Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Haulage and healthcare make small farm sustainable

March 31, 2017 by  
Filed under Profiles

judith JT-20170316-Farming-Huggle-Farm-Judith-Long-0002

Judith Tooth visits a new care farm running alongside a well-established haulage business on a small farm.

Making a living from farming 12ha isn’t easy. But Norfolk farmer Paul Thain and his partner Judith Long have proved that it is possible to run a sustainable small farm by diversifying into haulage – and healthcare.

Where his grandfather kept livestock, Paul grows wheat and sugar beet at Highfield Farm, Rollesby. In the past year, though, a new influx of animals has taken up residence, grazing in the meadows or sheltering in a restored polytunnel previously used as a lambing shed. They are looked after by clients at the care farm set up by Judith last year.

Paul’s grandfather also ran two lorries, which his father and brothers kept on alongside farming and a bit of contracting. Paul went to college and worked for an agricultural merchant, returning to the farm when the last of his uncles retired, and taking it over when his parents died. He could see the potential to expand the haulage side of the business.

“I sold the two lorries and bought one big artic,” he says. “To begin with I wasn’t hauling any sugar beet, but I used my contacts and built up the business. Now I have a fleet of up to 14 trucks moving 150-200,000 tonnes of sugar beet a year from farms in a big semicircle around the Cantley factory.”


“Growers let me know their harvesting profile, liaise with their harvesting contractors and book their slots. Of course, being weather-orientated, some juggling might be needed. I have to be on the job 24/7 keeping in touch with harvesting contractors, farmers and the factory, keeping ahead of the lorries, making sure the harvesting is going as planned and the lorries can get in.”

Paul invested in his first Ropa Maus seven years ago. To begin with some farmers were unsure of its merits, preferring the cleaner loader. But now 70 per cent of his clients have the majority of their sugar beet loaded with the Maus.

“Growers like it: there’s less mess, faster loading and dirt tares are always best through the  Maus. Also the lorries aren’t queuing up, they’re in one spot on the road, and there are just six runs per load, compared with eight to 14 with the cleaner loader, depending on whether we’re loading from concrete or in the field.”

As well as the articulated lorries, which can carry 29 tonnes, Paul also runs two eight-wheelers, each carrying 20 tonnes. And, as well as sugar beet, the lorries are used to transport grain,

Limex, sand, gravel and stone, mushroom compost and woodchips. The business employs eight regular drivers, and up to 10 during the sugar beet season, with other lorries hired in as needed. The Maus, cleaner loader and shovel are maintained in-house, but lorries are looked after on contract providing 24-hour repair service.

While Paul is out and about running the haulage business, Judith, a trained carer, has set up Huggle Farm. The name is a cross between a hug and a cuddle, she says, and points to the benefits being in close contact with animals brings to many people.

Learning difficulties

“I realised that there was a need for a farm where people with learning difficulties could come,” she says. “When young adults leave school there is not always something for them to do that fits their criteria. Not everyone wants to go on a course every day. Here they can be hands on.”

Huggle Farm opened last March and for two days a week is busy with two clients, Emily and Shannon, their carers and a volunteer helper. There’s a pedigree Dexter herd, all halter-trained; seven Hebridean sheep; four goats; a donkey and a pony; guinea pigs, rabbits, rheas, chickens and bantams. But the animals here will not be going to market: they are pets.

“I love it and they love it,” says Judith. “For me, it’s my childhood revisited, as I grew up on a smallholding. Emily and Shannon are happy to be at work: people with learning difficulties want to be busy and when you find the right thing for them they will be very happy. They each have their role to play and the two have become great friends.”

Shannon prefers the bigger animals and doesn’t like the chickens. Emily, on the other hand, loves the chickens and rabbits, and will happily sit stroking them for long periods.

“I like being with animals – they don’t judge – and I like keeping busy,” says Shannon. “I get here at 9.30 and my first job is grinding up fodder beet to feed the animals. I keep busy feeding, watering, cleaning and looking after their feet, and we’re going to do some shearing this year.”

Learning curve

Inevitably the new venture is a learning curve, and with widespread funding cuts, it’s not an easy environment to be working in. She is paid from the funding provided to her clients, and is promoting the care farm through the county council, social services and occupational therapists. It’s hard to break down barriers and get known in the field, she says, but believing strongly there is a need for such a care farm is what motivates her.

“Paul’s family kept cows back in the day. These animals make money in a different way. I hope eventually to open the care farm full-time.”

Paul, too, is happy with the new activity on the farm: “To stay viable, you need to do something different. We were looking for a new use for the tunnel and what we’ve come up with is good, it brings different people into the countryside and everyone benefits.”