Fibre Farmer

Features Posted 24/05/21
This month Nigel Akehurst visits Les and Connie Milton at Broadlands Meadows Farm in Sheet, Hampshire, to find out more about alpacas and social farming therapy.

Nestled deep in the South Downs National Park village of Sheet lies Broadlands Meadows Farm, run by husband and wife Les and Connie Milton.

Both Les and Connie are first generation farmers and started out on their farming journey in 2011, when they purchased the farm, back then just a six-acre field with no infrastructure or buildings.

Over the past decade they have transformed the field into a working ‘fibre’ farm and centre for social farming therapy.

From keeping a few cows, sheep and alpacas, the Miltons have managed to expand their enterprise by renting adjoining land from neighbours. Alpacas are now the bedrock of their farming business.

Not only do alpacas produce a valuable crop of fleeces each year for processing into carded fibre, they are becoming increasingly sought after by hobby farmers or country house owners who want low maintenance “movable garden sculptures”, explained Connie.

Over the years they have built up an impressive herd of 43 females, which Les said was “worth more than £90,000”.

Their website Fibre Farmer lists the stock they have for sale, with prices ranging from £400 to £3,000.

In addition to selling breeding stock, Broadlands Meadows Farm sells a range of alpaca products including luxury carded and spun alpaca fibre, mohair from the goats and wool from the sheep for home crafts and spinning. Connie also hand makes a range of children’s clothing, footwear and soft toys.

Another ingenious product made on the farm is a range of fine shredded and dried alpaca dung (named Dougall Oops! after one of their favourite Alpacas), proving the age old adage that “where there’s muck there’s money”.

As well as alpacas, there is a small herd of Angora goats and some very rare North Ronaldsay seaweed-eating sheep and Borerays, also bred for their fibre.

Factfile

Farm facts

  • Six acres of land at Broadlands Meadows Farm in Sheet, Hampshire
  • 49 acres of land recently purchased at Nyewood in West Sussex
  • Provider of social farming therapy sessions in conjunction with FarmBuddies
  • 43 female and 21 male alpacas
  • 44 Boreray and North Ronaldsay Sheep
  • 16 Clun forest sheep plus six “feature” rams
  • Three donkeys for the children and a few hens
  • Make and sell alpaca fibre products
  • Alpaca dung product ‘Dougall Oops!’

Planning

As the farm has developed, Les and Connie have worked with the local council to gain planning permission to build various barns for their growing numbers of livestock. In 2016 they received permission to live in a temporary rural worker’s dwelling for three years.

They are now in the process of applying for a permanent dwelling and are working with Reading Agricultural Consultants to gain permission for a permanent single storey home, with a decision expected later this year.

Social farming and mental health

One of the most interesting parts of their business is their social farming therapy, an area of diversification not always given the ‘air time’ it deserves.

Several years ago Les and Connie were approached by Stephen Sellers of FarmBuddies (a social farming agency) to become providers of social farming therapy sessions.

With Les’s background as a biology and technology teacher and Connie’s skills in fabric work and experience in running groups for young people, they were ideally placed to offer day visits to participants who could benefit from the safe environment at Broadlands Meadows Farm.

What is social farming?

For those unfamiliar with the concept of social farming, Stephen Sellers describes it as the practice of offering family farms as a form of social service.

“It is not a specialised treatment farm; rather it remains a typical working farm where people in need of support can benefit from participation in the farm’s activities in a non-clinical environment,” he said.

He added: “It also reconnects farmers with their local communities through the opening up of their farms as part of the social support system of that community.”

ELMS support

With the government under pressure to do more to combat the growing mental health crisis, it’s no wonder that social farming is being considered for more support under the new Environmental Land Management scheme (ELMS).

The number of farms offering social farming day visits has been expanding steadily across all counties in England for more than 10 years and further increases look likely, said Stephen, who has seen a significant number of enquiries through his FarmBuddies website.

“The farms that offer this service regularly produce impressive results through both improved wellbeing of participants and savings in NHS, social and education budgets. Many parents, carers, teachers and others now look on these farms as a welcome reliable alternative and find they are often more effective than traditional institutionalised interventions,” he added.

What does it involve in practice and how do I get involved?/

Broadlands Meadows Farm provides a useful insight. Les and Connie provide day visits for individuals and small groups, offering meaningful work on their farm. Typically the ‘work’ involves animal husbandry tasks, feeding and moving animals being particular highlights.

