Helping the generations
PUBLISHED: 07:00 08 August 2014
Isolation and exclusion are common problems facing farmers, especially those working the remote tracts of Exmoor. So it comes as no surprise that a new project aimed at uniting, informing and representing the area's farming families has been welcomed with open arms.
Robin Milton’s award-winning farming family have been working the Exmoor uplands on the Somerset-Devon borders for seven generations.
And just as his family have done for centuries, Robin continues to tend to his flock of sheep, a pedigree herd of Aberdeen cattle and Exmoor ponies on around 1,000 acres of bye and common land surrounding Withypool.
“I have also got a son who has just come into the business and my brother has two sons who are getting into it too so what we are seeing is a bit more perpetuity, which is vital to the future of farming on Exmoor,” he says, as he takes a break from his work, perched on a bundle of bales.
It is this ‘perpetuity’ which is at the heart of a recently launched project, the Exmoor Hill Farming Network, aimed at connecting the area’s upland farmers by providing information, training and opportunities from national schemes - and in turn, making the industry more viable for younger generations.
It is a project which would not have been made possible without a £49,994 grant from the Prince’s Countryside Fund.
“In fact, the project would have folded,” says Jenny Carey-Wood, strategic development officer for Somerset-based North Devon+, the economic development organisation hosting the two-year Network partnership.
Officially launched in Exford in June, with a visit from Lord de Mauley, Minister for Natural Environment and Science, the scheme aims to improve the viability and efficiency of Exmoor farming businesses through knowledge transfer, training and establishing peer support groups, with a project co-ordinator organising a range of activities, such as practical sessions and on-farm visits.
As part of the project, 200 members will be recruited to the association and 250 farmers are set to benefit from the training and events, with specific training events for 20 young people through the Next Generation programme and 40 women via the Women in Farming group.
Network chairman, Dave Knight, says: “As an independent, farmer-led network, we want to increase farming incomes by supporting the next generation and improving livestock and land management. The funding support from Defra through the Rural Development Programme for England, the Prince’s Countryside Fund and Exmoor National Park Authority are important to build a strong foundation for the Network going forward.”
Network officer, Katherine Williams, adds: “Over the spring we have organised sprayer operative courses, information events on the new sheep movement requirements, farm visits and talks targeting particular issues and groups across Exmoor. It’s free to join the Network, so get in touch and let us know what you want and we will organise it.”
The scheme has already been welcomed by farmers in the area, with more than 100 attending the launch and billing it a ‘vital’ service for the future of Exmoor upland farming.
Robin is among those to welcome the project’s arrival.
Unlike his ancestors, Robin regularly takes trips around the country, involving himself in all levels of farming issues, from grassroots to Governmental level. He is a senior National Farmers’ Union official; as well as holding many key positions including
roles with the Withypool Commoners’ Association, Country Land and Business Association, Defra and Exmoor National Park. Given his expertise and family history, he knows the industry inside-out, as well as the challenges it faces.
“Isolation goes hand in hand with the remoteness of the job. It is easy to withdraw, to become insular in farming, especially as the job has come to rely more and more on mechanics. I have seen how farmers have been working and seeing increasing drop-outs from the next generation. Some farmers up here still don’t have the Internet and some are even running on generators.
“Which is why projects like the Exmoor Hill Farmers‘ Network and funding such as that from the Prince’s Countryside Fund play a vital part in the future of upland farmers on Exmoor,” he adds.
Helen Aldis, the newly appointed manager of the PCF, also attended the launch, which was hosted by Oliver and Jill Edwards at Westermill Farm, and welcomed the chance to meet farmers who have benefited from the Network’s activities.
The two-year partnership project is funded by the PCF and the Rural Development Programme for England, under the SW Livestock Initiative.