Farming matters

PUBLISHED: 10:38 02 June 2009 | UPDATED: 16:02 20 February 2013

William Alexander at Castle Farm

William Alexander at Castle Farm

Farming is one of Kent's most important assets, but how do our farmers feel about their businesses in the current climate, and what are their predictions for the future?

The huge diversity of agriculture in Kent, which covers growing cereals and other crops and producing livestock such as cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry, has created the delightful 'patchwork' effect of our countryside. Our arable land blends with meadows of dairy cows, sheep graze in orchards, no single breed of beef cattle is dominant and pigs are making a return.

Commercial horticulture is often combined with agriculture (we are the UK's largest top fruit producers after all) on many farms and results in the unique mix that makes up Kent farming. Even our hops are having a welcome comeback.

We owe the diversity of the county's distinctive buildings, its barns, oast houses, cartsheds, granaries, mills and stables, to the fact that, for hundreds of years, Kent has been home to mixed farming and blessed in having farmers with diverse skills.

During the Second World War, Britain's survival was dependent on our farmers. Our merchant fleet, responsible for bringing in much-needed food, was suffering horrific losses from attacks by U-boats and hundreds of lives, and thousands of tons of food, were being lost.

The British farmer was exhorted to grow more, and our farmers and growers responded magnificently, but not long after the war, things began to alter. The population became wealthier, holidays taken abroad widened knowledge about food and people were already demanding more when the global market arrived.

Produce was shipped and flown in from countries where production costs were far less than those faced by our own farmers and in many cases the welfare and husbandry standards in those countries fell way below those practised in the UK.

Seasonality gradually became a thing of the past and most consumers didn't know where their food originated - and couldn't care less anyway. British farmers were relegated to the bottom of the pile and before long stories coming out of the land-based sector were dismal and despondent.

But what goes around comes around. Climate change and awareness of the unremittingly high costs, in environmental terms, of imported food is causing people to question the sources of what they put on their plates. Celebrity chefs such as Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Gordon Ramsay have created far greater public awareness of the importance of animal husbandry and its direct link with what consumers are prepared to pay.

Climate change has given us new phrases everyone now understands and uses: food miles, local, regional, and food security.

If the amount of food we are able to bring into Kent became substantially reduced, could we achieve food security? The easy answer is 'possibly', in terms of our climate and diversity of soils, 'probably' in terms of skills, knowledge and expertise.

Kent farmers have long been among the UK's most highly skilled, and it is no coincidence that Hadlow, one of the UK's leading land-based colleges, is Kent based.

So how do our farmers feel about their businesses now, and what are their predictions for the future?

Only a relatively short time ago, the majority engaged in almost all forms of agriculture were concerned, very concerned or very, very concerned.

This concern hasn't totally disappeared - it won't overnight because times have long been tough - but it's definitely on the wane.

Castle Farm, Shoreham

William and Caroline Alexander's 1,200 acre Castle Farm at Shoreham near Sevenoaks is a fantastic example of what can be achieved by combining the traditional with the innovative.

The Alexanders buy in cattle to finish ready for slaughter. These are predominately Devon, Sussex or Limousin crosses and the aim is to produce quality meat which is available in their own Hop Shop or sold through a wholesaler representing the top end of the market.

In addition, the Alexanders produce oil seed rape, malting barley and forage maize. Then there is the diversity part of the enterprise. Lavender, other flowers and hops are produced and sold for their decorative, culinary and cosmetic appeal.

Winners of countless Gold Medals at Royal Horticultural Society Flower Shows, William and Caroline sought and found a niche and developed it to perfection. A one-time external assessor for Hadlow College, William predicts a good future for skilled and motivated entrants to the industry.

The Hop Shop
Castle Farm, Shoreham, nr Sevenoaks, TN14 7UB
Tel: 01959 523219
The Hop Shop is open daily from 10am to 5pm.

Hadlow College

Matt Greer trained at Hadlow College from 1997 to 1999. His preference was always for sheep and he worked for an Ashford-based shearing contractor for a summer before going up to Northumberland.

A period in New Zealand followed and later Matt gained further experience in other parts of England, but always with sheep.

He then returned to his alma mater and is now in charge of Hadlow College's 400-plus herd of sheep. This year the college's ewes produced over 800 lambs and the annual lambing weekend attracted nearly 10,000 visitors - a fantastic opportunity for college staff and students to welcome town dwellers to see at first hand an important part of the farming year.

Livestock prices have risen from their lowest ebb - partly because the value of sterling has declined but also because bluetongue is fairly widespread in some areas of the continent.

Hadlow's farm is run on strictly commercial lines and, as well as sheep, the college has an award-winning dairy herd which will soon achieve pedigree status.

Matt says: "The time I spent in Northumberland and New Zealand, made me very aware of the pressures on land use here in Kent. But Kent farmers are very committed and efficient in everything they do."

Hadlow College
Hadlow, Tonbridge, TN11 0AL
Tel: 0500 551 434

Monkshill Farm

Richard Stevens describes satisfaction with his job as "100 per cent." He is manager of Monkshill Farm at Waterham near Faversham. The Royal School for Deaf Children and Westgate College for Deaf People bought 65 acres overlooking the estuary in 1995 and rented land now brings the total to some 350 acres.

Run commercially with a strong educational focus, this is a grassland farm practising traditional methods of livestock production. Sheep, cattle, free-range laying birds, pigs, turkeys and alpacas are produced on the farm.

Monkshill has a number of contracts from Kent restaurants (including The Sportsman at Seasalter, holder of a Michelin star) and pubs and also sells meat, poultry, eggs and other produce ex-farm. Future plans include expanding commercial horticulture to grow more fruit and vegetables and opening a farm shop.

A former Hadlow student, Richard retains strong links with his old institution through the college's schools' programme. He is passionate about his work and regards himself as very fortunate to be able to combine his love of farming with opportunity to work with deaf people.

Richard's wife Helen acts as farm secretary and another part-time employee plus two full-time staff make up Richard's workforce. The enterprise is fulfilling demand for naturally reared and is growing in both size and vision. Richard is convinced there is huge future potential.

Monkshill Farm
Monkshill Road, Waterham, Nr Faversham, ME13 9EH
Tel: 01227 752778

Strong traditions

No other industry has built up such a strong tradition of handing down from one generation to another as farming.

Not long ago, this tradition was being lost because sons and daughters could see no longer see a future; some farming sectors, notably milk, were largely running at a loss, others were barely keeping their heads above water.

Now the industry must secure its workforce. An industry-led initiative called Fresh Start was set up to secure a sustainable future for farming in England and one of the first Academies was launched by Sir Don Curry at Hadlow College in 2006.

All the graduates from that programme are still involved in farming, while 30-plus students signed up for Hadlow's second Fresh Start Academy this March.

Kent has more of its working population employed in the land-based sector than any other county and farming is the lynchpin. It's worth remembering that much of Kent's countryside is 'managed' in the sense that the scenery we all enjoy is inseparable from farming.

And when we put Kent-produced food on our plates, we help to preserve our countryside and keep it green and beautiful. Farming is definitely one of Kent's key assets.

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