In NFU Mutual’s continuing series on small farms, we find out how a change of circumstances led to difficult decisions for one Devon livestock farmer.
Despite having worked on a farm for his whole life, Andrew Carter never owned his own land.
As the third generation of his family at Bishop’s Court Farm, near Ottery St Mary, Devon, he remembers sitting on his grandfather’s tractor and feeding livestock from as young as five years old.
Back then, it was a 283-hectare (700-acre) arable, beef and sheep unit, running up to 100 head of cattle and 200 breeding ewes.
Andrew says: “We used to own some land and rent more. My grandfather built it up and my dad and I worked for him. When I left school I stayed living on the farm until I was 26 before moving to my own house, but I have kept working there ever since.”
Times changed, farm incomes depleted and the difficult nature of livestock farming meant Andrew’s grandfather took the decision to downsize.
“Things wound down and he sold a lot of land and reduced his borrowing. The farm has been at about 121ha (300 acres) for 25 years now.”
His grandfather passed away in 2009 and Andrew, now 51, has recently inherited a share of the unit which was left to him and his two siblings when his father, John, died unexpectedly in September 2014.
Not knowing whether he was ever going to farm full-time, Andrew took a job at the Donkey Sanctuary at Sidmouth about 10 years ago. With his own land and buildings to now manage, he faces the time pressures and difficult decisions that anyone who farms at a limited scale can relate to.
“Working for a family farm is alright, but as farmers know, it’s not all beer and skittles because you’re not always being paid proper money and your future is not always clear,” Andrew says.
“I wasn’t sure what the future held so I got myself a job four days a week at the Donkey Sanctuary as an insurance policy for the future in case there was nothing left to go on with. I wasn’t sure back then.
“It was a big decision for me having never worked away. It taught me there’s more to life than just farming and I met people I wouldn’t have otherwise met. I’m using the skills I learnt on the farm like tractor driving, fencing and maintenance.”
Bishop’s Court is a fairly flat farm, largely put to permanent pasture. Its meadows are dissected by the River Otter which can prove challenging during the winter months and periods of heavy rainfall.
Despite having inherited just under 40ha (100 acres), the usable land at Andrew’s disposal is heavily restricted by weather.
“It seems like quite a lot of land but I can’t use it all year round because it floods when the river comes up. The River Otter comes from Honiton and it swells up very quickly and doesn’t take long to burst its banks, coming up as high as a five-bar gate.”
The unpredictable nature of the land affects the management of the unit and Andrew has to reduce livestock numbers on-farm before winter sets in.
He currently has 10 head of March 2016-born Angus beef cattle out of Friesians which he bought as calves, plus 200 ewes – mostly Charollais cross and Lleyn cross – which he puts to the tup in October for March lambing.
“We don’t scan but usually get quite a good lambing percentage of about 170 per cent. They lamb in March when the grass has started to grow, so I don’t have to feed them too much, then I sell as many as I can when they’re still on the ewes.
“We struggle with grass in the winter because it’s meadow land, so I sell most of what I have left as stores at Exeter Livestock Market in autumn. I reduce my numbers as much as possible before Christmas.
“The store lamb price hasn’t been too bad this year and it works better than dealing with the bad weather through the winter.”
The buildings equipping the farm are simple but practical. There is a covered yard which could be used to house more cattle but is currently extra housing at lambing. Andrew also has a hay shed, a general purpose barn and a lean-to sheep shed.
Two tractors help with some of the heavier farm work and a John Deere Gator helps Andrew travel on wet ground.
Across his full-time job and farming commitment, Andrew admits it is a heavy workload and says the change in circumstances over the past two years has led him to question what his next move should be.
“On the face of it I have been given some land but it is a headache because at the scale we are at I’m going to have to keep on working. Some people diversify in different ways – I’m doing it by getting a job.
“There’s not enough in it for me to be farming full-time. I work seven days a week to keep it going but we manage.
“I was brought up with my grandparents who worked a lot harder than I ever have or ever will. My father carried it on and I’m trying to do the same.”
Help around the farm comes principally from a friend and from his 24-year-old son, Shaun, who is keen on farming. Despite his age, he is also master of the East Devon Hunt.
Andrew’s wife Della is involved during lambing, and their 21-year-old daughter Lesley, has also mucked in but now has family and work commitments of her own.
“I’m lucky because I’m healthy at the moment so I can do this,” Andrew says. “Shaun is interested in farming so I’m keeping things going for him. He’s around all the time when he’s not doing hunting work and that helps me because if he’s there, I don’t have to be.
“I’ve always farmed and it has become a way of life. We will continue to rub along the best we can.”
Farm Essentials is a new insurance product from NFU Mutual. Tailored to meet the needs of farms up to 50 hectares (123 acres), Farm Essentials offers a range of benefits designed with the small farm business in mind. Please visit www.nfumutual.co.uk/farmessentials find out more. You will also be able to find your local NFU Mutual branch – with more than 300 around the country, advice is never far away.