Communal spirit pays off for Dales farmers

A growing band of farmers in the Dales is benefitting from breaking the habit of working in isolation. Chris Berry found out how the Dales Farmer Network operates.

Sarah Longster
Sarah Longster

Call it obstinacy, call it pride, call it foolhardy or outright blatant ignorance but for many years the Yorkshire farming way has been to plough your own furrow and not to be reliant on others.

This doesn’t mean there haven’t been many occasions when families have worked together, and there have also been some useful co-operative businesses built during the years but largely the premise still remains that Yorkshire’s agricultural community prefers to go it alone.

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It’s a mind-set that is to be admired in many ways but it is one that is changing slowly with the realisation that in order to continue farming in the 21st century you must take advantage of every opportunity to reduce costs, gain grants and share information in order to maintain the business.

As a county we are traditionally worse than others at working together. Two decades ago one of our own attempts at farmer co-operatives Yorkshire & Northern Woolgrowers went bust, but the times are most certainly a-changing as Bob Dylan once sang.

Sarah Longster is the Nidderdale co-ordinator for the Yorkshire Dales Farmer Network that was set up in 2009, with funding made available through the Rural Development Programme for England, as a not-for-profit company aimed at assisting farm businesses become more profitable by virtue of bulk buying on behalf of those involved and encouraging group discussion.

The Nidderdale branch only has around 30 members at present but has grown significantly from the eight at Middlesmoor that it started with five years ago. It is part of the wider Dales group that now has around 150 members and held its AGM last night at The Buck Inn, Reeth.

Contrast the Yorkshire membership with the 700 members of the Cumbria Farmer Network, from which the Yorkshire Dales version emanated and you get the idea of just how far away we still are from embracing the concept of all farmers working together, but these are green shoots of what could finally break down our lone gun philosophy.

Sarah is a farmer’s daughter from Roecliffe, near Boroughbridge and lives in Summerbridge with her seven-year-old daughter Megan. She splits her working days between an interesting array of disciplines including relief milking for dairy farmer Norman Shepherd of Fellbeck, mole catching, farm insurance and the Network, which is taking up an increasing amount of her time.

“The Network here in Nidderdale is growing. When I started in 2010 I was told it would only take an hour of my week! It now takes up a good deal more than that.

“Some will say that it should be bigger but we are dealing with Yorkshire farmers who traditionally don’t like others to know anything about their business and play their hands close to their chests.

“The way farming is conducted today is bringing about a change in them though, and they are realising that this is a good way of getting more out of their money through buying together and having greater access to areas such as grant funding and advice.

“The original eight members in Middlesmoor already had their own buying group and they were purchasing veterinary products together but it was becoming unwieldy for the farmer responsible and that’s where I came in. I now buy several products seeking out not only best prices but also the best services offered. Fuel buying is completed on a monthly basis. Members ring when they want an order and I alert everyone else. It’s both a cost and time incentive because they don’t have to sit around ringing everywhere and because I’m ordering a substantial amount I can get a discount that can make all the difference.

“The Network meets to discuss the quotes we receive and the service that those who we go with have offered and we make our future decisions based on both considerations.

“What I have found is that the evening meetings we organise during the winter are getting farmers talking together. They relax and open up and this means they start exchanging ideas. There’s a much greater confidence in each other because of this and that’s sometimes all that is missing from farmers achieving even more. They are enjoying the social side of being part of the group as well as paying less for products.

“Maybe they don’t want their neighbour to know everything about their farm but I think they know that by talking they can help each other.”

The Yorkshire Dales Farmer Network also organises training and support for young people to start working on farms and offers vouchers to subsidise training costs as well as grants and low interest loans to help others start or expand new enterprises. Currently it facilitates opportunities for young people between the ages of 18 and 30 to do just that through its Jason Kanabus Fund Scheme, which is run jointly with The Prince’s Countryside Fund and The Prince’s Trust.

The Fund was set up when 30-year-old Essex farmer Jason Kanabus died of cancer and bequeathed his estate to The Prince’s Trust.

As the grandson of the late Sir Robert Sainsbury, his estate included £2.5m inheritance. Young people interested in farming in Yorkshire can benefit from the Fund by applying for unsecure d low-interest loans of up to £25,000 and grants of up to £4,000.

Nidderdale farmer Robert Weatherhead believes there are so many advantages to signing up to the Network that it is something that many more farmers should be looking to get involved with.

“If you are willing to put in a little bit of effort to work with like-minded farmers you get on with, you will get a lot out of it. I can recommend it to anyone.”

Andrew Hattan of Middlesmoor, one of the original members, puts the current achievements of the Yorkshire Dales Network and the Nidderdale area into context.

“The geography of the Yorkshire Dales does not make things easy but Sarah is doing a great job for us all in Nidderdale.

“Our branches in Yorkshire are offshoots from the hugely successful Cumbria Farmer Network that came into existence after Foot and Mouth disease in 2001. We know we have a long way to go before we reach their numbers but we are growing year on year.”

Sarah sees the growth of the Network and other co-operatives where farmers are working and meeting together as a huge step forward.

“We don’t have many dairy farmers in our group here in Nidderdale but that’s because they already had their own buying groups with such as White Rose and the Bedale Buying Group. Our group is mainly beef and sheep farmers and it’s great they have started coming together. We are becoming better known and always have a presence at Nidderdale Show where we share a stand with Pateley Bridge Auction Market. Last year we also had a stand at North Sheep.”

Perhaps the next step in Yorkshire farmers’ true embracement of the co-operative approach will be the coming together of all the various buying groups and meetings that are run regularly throughout the county.

The next evening meeting of the Nidderdale branch of the Yorkshire Dales Farmer Network features a guest speaker from Farm Business Survey who will offer pointers on how to improve profit. Prospective members are welcome at the event at The Crown, Lofthouse on Thursday 23 January at 8pm.

Network is open to all

Any farmer or farmer controlled business in the Yorkshire Dales or Cumbria can join the Farmer Network.

Full members have voting rights and need a farm holding number with their farm holding located in Dales or Cumbria LEADER area.

The annual subscription is £40 plus VAT.

The Dales branch of the Farmer Network has headquarters in Penrith but local farmer co-ordinators are used to carry out most of the work which is driven by its farmer members.

For more information about the Farmer Network call 01768 868615 or email [email protected]