As part of our campaign to Back British Farming we sit down with farmers on our rural community blog, and chat about all things farming. In this blog we spoke with Joanna Shimwell (@dalefarmphotos), who is an English farmer. Joanna helped us understand the farm she works on, how she came to be a farmer and the importance that diversification has played in the success and continuation of her family farm…
My family history at Dale Farm began in 1880 when the first relatives started farming here. The farm has always had a range of enterprises to provide an income – from mining and transporting fluorspar by horse and cart, to growing crops, keeping livestock, stabling horses and offering camping. I grew up here helping my Dad with farm jobs as a little girl but didn’t imagine I would become a farmer in my own right!
It has been a journey of self discovery for me that I eventually came back to farming, and learned the ropes from working alongside my dad. His sudden death was a massive shock and I realised this was my moment to prove I was capable of being the next generation of farmer at Dale Farm. My Dad’s passion for farming the land and the ‘way of life’ totally rubbed off on me and as I reached the age of 30, came the realisation that I had finally found my sense of purpose… and it was to be right here where I grew up. I wanted to be a farmer!
A future on the farm was always discouraged. It had been tough on my parents, they ran into financial difficulties after investing in a new milking parlour and cubicle shed for the cows, just as Margaret Thatcher introduced the milk quota and interest rates were rising, making their loan repayments unaffordable. It was a bad time. The milking herd had to be sold, my Mum started working full-time as a teacher, and my Dad was dry stone walling alongside the farm work. It was a very challenging time and as a consequence, my parents encouraged me to seek a career away from the farm as it was such a struggle to make ends meet.
I had gone to university to train in Broadcast Journalism and pursued a career in video production, but it was hard to find work as the economy was in recession. By my mid-twenties I was feeling a bit lost, unable to find my place in the world. In spending time away from home I became distracted by alcohol and went on a downwards spiral. I eventually stopped work for a period of time, after going through some difficulties with confidence and depression.
It was a fairly rock bottom time for me at that point. I was determined to make myself useful around the place – offering to help with any tasks around the farm. My first job was cleaning out the cow shed with a muck scraper and shovel! So I guess my dad was testing me! I not only learned to help my Dad in caring for our sheep and cows, I also started rearing pigs, set up a small farm shop selling our own meat and took over the running of our dwindling campsite. Over a period of a few years I completely turned my life around, and with the help of my boyfriend Nick, we revamped and redeveloped what had been a rustic, back to basics campsite into a modern, rural camping business with purpose built, eco-friendly facilities block and investments in enough green energy to power the whole farm!
Our wonderful location combined with investment into the site improvements meant we quickly became a popular and well known business! Our campers love the fact we are a working farm and they know we are busy farmers. Many of them follow us on social media which is a great way to provide insights into what it takes to run the farm and the campsite alongside each other. We regularly have new campers who find us via our farming presence on social media and then decide to visit us when they see we offer camping. It’s so lovely to be able to share our home, our farm and our beautiful location with people who enjoy the countryside as much as we do. We feel truly blessed to have a business that compliments the farm and allows us to continue with both aspects (farming / diversification) … therein carrying on the family tradition.
I have passion for both aspects of the business here. The campsite feels like our ‘baby’ as we built it from the ground up. So much hard work and sacrifice has gone into making it what it is today. When campers say “wow, this is the best I have ever been to!” I feel immensely proud that our vision and dreams have been realised! The campsite provides us with the opportunity to show people what we do on the farm, and time and the love that goes into looking after the animals. Via footpaths and lanes, anyone can access the land where our livestock graze, so there’s the opportunity to see for themselves the happy and free lives our animals enjoy. It’s a contrast to the portrayal by vegan activists that all farm animals are in miserable conditions and mistreated.
When given the opportunity I always try and explain about the high standards of British farmers and explain my viewpoint on food consumption and food choices. Where possible we should be eating locally grown and produced food, eating seasonally and not wasting food. I explain about the range of welfare standards in keeping livestock and how British farmers are amongst the best in the world. I’m proud in that in my own small way I can help to gently educate others about British farming and encourage people to keep supporting local farmers.