Olenska (Olly) Sullivan-Harris, Spence Agricultural Scholar 2020

I am Olenska but most people call me Olly. All my life I have lived in a village on the edge of Cambridgeshire so I’m much more accustomed to life away from the rest of the world. I do not come from a farming background, my mum is a teacher and my dad is a software engineer. However, I have always been obsessed with farming. Every weekend I would beg my family to take me to the Wimpole Estate (a National Trust property) just so I could visit the farm and stare at the animals and tractors for hours, much to their annoyance!

As I got older and all my friends were getting after school jobs, I decided to begin volunteering at the farm which I had always been fascinated by. Here I started to develop a greater passion for the livestock as well as working alongside the great team. It quickly became my happy place, with every week leading up to the Saturday where I would finally be able to go back to the farm.

There were many challenges that would arise from the unpredictable nature of the farm, so you are constantly solving problems and thinking on your feet. This touch and go nature of agriculture excites me greatly and is one of the main reasons why I have chosen to pursue a career in it. Ultimately, I would like to run my own beef farm, where I will be able to use knowledge gained at university to spread the importance of sustainable agriculture.

I chose the University of Nottingham as when I came to the open day with my dad it just clicked with me. I immediately felt at home and was able to see myself studying here. All the lecturers were so helpful, this was reinforced when one of the agriculture lecturers came and sat with me while I ate my lunch and chatted with me about the course. I also chose the University of Nottingham due to its plethora of opportunities such as studying abroad.

Due to Covid-19 the start to university was rather different than expected, with most practicals and lectures online there was little ability to mix with other students also on the same agriculture course. In order to combat this the lecturers organised socially distanced walks that would take us off campus and helped us to get away from our flats into the fresh air.

I am currently really enjoying the global food security module. Next term I am looking forward to taking grassland management and learning about the utilisation of grasslands, which will be fascinating.

I am deeply grateful for having received this scholarship, it has enabled me to settle better into university with less financial stress. I will be using this money to buy any equipment I need as well as my membership with the Agricultural Society here at Nottingham, and any trips that are needed to help widen my knowledge of agriculture. Alongside providing me funding so I will be able to get my tractor diving licence.

If you are considering applying to the University of Nottingham or for the Spence Agricultural Scholarship, then I would really recommend that you just go for it! I initially had not even considered that I would be eligible for a scholarship until the Trust suggested it to me. It is a great stepping-stone in the right direction for a career in agriculture.

I speak for most people in saying that I had no idea how great an impact Covid would have on my first year at Nottingham. Due to safety restrictions, all of my lectures have been delivered online and with the reduced social contact I have really struggled to make new friends. It’s always going to be hard moving to a new place and not knowing anyone, but you just have to take that leap of faith. Trusting that everyone is in the same boat as you are and probably equally as scared.

The first day I moved in was honestly terrifying, I had no idea if I was going to get on with my flatmates, but all these fears disappeared as soon as I met them, they were lovely and soon we were all great friends. By the second week my flat and I were all self-isolating due to testing positive for coronavirus, which further limited socialising in a time when a lot of friendships are made. I found this hard as I am an extrovert who thrives on being around other people. Thankfully, it gave me a good time to get to grips with my modules and also bond further with my flatmates. I found that after self-isolation and being in a lockdown for so long I had developed anxiety and even the thought of leaving my flat to do my washing was frightening. My flatmates helped me though this and also encouraged me to go on the Agric students walk and talk sessions, helping me to become more confident when talking to people again.

I can’t quite find the words to describe what the work side of university has been like as it has just become so normal to be sat at a screen without much in-person interaction. However, what I can say is the tutors have done an incredible job at keeping the lectures engaging, as well as responding to any queries or questions we may have. Although sometimes it has been difficult to concentrate, I have found myself taking a lot of my work outside. I often walk around the local countryside looking at the grasses, trying to identify the different varieties and naming their features. This has really helped me to solidify knowledge learnt in the grassland management module.

This year so far has also been really important in realising when I need a break, this led me to discover a passion for baking which I do to wind down, as well as going on walks and helping my boyfriend to run our landscaping and garden business.

I had initially anticipated this year to be quite different. I had made plans to get a job helping with the campus dairy herd, but the restrictions and managing the way I adapted to the situation meant this wasn’t to be. I think it’s important to acknowledge that during times like this it’s ok to not be able to get everything done that you had initially planned, thus developing resilience and flexibility in a changing world. The times we are living in at the moment are unprecedented, so it is of paramount importance that we allow our bodies and minds time to relax.

While researching for facts to include in this blog, I typed into Google “why farming isn’t bad for the environment” and pressed search. The first thing that came up was the recommendation to change my search to “why farming is bad for the environment” with the second box explaining how it is a massive contributor to climate change due to the mass release of greenhouse gasses (GHG).

It is easy to see why people have such a negative opinion of farming when multiple places such as Instagram, Facebook and even Google contain so much biased information which is rapidly shared, increasing misinformation among people.

