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First generation farmer's leap of faith pays dividends

In our series looking at the progression of new entrants, Danusia Osiowy talks to first-generation farmer John Terry who believes taking risks is always necessary in an increasingly competitive market.
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John Terry and son, Jonathan
John Terry and son, Jonathan
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Teacher turned first-generation farmer - read up on John Terry's inspirational story of how he entered the industry #GetIn2Ag

Author of 'How to Become a First-Generation Farmer' shares his story with Getting Started #GetIn2Ag

John Terry is good at getting what he wants.

 

His story as a new entrant into farming is one of determination, resilience and intelligence, resulting in the eventual ownership of a 14-hectare (35-acre) Warwickshire farm business he grew from the purchase of just one field.

 

Early days

Brought up by his parents on a private housing estate in Nuneaton, John regularly spent weekends and holidays with his uncle and aunt, where his uncle was farm manager on a 202ha (500-acre) farm in Leicestershire from an early age.

 

He worked full-time on a farm before completing a three-year college course at Worcester to become a rural studies teacher.

 

He then returned to Higham Lane High School, Nuneaton, where he attended as a pupil – now as a teacher – where he remained for the whole of his 25-year teaching career, operating as head of department and teaching agriculture, horticulture and environmental studies, as well as establishing a thriving school farm.

Transformation

He recalls this time with fondness, which is unsurprising given his achievements, which ultimately led to his election as fellow of the Royal Agricultural Society in recognition of his work teaching agriculture at school.

 

It was the development of the school farm which transformed an ordinary school to one which welcomed an increased interest from students to become involved in an initiative they could contribute towards.

 

He says: “In 1974, I inherited a wilderness which was an acre of wasteland, but was transformed into a thriving school farm and garden.

 

“We went from 15 less-able students studying rural studies each week, to 600 of all different abilities taking CSE exams and O-level agricultural science.”

Oat crop
The farm business

Reputation

John introduced sheep, pedigree milking goats, pigs, chickens and rabbits, but his proudest moment was capturing the attention of Buckingham Palace and securing the purchase of one of the Queen’s pedigree jersey heifer calves.

 

He says: “We knew we wanted a dairy cow on-farm, as their docility was perfect for the school. Some of my students wrote to the Queen and sent pictures of the farm and photographs of children winning prizes at shows with sheep.

 

“We received a response from her farm manager and in the early 1980s, we bought Windsor Coranetts Crystal Sixth for £80. It was a far better pedigree than anything else we owned.”

 

After having many calves and competing in showmanship classes, the school was named as having the smallest recording herd in Great Britain with just one cow.

 

After 10 years, they replaced the cow with another royal heifer in the form of Windsor Grand Good News, this time prompting a visit from the Queen and Prince Philip to the school in 1994.

 

Royal Visit

John says: “She arrived on-farm and the children were waiting with the animals. She asked if they were nervous, which of course they were, and she said she could tell as the halter had been put on too tight.

 

“She went on to loosen the halter and stood with them talking about all aspects of the farm. She then asked me what bull I was going to use on our heifers and I told her we were using hers – Windsor Imperial December.

 

“I will never forget she turned around and said he would do a marvellous job on our heifer. She knew what she was talking about.

 

“The whole experience was one of the best days of my life.”

Farming

Farming

A flair for telling anecdotal stories saw John turned his hand to writing, producing four A5 books about life on the school farm which went on to sell 100,000 copies. But despite his ongoing successes, John still had a burning ambition to be a farmer.

 

John, who has two chidren, Jonathan, 11, and Roseanna, eight, with wife Sarah, says: “I wanted to own my farm and not rent it, but I could not afford to go out and buy a complete working farm, so I started out with just one field.

 

“I was lucky enough to purchase the field for £21,000 at auction in 1989, which was originally part of Vale Farm in Warwickshire.

 

“It had not been farmed for a number of years and was covered in weeds. There were no buildings on the land or electricity supply and although there was a water supply connected to a neighbouring farm, it was unfit for human consumption.

