“My children get to grow up on a farm and that’s worth it to me”

Sarah Clulow, Bernard’s Farm, Chesshire UK)

 

Sarah Clulow is a first generation farmer. She doesn’t come from a farming family, nor is she married to a farmer. And yet, one day, she decided to leave the safety of job and home behind to become a farmer.

“I worked in child protection for many years until four years ago, after the birth of our fourth child. From that moment, it was getting hard to juggle a demanding career and a large family”, Sarah says. “So in 2017, I decided to give something a go in which I had been interested for a good while: dairy farming!” With no foot in the countryside and no land to start from, Sarah decided to start by learning all she could about her dream job before taking the next step. She found a local dairy farmer who agreed to train her in exchange for her working weekends, holidays and sick covers next to her daytime job and took training courses in foot trimming, agriculture and dairy management. “I worked for that dairy farmer for three years, until he retired and I timed in a fifth child: Betsy, a lockdown baby.”

First generation farmer

In 2019, Sarah and her family moved to a rented smallholding, leaving behind their mortgaged town house to take a chance trading on her own account. “The smallholding consists of a farmhouse, outbuildings, an orchard, a small woodland and a farmyard where we keep hens, pigs and rear calves, but no land. So with time, we have built up parcels of rented land locally.” On these rented parcels, Sarah runs a flock of pedigree Ryeland and coloured Ryeland sheep. “I am very proud of my flock: I built them up from scratch, starting with two gimmer ewes. In order to tend to them, I had to earn enough income to purchase all of the required kit such as a livestock trailer, weigh crate, handling facilities, a tractor, a mower, a tedder, a baler,… all a must when running sheep on rented land away from home. We are professional sheep movers these days!”

Sarah’s smallholding is a traditional upland farm on the Staffordshire Moorlands, at the east border of Cheshire. “The farmhouse is about two-hundred years old. It is beautiful. Also it is the coldest house we have ever lived in! the farmhouse and its 75 acres (30 hectares) of land – the land already being let to a neighbouring farmer – was originally a mixed livestock farm with dairy, beef and sheep.” Bernard’s Farm is situated at about 350 meters above sea level and conditions can be harsh with a shorter growing season, snowy winters and inclement weather. “Snow in April is not uncommon, which is why we don’t lamb until then too as shed space is limited here.” It’s also part of why Sarah chose Ryeland sheep, a native breed: “Ryelands have good feet, hold onto their bags well and are maternal. They also have excellent fleece we use for handmade wollen goods, as well as fabulous meat for our meat box customers.” Bernard’s Farm sells all its produce directly: woodland hens eggs are sold to local customers via the farm’s egg club, there are pork, lamb and beef boxes available and also handmade beeswax candles, melts and natural soap. The farm’s products can be purchased via the website, social media or at local farmers markets.

Trying to secure opportunities

Today, Sarah still works for other local dairy farmers on top of her busy daily chores on the farm. “Until we can secure a farm business tenancy and upscale our enterprise, making it more permanent and financially viable as we only have twelve month tenancies now, I contract myself out to local farmers, milking cows four days per week at least. I have also worked for a local sheep farmer at his lambing time. It’s a fabulous opportunity to learn more skills from the experts.”

Sarah and her family rent a smallholding on a residential rental for a twelve month tenancy. Next to that, they also rent 34 acres (+/- 14 hectares, red.)  of land locally on grazing licences. “I think we have about seven landlords at present! We have been renting land since 2019 and have really improved it a lot: from rushes and reeds to pasture using only sheep, harrowing, clover overseed and rotational grazing. Some of the grazing licences are seasonal so we have to be able to bring all the ewes home for lambing. This gets more of a challenge space-wise every year: we run about fifty ewes and counting. It’s not easy on land away from home, but I do believe it is one of the only ways into farming as a new entrant.”

If she’s not certain if the prejudices comes from her being a woman or from her being new in the industry, Sarah notices it can be challenging to be seen as a farmer in her own right as a new entrant female and mother of five at times. “In order to secure a Farm Business Tenancy, for example, we must be seen as not risky. Yet there have been opportunities we have been turned down for where I just really question why, because I felt like we were a fabulous fit. Sometimes people can’t see how you can fit it all in, and they see us as risky tenants. But we are doing it, and doing it well. I have always tied the babies to me and carried on! Sometimes it takes me longer, but I am used to involving the children.”

