Finding a way to generate extra cashflow was vital if Martin Muir was to keep the family farm running. But with farm diversification out of the question, he chose a somewhat different option. Kate Chapman reports.
When fourth generation livestock farmer Martin Muir was advised to expand his farm business or diversify to ensure its survival, he decided to follow a road less travelled and chose to become a driving instructor.
That was 12 years ago and, since then, Martin, who farms 125 hectares (309 acres) in Commondale, near Whitby, North Yorkshire, with wife Audrey and their graphic designed son John, has seen his new venture flourish.
Although completely different, Martin says both jobs work well side-by-side and provide flexibility, meaning he can focus on his driving school Monday to Friday, while farm work takes priority at the weekends.
There is also scope for him to take time off from lessons when necessary to ensure he is at home during the busy lambing season.
The family keeps 20 suckler cows, mainly Limousin, Friesian and Angus and Friesian crosses, which are put to a Limousin bull, plus 420 sheep run on 55ha (136 acres) of farmland and 70ha (173 acres) of moorland.
Martin says: “I have always worked on-farm; it’s all I’ve ever known.
“When I was younger, I worked for my father Joe and his brother Sandy when they ran the business in partnership. I also used to deliver milk for a neighbouring dairy farmer.
“Following my father’s untimely death, I inherited his tenancy when I was 27. When my uncle retired, we separated the partnership and I cut back on the suckler cows when we gave up some other land.
“We keep traditionally moorland flocks as we’re predominantly a grassland farm, with some parts up to 800ft above sea level.
“Most of our calves and lambs go for stores, sold through the local auction at Ruswarp so they can be finished off on lowland farms.”
Long Green Farm is home to 100 Mule ewes crossed to a Texel, 120 Scottish Blackface ewes crossed to a Bluefaced Leicester and 200 Scottish Blackface ewes.
Martin says: “We have always had Blackface sheep. In the 1970s, we started to cross some of them with the Bluefaced Leicester and predominantly Mule gimmer lambs were selling well.
“I used to sell all our gimmer hoggs as lambs because of the trade for them, but then there was the second outbreak of foot-and-mouth and trade fell flat.
“So we kept the gimmers and were going to sell them as shearlings, but we took them ourselves and we ended up creating the Mule ewe flock.”
Martin’s Mule ewes all lamb indoors and are turned out from 48 hours onwards, while the Scots ewes generally stay outside. The Bluefaced Leicester crosses remain outdoors too, unless the weather deteriorates.
Lambing for the Mules and Scots begins in late March, while the moorland flock starts a little later in early April.
All lambs are sold at the local auction in August, going for stores. Calving takes place in February and March, with animals sold at market in November.
Cows are outside between May and November and given silage, straw and sometimes mineral buckets in winter. Sheep are also fed haylage plus a concentrate in the last six weeks before lambing.
Martin says: “With us being a traditional hill farm, we try and cut down on costs where we can on feed. If we can, we try and get away with a grass-based diet in summer, supplemented by mineral or feed blocks. We’re not into expensive concentrates.
“The biggest challenge facing us is really the weather, although it does help the grass grow.”
Despite the family’s best efforts, they found it was becoming tougher to make a living from the farm, especially as they faced uncertainties over subsidies.
Martin says: “Our farm is very reliant on the subsidy system. Going back to 2007 when I started to think about diversification, I could see in the future that the subsidy system would be lost and that would make it even tougher to make a living from the farm alone.
“We love doing what we are doing, as long as it’s breaking even or showing a little profit. Now we’ve diversified into other areas there’s not the same pressure.
“With Brexit, I think farmers are going to have to get used to less income whether we like it or not. It’s a very uncertain time for small farms.
“I think big farms will always survive and it doesn’t matter in livestock whether they’re predominantly dairy or cattle, they have a lot of bigger outputs.
“When the accountant told us we were faming well but needed to expand or diversify, we knew it wouldn’t be easy to acquire more land given our location.
“There I was, suddenly in my 40s and all I had ever known was farming. What do you do?”
After considering their options carefully, Audrey returned to work part-time in a butcher’s shop in Whitby, while Martin, after spotting a campaign to recruit more driving instructors, decided to complete a course and start his own driving school.
He says: “I didn’t want to labour for anyone else as I was getting a bit older, but I wanted to do something a little easier and driving appealed to me.
“A lot of people around us have diversified into farm shops and tourism, but we’re not ideally placed for a shop and there has been a saturation of holiday accommodation.”
It cost Martin £3,500 to complete the three-stage course to qualify as an instructor and then he took on a franchise with the same company as he started to build his reputation. The only outlay he had was his car, which he initially leased from the franchise holder. But three years ago, he decided to become independent.
He says: “It was a lot tougher to pass the course than I had expected it would be, but so far it has worked out very well for us – we manage to keep on top of all the farm work ourselves, except the shearing which someone comes in to do, fitting it all in at the weekend.
“There is flexibility, so I can take time off when we’re lambing and at other times if necessary; I’m really enjoying the driving though. My eldest daughter Rebecca set me up a Facebook page, which is necessary to connect with younger people looking for lessons.
“So far, I have got about 500 people, about 50 a year, through their test. There’s a great job satisfaction when a pupil passes. I still get a buzz from it.
“As for the future, we just want to keep things going as they are. We’re unsure of what’s going to happen with Brexit and some of the subsidies we receive, so we’re really just waiting to see how things pan out.
“We’re five to six years off retirement, but John is very keen to take on the farm as long as there is a living to be made out of it.”