Tune in to radio baa baa A community station is bringing West Country farmers together, reports Alex Klaushofer
(The Daily Telegraph, Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Geoff Pagotto is trying to conduct a radio interview. But it isn't easy: everyone is ankle-deep in mud and the sheep are bleating and trying to escape as he puts his questions to Harold and Hazel Braddick, two of the country's top sheep breeders. Prize ram Sam, a hefty Bluefaced Leicester, tramples on Hazel's feet and she squeals in pain.
This kind of on-location action is par for the course for Pagotto, a correspondent for Farm Radio, an internet-based radio station serving the farming communities of Dorset and Somerset. Every month, a team of professional and volunteer broadcasters produces a monthly magazine programme of farming news, upbeat stories and local lore from a tiny attic studio in Wincanton. The station has gone from strength to strength since it was set up three years ago by the rural media charity Trilith, attracting more than a million hits to its website and even a television crew from Japan.
The idea was born when the centuries-old livestock market at Sturminster Newton closed, leaving scattered farming families without anywhere to trade news and ideas. "Farmers used to tell us that they didn't see each other any more and asked us to do something about it,'' says the charity's co-director Trevor Bailey. "We suddenly thought of Farm Radio. It was a leap in the dark.''
On a sunny day in the first cold snap of the season, I am shadowing Farm Radio correspondents. This morning's story keenly illustrates the perils that can befall today's small farmers. Having farmed since his teens, Harold Braddick had already escaped disaster in the early 1990s when Somerset County Council sold his tenant farm in the village of Barrington. Refusing to be discouraged, he and Hazel bought 40 acres up the road, a mobile home to live in, and started again. All went well on Bradwell Farm until last year, when the council announced that the temporary planning permission for their mobile home had expired, giving the couple - now in their 70s - notice of eviction.
A vigorous campaign eventually led to a reversal of the decision, allowing the Braddicks to stay. Back for an update, Geoff hears of their relief and their plans for the future. We stand in the lambing shed, a hotchpotch construction of corrugated wood and green canvas adorned with rosettes. "See our bedroom window?'' Harold points to the mobile home a few yards away. "It looks directly over. You can see what the sheep are doing in the middle of the night.'' Being close at hand is key to success, he explains. "Sheep are difficult to look after. Take triplets. If you're not there when they're born, you're not going to have them.''
Finally, the interview is wrapped up and we are off to meet Caroline Woolley, one of Farm Radio's volunteer correspondents, for the afternoon assignment. An energetic woman in her 50s, Woolley has spent her life in farming, from dairy maid to trainer for the local agricultural college and wool board. This background gives her the know-how to assess the challenges facing farming newcomer Brendan Flood.
An engineer in his 40s, Flood has ploughed his life savings into a boggy, 180-acre plot in the village of Compton Bishop where he plans to raise his newly-acquired sheep and cows. It's a bold venture, setting out in a declining sector without previous experience. "Brendan is an example of a new breed of farmer,'' Woolley tells me. "He's learning through action. What he hasn't yet got is intuition. A dyed-in-the-wool farmer anticipates things before they happen.''
Nor does he have any farm buildings. His land was part of an older, bigger farm spread out in the shadow of the Mendips, an unaffordable empire complete with farmhouse and outbuildings, which was snapped up by a developer. We are visiting two days after he was granted planning permission to put up new buildings on his more modest plot and work is just beginning. There are piles of gravel, water-filled trenches and excavators everywhere. The place looks more like a building site than a farm.
Woolley heads across a muddy field to interview Flood by his herd of Angus cattle. Her questions are astute yet tactful, as she points out that - with spring lambing and calving in sight - there is no accommodation for the mothers-to-be. Brendan, his brow furrowed, reveals plans and options that are clearly the product of detailed research. The cows gather round curiously, sniffing Caroline's microphone. The proceedings are frequently interrupted by barking, lowing and shouting as Leo, the farm dog-in-training, bullies a stray cow back into line.
As we squelch back across the fields, Brendan confesses to the "obsessive'' passions that drive him: a childhood love of agriculture, a desire to leave something tangible to his children and a belief in locally produced food. ''It's almost impossible for young people to get into farming,'' he says. "In 50 years' time, we won't have farming in this country in the same way as before.'' He gets back in his digger, his face set in determination.
It's the kind of morale-boosting story that goes down well with the listeners, Trevor explains. "In the early stages there was a lot of agonising as people watched their way of life vanish,'' he says. "Now it's about people sharing their experiences and seeing where farming can go.''
Copyright 2007 The Daily Telegraph. Source: Financial Times Information Limited - Europe Intelligence Wire.
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