In our new online series, I quit my job to farm, we look at people and families from across the country who decided they would leave their current lives and give it all up to farm.
Pregnant with her first child, Lorna Sixsmith decided to leave her former job as a teacher to take on the family farm with her husband, Brian.
They farm beef and dairy on 300 acres, with 140 Friesan cows and all male calves reared for beef.
What did you do before and did you enjoy it?
I was a secondary school teacher in Winchester, teaching at a sixth form college. We moved to the UK in 1990 and then when I was 24, I went to university as a mature student and did an MA. We moved back to Ireland in 2002 where Brian was working as a research scientist.
I did enjoy it but teaching was a little like farming in the sense that you never know it all. Every day is a learning day, constantly evaluating and trying to improve for the following year.
When did you decide to quit and start farming and why?
We both enjoyed renovating and decorating old houses and had vague plans to move to a smallholding in Dorset or Devon. My younger brother decided not to farm and my dad, aged 65 at the time, wanted to retire and offered us the farm.
It was a big decision and I was pregnant with our first child. It meant giving up our pensionable jobs with good holidays and weekends off. We knew life would be very different but we had a yearning to be self-employed and to work outdoors.
Did you have any farming experience?
We were both brought up on farms but as Brian was a second son, he knew he wasn’t going to inherit.
His home farm had been mixed but his favourite enterprise was dairy.
Although I was familiar with farming life and had a great farming childhood, I hadn’t been that involved as a teenager due to my time at boarding school and had a lot of allergies.
You could say we had the basics. We learnt from my dad, read research, identified goals we wanted to achieve and yes, made mistakes but we tried to learn from them. Every farming day is a learning day.
What is it about farming that you like?
Being self-employed, working with animals, working outdoors and the solitude. Even things like a favourite cow having a heifer calf provides you with a great feeling.
What has been your biggest obstacle?
There have been challenges, mostly financial as we purchased land and made improvements to the farm. Every year sends challenges in one way or another but we just take the rough with the smooth and enjoy the journey. I often find the journey to be more enjoyable than attaining a goal.
What sort of goals did you have in mind?
How did you overcome the financial hurdles?
We managed to secure one grant and will apply for another for when we renovate and extend the milking parlour, but most of it was borrowed from the bank. We never saw finances as an obstacle though, more of a challenge to be overcome. I'm not saying I'd recommend taking on a lot of debt as it does carry risk, but we've never been nervous of debt. We're careful to work out our cash flow every couple of months.
Did you have support around the transition?
Yes, the farm was signed over within a year. I had to complete a five week farming course first which was a challenge as Will was a tiny baby and nowhere near sleeping through the night.
What did your friends and family say?
They were certainly surprised but not too much as I think we were considered to be a bit eccentric and impulsive anyway. We used to buy a house to renovate with a view to settling there for years, then we'd only have just let the paint dry and move again. Some work friends were sad to hear we were moving to a different country and while we have lost contact with some, there are still good friends who visit us and stay for a few days every couple of years.
Most friends had very little knowledge of farming so they saw us as heading off into the unknown. I think my Irish friends were amazed and yes, probably thought were slightly crazy.
What has been the highlight so far?
There’s been quite a few when I think about it. The herd is now pedigree, we deliver 500kg milk solids, we’ve increased the size of the milking platform by 64 acres (another highlight will be when that loan is paid off!) and it has been wonderful to get a publishing deal to write about our family life, past and present, here on the farm.
How has your experience differed from your expectations?
Having grown up on the farm, I felt I knew what to expect. I was conscious of my limitations when it comes to cooking and baking - all self-respecting farm wives are expected to whip up nutritious meals for contractors and scrumptious baking for fundraising events - but I haven’t poisoned anyone yet. I’m enjoying it more than I thought I would but I think that is due to getting to know lots of other women in farming. I've also been lucky to pursue a career in writing alongside.
Is the industry different to what you expected?
I never thought farming would be easy. We work longer hours than my parents did, and probably for less return but that’s the nature of the changes within the industry.
What do you love most about your job now?
I like the variety that comes with each day (well, apart from the groundhog days of this late spring when all farmers thought they would never get livestock out to grass), and working together as a family.
Do you ever regret your decision?
There are still occasions when the sun is shining and I think to myself that it is a fabulous afternoon for a walk in the New Forest but no, even on the toughest of days, we can always find a silver lining and are glad we made the move.
What does your future in the industry look like?
It’s hard to tell what is going to happen with dairy and beef prices but it’s certainly an exciting time to be a woman in agriculture. I’m a co-founder of the South East Women in Farming group and it’s wonderful to see so many women from different enterprises and backgrounds sharing their knowledge and supporting each other. Whereas women in the past might have told their daughters not to marry a farmer, we’ll be very supportive of our daughter should she choose to take over this farm.