#FollowAFarmer is kicking off 2017 in style, with a whopper of an interview with James Robinson, better known as JRfromStrickley. I think this is one of my favourite interviews I’ve ever done, including those done in my previous guise as a sports writer, and JR was equally as funny as he was fascinating. It was a pleasure to talk to him (albeit virtually) and discover more about his family, his farm and the future.
James: Morning JR. Nice easy one to kick things off. What’s your farming background?
James Robinson: Morning James! Right, well my family has farmed for countless generations, but I’m the 5th generation to farm at our current farm Strickley. There’s loads of farming families which farm in this area, who all descend from the original Robinsons at Strickley. In fact it’s known as Robinson valley round here!
J: So you’re part of a Cumbrian farming dynasty! Did you always want to be a farmer ?
JR: Aye, Never mind JR from Dallas, it’s JR from Strickley. Only we’re buggering about with milk rather than oil! I don’t think there was ever a conscious decision to become a farmer, I just sort of got on with it. Doing little bits here and there and then eventually the time came when I left school and joined Dad & Grandad full time.
J: So you started full time farming straight out of school? Have you always farmed at Strickley or have you been off to experience farming elsewhere?
JR: After GCSEs I left school at 15, well 15yrs and 360 days, and actually did a YTS (Youth Training Scheme) which was Thatcher’s early national apprenticeship type thing for school leavers. I got a lot of stick from mates at school for doing a YTS, it was seen as a thing for dropouts and academically inept kids, but I was too young to go to college full time, but the YTS meant that I did a week in every 6 on block release at college. After a year on block release, I then did a National Diploma in dairy farming before working at home for a year to get some cash together. Then went to Oz/NZ for 12 months.
J: Did you enjoy the YTS? I hated school and was very much pushed toward staying in school, getting a levels, going to University, etc and, as you say, the other options such as apprenticeships were viewed as options for dropouts which I think is a real shame. There’s so much focus on studying at Uni these days kids are getting in a lot of debt and spending 3 or 4 years to get a piece of paper. Do you think offering more schemes and apprenticeships could be a good way to attract or keep younger people in the agricultural industry?
JR: I really enjoyed the block release at college. I hated school, but that was more to do with the teachers than the learning. I left with 9 GCSEs mainly A’s & B’s, so I could do the work, I just hated it! So I enjoyed the college bit of YTS which is why I did 2yrs full time. At college I met a lad who wanted to travel to Aus, so one night,beer induced, we decided to organise it to start in 12 months time. When I say organised…
J: How was travelling around Aus and New Zealand? That must have been a fantastic experience!
JR: We landed in Perth, with no job, and very little money. We had the $2000 you needed for the visa requirements, but that was it. We just sort of followed the backpacker crowd and picked veg and fruit and shite, but then we thought, hang on we’re both farmers, let’s do some real Aussie farming! So we got some numbers out of the Ag newspapers and rang some stations up. Luckily enough the first one we tried wanted 2 jackeroos for mustering on motorbikes. We bluffed our way through the ‘interview’, a chat on the phone, and started 8 weeks of incredible work a few days later! The place was 1200 sq miles in the south of NT. There was 5000 head of wild as fuck cattle plus calves to dehorn, brand and castrate. It was the most amazing thing I’d ever done, and it probably still is to be honest. Riding big motocross bikes, chasing wild cows, sleeping under the stars, eating steak cooked on a campfire each night, it really was a once in a lifetime experience and I was getting paid loads to do it!
J: That sounds incredible. Getting out to New Zealand and experiencing sheep farming out there is something I hope to do in the future, having worked in Kiwi inspired systems over here. Would you encourage young farmers to get out there and experience farming in different parts of the world?
JR: Absolutely, I also worked on a 400 cow dairy farm in NZ for 2 months, got the job from a NZ Ag paper again, I’d only ever milked 60 cows before that, so to see the management needed for that size was a real eye opener. It’s too easy to go home and do the same as your parents and their parents before that, but if you want to progress then you’ve got to get out there and see the world. But not necessarily New Zealand, Aus etc, there’s just as good a farms in the U.K, you just gotta get off your arse and find em!
J: I agree! I’d love to experience the large scale stations in NZ, just to see sheep farming on that scale, but there are some fantastic farmers who’ve adopted elements of the Kiwi system over here that I’ve had the pleasure of working with and learning from, and you just discover a whole new world and way of doing things, right on your doorstep! How many are you milking at Strickley? I’m slap bang in the middle of Scottish dairy country here and the amount of farms milking 1000+ just in the local area alone is staggering. Do you think that’s what the future holds for the agricultural industry or can smaller family farms still make it pay without drastically increasing their numbers?
JR: We’re milking 130 at Strickley, but we are limited with expansion due to shortage of available land, which is one reason why we specialised into organic milk production. It allowed us maximise the return from our acreage, without impacting on cow health, or forcing us to change our Dairy Shorthorns. I think there’s a future for smaller family farms, but they will most probably have to specialise like us, or they’ll struggle to compete with the big herds which can spread the costs over more litres.But then family farms always win on cheaper labour costs and the desire to ‘farm for tomorrow’ mentality
J: The Soil Association have come under fire from farmers recently due to a, shall we say “misjudged”, campaign promoting organic farming. How long has Strickley been producing organic milk and, as an organic farmer yourself, what was your reaction to their tweets?
