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A rural love affair with Surrey's farmers

PUBLISHED: 18:50 29 May 2011 | UPDATED: 12:32 10 June 2014

A rural love affair with Surrey's farmers

A rural love affair with Surrey's farmers

Here in Surrey, farming has long been an important part of the county’s heritage – but life as a farmer has never been tougher, with supermarkets squeezing prices and new legislation leading to ever-mounting costs. It’s not all doom and gloom, however, as Surrey Life’s Matthew Williams discovered when he spoke to five of the county’s farmers to learn where their land lies...

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine May 2011

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Straight talking, supermarket baulking…

Graham Page of Osney Lodge Farm, Godstone
Home to a popular farm shop and the Blindley Heath Country Show, Osney Lodge Farm runs a herd of pure bred Sussex cattle and a substantial number of sheep. Much of their meat is available in pubs around the county, as well as in their own shop.

How has the industry changed in your time?
The trend nowadays is for farms to diversify, turning traditional buildings into industrial units, workshops and particularly ‘horsey’ establishments. We are told that the traditional farm is non-viable. When my wife Sally and I bought the farm nearly 25 years ago, industrial units, commercial storage, and, yes, those fabulous land-wrecking animals, horses, were here in abundance. So we proceeded to clear everything out and return the farm to a traditional livestock farm. Clearly mad and perhaps the only farm to have done this in Surrey for many a year.

What is the biggest single issue affecting you at the moment?
We are constantly battling the slick advertising and, we believe, dishonesty of the supermarkets. They are repeatedly being exposed for one issue or another, but are they ever prosecuted? Sadly, no.

How can the local community best support our farmers?
It seems that if a customer is sold a piece of, say, rump steak (without doubt, the best tasting steak you can buy if it is properly hung) by a supermarket, they just accept that it may be tough as it is a ‘cheaper’ cut. Wrong! Take it back, complain and then go and get one from your local farmshop... you will be amazed at the difference!

Remember, when you enjoy your drive through the beautiful Surrey countryside, someone is farming that land. Otherwise, the land would be weed infested scrub. So please buy British meat from an independent shop and support your local Great British Farm!

Do you have a favourite farm related anecdote?
I feel that jacuzzis, double glazing and adjustable beds have got no place at an agricultural show, and so I launched the Blindley Heath Country Show in 2005 to celebrate our county’s true agricultural roots.

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Big machinery, small roads…

Peter Knight of Burgate Farm, Hambledon, near Godalming
Once part of a larger estate, which was broken up after the war in the 1940s and 50s, the Home Farm at Burgate is arable, mainly producing wheat and oil rape seed. Half of their 1,000 acres of wheat goes towards milling, which will usually be consumed within the UK, while the rest is normally exported as feed.

How has the industry changed in your time?
Unless you are farming more than 400 acres of land, you generally won’t be able to afford your own machinery. A combine harvester for example costs £150,000 to £250,000 – I suppose the Top Gear boys drew some attention to the issue at least with their snowplough episode – and so most of the smaller farms have packed up or are run by contractors. In the seven miles around us, we’re one of the few commercial farms (i.e. making a living out of it) that are still going.

What is the biggest single issue affecting you at the moment?
Farming through the generations has been cushioned by government policy. That’s changed in the last 15 years though as farming has been opened up to the markets and prices have become more volatile. Now if there is a bad harvest in Australia or Russia, it affects the price. It has been economically difficult for this decade but world supply and demand means that prices are currently at record highs – a comfortable price would be the middle ground between the bad times and now. 

How can the local community best support our farmers?
By farmers getting out and about at shows and parish council meetings. Overall, I would say that the general understanding of people and appreciation of aspects of country living has improved again in the past few years. You’ll still receive complaints about the smell when recycling sewage sludge to fertilise the fields, but before we did that it would just be pumped into rivers and the sea. Living in the countryside comes with the trappings of country life. 

On the other side of things, Margaret Barlow at Imbhams Farm Granary, just outside Haslemere, uses our grain and they sell their bread mixes at the farmers’ markets, so you can support many farmers via that route.

Do you have a favourite farm related anecdote?
A few of us were in the pub the other evening and one of the local residents raised the complaint that us farmers are always flying around the country lanes too quickly. Well, it seems that if we’re driving towards you it’s too fast, but I’ve never heard that complaint when someone’s been following a tractor! Over the years, the farming kit has become a lot bigger but the roads haven’t grown at all and they’ve got much busier – we’ve still got to get to the fields somehow.

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More paper, more work…

Michael Whitty of Shortwood Farm, Staines
Shortwood Farm was built in 1902 for the Philips family who kept a dairy herd on the common estate of Shortwood Common adjacent to the farm. It was later bought and farmed for beef from 1950 until 1985 by Teddy Bovingdon. After Teddy passed away, the Whitty’s moved to Staines from Wiltshire, buying the farm in 1987 to produce beef.

