The refined focus shared by the Vallis family is testament to the strength of family farms across the country. Beth Dixon finds out why they will never operate as a closed book.
The backbone of many farms across the country are the families behind them and the Vallis’ are one such unit.
Graham farms in partnership with his wife Sandra and three daughters, Becca, Laura, and Emily, running a predominantly tenanted 182-hectare (450-acre) organic dairy farm on the Duchy of Cornwall’s Bradninch Estate on the outskirts of Exeter, Devon.
With the dairy enterprise at the heart of the business, the family milk a herd of 200 dairy cows comprising British Friesians, Ayrshires and Jersey crosses on a spring block calving, low input, low output system across long-term leys and permanent pasture.
Following a tenancy on a sheep and arable starter farm, Graham and Sandra took on the farm in 1991 when Graham’s father retired. They made the decision to convert to organic when their children were young in 1996, a process which took three years to complete.
This decision had been a consideration of Graham and Sandra’s for several years, but was ultimately driven by the desire to build a business which could support a young family and sustain the business for the future.
Graham says: “Before converting to organic we had a large dairy herd operating an autumn block calving system, and we were heavily reliant on home-grown maize.
“Organic farming provided us with a chance to become more independent and farm in a self-sufficient and sustainable way.
“Sandra and I have three daughters, each of whom have a role on the farm and play a key part in its success.
Therefore, it has been important for us to build a farm business which is sizeable enough to support our growing family and their interest.”
Today, the enterprise focuses on extending the grazing window as much as possible, with cows only being housed for a maximum of three months at winter, during which their diet is predominantly forage-based and supplemented with home-grown cereals and a protein source.
Youngstock are out-wintered on three blocks of ground and their diet comprises red clover, silage and kale. The farm also grows spring oats on the grazing block for early cut bales or graze, undersown with a white grazing ley and spring barley for wholecrop, undersown with a red clover cutting ley on the off ground.
This year the cows produced 4,200 litres of milk from 82 per cent forage, with all milk sold to the Organic Milk Suppliers Co-operative (OMSCo).
“Our decision to convert to organic was in the knowledge OMSCo provided a secure and stable market for our milk, and its ability to access new markets was reassuring.
“In 2015 we began to produce milk for OMSCo’s US premium pool, which supplies USDA-certified organic dairy products.
“The security of knowing OMSCo is continually opening up premium export markets has not only provided us with a sustainable and stable milk price, it has also given us the confidence and economic ability to continually invest back into the farm business,” says Graham.
Testament to this is the family’s successful holiday cottage business, managed by Sandra.
The renovation of the first cottage began more than 23 years ago and has now resulted in three renovated cottages, all of which attract repeat custom year-on-year.
As well as running a successful side business, Sandra also does all the farm accounts and led the project development of the installation of a pellet boiler for the dairy unit.
She says: “We use this to pasteurise milk for youngstock, heat one house and the parlour’s water, as well as generating an income via the renewable heat incentive [RHI].
“Our most recent investment was 30 acres of land, which we plan to use for forage.”
Graham explains how every family member has an important role, allowing him to take a step back. Their collective engagement and vision was also a reason why they were finalists of Family Farm of the Year at the British Farming Awards, co-organised by Farmers Guardian.
He says: “I’m a second-generation farmer so Sandra and I always hoped our daughters would want to carry on the farming business once we retire.
“Because of this, I’ve always involved the girls in the farmwork and the decisions we make about its future. They’ve travelled through the highs and lows with us.
“They’ve always been hands-on and have a keen interest in getting involved in everything from milking to yardwork.”
Having graduated from a nutrition course at the University of Nottingham in 2011, Graham and Sandra’s middle daughter, Laura, decided to return to the family farm in 2012, following five months in New Zealand working on a dairy and sheep farm.
Graham says: “Our herdsman was leaving and there was a chance for Laura to come back and take it on. I was obviously delighted when she decided to take decision and, five years on, her external experience has been vital to us.”
Laura, 27, now takes charge of the twice-a-day-milking, which reduces to once-a-day during winter, and carries out the yardwork alongside her younger sister, Emily, 23.
Laura says: “A typical day for me will always involve milking, but depending on the season it can vary. I do several other things on-farm too, such as calf tagging and registration.
“No one day is the same. It’s the diversity of farming which I enjoy so much.
“The benefit of us working together as a family is we can always cover one another and help each other out.”
Emily is responsible for feeding the dairy herd, managing the youngstock and heifer rearing – a role which is growing as the enterprise looks to increase herd numbers. She also does most of the artificial insemination work alongside her father.
Graham says: “Emily always wanted to work on-farm and even did so through college while studying for a business studies qualification.
“Our eldest daughter, Becca, is 30 and a qualified large animal vet. She also spent two-and-a-half years working in New Zealand. She provides the business with veterinary advice and support and is also able to provide an objective perspective.”
Originally, Graham did a lot of the milking himself and his father invested a lot into the business, having farmed next door.
“Over the years my role has changed and I’ve been able to take a step back as our daughters have taken on more.
“We have a succession tenancy in place so it’s something we’ve always been conscious of planning for.
“Before Sandra and I retire we’re committed to expanding the farm to ensure Emily and Laura have a business to take on in the future.
“We’re stepping up cow numbers at the moment to ensure the business grows organically and support the expansion.
“It’s important to us the business doesn’t stagnate and we’re looking to find another farm to support the organic dairy unit as we don’t have the space here to provide the level of growth we desire.
“For instance, we’re currently having to buy-in organic hay to push stock numbers up and build a business which can support us all.
“We’ve already been to visit two or three farms, but it is a careful process of finding the right farm in the right location.
“Organic dairy farming has given us a stable income and a passion for farming. The way we farm at the moment means we can achieve a balance which works for all of us.
“The family all support one another to ensure we can take holidays and share weekend working.
“As a tenant farmer, whatever we do has to pay and profitability is key. A decent return is imperative.”
As well as supplying OMSCo, Graham is also a director on the board and has been for 10 years.
“Understanding where our milk goes has really grown into a passion of mine. Farmer board members provide a practical input to the decision-making process which facilitates the implementation of new initiatives, such as opening new markets for the milk.”
It is clear the family nucleus lies at the heart of the business and provides the focus and shared involvement of a true farm unit.
“Finding the right people for employment is not getting any easier and being able to align a succession plan to the needs and wants of your family has always been our aim.
“Farming is a way of life and so much more than just money. But it is important for the farm to earn enough for us all to lead the lives we want.”