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  • Writer's pictureHighland Croft

Fake It Till You Make It - Starting Out In Agriculture

When you hear the term "young farmer", do you think of a lad in his 20s, working alongside Dad on the family farm? Because even I sort of do. Agriculture seems to be one of these jobs that, unlike medicine or law, say, you can't just go and learn. True, you can study Agriculture at uni, too. But who do these classes cater for? Well, mainly people who have a family farm at home, or some farming background, and kind of want to remain in the field they have grown up in, but deepen the knowledge they already have. You kind of don't start farming from scratch.

In other places like New Zealand there seems to be more of a go-get-it mindset: starting out in farming or even changing what you are farming - dairy to deer, beef to dairy for example - is not as exotic as it is here. In Europe, we are maybe a bit slower thinking and moving.

At the same time when the average age of UK farmers is 59, there is a big outcry for more young people to come into the sector. It just doesn't look like a very attractive job option - or maybe there isn't so much a lack of interest, but it's simply too hard to get a foot in.

For one thing, there are easier ways of making more money quicker. Without the shadow of a doubt. When we bought the croft, we started out with two sheep and their three lambs. They were a present from the farmer we had been working for, as was our first heifer. More sheep and cows followed in the form of wedding presents and we had the loan of the tractor and a sheep trailer from the previous owner. And for years, we couldn't afford a bike but had to walk everywhere, dragging and pulling materials across the hills. It was not easy and not very enjoyable. But buying machinery is an expensive investment - one that won't really pay off, if you look at the returns you are to expect from your livestock. Basically all our fences are needing replaced, but how can I justify spending tens of thousands of pounds on what is not making me any money back directly, but only making my job easier?

These are the original cows we started out with: Millicent in the middle, flanked by the two Adams and Eva

You will tell me now that we farmers and crofters get massive grants from the government for all sorts of things. Well, that's sort of true and sort of not. In times of Brexit uncertainty, that might not be the case for much longer and even when getting grants, you have to put the entire costs out yourself up front and can only claim back later. Assuming you have just put your lifetime savings into acquiring a place, that might be an impossible task. So having the funds to start out is one big hurdle, especially when you're not taking over your parents' place and stuff like machinery or animals simply aren't there.

But beyond the material side of things, knowledge and experience - or rather the lack of it - is what makes starting out in the farming world so tricky. To start with, we all have grand ideas, naturally. When we got our croft, we were excited about the prospect of creating our own enterprise: making our own decisions, our own experiences, without anybody interfering. That is probably the biggest and most refreshing difference between running your own place or taking over from your parents. And when you set out on your own journey, be it as a new entrant farmer, crofter or smallholder, sometimes ignorance is bliss. Otherwise, if you could foresee all these things that are going to happen to you - you might as well turn around and run back to the safety of your old life.

I had been working in the shearing industry for a little while and doing lambing jobs alongside Tom. So I was sort of always there, but not having actually ever had any formal agricultural training, I always felt like I was lacking a theoretical foundation of what I was doing. People always assumed that I knew things - but I didn't. I didn't know what product to use to worm sheep, or when to do it. Here is where two of the best pieces of advice came in that I ever got: Firstly: Fake it till you make it. Just nod your head and try to look like you know what everyone is talking about. Pick up the lingo and throw in the occasional technical term. Learn quickly.

Secondly: Turn your weakness into your strength. Sometimes a fresh new approach is just what's needed, and not being from a farming background can also translate into being unburdened by tradition. So rather than just setting up a traditional croft, I always pursued higher goals at the same time. Just rearing lambs and calves was not enough for me. I felt this piece of earth was a slice of heaven that was too beautiful not to be shared. So why not open it to visitors and holiday guests and even go a step further, let them experience farming and animals up close and first hand? It seemed like the obvious thing to do, however in the UK people weren't really doing it. In my home country of Germany though, Urlaub auf dem Bauernhof - Holiday on the Farm - has been a well established institution for many years. People are loving it and, crucially, it gives farmers a vital form of income that goes beyond the sales of their animals and produce while at the same time putting the farm and its inhabitants in the focus of the new business line. A combination of determination, innovation and diversification were the building stones of the path we had chosen to make this croft work and establish an income from the land.

We started out with two sheep and their lambs and have now increased our flock size to 130 breeding ewes.

What I have learned over the years is that at the end of the day, everybody else is just winging it, too - whether long established farmer or new entrant. Everybody who is successful in their field is not bolder than all the others. They have the same fears, but just don't allow their anxieties and doubts to hold them back. So another great quote I can leave you with is the one that I repeat to myself every day when I add another string to my bow and expand the croft business to unchartered territories: You don't have to be great to start. You have to start to be great.

Because procrastination is like throwing sticks between the wheels of progress; when you wait for the circumstances or even yourself to be perfect and everything to be in place before you start something, then it will never happen. So in terms of farming, my advice for any future new farmers would be: Start small, like we did with our two sheep. But you gotta start somewhere. Just start.

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