My life as a farmer

Farming is in John Foster’s blood. Like his father and grandfather before him, he’s devoted his life to mud, sweat and steers in the East Midlands village of Aldwincle…

I find farming as fascinating now as when I started 42 years ago. I never get bored because every day is different: it’s a very complex industry but I try to keep it as simple as possible.

Reaping what you sow

I was fortunate to inherit a very stable farming economy from my father, who passed away two years ago. I’m reaping the benefits of his work. My philosophy is, if everything’s going well, why change it. I’m careful to spread my risk and have different crops: you can’t have all your eggs in one basket.

Our 1,300 acres are mainly arable, with wheat, oil-seed rape, linseed and peas. We also have sheep and cattle. The animals create problems but they give the farm life. A farm without stock or dogs would seem lifeless to me.

There’s no such thing as a typical day in farming, but every day we check the stock to make sure they haven’t got any problems. Crop walking is another regular job. We start work at 7.30am with a break at 9am for breakfast and another for lunch. In lambing season, we work in shifts around the clock, and in summer we’ll be combining until 10 at night.

Making hay

Farming isn’t like other jobs, because much of what you do on any particular day is dictated by the weather. When weather patterns are adverse – which they have often been over the past few years – we just have to adapt, but it’s no wonder farmers are always grumbling about it.

The wet summer of 2012 was particularly difficult. At harvest time, the combines just sank into the mud, which damaged the soil structure. We had no choice but to harvest, but when it was time to plant the next crop in the autumn, the rain was still chucking down.

The heavy planting machinery damaged the ground even more. As a result of the bad weather, a lot of crops didn’t get put in and those that did were very patchy.

Weathering the storm

Snow on the farmIt’s easy to be laid-back about bad weather if you’re not under too much financial pressure. But if you’re relying on fine weather to get your crops in – and the rain comes – it can really get to you.

The more pressure you’re under, the more the weather seems to go against you. That’s why the farming industry has one of the highest suicide rates. When the financial pressures start building, there’s nobody to turn to. Farmers can feel very isolated.

Farmers and the EU

My friends sometimes rib me about farming subsidies, but they’d be horrified if they knew how much financial support we actually get from the EU. Nine years out of 10, the support is the only profit we make. It’d be mighty difficult to make a living without it.

In countries such as Australia and New Zealand, where farmers are no longer subsidised, the cost of food has gone up. Our government doesn’t want that to happen here so it uses its political clout to keep food prices low by supporting farmers so we can carry on producing a stable and sustainable supply of food.

Hedging my bets for the environment

I claw back some of the money that the EU has syphoned off farming by running three environmental schemes on my farm. As well as enabling me to claim back some money, there is a feelgood factor: I’m doing something for the good of the farm and the environment.

Our biggest environmental concession has been to create a six-metre, chemical-free margin of grass and wild flowers by the hedgerows at the edge of the fields, for the benefit of wildlife. We’re only allowed to trim the hedgerows every other year, and in some fields every third year. It means we get more weeds in the fields, but at least we no longer have to use our machinery close to the hedge, where the ground doesn’t dry out.

Cows on the farmI also have a site of special scientific interest (SSSI): an area of boggy ground where there are several plant species that are only found in Northamptonshire. Plus there’s a river meadow that has never been treated with artificial chemicals.

The EU wanted to keep it that way, so they worked out how many cattle I could keep on it to maintain it as it always has been, without needing any fertilisers. I fell foul of the rules recently when an EU inspector came to check it out. According to their acreage guidelines, I was only allowed five-and-a-half cattle on the site; I had six.

What I love about my job

My job gives me lots of reasons to be cheerful. I work outside 80 per cent of the time and my two dogs run with me all day, whether I’m on the tractor or in the office. They’re very relaxing to be with.

I don’t have to commute to work. I only have to go out onto the roads between 7am-9am a few times a year and every time I do, I thank god I don’t have to do it more often.

Sometimes, when I see the geese fly off to the lake in the evening, I look around me at the countryside and really appreciate how lucky I am. Some people never get the chance to stop and take stock.

I have a great team, too. My two farm workers have been with me so long, they know everything about the farm. Each morning, we put the world to rights and talk through what needs to be done. I make sure I involve them and take their ideas on board, even though they don’t have any financial input or make any decisions on cropping or what machinery or stock to buy.

I’ve got a brand-new combine harvester!

Another thing I love about this job is that I get to do deals and buy boys' toys. I really enjoy the planning. Once a fortnight I’ll spend a day in the office, doing the records, paying the bills and organising the finances. My new combine harvester is a lovely machine, although it cost a fortune. The list price was £235,000, but I got it for considerably less than that, by buying out of season. My previous one lasted for eight years, so it works out at about £12,000 a year, plus the running costs.

