Bereavement can knock a business off-course, especially when it comes unexpectedly. On the loss of her husband, Kari Dunford picked herself up and steered the family’s Somerset farm to make it fit for the next generation. Ann Hardy meets Kari to hear about her journey.
Nothing can prepare you emotionally for the loss of a spouse. But when it also involves the removal of the farm’s mainstay – the driving force who gave the business its direction and propulsion – it is accompanied by difficult practical questions about the farm’s future.
For Kari Dunford, who lost her husband, Mark, in an accident in 2010, there was categorically no question about the direction she should take.
Still in her 30s and with three children under 10, there was the compelling urge to keep the family business going for the next generation, with unwavering support from Mark’s mother.
“I had to do my best for the children and the family, and keeping the farm going was the right thing,” says Kari.
But although Kari’s background was as a small animal vet, by her own admission she did not know much about farm animals and had little knowledge of the business of farming.
Taking over Southwood Common Farm in Evercreech, near Shepton Mallet in Somerset was a far cry from her suburban Hertfordshire upbringing, and most of what she knew had been gleaned through the 13 years she had spent with Mark.
“I was not completely green as I had worked on farms in my veterinary training, but it was just not my thing,” she says.
“I had never been to Somerset until I met Mark. And on the farm, although I had taken over the paperwork from my mother-in-law since the children were born and helped out when needed, I didn’t really have a clue about what was going on.”
However, with solid support from all around her, including Mark’s brother, Peter, who supported and liaised with the farm team while Kari stayed in the hospital by her husband’s side, the family pulled through.
Even the children, Max, Lara and Tallula, provided moral support and Kari recalls how Max, who was just nine at the time, was quick to take on responsibility.
“On the day I came home from hospital he had a list of things which needed to be done,” she says. “By the time he was 14, he was milking the herd on his own.”
It was after a 10-day period of uncertainty that Mark tragically lost his fight for life, and Kari did her utmost to continue business as usual.
“I did not want to make any changes,” she says. “We owned around half the land and rented the rest and there were break clauses in the tenancies in the event of death, so I had to look strong. I knew some landlords could be ruthless and thought that if I had wobbled, they may have given the tenancy to someone else.
“If they had taken the land away from us, we would have been in a more complicated position.
“I had no doubt at the time it was the right thing to continue, although have had a few crises of confidence since.
“There’s a momentum that keeps you going and you just get on with what needs to be done.”
Describing her late husband as a ‘hugely ambitious and progressive farmer’, she explains how he had increased the acreage and capacity of the farm since taking over from his grandfather, eventually turning a small beef business into a 900 acre (364ha) enterprise milking 500 dairy cows by the time of his death.
Kari continued to operate the 500 cows over the farm’s two units, initially trying to stick to plans Mark had put in place.
“No one really realised quite how much he did to keep the show on the road,” she says. “And the lack of knowledgeable management after his death inevitably started to show.”
However, by putting in place standard operating procedures, joining discussion groups to help with benchmarking, and working closely with the farm’s long-term consultant, she eventually started to gain confidence and get performance back on track.
But Mark had led from the front and worked alongside his team, according to Kari, who insists this is something she is not able to do.
“It’s so different for me,” she says. “Mark was able to be out there on the farm every day, but my primary goal has always been to put the children first. As well as the farm, there’s still the house to take care of and all the usual jobs, from putting the bins out to planning a holiday – everything now has to be done by me.”
Her desire to release time for herself and her family and improve the ease of management and efficiency of the business eventually drove her to a simpler system of production, and in 2011, she began to serve her black and white herd to Jersey. In so doing, she established two block-calving herds of Jersey-cross-Holsteins, one calving in spring and the other in autumn.
Aiming to maximise milk from grazed grass, she tried to breed a small, robust cow which would suit a grazing system and be easier to manage.
Today, the success of her policy has been seen through her farm costings in which she is close to hitting her target of 500kg milk solids from less than a tonne of concentrates per cow per year. Costs of production have returned to 25ppl and the calving block has tightened to around 12 weeks.
“Now we dry off all the spring calvers by Christmas eve, and we won’t milk again until they start calving in February,” she says. “Block calving has definitely given us more leisure time – people are rarely here on the farm after 6pm.”
Such has been the success of the policy, that when she was hit by the news last year that a landlord wished to take back 250 acres (101ha), the business was resilient enough to cope.
“We knew the 14-year farm business tenancy was coming to an end and we had tried hard to find somewhere else, but it just wasn’t possible within the timescale,” she says.
Losing such a substantial proportion of the farm inevitably required adjustments to be made to the business, and the decision was taken to sell the autumn calving herd and consolidate on one unit.
A judicious purchase of land by Kari had already increased the owned acreage and the ring-fenced part of the farm, and this changed the business prospects.
“In 2011/12 we bought land which Mark had always wanted to buy, which was very poignant and meant the farm was big enough for us to justify an investment in a 24/48 Milfos parlour,” she says.
Consolidating cattle on to one unit also required facilities to be upgraded and investment was made in new youngstock housing and extra cubicles.
Remarking that a better-quality dairy attracts a committed and loyal workforce, she names the current incumbents, Martin Rowell and Connor Thorner who are ‘doing a great job’.
Milking the cows herself was never a practical option and not a route she chose to take.
“I do it very occasionally, but I am not good at it and I worry about it,” she says. “I was starting as a 39-year-old widow with three children under 10; you are never going to manage by doing everything yourself.”
Today, there is no doubt Kari’s husband would have been proud that her clear-thinking and fortitude have held the farm together as a viable economic unit in the most difficult of circumstances. When their now 18-year-old son, Max, returns from studying agriculture at Newcastle University, he will find he has not just equipped himself with the knowledge to carry the farm forward, but he has at his disposal a sustainable family business which is resilient to the challenges which may lie ahead and fit for his own and the next generation.