Ten years ago, you would have found Laura and I sat in offices in Bristol staring longingly out of the window having recently returned from a year spent volunteering on an organic farm through the Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms UK network (WWOOF UK).
If you had told us then that, roll on a few years, we would be fully immersed in the world of agroecological farming, with our own farm tenancy we would have struggled to believe you.
Shortly after we moved to Bristol in the late 2000s, we signed up for an allotment. This sparked an interest in where food comes from and the importance of how it is produced. A few years later, an enforced redundancy and a career break gave us the opportunity to go out and find out more about farming. We decided to spend a year WWOOFing, volunteering on organic farms around the UK and Ireland.
Over the year we WWOOFed on market gardens, mushroom farms, livestock farms, smallholdings and permaculture projects. This wide array of agricultural holdings gave us a taste of an eclectic range of enterprises and opportunities. It provided us so many learning experiences, the chance to sample different approaches to farming and meet a wide range of farmers and fellow WWOOFers from around the world.
Looking back, our first and last WWOOF UK hosts were the most influential. Both were organic livestock farmers, the first taking a pasture-fed and regenerative approach; a new entrant with an insatiable appetite for learning and a strong desire to share that knowledge. The last was from a more old-school farming background, a true eccentric with a deep love of nature, his animals and farm.
The last farmer also offered me a job when he was looking for a new farm worker and gave me an opportunity that I suspect few farmers would offer to an inexperienced wannabe new entrant farmer.
Ending up with our own farm tenancy was far from straightforward, however. For a start there are precious few starter farm opportunities out there, which means when they do come along the competition is strong.
The practical experience I gained from becoming a full-time farm worker was invaluable and can’t be learnt from a book or in a classroom. The skills a farmer needs are vast; knowledge of soil, grassland, biology, animal husbandry, engineering, tractor driving, business acumen, book-keeping; a true jack-of-all-trades.
I then enrolled at Royal Agricultural University in Cirencester to do a graduate diploma in agriculture, essentially a degree conversion so I had a bit of paper to show I knew what I was doing. Along the way, we met inspiring people who were willing to share their knowledge and encourage us. But still, it took us around eight years from starting our WWOOFing journey to gaining our own farm tenancy, and we were lucky.
So right now, Laura and I are tenant farmers at Sandy Hill Farm on the National Trust’s Sherborne and Lodge Park Estate in the Cotswolds. We farm with a focus on animal welfare, encouraging nature, soil health and biodiversity.
We have a herd of around 50 Hereford cattle, which we mob graze (moving the herd frequently) and certify as being fed 100 per cent grass by Pasture for Life.
We also have a small flock of sheep and are planning to start a flock of laying hens and a small horticultural enterprise, along with a few other ideas. This year we started to host WWOOFers ourselves for the first time, so let’s hope that we can now be a part of someone else’s journey into agriculture.
This article is the first piece in a partnership between Wicked Leeks and WWOOF UK, sharing new ways to get involved in food and farming. As an exclusive offer to Wicked Leeks’ readers, WWOOF UK is giving a 20 per cent discount to join their network of organic farming volunteering opportunities.
The discount code is WICKED20 and is valid until 5 November 2022.