Robin Mills went to Hursey, near Broadwindsor, to meet farmer Lloyd Curtis. This is his story.
“I’ve lived on a dairy farm my whole life. The family started farming down at Whetham, a couple of miles away, and the land down there and this farm where I am now were owned by my grandfather’s twin brother. I suppose we’ve been at Whetham a hundred-odd years; I mean grandfather’s brother came out of the First World War and married into the farm. But he’d been shot up a bit, and his legs were bad, so he gave up in the sixties, and Father took it on and we rented it, then he managed to buy it, in ’74 I think. I was brought up at Whetham, so that’s three generations have been there. We didn’t get electricity there until ’63, and that made a difference. We went round with hurricane lanterns until then. My wife Alison and I built this bungalow here at Moorlands Farm in Hursey when we got married in ’77, and the farm buildings across the fields from here where we have the dairy went up in the early eighties.
I’ve got one brother, Steven; he’s two years younger than me, and he runs the farm at Whetham. We went to school at Broadwindsor, then to Beaminster comprehensive. I think at first I wasn’t sure if farming was what I wanted to do. I’ve always been quite good at fixing things, without trying to blow my own trumpet, and Father wanted me to learn to be an agricultural engineer after school, but I loved animals so I was a bit tugged in two directions. Anyway, farming won, and after I left school I said I wanted to go to college to learn farming. Father said, “Why do you want to do that, you always hated school”, but I went, and enjoyed it, and I did very well.
Just after I left college, Father had a major heart attack, but then he had a bypass operation and made a good recovery. So my brother and I were working the farm, but the problem was we had too many cattle down at Whetham; all the silage had to be hauled down there from here, and the manure back up here again. We have two blocks of land virtually the same size, just about 100 acres each, and we rent quite a bit as well. A lot of dairy farmers rent land like we do; land’s got too expensive to buy, but when non-farmers do buy it they don’t really know what to do with it, so I get asked to look after it. So back in the eighties I told Father I wanted to put up a shed up here, and start milking, which was exactly what we did, and now I’m here at Hursey milking about 100 cows, and Steven’s down at Whetham.
The land round here’s good grass land, but not really suitable for anything else, like corn. If it rains, it tends to lie wet for quite a long time so crops can easily spoil before they can be harvested. And in the early days we had sheep, pigs and beef cattle as well as the dairy. Sheep were never really my thing; the pigs I was ok with, and at one time we had about 200, but it was always either boom or bust with them. Nowadays, you just can’t; different enterprises all mean more and more labour, and more and more paperwork. So, we specialise in dairy, and we’ve got a cheese contract which means we’re looking for very high protein milk. A firm called Lactalis, a French company who make Somerset Brie up at Cricket St Thomas, buys all our milk, which is great because the milk only travels about 5 miles from here. Personally, I think it’s a hell of a good product, and we beat the French at their own game; I’m quite proud to be one of the 10 farms producing milk for it. We’re using Friesian cows, with a few Jersey crosses, and I’m experimenting with different breeding to get higher protein, but also because we’ve had too much trouble with their feet, and I think perhaps the pure Friesian just won’t stick the English climate.
I do most of the milking myself, and I like it. It’s my thinking time. My son Stuart does the feeding and cleaning out, and now we’ve gone to a new feed wagon which weighs and dishes out the rations to the nearest kilo, it’s that precise. It helps us to look after the cows the way they should be, more naturally, with much more roughage in the diet, rather than the trend which was at one time to feed them like racehorses. We have to buy in protein, and straw, but everything else they eat, grass and grass silage, and maize silage, is grown here on the farm.
Obviously the changes in farming in my lifetime have been huge. The tractors for a start, from a David Brown Cropmaster and a Massey 35 when I started, to the sort of machines we all have now; I mean we can be nostalgic about the old tractors, but what we can do in a day now, in comfort, is a million miles from those days. But the job has become a lonely one. I spend 5 hours a day milking, with only cows, or my dog, to talk to; the reps don’t even call in to try and sell you something these days. In my father’s day, there were 23 people working on both farms, but now it’s just me and Stuart. Alison’s always helped me on the farm when she can, and does the milking from time to time. So it’s ok really; we managed a holiday last year, and went on a cruise with some friends to celebrate Alison’s birthday. I didn’t think I’d enjoy it, but it was great; I love meeting people and talking. Turned out there were quite a few other farmers on the boat, and that was the first time we’ve ever had a fortnight’s holiday. Then there’s the village holidays we go on, just for a couple of days down at Woolacombe, always unpredictable but always a lot of fun. It’s a lovely village, Broadwindsor, a great community. The pub’s unfortunately been shut since September, but it’s opening again now, and we’re trying very hard to get the shop open again. I’ve been on the Parish Council for 29 years now, took over from Father when he was bad. Sometimes I come home from meetings thinking that’s it, I’m not going back, but I do. Parish Council, it’s miniscule government, and sometimes it takes a long time to make things happen, but it’s great when something does get sorted. It’s doing your little bit for the community, and I think it’ll become more important for the community in the future. I’ve also had a lot to do with the NFU, and I do quite a bit with Beaminster Young Farmers. I started with them when I was about 15, and I’m still going.
I’ve stuck with dairying all these years, when many, many farmers haven’t. I’ve gone years without making a profit, but I’ve stayed here. I’ve always tried to keep expanding the business a bit, and move forward and look at different ideas. We try and save a penny here and a penny there, so the supermarket can make a fortune. It was a fairer system years ago in the days of the Milk Marketing Board; there were equal shares for all. These days the supermarket takes the profit, and the farmer and the processor are squeezed. As a producer, I’m in such a weak position; the milk tanker comes every day, the milk’s got to go. But then I don’t know what price I’m going to get paid for it until 6 weeks later. Since last December, we’ve actually broken costs, which flabbergasts me; in the last 4 years we’ve sold milk at consistently 4p/litre under costs, so we only survive because barren cow prices are good.
Alison and I also have two daughters, Emma and Sonia, both married to farmers’ sons. We’ve got 6 grandchildren, and there’s another on the way. They’re all local, all involved in farming, and so it carries on. Stuart’s married a farmer’s daughter as well, so it does seem farming’s quite infectious. And since he’s been home, it’s been a lot easier. I’m lucky to be doing what I do because I love it, and helping feed the nation in the process.”