“Farmer’s sons are expected to come home to work—it’s a lot of pressure. I’ve always told my boys that they didn’t need to come home; I was expected to, but when it comes to their lives, they know best. I always thought one of my sons would take over the farm though, but they decided to take a different path.”
“We live in a place with adverse conditions for farming. We get 6 to 7 foot of rain fall a year, so we can only really grow grass—crops fail. Our bit of Dartmoor is steep and rocky, which makes it a lot better suited for moving around on a horse than on a quad bike. Our sheep stay on the moor all-year-round, but cattle are only allowed up for summer grazing and have to come off in November. With my horse I can ride up and get right in the middle of them. The cows often just lie down. When you ride in amongst them and then start pushing, they move quite easily. Also, the horse steps around rocks and rides through gullies, so you don’t have to concentrate as much, and then there is the silence,” says Phil, with a smile.
Phil is known for moving sheep and cattle on horseback, as well as for riding his horse to get to most places. His farming methods have earned him the Beef Farmer of the Year Award, but despite his successes he seems to have remained quietly humble.
“My father bought the farm in 1958 and I have always lived here. When I turned 16, I finished school and started working with him. I liked tinkering with engineering, and I was considering doing a farm construction course, but there weren’t enough people and it got cancelled. At about that time, my father told me, ‘I need you home.’
“For the next 10 years I worked alongside him. It was a typical father son relationship I suppose. We got on alright. I had my own ideas, but it was was very much his farm and I did what I was told. My dad is a very good farmer, and he has his own way of thinking about what should be done and what is right, and I was very young. I think that these days, because I have done reasonably well, he’s come to respects my opinions a lot more.
“During that period, some friends of my family used to hold a pony club camp at our place. One day I saw this young girl, their daughter, and I thought she’s quite pretty. I got chatting to her and asked her out. The first time we went on a date she was 14 and I was 19. There was quite a big age difference. It didn’t last very long and we both went our separate ways. A few years down the line we met up again. I ended up getting a scholarship to work at a sheep station in New Zealand for three months. Mandy agreed to come and meet me and we travelled around. It turned out to be a sort of make-or-break thing I guess. We got married a year after that, and three boys and 30 years later, Mandy and I are still together.
“Mandy has always liked the same things I do. We both love riding and spending time on Dartmoor. She ran a mobile hairdressing business and before we got married, she used to work seven days a week. She would do all the farmer’s hairs on a Tuesday down at Hatherleigh Market. They used to sit down in her chair and start talking, and she loved it. It was a sort of counselling session. They would come in, tell her their problems, she would listen, and they would leave feeling better and with a new haircut. She then stopped for around 6 years when we had our children.
“In 2001 foot-and-mouth disease laid waste to our livestock. Seeing everything you’ve done being shot and wasted…” Phil falls silent. “It all felt so pointless. My dad decided that it would be a good time to retire and he handed the reins of the farm over to me and Mandy.
“Over the next twenty years we rebuilt, expanded, added riding tours and did reasonably well. My time in New Zealand helped me put production in place. Obviously, it was scary. My father is still living, and I never wanted to see myself as a failure in his eyes, but fortunately I am a good farmer I believe, and the business is now stable. I would love to hand it over to my sons. I thought it would be my oldest, but he decided to start his own fencing business. I could see that he was keen to do fencing, so I encouraged him. He works hard and he’s done really well; he’s now looking to buy his first farm.
“I started to think that if my sons didn’t want to take over, then there was no need for me to push so hard to grow the farm. My second son had already moved away and become a huntsman, and my youngest wanted to be a vet but while backpacking in Australia he started working out there. One day the farm owner said to him ‘Who’s home working? Is anyone going to take it on?’
“I’d always told my kids that there is no point in being miserable or unhappy in your job. Also, farming is not for everyone. It can be mundane. During winter we probably do the same thing for over 100 days, but when my youngest, Giles, came back from Australia and said, ‘Dad I would like to come back to work,’ I was absolutely delighted. So he came home, but after a couple of years working together we could both see that farming was not what he wanted to do.
“When one son comes home and decided he doesn’t want to do it, and then another son comes home and decides that he also doesn’t won’t to work with you, you start thinking, is it something I’m doing? Am I being too hard on them? Am I too difficult to work with? You start questioning what you’re doing yourself. All you know is that you want them to find something they like. So, Giles went off and did carpentry for two years and now he is doing forestry and is a lot happier. I probably have a better relationship with both my boys since they went their own way.
“When I was younger I wasn’t particularly fond of Dartmoor; ‘it’s bloody cold!’ ‘It’s bloody this…Its bloody that’ that sort of thing. When I got back from New Zealand, I started looking at it differently, and as I started riding horses for pleasure and not just for herding, I suddenly realised that we had a lovely place to ride. I have always had a passion for horses so about 10 years ago Mandy and I started organising riding holidays for people. We take them out on Dartmoor and they have a great time, and we have a great time. It has been getting quite popular; we are pretty much fully booked for this year despite the pandemic, so we have been really lucky. We get so much enjoyment from taking people out and it’s also taught me new things. After years of farming, I had to learn a very important skill…talking to people,” says Phil with a laugh. “It might sound strange, but I’ve lived on a farm all my life and never really had to interact with many people. Mandy does a great job organising and doing the riding holidays. She’s a better conversationalist.
“At the end of the day Mandy is the rock that keeps me level and sensible. If I am in a grump, she sends me out riding. We think the same. You go through stages in life and as one comes to an end, another begins. We started managing the farm, we had kids, launched the riding holidays… It is just Mandy and me at home now. We get on incredibly well. Every day I look forward to seeing her in the evening. When I get home, we sit down and have a chat. We watch some T.V or listen to country music. The last few days have been cold outside, so we have both spent the day looking forward to sitting down in front of the stove. We like each other’s company. Talking and being together in the evening is still what we like to do, even after 30 years together.
“I’d grown to accept that the farm would not be taken over by anyone. My middle son, Lloyd, has been away since he was 16; he often comes home with his girlfriend and they go for rides together, but he’s lived away for many years. Last week he called to say that he wants to come home. He’s getting married in the autumn and he wants to put down his roots and learn about the farm while he’s still young. I’m excited, but I am also very aware that farming is not the be all and end all.