Student Jo swaps heels and partying to wellies and sheep in memory of her dad

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Agriculture

Farmer Jo Lawrence, who studied a Level 3 Extended Diploma in Agriculture at Hartpury, has written the following blog about her life in farming and the impact of losing her dad when she was aged 17: 

Growing up in South Herefordshire I spent all my free time on the family farm, which is where my passion for farming began, in particular my love of sheep.

I grew up thinking I was the luckiest girl in the world, having everything I could wish for in comparison to others around me.

Never in a million years did I think I’d lose one of the most important people in my life, on what seemed a normal day.

Home Farm

My family have been farming Home Farm for four generations (including myself).

My great grandad passed it down to my grandad – the late Jim Lawrence MBE – who passed it down to my dad and now it is due to be passed down to me and my little brother.

Throughout the years of Home Farm being under the Lawrence name, it has remained very much a family-run business with each and every member of the family being involved in the running of the farm.

The 200-acre farm is some of the most fertile land in South Herefordshire and has always provided the perfect base for a mixed farm, as it continues to be today.

At present, Home Farm consists of 60 acres of arable land and 140 acres of grazing land.

The arable includes a rotation of winter wheat, winter oats, fodder beet, red clover and a field rented to a neighbouring farmer for potatoes.

The wheat is used as a cash crop and for the straw for bedding. The oats are fed back to my sheep as a ration with protein pellets through 3-in-1 feeders.

The fodder beet is fed to both the sheep and cattle, mainly through the winter and spring months whilst grass growth is lower and pastures are heavily stocked.

I have recently introduced red clover leys since taking over, to increase protein levels when making silage for the sheep and cattle to eat through the winter months, in theory decreasing concentrate usage.

It has proved very successful so far with some silage being 20.1% protein, which would be extremely hard to achieve on a basic normal grass ley, as well as it being hugely beneficial to the soil, being a legume with its nitrogen-fixing properties.

The red clover, however, takes a little more managing as it can cause infertility if grazed at the wrong time of year.

The livestock side of Home Farm utilises the 140 acres of grazing land – some permanent pastures and some new leys.

This provides the base for our flock of 530 commercial Texel cross breeding ewes with their lambs at foot, 40 Beltex cross breeding ewes of my own, 150 Texel cross ewe lambs, 50 ewe lambs of my own and 25 tups.

The commercial flock produce lambs to be sold live in the local market. We sell the lambs when they reached 40kg live weight. My flock is used to produce breeding tups and ewes, which have been introduced into both flocks over the past couple of years, with some showing great potential.

Over the past three years I have introduced cattle back onto the farm. My dad always promised to buy me cattle once I had completed my course at Hartpury College.

At Home Farm we now have 12 pedigree Beef Shorthorn cows with this year’s calves at foot, six pedigree beef Shorthorn weanlings and six dairy-bred Angus calves of my own, which I reared this year on supplement milk.

I found that introducing cattle at Home Farm has been a huge benefit, as it provides manure for the arable land and improves grass usage by mix grazing across the farm.

Attempting to step into Dad’s boots

Working on the family farm was always one of my dreams in life, but not quite as soon or sudden as it happened.

I was always one to have my life super-planned out. I was to finish my three-year course at Hartpury and then go travelling, which Dad always encouraged.

I wanted to build my knowledge on a range of different farming systems across the world.

In particular, I was set on going to work in New Zealand, Australia, Canada and America. I still hope to visit all of them sometime, when the time is right for me.

I then planned on getting a job and just being around to help Dad whenever he needed.

I always thought I would have my own little family before I even considered having to take over from Dad.

I didn’t see myself coming back to Home Farm for a long time, especially not at 17 years old.

However, when everything happened I didn’t think twice. I didn’t want to be anywhere else and I certainly didn’t want Dad’s legacy disappearing.

My Dad

My dad has always been my inspiration and role model. He was the BFG of the farming community. I couldn’t go anywhere without being referred to as Bob Lawrence’s daughter and I loved it, of course.

He was a well-respected farmer and would give you his opinion whether you asked for it or not.

When I spoke at his funeral, this line brought a touch of humour to the saddened church: I still get people coming to me to this day reciting it, saying it sums up Dad perfectly:

“It’s fair to say my Dad had a very strong opinion and wasn’t afraid to voice it whether my dress was too short, I had too much make-up on or the boy didn’t have enough acres.”

My dad was definitely one of a kind. I will never get over the devastation I felt the day I found out I wouldn’t be able to ask him about his day on the farm whilst I had been at work.

It never ever gets easier losing someone. You just learn to cope with it and try to make them as proud as you can. No words will ever do my dad justice.

Being a farmer

The unpredictability, multi-tasking and isolation definitely wasn’t what attracted me to farming.

On the other hand, the reward, determination and passion definitely played a part in making me decide farming was what I wanted to follow.

Of course, growing up on the farm meant I was fortunate enough to have it all on my doorstep.

