This week I’m chatting with the first Welshman of the series, Will Evans. Not content with farming, my compatriot keeps himself busy looking after his 4 daughters, running marathons, writing blogs and being an amateur historian.
I hope you enjoy our chat.
James: What’s your farming background?
Will Evans: I was born into a farming family. My Father’s family have farmed in the Wrexham area at least as far back as the early 1700s so I suppose I’m carrying on a long tradition. I left school at 15, & apart from 3 years away studying agriculture at Harper Adams, I’ve been working on the family farm ever since. It’s all I ever wanted to do.
J: So you’ve been farming the fields of North Wales since you were a boy. Did you ever want to do anything other than farm?
W: No not really. I’ve lots of other interests, and at one point I looked into joining the army, but ultimately I think I was always going to come home to the farm. I had an incredibly happy childhood growing up here, every day was an adventure, & I knew from an early age that one day I wanted my own children growing up on a farm too. And now I’ve got 4 of the little buggers running about!
J: Can you give us an insight in to your farming enterprise?
W: We farm near the village of Bangor is y Coed, just 5 or 6 miles from the English border. We farm just over 500 acres, & grow cereals, maize, beans, & grass on good sandy clay loam soils. The river Dee runs through the middle of the two main blocks of land, so it’s very fertile. We also have 330 dairy x beef cattle which we buy as calves & fatten. We’re pretty busy with them at this time of year. We have 5000 free range laying hens too. They’re Burford Browns & Old Cotswold Legbars & we supply a firm called Clarence Court. You can find them in Sainsbury’s & Waitrose. Dead posh eggs see.. We also have a contract baling business that keeps me out of mischief during the summer. All in all it’s fairly non stop!
J: You’ve a nice, diverse farming enterprise there Will! Is this the way the family has always farmed or are the hens and calves more recent editions?
W: No, we were dairy until ’08 when we took the monumental decision to sell the cows. It was due to a number of factors, we felt like we needed to increase cow numbers significantly, and the cost of this along with bigger parlour, slurry storage, housing etc just wasn’t stacking up for us on a rented farm. At the time we were getting a very low price for the milk, and were treated appallingly by our buyer – let’s call them ‘Feadow Moods’ – and we’d just had enough. We decided after much soul-searching to go in a different direction and increased our cereal production and beef enterprise, and converted half of the cubicle building into a free range layer shed, despite knowing next to nowt about hens! It’s been a hell of a steep learning curve with them, but it’s certainly been interesting. We miss the Cows, and breeding our own stock, but ultimately it was the right thing for us to do as a family, and it’s worked out pretty well. We certainly have no regrets anyway..
J: Do you think there’s still a future for smaller, family dairy farms or is milking on a large-scale the way things will have to go?
W: Yes I think there is, though it may depend somewhat on what happens with Brexit. I worry about tenants, especially if support payments are removed. But there are many fantastic smaller businesses that I have no doubt will thrive in the coming years.
J: It must have been one hell of a decision to make, to come out of dairy. How do you even begin to go about totally changing your farming enterprise?
W: With many sleepless nights first! We knew we had scope to increase the arable and beef sides of the business, and we’ve invested quite a lot steadily in new buildings & facilities since the change. I think we’ve got a good set-up & system in place now. None of us had any experience with laying hens previously, but we did a lot of research before we took the plunge. We were fortunate that we were able to convert a cow cubicle building into a laying shed relatively easily. And even though 5000 birds is a pretty small flock these days, it’s worked well for us as part of the overall business.
Plus with the hens we’re paid weekly for eggs, which is obviously an enormous help with cash flow when we’re not selling cattle or grain.
J: You mentioned your eggs go to Clarence Court, who are one of the fancier egg brands, selling everything from traditional breeds to quail, geese and even Ostrich! What breed of hen are you working with and how did supplying them come about?
W: They’re a mixed flock of Old Cotswold Legbars & Burford Browns, with the Legbar’s laying pale blue coloured eggs, & the Burford’s laying chocolatey brown coloured eggs. They like their suppliers to be from family farms, with smaller sized flocks so it very much suited our system. We got a contract with them when we started as it appealed to us to go down the niche market route, rather than the standard brown egg market which really suits larger scale operations. The added bonus for us is that we have premium eggs right here & I have them for breakfast pretty much every morning!
J: How have you been affected by the current avian flu outbreak?
W: We’ve obviously had to keep the birds indoors since the control order came in, though in terms of egg numbers etc it hasn’t really affected them. It’s required a bit more work in terms of giving them something to do inside – making sure the scratch area is well maintained so they can dust bathe etc – if they get bored it can lead to aggression, but we haven’t seen any of that here. We’re all very worried in the industry that the housing order will be extended beyond the end of February, and our eggs will no longer be able to be sold as free range. If they’re downgraded in the stores to barn eggs, it’s going to mean a huge price drop.
J: I’m a total newbie when it comes to Arable farming. Could you give an idiots guide intro to your arable set up?