The importance of farmers is undeniable, with them providing plenty of food for the whole population, however they are often at the forefront of criticism surrounding the environmental impacts resulting in climate change from the production of food. According to the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) 24% of global GHG emissions are because of agriculture, forestry, and other land use. However, what people do not often realise is that this percentage doesn’t include the carbon dioxide these ecosystems remove from the environment via carbon sequestration.

Over the past year in the UK there has been a 40% increase in veganism, with one of the most reported reasons for its adoption being the belief it is better for the environment. Within the UK we are fortunate enough to have permanent pasture accounting for 70% of farmland acting as a GHG sink and helping to offset the production of ruminants, a GHG source. Without considering the permanent pasture being used as a GHG sink, UK agriculture only contributes 10% of the UK’s total GHG emissions. This percentage would be a lot lower if the carbon sequestration from the permanent pasture was also taken into consideration. This again makes it easy to see why people may view farmers as an enemy due to statistics being thrown around, often without telling people the true meaning behind them.

It is partly due to this misinformation that so many people are against the dairy industry. Globally the UK dairy industry is one of the most sustainable. However, many people still opt for a plant-based dairy alternative, this is often not as sin-free for the environment as people believe. For example, the production of almond milk. Almonds are mostly grown in California and require vast amounts of water, which is a challenge in that drought-prone area. The water is frequently diverted from rivers resulting in the death of aquatic organisms and decreasing the area’s biodiversity. Additionally, bees are brought in to help pollinate the plants but over a third that are employed die from pesticides by the end of the growing season.

Ultimately, it is without doubt that UK agriculture is not the main issue when it comes to the release of GHG and the sustainability of food production. I believe very strongly that buying local produce would have a much greater beneficial impact on the environment than opting for globally sourced, highly processed, plant-based foods.

During my recent studies as part of my Marketing (Agriculture and Food) module we were challenged to create a marketing plan to find a way that a dairy farm was able to increase its profits whilst differentiating them to alleviate their reliance on the price of milk. We were given a case study with various important pieces of information which allowed us to create a logical marketing plan that we would then present to a small panel. 

The case study dairy provided us of with the figures relating to their production, where their milk goes and the various breeds they keep. The predominant breeds being Jerseys and Friesians means their milk is sold to Arla for cheese making due to the high solids content. They additionally told us there are multiple empty buildings on the farm that were not being utilised, so there was room for expansion. 

After a long time of procrastination and chatting in the library my group and I had a light bulb moment: “What if you can make vodka out of milk?” 

Instantly we all started tapping away on our laptops only to discover that it is possible and how it would perfectly suit our case study farm! Thanks to the empty farm buildings there would be enough space to process the milk on site and distil it, helping to create a differentiated product, remove the overreliance on milk pricing and allowing them to access a niche market. 

The final bottle of vodka would additionally have a low carbon footprint due to there not being a need to transport the milk to a different location. Alongside this, it exploits the whey, which is a waste product of cheese making and rarely is put to use. 

The initial process involves separating the curds (used for cheesemaking) and whey (used to make the vodka). Next a yeast is added to create a beer-like intermediate which is then distilled and filtered multiple times to give it a smooth finish. Thus, creating the milk vodka. 

Due to the uniqueness of this vodka our group decided we would market our product to a niche group of people who are on higher incomes, and an older demographic, with the aim that this vodka would be a talking point at dinner parties and bars.

This module has been one of my favourites so far this year. I have really enjoyed the freedom it has given me to explore an industry that is so different to anything I have ever researched before. I found it fascinating how a waste product can be utilised into a completely different product, this is of increasing interest due to the need to reduce food waste over the coming years when it will become progressively more difficult to provide enough food for everyone and ensure food security.

So, if vodka can be made out of these abundant waste products what else can we make?

I’ve always known it will be difficult to establish a career in agriculture due to not coming from a farming background. This has been shown significantly throughout this year in my search for a placement. I have sent in multiple applications and been rejected many times due to my lack of experience, whereas my friends who were born into farming families almost instantly got any placement they applied for. To say it was frustrating would be an understatement.

I found myself getting upset that people were advertising placements, to help people gain experience, but were not willing to take some time to teach people. However, through the frustration I had to keep reminding myself that everything was happening for a reason and that maybe those placements weren’t quite right for me. My time would come. Throughout those set-backs the university careers and placements team were beyond helpful, be it through helping me write new CVs, practice interviews and plenty of encouragement.

Finally, after months of applications and hours of searching, I applied for a dairy placement on the Cowdray Estate. I had an interview with the farm manager and herdsman which quickly felt like a chat with some old friends. They made it very clear they would be willing to take time to teach me everything I would need to know. Which was a massive relief to me.

The Cowdray Estate is located in Midhurst, West Sussex. It consists of woodland of 16,500 acres, 3,000 acres of arable crops and a dairy herd of around 300 Holstein cows. Alongside the farm it offers many outdoor pursuits such as polo, fishing, game shooting and foraging. However, I will be spending the majority of my time in the dairy unit, weaning the calves and assisting with milking. They operate on an autumn block calving, meaning I will be very busy between July and November. The majority of the milk is supplied to Marks and Spencer due to their exceptional record and high animal welfare levels. In quieter times of the year I will also have the chance to gain experience with some arable work.