Seeing the enjoyment and passion the farm had given my late grandad and Dad gave me all the proof and convincing I needed to take the leap into the farming.

I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else. Even on the bad days, I couldn’t imagine being sat at a desk day in, day out.

There is NO such thing as a typical day

During my time of running Home Farm I have come to realise that no matter what you plan for your day, it will be turned upside down and completely thrown out the window within a matter of minutes.

There is definitely not a ‘normal day in the office’ where farming is concerned, but there are jobs that are done 365 days a year no matter what else is going on.

Farming can be very spur-of-the-moment. If it is not the weather causing havoc, there is a cow calving, sheep breaking into the wrong field or a tractor breaking down.

Challenges since farming at Home Farm

The most challenging things in farming are mainly what we can’t control, with the weather being a massive challenge.

Normally when we want and need rain, it doesn’t rain, but when we want the rain to stop, it won’t.

In addition, there is the isolation which comes with the job. I can go days and weeks without seeing anybody apart from my mum, brothers or boyfriend.

In the first few months after losing Dad and throwing myself into the farm, I found it extremely hard mentally and if it wasn’t for my friends dragging me back out to socialise, I think I would have kept myself shut away from the world.

Shutting away seemed easier, but it was making the grief harder to deal with.

Finally, there is my experience – or lack of it. Although I had a big involvement on the farm since a young age, there were things Dad kept in his head that I wasn’t aware of.

It’s fair to say I have made plenty of mistakes on my journey, but that is sometimes the best way to learn.

I am sure I will continue to make mistakes, like everyone, but it is how you fix and learn from them that’s important.

Effects of coronavirus 

My work during lockdown hasn’t been affected to the degree that others have.

While respecting the social distancing rules put in place, the animals and crops still need tending to.

The country still has to eat, so the demand and pressure on farmers is arguably greater than ever.

The lockdown rules have caused some disruption with selling in the markets. A ‘drop and go system’ put in place to protect everyone means I can’t market my lambs like I usually do, but in the grand scheme of things it is not the end of the world.

Springtime on the Farm 2020

Appearing in the latest series of Springtime on the Farm was very surreal. I didn’t think a 19-year-old farmer would ever be of interest on a national TV series.

The team I filmed with were incredibly patient, understanding and supportive. I had never done anything like it before.

I was very nervous about appearing in this year’s series. Farming can be portrayed as such a controversial topic through the media and I wasn’t confident that I could deal with any negative repercussions.

Many forms of publicity can be so far from reality, and unfortunately, it’s no different for farming.

I really want to help change that and show that farming is a wonderful and inclusive community. We are on call for our animals 24/7 every single day of the year.

We aren’t there to harm the animals, the environment or slow people down on the roads with our tractors.

We are here to do a job, a job that we are all 100% committed to and we are passionate about, providing food for everyone around the United Kingdom. 

Three Counties Award nomination

Being nominated for a Three Counties Farmer Award came very much as a shock to me. I feel very humbled to be noticed, let alone nominated for an award.

I did not think my five-minute TV feature would lead to national newspaper coverage. I just want to make sure my dad’s legacy is never forgotten and that everyone knows what a truly inspirational and irreplaceable man he was.

Little Jo Peep

With social media usage being a huge part of connecting with people, I decided to set up an Instagram page called "Little Jo Peep'.

I am passionate about changing the public's views on farming and farmers themselves.

My account allows me to reach out to a wider audience, showing them what day-to-day life on the farm is like.

The industry is more diverse than ever and I really want to try and help the public realise that and support all of our British farmers who work all hours of the day to provide low mileage, British and high-quality food on every table across the United Kingdom.

I use my Instagram page to keep my followers up to date with my everyday jobs, I show the good and bad and try to keep everything as honest as I can. Little Jo Peep has helped me greatly to network with like-minded people, I can learn new things to try out on the farm and it's helped take away some of the isolation I can feel when working alone.

If social media is used correctly I believe it is a step in the right direction for the agricultural sector to gain the public’s support it needs.

Hartpury Experience

At Hartpury College I studied a Level 3 Extended Diploma in Agriculture, which helped me develop my knowledge in all aspects of the agricultural industry.

I made some lifelong friends and have some amazing memories of my time at Hartpury.

I enjoyed all aspects of my course, especially livestock practical. This was one of the things that attracted me to go to Hartpury - the hands-on approach of learning. I gained many skills as well as milking my first-ever cow.

In my first year I lived on site, which helped me develop my independence in a safe environment.

My experience in third year was very different to the other students, as my priorities were obviously elsewhere, but my tutors were extremely encouraging and made sure I was keeping up throughout the year.

As a result I managed to finish my course with highest grades possible.

Advice for future farmers

My advice for anyone considering a career in farming is to never give up.

Determination is key in the farming lifestyle. As a farmer, you never stop learning as every season is different. Don’t be knocked when you make mistakes, learn from them.

The opportunities out there are endless, but you have to work for it.

Don’t expect it to be handed to you on a plate, grab every chance available to you. You have to prove yourself.

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