I went off to the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester in September 1984. To a boy from the hills of Cumbria, it was a world away from the sheltered life I had known. My parents were proud, my old farming grandfather even more so. In many ways it was a rude awakening to the harsh realities of life and people. I met some of the best and some of the worst. “Mountain Man” as i was christened by fellow students from the south, had an awful lot to learn about both. These experiences have continued through my whole career.
The qualification was everything. Rural Estate Management was the key to the door for a lifetime of working within the farming community.
Three years later I returned to Cumbria in my battered old Mini 1000, with rather more life experiences under my belt, and a new job as a trainee land agent and auctioneer for Penrith Farmers Kidd’s. A 20 minute interview with the Managing Director, Harry Richardson secured my dream job. It was a no- brainer for me to return to my home county.
The learning was far from over. For on my very first day and less than five minutes into the job, I ran into the first of many bollicking’s off a farmer.
The brand new Penrith market on Junction 40 of the M6 was full to overflowing with trailers backed up the A66. It was pandemonium. I donned my shiny new auctioneer’s coat and headed for the calf ring to help auctioneer and now life- long pal, David Jackson. As I rounded the corner, I bumped straight into Geoff Faulder, Ewan Close Farm. A man in his late 60’s, he was clearly disgruntled, having to queue to unload calves. He looked me up and down.
“I don’t know who the bloody hell you are – Boy” he said, “but get out there and sort the bloody mess out”! With that he turned tail and left me standing open- mouthed. Things did settle down and in time Geoff became a good pal, as did his brother Jared, a top county buyer of sheep in local auctions, including his favourite, Lazonby.
Today my own college life seems a world away. Those three years were important not only to learn about my chosen profession, and get the certificate, but more widely to learn to communicate, deal with people and to gain some much-needed self- confidence. I made some good choices in the knowledge that I desperately wanted to return to live and work in Cumbria, but I also made some bad choices in other areas of my life. I wouldn’t change it, but oh boy, would i do it differently! Hey, hindsight is a wonderful thing and I’m still learning, for you are never too old to learn!
Today my auctioneering duties are part- time and still very enjoyable. I’m classed as an old hand now. It is good to work with a young team and where needed impart a little advice or just offer support where i can. I am perfectly at home dropping down livestock trailer doors or opening ring gates as much as i am in the rostrum, although there is nothing beats the buzz of a good trade when you’ve got hold of the gavel.
Five years ago i became the Managing Director of The Farmer Network based at Newton Rigg College near Penrith. I get much pleasure seeing the myriad of ways our non- profit company finds to support farmers and their businesses. Our goal has not changed since the Network was formed 15 years ago. It is to support a viable and sustainable farming community.
I enjoy talking to students on campus and have even tried my hand at lecturing in farm business management. Many students are the offspring of farmers that I grew up with. It is the circle of farming life. Those students are going through the same learning experiences as I did back in the 1980’s when the girls had big hair and big shoulder pads!
College life for todays “Aggies” is more important than ever. They are the generation that will have to work within a rapidly changing industry. It is so important that we prepare them with the necessary skills both to farm smarter and manage the landscapes in evolving ways. In our industry we start them young, encouraging a strong worth ethic and great pride in the job. In the mart, young handlers sale days are just one of the learning experiences offered.
The future of Newton Rigg college is under threat. The parent organisation Askham Bryan which owns the Penrith campus has persuaded the further education commission that the college is not viable. They have been given permission to sell the site and if this happens the sale proceeds will taken out of the county, back to Yorkshire. Too many this a cruel and unjust end to a bastion of Cumbrian farming life.
Even worse is the fact that we will lose a cherished and respected seat of learning in Cumbria, the second largest red meat and dairy producing county across the country. To the farming community and indeed the wider rural community, this is an appalling state of affairs. Closure is due July 2021.
An independent Newton Rigg Land- Based Education Taskforce was formed consisting mainly of representatives from the agricultural and educational sector in Cumbria. The taskforce has been trying to formulate a plan to save Newton Rigg as a seat of learning or at least to ensure that land- based learning can continue in Cumbria in some form. I am proud to be part of the group knowing full well the importance of not only further education, but life- long learning for members of the farming community. There are currently three consortia interested in talking over the campus, and a bidding process is underway. The Land Based Education Taskforce remains in place to offer support where it can. There is still hope!
Our young people starting their careers will be brilliant farmers, food producers and conservationists, in fact the best yet, all in one package. I am convinced of this. If i have one message for them it is: – “learn and keep learning because you are never too old”.
More than 30 years have passed since the day i walked into Penrith mart with my shiny new auctioneers coat. These days my white coats are rather larger than they used to be, but i still feel the same privilege working for the farming community . Difficult though these times of change may be, i have an unwavering belief that farmers are going to become more and more important to this country. We just haven’t quite woken up to the fact yet. Time will tell!