Sheep and beef farmer Gill Vollum decided to step up her efforts to communicate to the public about farming after hearing about her son’s conversations at school. Clemmie Gleeson finds out more.
Scottish farmer Gill Vollum has always been keen to spread the word about farming and local food production.
But after hearing about her 10-year-old son’s conversations at school, she decided to step up her efforts.
Gill says: “My son Olly was talking to some children at school who told him they thought farmers were bad. He had the passion to speak up and say that he didn’t think they were right.
“It really struck me that if he can be brave enough to explain to his peers why he thought they were wrong, then I really need to do more too. It gave me the confidence to speak out.”
Gill and her family live on the Isle of Kerrera, an island in the Scottish Inner Hebrides which is just five miles long and two wide, with a population of about 65 residents.
She and her husband Tim took over the running of their 324-hectare (800-acre) farm from Gill’s father in 2011 and they have since had two sons Olly, 10, and Rory, seven.
They have a flock of about 500 sheep which are mostly Scottish Blackface crosses put to Texel tups plus a small herd of Dexter cows which are put to an Aberdeen-Angus bull.
“We have just eight cows at the moment but keep the steers for two years, so we currently have 26 head of cattle,” says Gill.
The farm has gradually built up a following through the Great British Food Hub and Facebook, before buying a new shed to use as a small farm shop last winter but just as they had planned to build it, Tim broke his leg, so the two boys built it together with close supervision from Tim.
“They were only nine and six at the time,” says Gill.
“We kept thinking we would have time to put it up but didn’t get around to it until the first lockdown.”
The shed was put up in their garden and just as lockdown was easing last year, the number of walkers coming to Kerrera started to increase, so their little shop was visited frequently.
“We have a lot of walkers coming through, so we sold ice creams made by a friend as well as our meat, eggs and island crafts,” Gill says.
“It’s grown from there. It’s done really well and people have been excited to see it.”
“I try my hardest to promote the farm and the type of farming we are doing”
Keen to do more to communicate to the public about food and farming, Gill was intrigued when she saw an advert for the Soil Association ambassador’s programme.
“They were saying the same things as me about eating seasonally and locally and that lots of farmers care deeply about the environment and want to farm alongside it,” she says.
“I was excited there were other people saying the same thing as me and wanted to get involved.”
Meeting other farmers, although virtually, has been a highlight of her involvement so far.
“I’ve met a variety of farmers from all over the UK via Zoom. I have been so inspired to hear how other farmers operate,” she says.
Gill was also particularly keen to get involved as there was an offer of video training which she felt could enhance her communication efforts and she has since been sharing pictures and videos of life on-farm on
“I try my hardest to promote the farm and the type of farming we are doing.
“It is really important that farmers get better at talking and communication with the public. It is really easy to just get cross and not be able to express yourself well.
“A lot of farmers are really passionate about what they do but don’t have the time or inclination to explain what they are doing, but we have to. It’s really important.
“We have to explain different points of view and the processes we use rather than relying on others to do it for us.”
As well as influencing the communication side of her work, joining the ambassador group has also given Gill an insight into different farming systems.
“From our discussions I have become intrigued by mob grazing. I really like the idea of it and am looking at implementation on our farm.
It has also reinforced my own shopping habits and I have decided I will buy organic vegetables now. I always wondered if it was worth the extra money before but now I really get it.”
Gill’s farm however is not organic, and she doesn’t intend to convert to organic production.
“I’m not sure it is right for us here. Living on a small island makes the logistics of getting feed and any other farm supplies a real challenge as it is.
“We need some feed to get through winter. But we can only bring four tonnes at a time and anything we buy is parked on the mainland, loaded onto a barge and then we transport it to the farm with a tractor and trailer on this side. It is hard work and a logistical juggling act.”
Day-to-day and both Gill and Tim have jobs outside the farm.
Tim works full-time as a service manager for looked after children, while Gill does most of the everyday work on the farm plus a part-time job as the island’s postie.
“I get the post at 10.30am and it takes a couple of hours to deliver all the mail to the island residents. When we took over the farm, we knew we would need some external financial help. The farm needed a lot of improvements and the house was run-down. It all needs investment to make it run smoothly so we knew we
both needed some external income.
“My job does adapt and can fit in around the farm and I’m able to take annual leave at lambing time. Being a postie is good for the social aspect but everybody knows everybody on the island anyway.”
While Gill spent her childhood on Kerrera and adored the island life, she did not think she would return to live there initially with she and Tim instead had made a life for themselves in North Wales where they both worked as outdoor instructors.
“As children we were so free. We were just told not to fall into the sea and to be home in time for tea,” she says.
They would come to visit Gill’s father and stepmother two or three times a year and Gill would feel sad leaving.
“My two brothers and stepbrothers had also made lives elsewhere and I never thought to stick my hand up to be honest.
"But one day when we were visiting to take Dad to hospital, Tim and I both had similar conversations with Dad and my stepmum about us taking over the farm. So that’s what we did.
“Tim is the type of person who is constantly questioning everything and that has led to some changes with the way we do things here.
“Previously nobody made hay on the island, we would buy it all in, but we started making our own.”
Gill’s friend and fellow sheep farmer Sheila McGregor has now taken on haymaking on their behalf.
As well as Gill and Sheila, Kerrera is also home to four crofters who are all women and a shepherdess too, says Gill.
The couple’s future plans include developing the shop.
“Lots of the islanders have seen how well the shop has done and have been developing their ideas for products to sell in it, which is a lovely compliment.
“We also have far off dreams of building a micro butchery and a bakery; I might need to get a bit better at making pies though.”
And of course Gill also plans to keep talking about farming.
She says: “Now I have started to talk about agro-ecological farming and learning more about it I seem unable to shut up about it.
“I want to keep talking and showing people that British farming is trying its hardest to feed the nation and save the Earth, all while raising their families and trying to stay financially afloat.”
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