WHILE farming enjoys a resurgence, the high price of land and a lack of skills still makes entering the industry a leap of faith. But a unique Earth Trust scheme is offering people help to make their dream of working the land a reality

FARM-based employment in Oxfordshire has declined by almost 20 per cent since 1990 – marginally ahead of the 16 per cent in England – with the once-thriving pig, potato-growing and dairy industries almost having died out due to the steady decline of margins farmers can make.

But it may be that the fallow period has passed, according to the National Farmers Union, because after decades of decline and disease there is now growth in the sector.

Figures released last year showed agriculture grew by 25 per cent nationally. In Oxfordshire many farmers have weathered the storm and boosted profits by diversifying into specialist food and local breeds, green energy, opening farm shops or offering holiday accommodation.

But the Earth Trust in Little Wittenham, near Abingdon, wants to help prospective new farmers get a foot on the farming ladder with two subsidised land tenancies up for grabs to the right candidates.

Jayne Manley, its chief executive, explained: “The Farm Step initiative provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for people to start their own farming businesses.

“We believe there are many people with the enthusiasm and determination to gain the skills, tools and knowledge that will enable us to live more sustainably in future. If you are such a person we would like to hear from you.”

Farm Step began as a pilot project in 2008. Candidates need a strong business plan, and are selected against three criteria: sustainable living, linking people, food and farming and whether they fit in the Earth Trust community.

Businesses already inside the Trust’s community of farmers and growers include Coopers Oxford Pork, run by Mark and Jane Cooper. The couple started breeding rare Oxford Sandy and Black pigs on land at their home in Dorchester five years ago, but soon outgrew the site.

An Earth Trust tenancy at North Farm, Shillingford, for the last year has enabled them to expand their business.

Mr Cooper, 54, said: “I have a background in farming but Jane and I always wanted to be our own bosses and Farm Step has made that possible.

“The scheme gives you lots of support, advantageous rates that have enabled us to rent a barn, for example, and our pigs have gone from being in fields to being in the woods – their natural habitat – where they should be.

“Our meat is popular and being part of the Earth Trust also gives you credibility. We would recommend it.”

Mum-of-one Clare Ferguson from East Oxford accepted the first Farm Step tenancy in 2008. After working in community gardening for the Oxford charity Restore she dreamed of setting up her own small market garden but needed a hand.

She said: “Setting up your own business is a leap in the dark but I talked to many other growers and went for it.

“My produce is sold mainly through veg box deliveries and I also attend one farmers’ market a month.

“We have had a couple of difficult growing seasons and you have to budget really carefully, but Farm Step has enabled me to set up and find land without which I would not have been able to do any of this.”

Taking the plunge

Camilla and Roly Puzey always dreamed of running a National Trust farm and that is about to become a reality, thanks to Farm Step.

Roly, 39 and Camilla, 38, below, left office jobs and regular salaries to take on
an Earth Trust tenancy at Hill Farm near Little Wittenham, in 2009, producing lamb from a 370-strong sheep flock.

This September, the couple – plus their two children Molly, two, and Freddie, five months, and Roly’s twins Jessica and Arabelle, 11, from a previous marriage (and their sheep) – will take on a National Trust tenancy at the 450-acre Saddlescombe Farm in the South Downs National Park, Sussex.

Mr Puzey said: “For a couple like us with an interest in environmental issues, this is a dream come true and we are immensely grateful for having had this opportunity to get a step on the ladder of farming from Farm Step.”

The Puzeys both grew up in farming, but ended up working mainly behind
desks for Linking Environment and Farming (LEAF), where they met.

Mr Puzey explained: “The last four years have whizzed by and it hasn’t all been easy, but we’re so glad we took the plunge.

“In farming your days are incredibly varied; even each hour can be totally different to the last.

“You need to be practical – but there are lots of people including local farmers who are out there to offer you advice and help so you succeed.”

He continued: “It’s also a great time to enter farming, with many people keen to buy locally- produced food and know the story behind what they are eating.

“I have met so many friendly and supportive people through the farmers’ markets we sell at.

“Of course there are challenges – the weather can be very hard.

“I have had to harden up a little; it’s never easy when your animals die
and we lost quite a few to a virus in March.

“And you’re probably not going to make a fortune through farming.

“We came into this thinking: ‘If it doesn’t work, so be it.’

“But we knew we had to try it or just wonder ‘what if?’ forever – and what a great decision it has been.”


The Earth Trust

The Earth Trust started as the Northmoor Trust for Countryside Conservation in
1967 and acquired Little Wittenham Wood in 1982.

Over the next decade it acquired the Wittenham Clumps, right, and started education, research and farming programmes.

In 2000 it took on Wallingford Castle Meadows and Riverside Meadows in Wallingford, Mowbray Fields in Didcot and started managing Thrupp Lake at
Radley in 2009.

In 2010 it became the proud owner of two-and-a-half miles of Thames frontage when it took over 500 acres of farmland adjacent to Little Wittenham Wood.