Dairy farm kept afloat by Lizs dogged effort
Even today, some people
find it hard to accept
women doing "mens work",
as widow Liz Mitchell
discovered when she took
over the running of the
familys dairy farm.
John Bolt reports
BEING invited to be the first female member of Blandford Rotary Club was in a small way recognition that Liz Mitchell is now a successful business person in her own right following the tragic death of her husband Charles last year.
It was three years ago when Charles was diagnosed with cancer and Liz, a French soldiers daughter born in Cambodia and in her mid-30s, was faced with the fact that she might be left with a 144ha (355 acre) dairy farm with 325 cows and followers to run, as well as being mother to three young children then aged seven to 11.
In 1998, Charles took great care to put the farm in trust for the children and considered bringing a manager in for he knew that Liz had no experience of running a farm having, for most of the marriage, been a housewife and mother.
However, even though presented with several options, including returning to France, Liz wanted to be given a chance to manage the farm for her children.
"I knew, almost without thinking about it, that I dearly did not want to give up the farm or have it managed by someone else," she says.
The decision was never really in doubt despite friends – some of whom were Rotarians as Charles had been – saying she should appoint an experienced manager.
"Not everyone knew of my love of animals and that, in France, I studied at the Institut Superieur dAgriculture in agricultural economics. Thats how I met Charles, during college vacations, when students were expected to gain practical experience. My mother suggested England, so that I could also improve my English.
"But, it is only since the death of Charles that I have actually been able to put into practice what I learned years ago at college," says Liz.
Her determination to become a successful dairy farmer suffered a severe setback almost at the outset. Shortly after Charles died, a second tragedy struck when a car accident took away her herdsman for six weeks to his sons hospital bedside, leaving Liz to run the herd and farm almost single-handed. Seven months later, her most experienced employee, John Noel Houghton, retired on Christmas Day, his 65th birthday.
Friends and neighbours in the picturesque Dorset village of Shroton were extremely supportive and the cows were not too put out by being milked by a variety of novice milkers including retired soldier Colonel Ed Mulley, who had never been so close to a cow before. The children Victoria, Melanie and John, now aged 14, 12 and 10, also bravely took on new responsibilities, including milking 198 cows twice a day.
She also had the support of Unigate which employs milk supply managers to advise those on the Unigate Business Deal.
Learning the ropes has had its "moments" such as the MF35 tractor and slurry scraper ending up in the slurry lagoon when Liz selected reverse gear by mistake. Fortunately for her personal hygiene, she was able to jump clear before the tractor sat wheel-deep in the middle. She also potentially has better immunity than most, for while she and Victoria vaccinated the whole herd against Leptospirosis Liz managed to inject herself.
* Taking advantage?
The worst of it was having to learn to deal with business people, some of whom gave the impression they were trying to take advantage, says Liz. She had to face the usual challenges, not least suppliers who failed to come up with the goods or left work incomplete.
Liz has enough sense of humour to overcome the irritation of company reps engaging her new herdsman, Andy Brown, or her tractor driver, Barry Nash, in sales chat first, even though she is standing beside them. She smiles at the letter from a tractor dealership which explains that they have been in contact with "her farm manager".
So, from the challenge of winning prizes at local horticultural shows for her vegetables, appreciation of her knitting skill and making sloe wine, Liz is now concentrating on upgrading her Holstein Friesian herd to full pedigree status and increasing milk yield from 7800 litres to 9000 litres. This summer she intends to feed TMR throughout using the grazing as simply exercise for the cows.
She learned DIY AI and is now selecting bulls with high breed indices to produce superior calves from her cows many of which have PLI 90+.
Literally building the future for her children, she recently spent £150,000 on improvements. Two new buildings, one for cattle and the other to store straw bales to ensure bedding remains dry and free from mould have been erected. A new silage clamp has been built and a direct-line system in the milking parlour and to help maintain the high milk quality (Average SCC 150,000 and Bactoscan 13) a new highly efficient 15,000-litre, DX, refrigerated storage tank has been added.
It is said that a happy family "works together and plays together" which certainly applies to the Mitchells. Lizs fine example has no doubt played a part in Victoria deciding to become a large-animal vet and Melanie planning a farming career.
"John is keen on becoming a footballer but he is young enough to change his mind several times and, in any event, farming will still be a second career for him when his playing days are over," says Liz.