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New Directions

PUBLISHED: 11:05 19 November 2008 | UPDATED: 15:36 20 February 2013

Andrew, Claire, Daniel and Bethany Head

Andrew, Claire, Daniel and Bethany Head

Continuing our series in which we hear from those people who on recently settling in Dorset also found a door of opportunity opening up to them. Claire Head tells us about the highs and lows of her family's new life in farming

What a lot can happen in a year! Just 12 months ago we enjoyed a normal working life. My husband Andrew had a top-notch farm management job and I looked after the children and home and did a couple of days a week in the office during term time. We'd lived in a beautiful part of Staffordshire for 13 years and put down roots, so what did we do? Naturally we gave it all up to follow our dream - running our own farm in Dorset!

We'd wanted this even before Andrew attended agricultural college, but then came all the years of wondering if there would ever be an opportunity. Suddenly, just like that, there it was - a potential tenancy on the Isle of Purbeck. From beginning to end, the process of securing the farm took from March to June, three months that seemed like an eternity. The excitement and hope was hard to contain, but we couldn't tell anyone - what if it fell through? Our children, Bethany and Daniel, now 14 and 11, were as passionate as we were about the dream, yet still managed to keep it quiet.

We finally moved in and started our farming company, Cedar Organic, on 29 September 2007. There'd be no going back, but had we done the right thing? Would we cope? Would we make a living? What sort of welcome would we get?

So here we are, with Cedar Organic the privileged custodians of 500 acres on the Isle of Purbeck, some of the most stunningly beautiful land in the country. Although the Staffordshire job was managing 2,600 acres of mixed organic farm, neither Andrew nor I are from farming backgrounds. My practical experience was just a little bit of dairy, and we didn't plan to have any milkers, so this was going to be a real challenge.

My first real wobble of nerves arrived along with the first of our herd of North Devon Ruby Red cattle - not milkers, but beef. They are lovely animals, but big, really big, and the first time we handled them was in our small barn with high walls and gates and no escape route. I stood there and thought 'What am I doing? I have just committed to this for a lifetime and I am scared witless.' I focused on the long years of dreaming and longing, and my courage returned, but the Ruby Reds are still big.

The initial problems came from an unexpected direction - not the farm, but the house. It was in need of huge amounts of work: rewiring, a heating system, kitchen, bathroom, just to start. It all had to be done through the wet winter months and it was hard going. There was a lot of pressure as we had to achieve a live-in-able state by March, when the outside farm work would really kick in and everything else would have to wait. Luckily, the people working on the house were all so friendly and kind. Without them I think our sanity would have crumbled. And it was achieved, up to a point.

We could put up with the odd bit of unfinished decoration and discomfort, but that wouldn't do for our star enterprise - the poultry. Our table birds and layers needed luxury. It arrived in the form of nine flat-pack sheds with very vague assembly instructions. Three months and much blood, sweat and deadlines later, all were built. The last layer shed was dragged into the field as the van pulled up with the delivery of 440 hens - but we did it.

Our first meat birds were due to go at 11 weeks old, but they grew incredibly fast and were already looking like small turkeys so we decided to go a week early. We booked into Wareham Quay Market for the Saturday and one way or another we had no birds left by the end of the weekend. Since then we have enjoyed chicken weekly and it is proving very popular - the proof is in the eating.

We also bought 200 Lleyn ewe lambs and seven tups who very efficiently got them into lamb. We lambed during April, May and June and they are looking good. Sheep may be thankfully small and handling them is good fun but they do need a lot of attention. I am sure they have a will not to live.

We are incredibly busy. The modern farmer has to cope with huge amounts of paperwork, sales, PR, HR, accounting and countryside management, and that is not even touching the reality of farming - good stocksmanship, husbandry and caring. It's working hard, but it's working out. Even in the middle of our most worrying days, at no point have we ever said, 'Why have we done this?' This is for us. Beth and Dan love the farm and take part in any way they can.

As for the difficulties of joining a well-established farming community in a relatively small area, I needn't have worried. We have been made extremely welcome and feel very much at home. So many people have helped us so many times, not least the day one of our new heifers decided that she didn't want to have the blue tongue vaccination and would much rather go for a 21/2-hour tour of the Isle of Purbeck. Her example was followed last month by the entire herd who thought it would be nice to have a wander through the lanes...

Life sometimes seems frantic, but it is good. There is never a dull moment. It has been a massive life change for all four of us (six, if you include Digby, our over-friendly flat-coated retriever, and Tonic, our black-and-white fluffy vermin control, aka the cat). We took the leap, decided to go it alone, took the risks and haven't landed in a heap yet. We've got chickens, turkeys, dozens of eggs, lambs and a beautiful herd of cows, a lot of new friends and the beautiful Purbecks - all in 12 months.

If you would like to call in and see Andrew and Claire, they are always in on a Friday, or otherwise give them a call on (01929 481393.

If you know of someone who, on moving to the county, has changed direction or found the time to fulfil a long-held ambition or talent, then why not write and let us know about them, or tell us via the forum at www.dorsetmagazine.co.uk

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