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Wednesday, 23 January, 2002, 10:19 GMT
Enterprise dulls impact of farm downturn
Farmers have had a torrid time in recent years. BBC News Online's Sarah Toyne spent two days with Sally and Graham Page, who have a livestock farm in Surrey, to find out how they have survived.
Sally and Graham Page are not "typical" farmers. Sally is a former secretary, and Graham owned an electrical wholesalers.
But it is these "former lives" that they believe have pulled them through the past year.
While saying goodbye to the nine-to-five existence and moving to the countryside may seem many working people's idea of utopia, the Pages took the plunge years ago and have been following "The Good Life" dream for over 15 years.
After they married, they bought a five-acre smallholding, but after four years decided they wanted to become full-time farmers.
"We dabbled and decided we liked it, and then the opportunity came up to buy the farm," says Sally.
So 14 years ago, they bought Osney Lodge Farm, which is set in 90 acres of countryside near Redhill, Surrey, and now rent a few hundred acres more.
With the help of their sons James, 18, who works full-time on the farm, and 15-year-old David, they concentrate on rearing sheep, cows and pigs, although they also have turkeys, ducks and horses on livery.
The farm was, like many farms in this part of Surrey, being used an equestrian centre when they bought it.
But they have gradually turned it back into a working farm and now specialise in rare breeds, such as Tamworth, Berkshire and Gloucester Old Spot pigs, and Sussex cattle.
They send livestock to an abattoir off site, but have a butchers at the farm, run by a part-time worker. They also package the meat themselves.
The meat produced is "naturally reared", as do not use any growth promoters, unnatural foods and work according to old-fashioned methods of farming and husbandry.
Foot and mouth
While the Pages say it has been a struggle over the years, the recent foot-and-mouth crisis has proved the biggest test.
It has had a profound effect on how the Pages now farm - and sell their produce.
The Pages were spared the emotional and financial loss of losing their herd in the mass cull, but their business has still been affected.
In the short term, they lost income due to movement restrictions.
In the long term, they must contend with additional costs from new regulations - and loss of vital income.
During the summer months they used to run school visits for about 4,000 children.
A lucrative sideline, it contributed about £10,000 to the farm's income each year.
But last summer, because of foot-and-mouth restrictions, they had to shut the scheme and have since decided not to reopen it.
New regulatory requirements, such as providing double fencing around animal pens, proved too expensive.
Other changes introduced by the government for moving livestock and animal "passports" and tags have also pushed up costs.
The tags cost about £8 and must be replaced if they come loose from the animals.
"Every animal has to be traceable," Mr Page says.
"They want it so every animal can be identified and have a system of ear tags and passports. This mean we have to keep colossal records."
James puts it succinctly: "It's like moving nuclear waste".
These changes are costing the farm £150 a week more to run than before the foot-and-mouth outbreak.
Paperwork to comply with all the new restrictions has also increased.
And about 20% of their time is snow spent on record keeping and making telephone calls to comply.
Graham is critical of the government's handling of the crisis, and believes the army should have been brought in much sooner.
"If the government had acted more quickly and listened to farmers, the impact would have been much less," says Graham.
"They were so pig headed about it. You can't expect civil servants to understand about practical farming anymore than I can in an office where I am totally lost."
Before foot-and-mouth, about 15% of meat produced at Osney Lodge Farm was sold through livestock markets.
Apart from a small local supermarket, where the manager is sympathetic to local farmers, they now sell all their produce direct.
"We definitely get a better return selling direct, because the markets fluctuate so much. If we sell it on the hoof we just about break even."
For example, at last week's prices they would have got £350 for beef (on the hoof), but would make £600, even after packing and abattoir costs, by selling it themselves.
Instead of selling through livestock markets, they have doubled the number of farmers markets they attend - and revenue generated from these markets now accounts for 70% of the farm's business.
They have also increased home deliveries, and have set up a website - Britmeat.com - where people can order meat over the internet.
"It has been a struggle but Graham has been very good at enterprising schemes. If it hadn't been for these we would have been shut down for now." Says Sally.
Sally says that there have been two main reasons for their success: not borrowing for anything apart form a tractor and mortgage and their past lives in business.
For three months last year they couldn't sell through farmers markets, so they increased their home deliveries - and increased farmers' markets to between three and four a week.
Graham also has a part-time consultancy business, assisting farmers who have got cash flow problems, and acting as ago-between between insolvency practitioners and farmers.
"Of course that got very busy with foot-and-mouth," says Graham.
While they can not continue the school visits, they still want to be involved in education.
They are applying to the local Business Link, a government scheme, for funding to help them build a pond.
They hope to offer it to local schools for pond dipping, and to try and claw back some of the lost revenue from school visits.
Sally says: "We still want to have something to do with education. It is good to see how a real farm works and we get something out of it as well."
They are also applying for planning permission to open a farmers' market shop on site, where they plan to sell produce from farmers they have met through farmers' markets.
They believe that this is where the future of farming lies - selling direct to the public.
"Farmers have got to find a way, whether it is farmers markets, whether it is direct gate sale markets, mail order, word of mouth, whatever they can do to sell their products direct to the public or to small retailers where ever they can," Graham says.
"I'm absolutely convinced there is a future for British farming. It will be a long time coming right, but I believe it will come right in the end."
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