W: Ok, well we grow about 300 acres of crops including Winter Wheat, Winter Barley, Spring Barley, Maize, and sometimes OSR & Winter Beans. The rest of the farm is down to grass, which is in the rotation as well. We farm two main blocks of land which are very flat, and the River Dee cuts between the two. The soil’s a good sandy clay loam, with very few stones. Much of the farm is land that was a flood plain for centuries, then had a bulwark built around the river during WW1 when food was scarce, so it’s very fertile. As long as you farm it well, and put plenty back in, it’ll grow anything. We’re lucky to have it.
J: What does your average arable year look like?
W: We put cattle & hen muck, plus sewage sludge onto the stubble fields after harvest, before sowing our Winter crops (barley/wheat/OSR) in Sept/Oct. We then sow our Spring barley in early March, depending on weather conditions, and Maize in late April/ early May, again depending on weather & soil temperature. We start harvesting generally in mid July with Winter Barley, then move into Winter Wheat & Spring Barley in August. We also have a contract baling business, so as well as trying to get all our straw baled, I’m generally pretty busy in the Summer trying to keep baling customers happy too. Luckily, as everyone knows, farmers are very cheerful, patient & accommodating! ;-/ We then harvest maize in late Sept/ early Oct, usually when we’re trying to sow the following year’s cereal crops. All sounds very simple doesn’t it!?
J: And what happens to the crops once they’re harvested?
W: We sell quite a lot of the cereals into the grain market, with much of it sold as much as 12 months in advance on contract. Though we try to be flexible, and use as much as we can ourselves to feed our beef cattle, especially when it’s been very cheap over the last few years. We also roll and sell some for neighbours and local farmers, which we deliver to them or they collect themselves. In short, we’re trying to add a bit of value to the product. We sell all the wheat straw after it’s baled to dairy farming neighbours, and keep all the Barley straw for our own cattle. As you can see, it’s very much a mixed farm. And generally the system works quite well for us…
J: You’ve diversified once more recently in to the world of writing. How did the idea of doing a blog come about?
W: Ok, I’ll try to explain it honestly. I had a pretty tough time in school. I didn’t really fit in & there were a few guys who made my life pretty miserable while I was there. I did have friends there, mostly other farm lads, & they’re still good friends now, but mostly it was shit & I couldn’t wait to leave, so I did at 15.
But, the only things I was good at were English & History, & my love for these subjects carried on. I had one really great English teacher who encouraged me a lot with writing, and my Grandmother was very literary & recognised it in me too, & constantly recommended books, poetry etc & quizzed me after I’d read them, for her whole life.
Believe it or not, but we once had a very heated discussion on who was the better First World War poet, Wilfred Owen or Rupert Brooke!
Anyway, my point is that the writing spark has always been there, and although the pull of the family farm probably would’ve won in the end anyway, I’ve always wondered what if? It may sound silly, I don’t know. So I’m not sure where the whole blog thing is going, & I’m racked with insecurities about it, but so far I’m really enjoying it & I’m glad I’ve started writing a bit again. 20 years too late maybe but got there in the end!
I’ve genuinely been blown away by the lovely comments I’ve had about some of my posts, I wasn’t expecting anything like that at all. But I’m conscious that I’m only a beginner, I read so many other great blogs, so I know I’ve got a long way to go.
J: You’re being very humble about your blog. It has been absolutely fantastic and all the comments and praise you’ve received is well deserved. How do you decide on what topic you’re going to write about?
W: I generally just write about what’s on my mind at the time. I’d like it to be a bit more structured, but with the farm & young family it’s enough at the moment just to be doing it at all! I make notes of ideas, thoughts etc. I have two or three that I’m working on at the moment, drafts anyway. But other than that, I’ve got no plan & no idea where it’ll go. Mostly it just comes out as one big splurge of writing, then I go through it for a few days & try to correct the many, many grammatical errors!
J: Do you have any goals or aspirations for your writing?
W: I’d like to get more people reading my blog, and post more regularly if I can. I guess the best way of doing that is to improve the quality of the content so there’s that. I’ve done a few magazine pieces that I’ve really enjoyed, and actually got paid for one recently. Which is the first £ I’ve ever earned as an adult that wasn’t from farming, so that was pretty cool! So yes, I’d like to do more if I can. I’d like to write some kind of historical fiction, though Christ knows how I’ll ever find the time. Which funnily enough though was the subject of one of my recent blog posts! Where I said that if you really wanted to do something enough, you just find the time. So who knows, maybe I will one of these days…
J: Finally, what does 2017 have in store for Will Evans?
W: In the short-term I’m hoping a raging hangover is in store for Sunday after wildly celebrating a Welsh win over England in Cardiff. And also that my beautiful English rose Wife is still speaking to me! Also I’m hoping that I survive the marathon I’m doing at the start of April that I’m woefully under prepared for, and I can continue to improve my blog posts. Other than that, a stress-free & profitable farming year , plenty of time with my Wife & Kids, & continued good health & happiness hopefully!
If you’ve enjoyed my chat with Will you can follow him on Twitter: @willpenrievans