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Last Updated: Monday, 1 October 2007, 10:25 GMT 11:25 UK
Farming life: A family tradition
The Toms

By Dominic Bailey and Paul Gribben
BBC News

For many farmers, working the land is in the blood; a job passed down the generations. But with farming in Britain at a crossroads, families are increasingly facing tough choices about their future.

The perils of flooding, poor harvests, foot-and-mouth and bluetongue disease have combined to make this another bad year for many British farmers.

The worry and threats to their livelihoods are just part of the daily challenge to farming families like the Toms (pictured above) in the South Hams of Devon, whose ancestors have worked the land for hundreds of years.

Each has a strong sense of how the face of farming is changing - and the need to adapt and diversify what happens at Luson Farm, an organic beef farm, near Ivybridge, to ensure it remains a family concern.

Read and watch their stories by following the links below.


Joan Toms

Joan Marjorie Moysey Toms is 85 and was born just down the road from Luson Farm in Ivybridge, Devon, where she has lived and worked since 1953. Her son, Nick, now runs the farm, although Joan says she still helps out "when I'm let".

But she's is in no doubt about what farming involves: "It's slog, slog, slog."

Joan is from a generation that can remember what it was to work the land without machinery: "If you didn't have the labour, your neighbours helped out - and you returned the favour.

"It was years before dad had an old tractor, it was all done with horse and wagon."

She recalls her time as a farmer without bitterness or sentimentality.

"In our day, the wife went out and worked same as the men," she says. "Before the machinery came in we'd milk by hand so you'd be up early in the morning. We grew kale and mangolds, and you'd take in all that by hand. Then you'd get the hay in - rake it into sheaves, which had to be a certain size for it all to go on the rick."

Worker on Luson farm in the 1950s

She bears the scars of the job - a shoulder blade broken by an angry cow still sticks out - and concedes modern technology has transformed the workload. But time saved in the field has been replaced by catching up with EU requirements.

"You've got to keep on tagging bullocks and doing this and that - honestly, it's all a lot of rubbish. If I had the minister for agriculture here, I'd kick him up the backside."

As for foot-and-mouth - Joan recalls how it used to be tackled.

"There was a neighbour in my father's day who had foot-and-mouth in his animals so he'd go and help - you couldn't sell the milk but you'd dose the animals, you never killed them."

Yet she fears for the future of the industry and the family concern. The younger generations "would be fools to take up farming", she concludes.

"They could get something better to do," she says.


Nick Toms

Nick Toms is the 10th generation of his family to be farming in Ivybridge. He was 17 when his father died, leaving him with responsibility for running Luson Farm: 160 acres of grassland on which he rears 110 animals for organic beef.

He says it would be a "terrible hurt" if he was to be the last of the Toms to work Luson.

"Grandfather died on the farm and my father died at a farm sale one and a half miles away. I'm hoping not to keel over yet but I'm sure some of the stresses will get to me eventually".

It's not all physical strain - there is a "mountain" of paperwork that goes with the job.

"In my father's day, paperwork just didn't come into it. You devoted your whole life, almost your whole existence, to farming and getting the job done. Now you have to look at making a living and keeping in line with the restrictions."

He sympathises with anyone caught up in the Surrey foot-and-mouth outbreak and says non-farmers fail to understand what is involved.

"Losing your stock, having them culled - it's very easy for people to say 'why worry, that animal... would have been killed anyway'.

Three generations of tractor rides

"If you've got a line of cattle you've been breeding for years, then you've got that bloodstock quality. To lose that bloodline, you are just never going to get it back."

Despite the fact foot-and-mouth has been largely contained, Nick believes the British meat industry will take years to recover from consumer doubt and export bans.

Another knock-on effect will be on a drop in meat prices - farmers may have held back stock at first but Nick says they will soon be forced to sell, many at the same time.

You are dealing with animals who are just as likely to kill you
Nick Toms
There are fewer small-scale farms than in Nick's youth and, as a result, fewer neighbours with whom to share problems. That sense of isolation is heightened when out working alone with few people knowing where you are or what you are doing.

"It's a lonely sort of existence. You could be in a corner of a field with a slippery new-born calf that's like a bar of soap and its mother going berserk because it thinks you are going to hurt her animal.

"You've got both hands full of a calf and a tagger, with your back to a cow that weighs 10 or 12-hundredweight that is not terribly happy.

"You are dealing with animals who are just as likely to kill you but 'thou shalt tag that animal' or else you are in big trouble with the authorities."


Nicholas Toms

Nicholas Toms, 26, is the elder of Nick Toms' two sons, and worked in York as a fine art auctioneer before returning to south Devon. Today, he is an outreach worker for the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution (Rabi) - a charity to help farm workers in need.

Having grown up "in the shadow of BSE" it's something he knows about. His parents were careful not to put pressure on him to follow the family tradition.

"They more or less said 'do what you want to do, see a bit of the world and you've always got the farm to come back to if you want but don't tie yourself down to it'.

There's something unique about what farmers do - if they are a livestock farmer they are there right from the birth of an animal
Nicholas Toms
A decision last year to marry and settle down led him back to his roots in Devon. His work provides a happy compromise - "it keeps me involved in farming but not as a farmer".

Through his work, Nicholas has seen how the farmers' famed stoicism can mask problems in coping.

Notorious delays in paying EU subsidies to farmers (under the single farm payment scheme) led Rabi to make emergency handouts. But still "there were farmers driven to bankruptcy".

