14 December 2021
“Those regular online Agrisgôp Zoom meetings were a lifeline for most of us - an arm around the shoulder, giving us practical advice and moral support when we most needed it.” These are the words of Janet Davies, a dairy farmer from Llanteg, who, together with husband Alan, used support from Farming Connect’s Agrisgôp programme to help set up a new business selling milk directly to the public from a milk vending machine sited at the farm gate.
“It was a stressful time. We had many urgent decisions to make on issues such as environmental and food processing regulations, housing the machine, processing equipment, buying all our supplies from reliable outlets and the all-important marketing strategy.”
What Janet and Alan found surprising was just how labour-intensive the new project quickly became. Both agree that they would have struggled without the support of their Agrisgôp leader Lilwen Joynson and all their group members, who provided encouragement when things didn’t go to plan, offering practical tips on coping with issues like suppliers failing to meet deadlines.
“Lilwen’s input was critical; not only did she ensure everyone’s opinions were heard or their questions answered, but she also helped us put the pressures in perspective, asking how we all felt and whether we were coping with the demands of setting up our new ventures alongside all the other day-to-day duties of running a busy dairy farm,” said Janet.
Agrisgôp is Farming Connect’s ‘action-learning’ programme, which brings like-minded individuals together to discuss and develop business ideas. In July 2020, Ms Joynson, a farmer and trained business diversification coach, led and facilitated one of Farming Connect’s first new ‘milk vending’ groups.
“All experienced, successful dairy farmers in their own right, each group member was determined to learn all they could about setting up and growing a new diversified business venture that would create a sustainable stream of additional income,” said Ms. Joynson.
“Brexit and Covid created pressure for many individuals and businesses, but for the farming families who joined this new group, Agrisgôp provided a major opportunity to not only build up a new support network, but also increase their confidence, despite only being able to meet up online.
"Some of the families had already gone through the planning stages and sourced finance, so they had a lot of knowledge to impart to everyone, including some farmers who decided this was a route they were not yet ready to take.
“Every member of the group, from our youngest university student to older well-established farmers, brought something valuable to the meetings. They all learned from each other, built up the trust and confidence needed to share their opinions and come to their own natural conclusions about what was right for them, and whether to proceed,” said Ms. Joynson.
The format and content of every Agrisgôp meeting depends on what group members require. This can involve the leader introducing experts on relevant topics or arranging group visits to businesses that have already created successful new ventures or found more efficient, profitable ways of working.”
Because of the restrictions of the pandemic, Ms Joynson’s group met up online via Zoom, with monthly evening meetings from the farm kitchen or office. And as she revealed, ‘”often with a sneaky sandwich or cuppa within easy reach” for those rushing to join after milking.
Ms Joynson brought in a number of speakers, joining remotely to offer guidance ranging from social media marketing to branding and environmental regulations.
For some of the group members, just joining online meetings was daunting. Agriculture student Annie Peters (22), who is in the third year of her foundation course at Coleg Sir Gâr and her mum Margaret used to attend the Zoom sessions together, with Annie staying in the background, urging her mum to do all the talking. That dynamic quickly changed, and Ms Joynson said that Annie was soon a valued contributor at every meeting – a role she quickly started to enjoy.
“The knowledge I gained and skills I learned from participating in those group meetings was as important to me as my studies in college,” said Annie, who is now the driving force behind the milk vending enterprise at the organic family farm near Haverfordwest.
“Mum gave up a part-time job to cope with all the customers, and she also handles a lot of the business management and marketing side of the business.
“I spend every spare minute I’m not in college or studying helping my dad with managing the herd and processing the milk and I also deal with all social media marketing,” said Annie.
Ms Joynson says it has been hugely rewarding to see the progress made by six of the families involved (all based in either Pembrokeshire or Ceredigion), who all expect to see their initial capital investment move into clear profit within the next few years.
"A growing number of consumers value buying locally and supporting local producers, which is great news for our farmers and helping reduce our collective carbon footprint,” said Ms. Joynson.
If you have a diversification or business idea you would like to take forward with support from Agrisgôp, please contact your local Farming Connect development officer, or call the Service Centre on 08456 000 813. Rydym yn croesawu galwadau yn Gymraeg / We welcome calls in Welsh.
Farming Connect is delivered by Menter a Busnes and Lantra Wales and funded by the Welsh Government and the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development.