‘This is the time for new ideas’

Creating a business plan to impress a landowner who is about to employ you as a farm manager isn’t something most people would relish. But Alec Smith had no trepidation when he set about the task almost two years ago.

“It was like being a little boy in a sweet shop,” he recalls with a broad smile. For this 27-year-old Cumbria farmer’s son, it was the opportunity he’d always wanted.

For him the sweet shop was a farm at Winster in the Lyth Valley amid the wooded hills of this glorious corner of the southern Lake District.

Yes, there were plenty of sweet delights to encourage and tempt any aspiring young farm manager but Alec wasn’t greedy. His business plan for this beef and sheep farm was based on the need to improve the foundation of the business and to consolidate its strengths.

In October 2006 Alec and his wife Louise will have been at High House Farm for two years. It’s part of a 530ha (1300-acre) estate – all LFA and including 120ha (300 acres) of woodland owned by property developer Brian Scawcroft.

The farm carries 850 ewes including 600 Mules and Texel-crosses run alongside a hill flock of Derbyshire Gritstone and Cheviots.

There are also 25 Highland cattle and 25 pedigree Luing cattle. The latter are part of Alec’s future plans for an out-wintered suckler herd of 50 Luings that will earn extra income from sales of pedigree stock.

Never considered

Alec Smith has never considered earning his living from anything other than farming. Brought up on his parents’ holding just a stone’s throw from High House Farm, he left home at 16 to work on a dairy unit at nearby Kendal but also spent the next six years achieving a Higher National Certificate in Farm Management at Newton Rigg College.

He married Louise when he was 21 and also started to work two days a week on the hill farm of his parents-in-law.

“For five years it seemed as though I was either baling grass or clipping sheep,” says Alec.

Although the couple bought their own house they had already started to look for a farm. Then one day the phone call came about High House Farm.

Alec had been recommended as manager; he was interviewed, asked to present a business plan and was quickly offered the job which he considers is “a tremendous opportunity.”

“I was virtually given a clean sheet with an owner who was committed to investing in the business. But this is very much a working farm, not the hobby of businessmen,” says Alec.

His enthusiasm for agriculture is infectious and he smiles as he remembers some encouraging words given to Young Farmers Club members at an annual meeting in Blackpool: “This is not a time to be depressed; this is a very exciting time for farming and for people with new ideas.”

It’s something he’s never forgotten and his commitment to farming has never wavered. Now, with the bit firmly between his teeth, he epitomises the determination and optimism that our industry must cultivate among its young people.

Alec Smith reckons he’s been very lucky to have been given the opportunity to run High House Farm but taking an altruistic view, this piece of Lakeland landscape is equally fortunate to have such a dedicated and visionary young man to nurture it.

No weakness

And there has been no weakness in his resolve to see his future plans come to fruition in time, despite the onset of the Single Farm Payment.

“I knew changes in support were on the cards when I prepared that business plan but the actual introduction of the Single Farm Payment has not forced a re-think.

“The farm’s income should stay about the same and we’re fortunate in having an environment here that should enable us to earn green money to supplement the livestock income.”

The farm has two years to run on its Stewardship scheme which includes a 120ha (300-acre) upland sheep grazing agreement for bracken to protect a habitat for rare butterflies and violets.

“But in the long term we need an industry that can be profitable without livestock support and I’d be happy to see that happen. I’m optimistic about the future for farming but it’s vital that we do even more to educate the public about our industry and the way we produce their food.”

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