 

“But the land was fertile and is a good, level field with well-defined boundaries and benefits from two road frontages. I bought the field with savings, so I did not need a bank loan or mortgage.”

poultry

Following general field husbandry and reseeding, John decided to launch a free-range poultry house to initially accommodate 3,000 laying hens, complete with egg room, bulk feed bin and automatic chain feeder.

 

With the help of his parents, who collected eggs during the afternoons while he continued teaching for another year, he also grazed his 25-strong home-bred Kerry Hill breeding ewes, which he began at the school farm in the early 1990s.

 

John says: “Kerry Hill sheep have been kept and bred at this farm for the whole time we have been here.”

 

The flocks have achieved significant success with John’s ram lamb winning multiple breed championships at the Royal Show and the Royal Welsh Show in July 1991, and again in November when he won the champion Kerry Hill flock in Britain, the breed’s highest accolade.

 

Exports

 

In addition, John has exported their semen to countries including California, Holland and Virginia.

 

“In 2014, I received news the Kerry Hill semen I exported a number of years ago has been inseminated into Cheviot ewes for a number of generations now, resulting in almost pure Kerry Hill sheep being bred. I am hopeful we will soon see the first ever pure Kerry Hill sheep in the USA.”

 

Derbyshire Gritstones

Derbyshire Gritstones

Kerry Hills

Kerry Hills

Running alongside the Kerry Hills are 30 Derbyshire Gritstones, which have added to the trophy cabinet after he achieved breed champion five times between 2004 and 2009 at the Royal Show, and winning the inaugral champion of champions competition in August 2006.

 

Both breeds have a won a total of more than 1,600 rosettes and is a sight to behold when you walk into the utility room and each and every one is pinned end-to-end across the walls.

 

Following in his father’s footsteps is Jonathan who runs his own Dorset Horns and Derbyshire Gritstones on-farm and who has twice beaten him in the breed classes at Bakewell Show.

 

John says: “It is wonderful he is competing and winning at such a young age. I was very proud he was asked to judge when he was eight years old at the official breed society show and sale.

 

"He is also breeding Brown Leghorn large fowls, while Sarah is also carving her niche and has bought some Serama bantams, and now breeds and shows them.”

 

Investment

Investment

Over the years, John has built up the farm business and now runs 14ha (35 acres), managing 5,000 free-range laying hens and a new field growing arable crops to be sold as animal feed to a neighbouring farmer.

 

He lived on-site in a mobile home before gaining permission to build a bungalow in 1997.

 

Other investments along the way means the poultry venture is now operating with maximum efficiency, thanks to an automated system which includes a chain feeder, automatic nipple drinkers, temperature settings and nest boxes.

 

Birds are bought-in at 16 weeks and begin laying at between 20 and 21 weeks, when each one averages about 312 eggs, before being sold on at 72 weeks.

 

Although some eggs are sold at the farmgate, most go to Sherwood Farm to be distributed to local shops.

 

Looking to the future, John has recently increased the size of the sheep buildings to accommodate an extra two bays for increased numbers and efficiency. The introduction of an arable field saw a crop of oats harvested last year, while oats will be grown this year for animal feed.

 

As a first-generation farmer, John was keen to help other new entrants wishing to gain a foothold on the farming ladder, and decided to write once again and produce the book, 'How to Become a First-Generation Farmer'.

 

He says: “You might say it is alright for John Terry, because he started his project years ago when it was easier to do. It probably was, but I did not think it was easy at the time.

 

“Land has become more expensive in comparison with other things and today this is the difficulty – finding enough money to buy. Taking on grass keep or renting will be an easier option.”

 

When asked what advice he would give other new entrants about starting off, John’s answer is never to wonder what might have been.

 

“I know of a couple living locally – he has worked on farms all of his life and they have attended probably a hundred sales of small parcels of land over the last 25 years.

 

“They were at the auction when I bought my first field and each time they have been hoping to buy, but they have never taken the plunge.

Reasons

“Either it has been too expensive, the land too wet, there was no road frontage, too much money needed spending on it or they did not like the neighbours.

 

“They are now getting too old, but I believe they are still looking for land. It is no good when you are 80 wishing you had rented a field, bought a paddock or kept more animals.”

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