He believes England has chosen the most complicated single farm payment model and says officials failed to recognise problems early enough.

Financial worries, compounded by a sense of isolation, have led to a rise in suicides, in the industry, says Nicholas.

This raises the question - why would anyone want to become a farmer?

"It's a way of life, I suppose. There's something unique about what farmers do - if they are a livestock farmer they are there right from the birth of an animal."

Farmers are increasingly being urged to diversify to survive and Nicholas supports this - up to a point.

"A lot of farmers don't have extra rooms or an extra cottage to become a B&B; they don't have any barns for conversion or selling off as a development. All they have is a tied workers' cottage plus the land."

Many farmers he knows are getting second jobs driving a school bus - they can drop off children in the morning, come back to do farm work, then go out and do a second bus run in the afternoon before returning to more work.


Kathy Toms

Kathy Toms is married to Nicholas, the family's eldest son, and is an aerial survey officer for Exmoor National Park Authority.

A self-confessed "townie" who was brought up in Manchester, she had no experience of farming before moving to rural Devon. She concedes that it was a very steep learning curve.

"I was 14 before I saw a cow and I think I was 15 before I had been in a forest," she says.

It amuses her current colleagues, and Kathy admits the difference in the two environments is immense.

Learning to cope is very much a work-in-progress and she has already learned to separate some farming myths and facts.

I have to go out to work for us to be able to afford to live down here
Kathy Toms
"Everyone's heard stories about whingeing farmers - years ago I thought they were all whingeing farmers - but the more time I've spent with the Toms family, the more I realise that farming in this country is in a real state and farmers are... really getting screwed."

She never thought twice about finding work outside the farm.

"I have to go out to work for us to be able to afford to live down here."

She says there was no pressure on her to take on the role of traditional farmer's wife. Having her own career and a life and friends off the farm are central to who she is.

"It was always acknowledged that supper wouldn't be on the table at five o'clock when Nicholas came back from the fields. In fact, these days, he usually has my tea ready!"


James Toms - shop manager

James Toms, 23, manages the family's farm shop, Countryman's Choice, which is built on land originally owned by his grandmother, Joan.

Nick Toms' youngest son James says he has always had a keen interest in farming and would help out his father on school holidays.

But as he grew up he realised there was little money in it. He studied business and economics at university - and his graduation coincided with family plans to take a gamble and invest in opening a shop.

"Dad had always wanted a farm shop. I was at university when the planning was going through and helped Dad out with that.


"The shop was the ideal opportunity for me to come back and set up my own business. As soon as I came back I got on board and have been since then.

"We opened 11 months ago and have been doing really well."

James says the shop is in direct competition with major brand supermarkets - a large Tesco is about a mile down the A38.

Supermarkets are trying to tap into the local food idea, but James believes the farm shop has something extra to offer.

"Hopefully we can offer something a bit different, we can look at our veg and tell you where it comes from - like the cucumbers which are grown by my gran," he says.

Customers can see exactly how far products have travelled from local producers in the region - anything produced within a 30-mile radius of the farm is regarded as local.

I would be mortified if the farm wasn't in the family any more

The on-site butcher supplies beef from his own farm and James' aunt makes cakes for the shop and tea room with local free range eggs.

For James keeping the shop going and supporting the local community is his contribution to keeping the farm in the Toms family.

"I would be mortified if the farm wasn't in the family any more. It has been in the family for generations. If it means more diversification, as well as the farm shop, then we need to do it to keep it in the family.

"I work 75 hours a week - but if it helps out the farm that is what I need to do - it is still not as many as Dad who is basically on call 24 hours a day 365 days a year."


Rachael and Sarah
Rachael and Sarah would like to see the farm stay in the family

Sara Hignett is 15 and a niece of Nick Toms. Her sister, Rachael, is 11 and they both help out in the family's farm shop.

If Sara and Rachael are under pressure to devote the rest of their lives to continuing a farming family's tradition in Devon, they look remarkably calm about it all.

Sara works behind the tills in the farm shop, as well as helping out in the delicatessen and waitressing in the tearoom.

This is a natural fit for her as she has been studying food technology for her GCSEs - the hands-on experience helps when it comes to sitting exams in areas such as food hygiene.

She reckons there is a distinct selling point in organic foods, adding that "it also makes you feel better knowing that it doesn't have loads of rubbish in it".

She is at an age when thoughts turn to planning a career and a life of farming "does appeal to me".

It feels really strange knowing that the same family has been here for so long
Talking to her uncle, Nick, and other relatives, however, she realises just how much effort goes into the farm.

"Just keeping on top of it all means having to wake up really early - not that I am lazy!"

At the moment, Sara thinks she may become a primary school teacher but she is aware of the importance of maintaining a long farming tradition at Luson Farm.

"It feels really strange knowing that the same family has been here for so long - to think that somebody exactly like you was here 100 years ago.

"It is important that the family name stays. It would be good if it is carried on."

Whatever career she chooses, Sara is unlikely to stray too far away: "I'd rather stay in Devon than move away. I hate the city but I like it here because you have the countryside so close."

Rachael loves being with the animals on the farm and also helps out in the shop.

"It's local and it's not got that many well-known brands - it's got fresh fruit and vegetables. Supermarkets have delis but not like here."

In pictures: Farming family life
01 Oct 07 |  In Pictures
In pictures: Bygone farming
01 Oct 07 |  In Pictures
One farm, one family, 350 years
01 Oct 07 |  Magazine
Snapshot of farming in the UK
01 Oct 07 |  Magazine

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