’m not deterred by hard work,” he says. “I’m not really happy unless I’m working – I’m not that comfortable with leisure.”
A lot of people might say that but not really mean it. However Dominic is to hard work what a Jack Russell is to a rat – he’ll spot what needs to be done, get stuck in and won’t stop until the job is done.
Boss James Down says he never ceases to be amazed at Dominic’s appetite for hard work. “If there’s a blocked drain, he’s the first one to roll his sleeves up. He’ll turn his hand to anything, too – that gives me great peace of mind.”
What are his main tasks on the farm? Where do you start? On the livestock side, he shares milking duties with the other staff, which involves a 4.30am start, and does the day-to-day feeding and preparation of TMR for the dairy and beef cattle.
Then there’s rotating of breeding stock bulls, selecting cows for A1 and the purchase and administering of vaccines and other medicines. He helps out with moving the beef cattle to from one site to another as well.
Arable and grassland duties include mowing and buckraking, combine driving, grain storage duties, ploughing and hedge trimming. Dominic does all the machinery servicing in-house and his characteristic thoroughness means that chains are always oiled, bearings run true and belts (and tempers) are never frayed. He’s a good welder by all accounts too.
What most makes him such a valuable asset to the farm, though, is his unflappably can-do attitude. Most of us get a little nervous if we stray into areas where we don’t know what we’re doing – whether it’s a sick cow or poorly tractor. However Dominic positively relishes the opportunity to take on the tasks that others have given up on.
“If there’s a complex job to be done, I’m there,” he says.
The days are frequently long – sometimes he can start on the feeding at 7am and not be finished until 9pm. But cooked meals in the farmhouse provided by James’s mother Sally help fuel the hard-working staff.
Rather usefully, Dominic trained as a builder, before he came to Park Farm in 2008. That’s meant that he’s used his characteristic skill and dedication to adding to the existing buildings and refurbishing others. The neatness of his blockwork when the dairy was refurbished would put many a professional builder to shame.
And, as if that was not enough, he also has a 36ha farm of his own, with a small flock of sheep and a thriving business selling 10,000 small bales of hay each year to horse owners. He’s only had one day off sick since he came in 2008 as well.
Truly, this is a dynamo of a farmworker with a terrifically positive attitude and a love of hard work and challenges that any farmer would be delighted to employ.
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General managerIsuzu UK
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