I am so grateful for this opportunity to develop my practical skills and to be able to grow my confidence in a farm environment. As well as spending my time in a gorgeous part of the country. While I am there, I hope to try out polo on one of my days off, as well as game shooting. I am so glad I have finally found the right place for me and that I was patient and determined to keep searching.

Since moving to the farm in July it has been one hell of a learning curve. I had never done a calving in my life and was suddenly thrown right in the deep end and was now in charge of the whole calving and all care for the calves. To say it has been an experience so far is an understatement, everything I know about cows I have learnt in the past six months!

My first few weeks I spent getting to grips with life on the farm – early morning milking, mixing milk for calves and treating various illnesses. After a few weeks of a steady influx of one or two calves to bring in from the field every morning things seemed to quickly pick up, with an average of five to eight calves being brought in every morning. This continued until 24 November when the last Aberdeen Angus calf was born. In total this calving I have reared 300 calves, 100 of which were Holstein Friesians with the other 200 being Aberdeen Angus’. 

These past few months have been difficult with lots of pressure and expectations (mainly put on by myself), I have found that most of what I have learnt I have had to teach my myself with minimal input from people with more cattle experience than me. However, I now know how to properly treat various ailments and illnesses that I will remember for the rest of my life. 

Although it has been a difficult few months I would do it all again in a heartbeat, I have discovered a real passion for calf rearing and all the challenges that may arise from it. I have also learnt to find joy in the smallest of things even on the hardest days, such as beautiful sunrises and sunsets, a new calf being born will always put a smile on my face, my favourite calf, Pip, coming up to me for cuddles, and the importance of friendships in a place of work where you can support each other no matter how exhausted you all are. 

I have to say a massive thank you to the Rochester Bridge Trust for their support this year!

What a year it has been! I previously wrote about how I had moved to the dairy on the Cowdray Estate and how it had been such a learning curve rearing my calves for the first time.

When I look back to the first few months of my time in the parlour I see someone who was in their shell, unsure and completely lacking in confidence – not to mention painfully slow at milking. However I can now confirm my confidence has blossomed, I am able to milk at the same speed as the herdswoman who has years of experience, while also maintaining low bactoscans and cell counts.

My confidence has also massively increased in the use of machinery such as the scraper tractor (that I managed to crash on my first day which disheartened me to say the least). It sounds so small and insignificant to anyone who has grown up on a farm, but for me it was a big deal and using this tractor in an afternoon to push up food and scrape sheds with the radio blasting and sun beaming in quickly became one of my favourite parts of the day.

In the second half of the year I also found people putting a lot more faith in my abilities, in activities such as moving cattle by myself and setting up fences in the grazing system.

By the end of the year my day would typically look like me arriving at work at 7.30am feeding any remaining calves their cake, then checking, setting up fences and moving the in-calf heifers before returning to the dairy to take over from Alice the herdswoman so she was able to have breakfast. During this time I would scrape around the parlour before spending the next hour ensuring all the manure was off the floors and everything looking so clean you wouldn’t believe a few hundred cows walked through twice a day!

Once this was done, I would then begin rounds of various fields of dry cows (cows that are heavily in calf who get about 60 days’ holiday in the fields before returning to the farm after they have calved), ensuring they have sufficient licks, moving their grazing fences and doing general observations. Then I would check the bulls, and move my heifers that had been sent out to graze a few months ago.

These checks often come with problems that I would have to navigate by myself. For example heifers being the wrong sides of fences (which is surprising difficult to rectify when you are alone and all the other heifers are insistent on also getting to the other side of said fence!). Or the time the water sources dried up in a recent heatwave, resulting in the need to organise extra water troughs to be brought into the field with trailers full of IBC’s to empty into them. (An IBC is an intermediate bulk container, it’s basically a big plastic cube covered in a metal casing with a tap on the bottom.) And of course dealing with any other problems that undoubtedly popped up such as my beef calves escaping and me finding them miles down the road.

By this time it would be lunch, from which I would return at 1.40pm to bring the cows in from the field, set up their next grazing strip, before milking them for the remainder of the afternoon.

Another thing this year has taught me is that anything you do will be scrutinised by members of the public. Just small things such as driving a tractor down a country lane would become a topic of debate on the local Facebook groups.

A time that really stuck in my mind was when we were trying to deliver water to my heifers with a tractor, trailer and IBC’s up a tight lane with cars parked overhanging onto the already narrow road. Only to be met by local residents filming you driving past while tutting and shaking their heads. I do wonder if people realise that farmers don’t want to be squeezing tractors and trailers through tight gaps next to inconsiderately parked vehicles, but some times we have no choice, it was that or leave the calves without any water in 30° heat. I’m sure that if they had stopped us and asked what we were doing they would have also come to the conclusion that it was unavoidable and they too would have done the same thing.

I am so glad to have completed my placement although I’m already missing the cows so much, it really is quite weird not waking to cows outside your bedroom window. But at least I can say that the lessons I have learned have been invaluable and the friendships I have made I will never forget. I shall always look back at my time on this farm with such a positive view, hopefully I’ll be back again soon.