While many British farmers travel to the other side of the world to experience how they do things Down Under, there are very few who go there to kick start their farming careers. One farmer that did just that is Josh Brock, a first time farmer from Sussex.
Now back in the UK, I chat to Josh about what took him to the other side of the world.
James: What’s your farming background?
Josh Brock: Honestly? Nothing. I have no farming background. Two and a half years ago I took a chance and went to Australia and New Zealand to pursue my dream of becoming a farmer. It has slowly taken shape having worked in all sorts of places on all sorts of different farms – sugar cane, huge wheat operations, sheep, deer, dairy, beef and even organic lemon myrtle at one point! Without coming from a farm, I’ve done everything possible to catch up and broaden my experience and knowledge as a farmer.
J: Where do you come from originally?
JB: I am originally from Horsham, West Sussex. Just a nice, normal town, full of normal people. Where i never had much of a relationship with the country or agriculture. After reading books like The Herdwick Shepherd and high country farming books in NZ it makes me very jealous of people who are born and bred in the beautiful countryside where farming runs through their veins.
J: How did you get started in farming?
JB: It was a gamble I suppose. I was working in London and could not stand what I was doing, like so many other people. I guess the idea of farming was planted through a whole number of ways. The job that I did not like, being stuck indoors and wanting to have a relationship with a business that produces something integral to everyone, food. I had emailed a few agri-recruiters in the UK and without any prior experience or contacts it was looking very difficult to find my way into farming. The recruiter advised me that travelling to the southern hemisphere is one way of getting experience. So this was my Gamble. I got in contact with a rugby team over in Airlie Beach, North Queensland who agreed to help me out with a job in farming for the coming season. I booked my flight and was on a Sugar Cane farm within a couple of days of landing. What was meant to be a 4 month trip turned out to be two and a half years. After a year in Australia, I went to NZ and turned mainly Arable experience into a year and a half with dairy, sheep, deer, beef, a bit of calf rearing and some more arable. Two and a half years spent on 7 different farms, always learning something different.
J: That must have been a hell of a learning curve! Going from zero experience straight into arable farming. Let alone the other side of the world
JB: It definitely was, but I was totally committed too doing it and giving it all a go. There were days when I was completely out of my depth. I managed to get myself a ‘chaser bin’ job on a 19, 000 acre wheat and barley harvest. I was driving a John Deere 8850 with a 30 ton chaser bin. Considering I had only been driving tractors a wee while, it was a challenge. Thankfully I kept myself out of trouble and came out with a few more skills under my belt. Being in Australia in my mind was a risk free approach. I could go over there, give it all a shot and if it wasn’t for me, I could just put it down to a great experience. Let me tell you though, it’s not all Fendts and GPS up there, especially on some of those sugar cane farms.
J: What made you decide to go across the ditch (to NZ) instead of coming back to the UK and finding arable work here?
JB: I would put that down to a few reasons. As much as I love driving tractors, when this whole journey started, it was always the idea of stock work that got me going. Where I was living and working in Australia, bar the 120 Brahman surviving off of dust and molasses, there wasn’t too much stock work going. So I thought, why not carry on travelling and go to the land of dairy and sheep, play some more rugby and use my recent tractor driving experience to get myself any sort of stock job I could get my hands on.
J: Where did you find yourself first in NZ?
JB: A place called Warkworth, an hour north of Auckland, where i played for Mahurangi RFC. I started working on a calf rearing farm. We would milk 30 cows in a small parlour and rear the calves on the fresh milk, selling them on to a beef finishing block at 100kg.
J: How much of a change was it going from the arable work to working with livestock?
JB: It was a huge change, there was a massive learning curve, picking up ‘stock sense’ was the first obstacle, just the little things like knowing where and how to stand so that you can load up a race or get a cow in the crush. However luckily, there were similarities in both. Arable and stock work are of course, based around a good days work, attention to detail was always key and putting 100% effort into every and any job I got given. I think I just about managed to keep my head down and not make to many mistakes. Just don’t ask any of my old bosses! For me, I think I would always favour stock work over arable maybe because I find it comes to me more naturally. But I still think that my favourite job/farm so far was my last farm in New Zealand. It was based in South Canterbury in a small town called Waimate, where it was a real mix of arable, sheep, beef, dairy grazing and Deer. I think this is where I was lucky enough to bring together all of my recently learnt skills together and try to perfect them as best I could. Of course I am still learning and enjoying everyday.
J: Deer farming isn’t really that common here in the UK but it’s a big industry in NZ. Could you give a little intro to deer farming to those who’ve never experienced it?
JB: It was a very new venture when I got my little taste, so I cannot tell you in any great depth too much on it. However what i can tell you is, you need high fences, a good set up with laneways, a dark and enclosed set of yards, a good pack of dogs and a very quick mind. As they aren’t very domesticated they are extremely flighty as I’m sure you would have guessed. This, from a few conversations with fellas can be bred out of them and some say is also genetic.
J: We’ll get on to my favourite topic, and I’m assuming yours, sheep. It must have been incredible to work with sheep out there for the first time?
JB: Absolutely my favourite. I guess it was incredible, i mean, i think I’m lucky to have experienced the things i have. I started In Waimate during lambing, which I’m sure like everyone else, it is definitely the most exciting/intense time of year. This was my first ever experience of sheep work. So other than being completely out of my depth, I was also very lucky to start at this time. I was Marking twins and triplets, chasing after ewes and helping with difficult labours. I cannot wait for my first lambing in the UK. Throughout my year there, I ended up learning everything, all be it in the kiwi way, weaning, tailing, drenching, vaccinating, tupping and of course hill country musters. I cannot emphasise how lucky i was. We had arable, we had heaps of grass paddocks and plenty of forage crops for fattening and finishing and we also had an 900Ha hill country block. I think these were my favourite days, mustering off the hills at weaning time. I must write a bit about my first experience working with a dog, because for me this is and will always be one of my favourite parts of shepherding. I was lucky enough to be ‘lent’ the old huntaway on the farm. The boss had himself had a Beardie and a young huntaway So i inherited the old boy Vogue. Due to his vast experience i was definitely the student and worked off of him rather than the other way round. I think the bond i built with that dog was one of the most rewarding experiences i had overseas. I think it is easy to get caught up in the romance of the kiwi model which is held in such high regards. But after reading books like ‘counting sheep’ and ‘The shepherds life’ i cannot wait to experience everything sheep farming has to offer in the UK.
J: I’ve interviewed a few shepherds for this series now and every single one has pinpointed working dogs as one of they’re favourite things. My collie Non and I have a very different relationship to me and my huntaway Dane. We’ve bonded in a totally different way and he’s so loyal. We’re teaching and learning from each other every day.