Flexi-farming

I really enjoy the flexibility that comes from being my own boss. When my lads were at school, I could drop everything for a few hours and support them at football and cricket matches; I’d be the only dad there. I’ve seen my lads grow up and been a real hands-on dad because I’m based at home. That’s been a real bonus.

Farming can be antisocial, though. We seldom went away as a family during the summer holidays because as soon as term ended, we’d be flat out on the combines for 13 or 14 hours a day, until the boys went back to school. When everyone else was enjoying themselves, we’d be working harder than ever.

A lamb’s tale

Farm sheepA flock of sheep can still be run like it was 20 years ago. Our 400 ewes don’t have any feed supplements or additives, although we keep them indoors from just after Christmas until March, when they lamb. That’s for our benefit, not theirs. Being able to keep an eye on them helps us to save lambs’ lives, and keeping them inside during those months helps to protect the grass.

Lambing is a difficult time because sheep don’t respect our schedules. The ewes are all scanned so we know how many lambs they’re carrying. We’re there constantly in case they have a difficult lambing or the lamb is born within the sac.

Mis-mothering is also a problem: if one ewe has her first lamb, gets up to lick it and then goes down to have the second lamb, chances are another mother will come up and take her first-born away. If we’re there, we can make sure that doesn’t happen.

Changing times on the farm

Farming has changed a lot since my dad’s day. In his later years, he found the new technology too complicated – once, he couldn’t work out how to drive a new forklift truck – and he didn’t like all the paperwork.

We have to record everything that takes place on the farm, from the feed and medicine we give to the livestock to the fertilisers we put on our crops. Everything we sell has to be traceable so we can assure the ongoing buyer we know its history.

Over the last 15 years, the government has imposed new animal welfare standards on farmers, so our stock has to be inspected and come up to scratch. That’s all well and good, but it costs us money. Which pushes up the price of meat. So what does our government – the biggest buyer of meat – do? Instead of supporting the farmers, it goes abroad to buy meat, to Argentina. Where they don’t have the same welfare standards. That really grates on me.

GM foods: against the grain?

There are arguments for and against genetically modified (GM) crops, but if you want cheap food, you’ve got to go down the GM route. Arable farming has changed beyond recognition in the past 60 years. It’s bizarre: when plants are bred for disease resistance, increased yield and ability to stand up, no questions are asked. There’s a very subtle difference between that sort of breeding and genetic modification.

I don’t deal directly with the supermarkets: I sell to merchants and abattoirs. Mind you, last year, Marks & Spencer, who I supply, asked me to list exactly what I was feeding my cattle. When I quizzed the feed manufacturer, they couldn’t guarantee it was GM-free. If GM food is going to happen, all well and good, but I’m not going to be at the forefront of it.

Organic food: a can of worms?

There’s a lot of disillusion among organic farmers; I feel sorry for them. They thought they were doing the right thing, but they have to suffer seven years of low production levels before qualifying for organic status. And once they qualify, they find that the returns they were promised aren’t there.

We shop at Tesco like everyone else

I tried growing my own vegetables and failed, because most fruit and veg comes to fruition from August through to October, when I’m busiest on the farm. I just didn’t have time.

We buy all our meat locally (we don’t have our own lambs killed specially), but for most of our food we go to Tesco. Like everyone else, we’re working to earn money to make our lives more convenient. However, we still support our local village shop and the farmers' market in the neighbouring town.

It’s not a family affair

In my father’s day, there were always lots of people working on the farm, but I have just two chaps who’ve been with me full-time for 25 and 27 years respectively; and one of their wives, who works two or three mornings a week.

My wife, Jane, doesn’t get involved. She comes from a farming family, but she’s not interested in our farm. I don’t mind: I don’t need her help or input. She’s got other commitments: she used to work as an assistant to a Euro MP, but she gave that up once our boys (now 21 and 18) were at primary school. It’s what she wanted to do and has worked extremely well. She has time to do all the fetching, carrying and looking after, which has made our family life extremely relaxed.

I inherited my farming tenancy from my father – our home is a tied cottage – and now I’m approaching 60 I want to take life easier. My sons both suffer from farm-related health problems – asthma and allergies – so they’re unlikely to take over from me. Plus they’ve never shown any real love for getting on a tractor.

The next generation

Farm fieldFarming life isn’t like The Archers. Young people don’t want to go into farming and that’s a problem. Last week I played golf with four friends from the Farmers’ Union. Between us, we have six sons, but none of them is planning to farm. You’ve got to put your heart and soul into farming; no-one will survive if they’re pushed into it.

I don’t want to give up the farm just because I’m getting older – if I did, we’d have to move out of our lovely farmhouse – so I’m hoping I’ll be able to carry on running it while my chaps take on more of the work. And who knows: I’ve got succession rights for two generations, so perhaps my sons – or even their children – will get over their allergies and decide to farm in years to come.

Photos provided by John.

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