The ‘farm helpers’ can be aged anywhere between nine and 90 with one or more support needs and are usually accompanied and funded to pay for the farmer’s time.

Stephen explained that with an average of only eight specialist care farms per county offering social farming services five days a week, there is a growing opportunity for more regular working farms to step in and fill the provision gap.

“A one day a week enterprise for just 12 days a year on a family farm is a viable start-up and would benefit up to four or more participants. At this level of time involvement, it becomes a more practical diversification for any member of a farming family looking to share the farm with those who need it in their area. “Typically, enquiries for more information come from a farm business partner, but from time to time also from other family members working elsewhere in health, social or educational services who see this development as an opportunity to return to the farm,” he added.

Key points

  • Time and empathy for participants are the key farmer requirements; age is not an issue.
  • The beneficial results from regular visits to family farms show that these businesses have a latent capability to improve quality of life markedly in a relatively short time.
  • Full start-up support information including training (three days) is available for new farming entrants.
  • The enterprise introduces a new sense of social purpose to the farm business while contributing to its financial viability.

For those looking for more information there is a free five minute guide on the FarmBuddies website, which also has links to other useful resources.

Why alpacas?

Having never previously visited an alpaca farm, a quick bit of online searching revealed that there are estimated to be around 25,000 alpacas in the UK (there are around three million globally, with the majority based in South America).

Alpacas, along with the llama, guanaco and vicuna, are members of the South American camelid family found mainly in Peru, Chile and Bolivia.

Domestication began some 5,000 years ago and the alpaca became an important part of the economy of the Andean people, providing clothing, food and transport, with the dried dung used as fuel.

There are two breeds of alpaca; the hardy Huacaya, which has a crimped fibre, and the smaller Suri, which is known for its highly lustrous fine fibre with no crimp.

I ask what it is about alpacas that Les and Connie like so much?

“They are lovely animals – they are very calm and ideal for our social farming sessions,” replied Les.

“You can take children in amongst them without any worry at all,” added Connie.

“They don’t bite or kick and are free of sharp teeth. But they do spit – mostly at each other,” said Les.

Breeding females in good health should have a baby alpaca (called a cria) every year and the gestation period is between 11 and 11.5 months.

“For anyone considering getting into alpacas you’ll need to buy at least two as they prefer company. They aren’t cheap to purchase - breeding females can range from £1,500 to £3,000 to start and then upwards to £10,000 - but they are economic to run,” added Les.

At Broadlands Meadows Farm, breeding and selling alpacas provides the main farm income, which has been helped by the growing trend for keeping them as pets and for tourism.

Alpaca fibre

Another important revenue stream is the alpaca fleece, which is renowned for its high quality. The Huacaya alpacas are shorn once a year, with their fleeces averaging around 2.5kg, with prices ranging from a low of £3.50 per kilo selling bulk to the mills to around £55 privately. This compares to processed prices of £10 upwards per 100 grams.

“You have to process it to get good money out of it,” said Connie.

Initially they processed the fleece themselves. Connie taught herself to spin and carded the fibre. They then discovered a mill in Eastern Europe that would take 30 kilo bags and process it at a fraction of the cost of UK mills.

Unfortunately, Brexit has thrown a spanner in the works with the new import tariffs. Les and Connie are unwilling to send further batches for processing until they receive more clarity on what they will be charged when the processed fibre comes back into the UK.

Alpaca dung

Last but certainly not least is their line of Dougall Oops!, a shredded alpaca bean aimed at gardeners, who rave about its nutritional value for vegetables.

Les and Connie collect, process and package the alpaca dung on their farm, selling it via a local garden centre.

The powerful bean shaped dung is collected with the use of a sweeping machine pulled on the back of a tractor, after which it is dried and then shredded ready to be packaged.

Unlike cow or sheep dung it doesn’t need to be composted and Les recommends applying a small amount to the soil as a conditioner or making a compost tea with it.

Covid-19 and the future

Covid-19 has hit the couple hard, with lower farm gate sales of their fibre products, which has been further complicated by the uncertainty around import tariffs for processing their raw fleeces.

They’ve also had fewer volunteers to help out on the farm, but with the end of lockdown restrictions in sight they are now feeling more optimistic for the future.

The thing I found most inspiring about my visit to Broadlands Meadows Farm is their commitment to helping others less fortunate and the opportunity for working farms to be part of the solution to the growing mental health crisis.


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