Face to face: Northumberland farmer Francis Watson Armstrong

Arable farmer Frankie Armstrong loves his job but is desperately concerned for its future. He particularly fears for the dairy industry

Francis Watson Armstrong
Francis Watson Armstrong

Francis Watson Armstrong lives at the 480-hectare Greenhill Farm near Bamburgh, Northumberland, with his partner Claire Thorburn, who runs her own PR and marketing firm.

The 49-year-old arable farmer’s family has owned the property since the late 1800s, and Francis took over in 1987. He has three grown-up children from a previous marriage: William, 25, who is a partner in the farm; Rosie, 22, who works for Angus Soft Fruits in Arbroath, Scotland; and Juliet, 20, who is at Harper Adams University in Shropshire, studying agri-food marketing.

What made you decide to become a farmer?

From a young age, I realised I had a lucky opportunity to continue the family farm. It wasn’t long before I developed a real love of the land.

How long have you been in farming? I started my career aged 17 at the Royal Agricultural Society College, Cirencester, studying a diploma in agriculture. I undertook several practical farming placements, the first near Rothbury with a family friend, then with a big estate near Chatton involving arable, dairy and sheep work, another doing two lambings near Wooler and six months’ forestry work. I am very grateful to all of those who gave me the opportunity to fall in love with farming.

What is a typical day on the farm for you?

I am becoming more detached from the practical day-to-day farming operations as I am eager for William to pick up the reins. He is incredibly keen and a fast learner, so this is easy for me to do.

A typical day begins at 6.30am to walk my dogs on one of the best beaches in the country, at Bamburgh, followed by a meeting with William and my farm manager Billy. Depending on the time of year, we will discuss the day-to-day issues of the farm.

At this time of year, it is mainly maintenance issues, like machinery repairs. In the spring, we will be looking at the crops, discussing fertiliser and spraying plans to optimise production. William and I are passionate about conservation and we will discuss what we can do to enrich the wildlife found on the farm. We’ve already installed barn owl boxes and the farm has a pair of little owls in residence.

We have feeders along field margins which provide important habitats for wildlife. We are seeing an increase in the number of grey partridge as well as other songbird species. William wants to introduce beetle banks – grassy mounds across our arable fields that give insects somewhere to overwinter before moving into the crop to reduce pests and act as a food source for birdlife.

The farm has an agronomist who visits to check my crops for disease problems, weed competition and nutritional requirements. William, Billy, and I will talk through his findings and act accordingly to ensure crops are well tended. I spend a lot of time in the office catching up on paperwork, but during harvest time it’s a different story.

What are the biggest changes you have seen in farming in recent years?

Firstly, weather patterns have changed significantly. Gone are the days of hot summers and cold winters. Today, it seems we get a mixed bag of everything. This does not make the arable farmer’s job any easier. Secondly, science and technology are constantly changing from farm machinery, such as satellite-guided tractors, to agri-chemicals. The EU has taken decisions to ban certain agri-chemicals, in my opinion unjustifiably so, and they are considering banning more. This creates more pressure to control diseases and maximise yields with fewer weapons in the armoury.

Are you struggling to survive?

I am very fortunate in that I have other businesses which provide me with an income.

Do you feel you are living through a crisis in British farming? I think it is true to say that all sectors of farming go through cycles of profit or loss. However, the livestock and dairy farmers are suffering needless hardship, with family farms being given up on a weekly basis. They are suffering from immense pressure from the profit-driven big supermarkets and the processors.

Do you think people outside your community understand what it is you do?

There’s a vision of farmers wearing a cloth cap and chewing a piece of straw. But farming is a big business involving a huge amount of investment to not only run your farm properly, but to look after the countryside we love and cherish. There is a chasm between towns and rural communities. This has led to a misunderstanding of the countryside.

Do you feel alienated and undervalued?

Some of the big supermarkets have a tight hold on their suppliers to such an extent they are squeezing them out of business. It is deeply disturbing to see that milk is cheaper than bottled water in some supermarkets.

Is there too much form filling and regulation of the industry? Most of the form filling is important, such as traceability of my produce from the field to the loaf of bread or biscuit. Thankfully, a lot of this pressure is taken off by Greenhill being a member of Coastal Grains, a co-operative grain organisation, five miles from me. They segregate all my produce according to type, variety and quality. They dry it, store it and sell it through a marketing agent. They take care of a large amount of the paperwork that is involved.

How worried are you about the future?

Have I done it right for the past 30 years so it will continue for the next 300 years?

Would you advise anyone else to go into farming at the moment?

Go into farming, but it is difficult unless you are lucky enough to have a farm to take over. Land prices are at an all-time high and many farms coming up for rent are being let out at almost unsustainable prices.

What do you think the future holds for agriculture in this country?

More small family farms are being swallowed up by larger agricultural corporations. That said, there will always be a place for farming because the population needs to be fed. However, I feel strongly there should be fairer prices for farmers, particularly my dairy and livestock compatriots and smaller, specialist producers. We must not forget the smaller farmers who are the backbone of UK agriculture plc.

What are the biggest challenges you believe farmers will face in the next 10-20 years?

Keeping up to speed with technological changes. I am a strong believer in genetically-modified crops. It is a shame that one billion people go to bed each night starving when GM crops can help avert this. GM crops can be adapted to be rich in certain vitamins, drought-resistant and require fewer fertilisers. This can only benefit poorer countries and can also be seen as being more environmentally sustainable.

Farmers are under pressure to feed an ever-increasing population, while at the same time losing more land to development and infrastructure. The Government must recognise this issue and support farmers by financing agricultural science institutions to develop higher-yielding crop varieties.

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