Chris Webb

The Dairy Academy

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Farming 2012-12-12

This post is one of a series featured in Farmers Guardian while I took part in the Fresh Start Dairy Academy, a farm business training and mentoring course for new entrants into dairy farming.

The end of the summer found me wondering about my next steps. I’d been steadily building up my stockmanship and practical skills, but despite a reasonable amount of non-farming business experience, the jump from milking cows to taking on a farm of my own felt formidable.

I only heard about the Dairy Academy at the livestock show, a few days before applications closed. After a morning of watching the cattle being judged and wandering round the trade stands, aching feet encouraged me to sit in on a few of the afternoon sessions.

The Livestock Show

‘How to start a dairy farming business’ sounded interesting, and was an ambitious remit for a half-hour talk!

The speaker was Alison Rickett from Fresh Start, who described a pilot course of dairy-specific business training and mentoring aimed at new entrants into the industry, centred around eight Monday evening meetings at Reaseheath. As I listened, it was clear that this was a fantastic opportunity and I had to go for it.

My friend rolled his eyes when I told him about it during morning milking later that week.

“They’ll never fill all the places on that. Who’d want to become a dairy farmer nowadays?”

Nonetheless, I was still excited and pored for hours over my application before submitting it in the nick of time. A fortnight later, I was delighted to get a nice email back telling me the first Dairy Academy was going ahead and I’d been accepted.

From the very first session, I was struck by how diverse a group the academy brings together, including agriculture students close to finishing their degrees, people taking over their existing family farms, herdsmen looking to take the next step, and people like me coming in from careers outside the industry.

We were pulled together by a shared enthusiasm, drive and determination to make a go of it, and the group seems to have gelled really well as we’ve got to know each other.

The topic for the first evening was joint ventures, chaired by one of the organisers and with two interesting expert speakers. I don’t think I was unusual coming into the meeting without having thought much about the possibilities of contract farming, partnerships with farmers looking to take a step back, New Zealand-style ‘share farming’ and so on.

As part of our introductions, a straw poll round the room had most of us saying we wanted to farm ‘on our own’ with little mention of working with anyone else.

However, we came away with a new appreciation for the benefits and pitfalls of these kinds of joint ventures, and I’m sure such arrangements will be a big part of the future of British dairy farming as they are elsewhere, especially for new entrants like us.

Chatting amongst ourselves and with the speakers after the session, I got a real feeling of excitement about the Dairy Academy process.

As well as organising the evening events, it’s clear that stakeholders like Fresh Start and the RABDF were working hard behind the scenes to give us as much help as possible to get our feet on the ladder as new producers. I think this will be a life-changing opportunity for many on the course.