James and Isobel Wright decided to take the plunge and take on the farm tenancy they had been waiting for.
Despite the looming prospect of Brexit and the uncertain times in farming, for this young couple, the risk is worth it.
Neither 27-year-old James nor 24-year-old Isobel Wright come from farming backgrounds. But, with an overwhelming desire to farm,they have taken on a farm tenancy during what is one of the country’s most unstable times.
Many would shy away from setting up an agricultural business in such a climate, but for this couple the benefits outweighed the risks.
James says: “I have always wanted to be a farmer. I tried to leave school after my GCSEs and go to agricultural college, but family pressures made me go and do my A-levels and head to university.
“While I was there I decided wanted to keep a few pigs and things went from there.
“At one point we rented 180 acres on annual or monthly grazing licenses, but it was really stressful, and we didn’t do ourselves or the stock justice.
“We always wanted a long-term tenancy that allowed us time to build up capital and look after the land in the way we wanted.”
Now running Bushovel farm at Wiston, West Sussex, they currently have access to 40 hectares (98 acres), with a shed which will allow them to house up to 60 cattle.
Running a small herd of Red Devon sucklers, chosen for their easy calving ability and the growing outlet forbreeding stock, plus a few ewes, the tenancy was secured through a contact James had.
The couple had previously applied for various other tenancies without success. They had been running 300ewes while living in Bath, but sold them in May 2018.
Isobel says: “We’d applied for a number of tenancies and been interviewed for a few but never made it over the line. We threw everything at a Duchy tenancy in Cornwall and didn’t get an interview. We decided we’d stop, sell the sheep and buy a house and hope to one day buy a farm.”
After their first initial meeting with their current landlords, Rick and Kirsty Goring, six months later they moved on to their farm in September 2019.
Their initial moving date fell a month before the previous Brexit deadline on October 31, yet the threat of no-deal was not enough to deter James and Isobel.
“It’s the uncertainty that makes things challenging,” says James.
“If we knew what our future relationship with the EU looked like or what the future environmental land management payment structure was going to be, we could plan. But right now, we don’t know what’s happening one day to the next. I’ve written to our local MP several times asking for a meeting but that hasn’t materialised.
“If we were selling commodity red meat, I’d be really worried, but we’re hoping that we can sell a portion direct that should help our profit margin. I think we’re motivated because we’re doing this together. It’s like buying a house that needs fixing up but instead it’s a herd of cows and acres of farmland.”
But their way of thinking has its advantages, and the pair can both work full-time while the farm is still in its initial phase. Isobel works for an events company while James works for agricultural software company, Breedr, as their business development manager.
Inevitably, balancing work while trying to establish their farm-business takes effort.
Isobel says: "We’re lucky that James has a job in agriculture that involves working from home a few days a week. It’s not to bad in the summer when the days are long, but in the winter if we had to do the commute and look after the cows it would be a real stretch."
And James is realistic - without their careers, they would not be able to make the tenancy work.
"It will be different for many people, but if there is a job with a local contractor, or relief milking, it’s always wise to have a fallback option alongside the farm," says James.
With James involved in Breedr, the idea of investing in data and technology is something he is keen to do too, and encourage other farmers to take interest in this new emerging sector.
"There is no point starting in farming to be in the bottom 20 per cent," he says.
"To reach the top 20 per cent, you’ve got to look at the data and the marginal gains. Every farmer under the age of 35 has a smartphone - that is a £800 pocket computer that is more powerful than the computer that put man on the moon.
"There are all sorts of apps that improve productivity and profitability, and they are all worth trying."
At the end of the tenancy, they are hoping they will have grown the size of their herd, and perhaps the potential will be there to sell it all and purchase a small farm of their own or secure a larger tenancy.
Both, however, are certainly not afraid of the future or the work it entails, having already learnt a few lessons.
James says: “Making basic decisions about what stock to get and where to buy it from [is tough], and in a year when the beef price has been all over the place it is difficult to plan ahead.
"Since we got the stock, it’s been a learning curve. We did 600 metres of fencing when we first got here, and it was the first time we’d ever done fencing - which for the average farmer probably sounds ridiculous.”
They aim try to keep the cattle on grass for long as possible and were awarded funding by the Henry Plumb Foundation to purchase some electric fence which allows them to mob graze. They are also hoping they can sell direct through a new website called Batchseed.
And they have their own vision regardless of the challenges.
Isobel says: “We want to have a farm is that is both financial, emotionally and environmentally sustainable.
“Brexit really couldn’t have come at a worse time - we’ve just signed a five year tenancy with a three year rent review, who knows what could happen in that time? But we don’t need the income off the farm to feed ourselves and as long as we can grow the herd at a rate that exceeds the out-goings in five years’ time we’ll be in a good position.”
So, with both only in their twenties, do they as young farmers see Brexit as an opportunity?
“I’m half Dutch and always wanted a Norway style relationship with the EU,” says James.
“I have no issue with free movement of people, but I do resent CAP which is developed for the needs of 27 distinct nations. The rules, particularly how payments are rewarded, are frustrating and benefit incumbent farmers.
"Being released from policies and legislation like this could hugely benefit agriculture but only if we have equivalence in welfare and environmental standards that allow us to trade equally with European partners, who are our biggest market.
“I think if we’d turned this opportunity down after searching for several years because of Brexit, we’d have regretted it.
"But it is an enormous risk. While many of our friends our age are looking at buying their first home, we have spent our house deposit on tractors, cows and feed barriers.”
But James believes it has always been hard and that challenges simply change over time.
He says: "I think the challenges now are almost insurmountable for the majority. In the 80/90s, it was about hard work, having a few calves on the side and building up with a friendly bank manager, with the potential of a long term tenancy.
"Now, 90 per cent of tenancies offered are under 5 years, and even if we can find a bank to lend us the money, often they want the principal paid before the tenancy is over and with short-term tenancies that just isn’t possible."
Regardless of youth, financial hurdles and the political uproar, James and Isobel are focussing on their future and how they can build the business.
James says: “We’re hoping more land will come up close by so we can increase the number of cattle we’re bringing through, and our new shed should fit 60-80.
"We’re also exploring ways of rearing beef dairy. Ultimately we hope to go from here to a larger tenancy or if we win the lottery, a farm of our own. It’s a dream come true. We’ve wanted this for ages and it’s incredible every day to go and see our livestock, safe in the knowledge we’ll be here for at least five years and maybe longer.”