How has the industry changed in your time?
Since starting breeding beef cattle, farming has changed dramatically. Pricing has been stabilised and farming has become more intensive to meet the demand of supermarkets. Paperwork and DEFRA controls have increased, especially post foot-and-mouth – in my opinion, some for better some for worse. As a farmer, it is often difficult to make ends meet without supplementing your income – in our case, we carry out contract work cutting grass verges on the highways for local authorities.

What is the biggest single issue affecting you at the moment?
One of the biggest current issues affecting our farming is feed prices, which have risen over the last year due to a shortage of wheat. There was also a poor straw crop last year too. Feed costs increased over the last couple of winters with prolonged heavy snow forcing us to have to use more feed to sustain the herd’s development.

How can the local community best support our farmers?
Try and support the local butcher or farm shop, as they are no more expensive and you know what you are buying is good quality. As a nation, we currently import so much milk and meat from Europe, Africa and beyond at the expense of the British dairy and livestock farming industry.

Do you have a favourite farm related anecdote?
There is an old farmer’s saying: “Where there is livestock, there will be dead stock.” Nature of the industry.

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Got milk, got Trust…

Robert Gray of Goldstone Farm, Polesden Lacey, Great Bookham
Goldstone Farm is part of the Polesden Lacey Estate and has been farmed by three generations of the Gray family, since 1928. At that time, it was owned by the Hon Mrs Greville but, since 1943, the landlord has been the National Trust.

How has the industry changed in your time?
We have always been a dairy farm. My father started the Ayrshires when he was 13 and we have stuck with them ever since. Our Ayrshires have been regular champions at the Surrey County Show in Guildford. There are fewer and fewer dairy farms left in Surrey. We have kept going by investing heavily in the farm as a family. My father John, brother James, myself and the farm staff work together as a team. Our next project will be to sell processed milk direct to the public. We will be setting up a farm shop in one of the barns later in the summer and selling pasteurised milk, cream, yoghurt and butter from there.

What is the biggest single issue affecting you at the moment?
The price paid to farmers per litre of milk is the biggest problem without a shadow of a doubt. It almost costs more to produce than we are paid for it. The supermarkets continue to drive the prices down.

How can the local community best support our farmers?
Buy food that is produced on local farms. When we start selling from the farm, we hope that local people will recognise the high quality of our Ayrshire milk and buy their dairy products from us.

Do you have a favourite farm related anecdote?
We have cousins in Australia. One year, I visited a farm in Cairns and saw a herringbone milking parlour that I really liked. It was too expensive for the company to export it to the UK, so I spent three-and-a-half days photographing it and drawing it, and then I came home and with the help of a friend we manufactured all the bits and put it together. It took two-and-a-half years. Looking back, it was madness really, but the cows are very happy with it.

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Mouths to feed, expensive seed

Laurence and Paula Matthews of Manor Farm, Wotton

Laurence’s grandfather moved to Manor Farm from Kent in 1935, originally keeping pigs, beef cattle and a dairy herd, before starting to grow crops just before World War Two. Laurence joined his uncle Fred running the farm in the mid-90s, by which time they no longer had a dairy herd, pigs or poultry as each became unviable, but focused on beef and arable, expanding to 3,000 acres today with five staff. To diversify the business, the old pig and poultry buildings were converted into Surrey Hills Business Park.

How has the industry changed in your time?
Prices in real terms have collapsed. Grain in 1980 was £110 per tonne, last year it was £85, for example. Livestock prices are also well down. Efficiency is far greater with much improved levels of output being seen even over the last ten years. On the downside is the great expense of modern large machinery.

What is the biggest single issue affecting you at the moment?
Input cost rises are huge – fertiliser has more than doubled in the last three years, feed costs have doubled in ten months. Much more capital is required to farm the same area/output as last year, so more bank funding is required. Secondly, we are receiving very low prices for beef – supermarkets have been brutal with minimal price increases paid to the farmer while farm costs have doubled.

How can the local community best support our farmers?
Buy local! We have diversified with a Belted Galloway suckler herd; the cattle live outside all year round, grazing herb-rich grassland on the North Downs and local pasture around Wotton. Being grass fed and naturally reared, our ‘Belties’ produce delicious beef, which is traditionally hung for three to four weeks to reach its full potential. Our beef is currently sold direct from Manor Farm, two or three times a year, through a beef box scheme.

Do you have a favourite farm related anecdote?
More a piece of wisdom: we do not inherit the land from our parents, we borrow it from our children. As third generation farmers, we manage and care for the farmland and wider countryside to the best of our ability in readiness for the next generation of farmers and producers; we are just here to safeguard their future livelihood.


 

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