Getting a grant or some other form of help is extremely important if Sarah wants to expand her operation: having a viable farm and land to rent would lessen the workload for her as she spends many hours driving around checking stock and filling out movement forms or registering land. “This would mean I could do more of what I call ‘two people tasks’ with the assistance of my husband Carl in the evenings rather than having to wait for the weekend and then try to do all those tasks with five children in tow.”

Clearly, securing opportunities is the biggest difficulty in Sarah job. For the first couple of years, she couldn’t even get anyone else to rent her land for her operation. “We had the three acres (1.21 hectares, red.) from the landowner and that was it. Honestly, there are not many like him: he actually sets out to find new entrants and give them the opportunity. Without his mindset, we wouldn’t have got started.” Sarah is not one to sit around wishing for something to happen, she keeps looking for ways to make earnings and find solutions. “Carl learned how to shear the sheep himself and I learned how to make candles and soap, so we set up an online farm shop. Time is precious so we always try to use it as effectively as we can. With only twelve month tenancies, we are very much holding onto our nerve now, hoping that if we keep trying, a longer term opportunity will come up.”

Life on Bernard’s Farm

Sarah gets up at 5 am and goes straight out to milk 100 cows for a local dairy farmer. “He has a flying herd of Holstein-Friesian cross cows. Lovely, quiet cows who are generally a pleasure to milk and are the farmers’ pride and joy.” At 8 am, she is back home to feed her children and animals – cats, dogs, lambs, calves, pigs and hens – followed by a school run. On the way back home, Sarah goes to check on her sheep. “Midday is for household jobs, the toddler’s nap and doing paperwork or phone calls whilst she sleeps. Then it’s picking up the children from school and driving them to their extracurricular activities.” Finally, the evenings, after the children have gone to sleep, are for finishing batches of soap, candles, wax melts or crochet woollen goods for the shop or market.

For Sarah, her change of lifestyle is absolutely worth it when she sees her children’s faces light op on the farm. “Whether they are lambing or we are haymaking, they are involved with this farm life. There are so many wholesome and meaningful opportunities for them to help out and enjoy and it is just a privilege to bring them up on a farm. They don’t understand the limitations of short term tenancies or the challenges that come with this life, they just get to live on a farm and have lots of animals to care for and space to run around and play.”

“They are all very independent and although it is a very busy life working what feels like four jobs between Carl and I, we love it. The oldest three children remember our old house and no one wants to go back! Living this life with Carl and the children, rearing animals and a farm from scratch together. That’s what it is all about for us.”

 

Trust your instinct

“I used to worry a lot what people thought of me. With age and experience I’ve learned to stop. I trust my own instinct and only seek advice from people I trust want the best for me and my family. There’s this old saying: don’t take criticism from someone you wouldn’t go to for advice. So if there’s one piece of advice I would like to give other women who want to start a career in agriculture, it would be not to let anyone tell them they can’t do something. We can do so much more than what our own mind allows us to believe in!”

Still, Sarah feels very lucky to be surrounded by supportive people who have helped her along the way and are still there for her. “There’s no way I could have achieved what I have alone, I am only half of the team. My husband and I have gotten to where we are today because we have stuck together. We encourage each other, support each other, listen and do life together. Without Carl’s belief in me, I’d still be bogged down in a job I was drowning in and wishing for a different way of life. We pick each other up and dust each other off and put one foot in front of the other to keep going. The dream for us is to work together and there’s no doubt in my mind we will achieve this together.” 


Sarah Clulow gave up a job in child protection and a non rural life to become a mixed livestock farmer. A first generation farmer, she is almost completely self-taught and learned her trade by reading, taking courses and training hands-on with benevolent farmers in her area. Sarah has diplomas in Agriculture, Advanced Dairy Management, Progressive Farm Homeopathy, Animal Assisted Therapy and Cattle Foot Trimming. She proposed an array of handmade products straight from the farm next to the available meat boxes, including soaps, candles, wax melts and woollen baby clothes and accessories. Her products and produce are sold through the online webshop or at local farmers markets.

 

You can find Bernard’s Farm

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 This article was published in Women in Ag Magazine 2022-004. Click here to read the full article.

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