JR: It was a very poor tweet by the SA, it embodied everything which was wrong about the organic movement 15 years ago. We’ve been organic at Strickley for 10 years, but I’ve never once told someone conventionally how to farm. ‘Them and us’ is a poor way to promote anything and I had hoped they’d learnt from the animosity they had caused previously.
J: Has your family always milked Shorthorns?
JR: The Shorthorn breed is the oldest pedigree breed in the word, almost 200yrs old. We’ve been registering pedigree at Strickley for 100yrs and as a happy coincidence I’m president this year as well, a real honour indeed!
J: I was going to say, it must be incredible to be president, especially with your family having such a long history with the breed. What does the role involve?
JR: I chair the shorthorn council meetings etc, but I also get invited to a few dinners to shake some hands and then give a little speech with a joke in it! Apart from that, not a lot!
J: The traditional breeds have fallen by the wayside for the most part in farming today (except maybe in Cumbria). How have you resisted from making a change from the Shorthorn to the black and white milking machines like so many other dairy farmers?
JR: Resisted? I think because they worked so well for us on our type of of farm. But they’re far removed from the breed many folks left behind in the 50/60’s, they’re a real credible alternative to the black & whites and they’ve more to offer than crossbreeding with Scandinavians as they are a U.K. animal proven on U.K. Systems.
J: 2015 and 16 have been tough for dairy farmers, with prices tumbling to long time lows. How have you coped with the price crash? Has your status as an organic producer helped?
JR: Our price dropped a bit per litre, but nothing like the crash for conventional milk. Our milk co-op Omsco have created some niche products to use the milk which would’ve ended up on the conventional market, so we’ve been somewhat insulated from the massive volatility of the world market. Some folk say that we’ve been lucky to be organic, but we made the decision to convert originally and we also made a conscious business decision to remain organic when the premium became tight 4-5 years ago. You make your own luck!
J: I saw someone asking you on Twitter about cubicles the other day. How long are your cows housed for during the year?
JR: I try to keep them out as long as possible, but the climate and ground conditions generally mean that we house the milkers by 1st week Nov, and then turn out 3rd week April. I’m a firm believer that cows are better in fields, but there has to be the right conditions for it!
J: I think that’s an important point. Often consumers and members of the public think that having cows shut in is cruel and advertising often focuses on grazing cattle in lush green fields but, as you say it’s not always possible.
JR: Everyone wants to see cows at grass, that’s the image which sells the product. But the consumer isn’t stupid, we need to show them what happens at all times oF the year, which is one reason why I’m on this twitter malarkey!
J: How important do you think it is for us as farmers to give a window in to what we do through things like social media and open farm Sunday?
JR: It’s vital we tell our story James, if we don’t somebody else will. I’m not going to use the word educate, that’s the wrong way to go about it, all we can do is tell the truth, show things exactly as they are and if the folk who buy our end products buy into the idea of what we’re trying to do then we’ve achieved something. If not, then we’ve had a bit of a laugh doing it!
J: What does the average farming year look like at Strickley?
JR: Our working year is very much like any other uk livestock farmer. As a kiwi friend once said to me “you pommie farmers are daft, you spend 7 months of the year inside for winter, and the other 5 getting ready for it!” And that about sums it up to be honest! We have an autumn bias, but calve some all year round Late summer/autumn calving works well with an organic system, as the grazing ground grows better then when the clover has fixed more nitrogen and the grass proteins are higher too.
J: And are all calves born at Strickley shorthorn?
JR: We calve about 80% to the Dairy Shorthorn, the rest are Limousin, which we generally sell as 1 month old calves through the auction. There’s a good demand for shorthorn cross lim calves for beef breeding.
J: How about your daily routine?
JR: Daily routine is very much based around milking either end of the day. 5am cows out for milking, 5.30 am muck out and feed cows whilst they’re being milked, 8am breakfast,8.30 finish feeding youngstock. 10am maybe do some hedgelaying,routine stock work or slurry spreading 14.30 start mixing feed for cows. 15.30 start feeding youngstock, 16.00 milking/feeding/mucking out again, 18.30 finish! 22.00 final night check of cows then bed time!
J: What has been your biggest challenge so far in farming?
JR: Probably turning the farm around from an unprofitable conventional dairy farm to an organic farm which has made enough money to reinvest for the future. But we did it, and last year we sent more milk than we ever did under a non-organic system.
J: I imagine that must be one of your biggest achievements too?
JR: I reckon my biggest achievement has to be getting married to my wonderful wife!
J: Final question. What does 2017 have in store?
JR: I’ve something big, well I think it’s big anyways, in the pipeline for 2017. Unfortunately I can’t tell you what it is yet. If I did, I’d have to kill you! I also intend to spend more time with my wife Michelle and our 2 boys. They’re growing up so fast that I’m in danger of missing their childhood altogether. Sometimes we are so obsessed with running the farm so that it’s in good shape for the next generation, that we miss the whole reason for looking after the farm in the first place. I’ve not been able to see this until very recently, but two good friends off Twitter have helped me to sort things out. Isn’t that great?!
J: That’s great to hear. Twitter is fantastic and the farming community definitely help me feel connected to the outside world and a constant inspiration. At times definitely keep me sane too!
JR: I can honestly say that I’ve made some genuine friends through Twitter which I wouldn’t have met otherwise. And if Twitter ever disappears up its own arse, they’ll remain lifelong friends. And you can quote that!