The call of the farm brought me home...
PUBLISHED: 20:15 09 October 2017 | UPDATED: 20:15 09 October 2017
Farming is intrinsically linked to family life. It has to be. For anyone brought up on a farm it becomes part of you, and even if you step away there is always that pull to come home. Certainly that was the case for Fiona Siddall.
As part of the third generation of the Kerr family, Fiona was born and bred on the family farm in Easton, near Woodbridge. But even by the time Fiona was getting her hands dirty, the farm had already changed significantly from its dairy roots.
Fiona’s granddad, William Kerr, moved down from the west coast of Scotland in 1938 when the Easton Estate was being dispersed, and he took the tenancy on the Model Farm and the neighbouring Abbey Farm and Office Farm, Letheringham.
Model Farms were very popular during the late 1800s when Victorian landowners built beautiful brick buildings with ornate edging. However, as farming became more mechanised the Victorian buildings at the Easton Estate were increasingly difficult to use for modern farming and became redundant in the early 1970s.
On a farming trip to Holland, William’s son, Jimmy (Fiona’s uncle), visited an educational farm. On his return, he set about creating his own, using the beautiful buildings and land to create Easton Farm Park, which opened to the public in 1974.
Fiona’s mum and dad took it on in 1980 and it provided the perfect backdrop for an idyllic upbringing - one which Fiona looks back on with fond memories.
“We grew up on the farm in the middle of nowhere and lived an outdoor lifestyle,” says Fiona. “Early memories include go-karts and long walks. I couldn’t believe that we had access to a playground and all the lovely farm animals. Going on a school trip to our own farm was quite a strange experience!”
But it wasn’t all play, there was always work to be done.
“There were lots of weekend and holiday jobs on the farm. We were ‘encouraged’ to be first out to work in the morning and last back indoors at the end of the day. Jobs included anything from café work at Easton Farm Park to potato grading in the farm sheds. I remember my delight when I finally graduated on to tractor driving work!
“Another lasting memory is always having a milk churn in the boot of the car which mum would fill up on the way home from school – the smell of the milk varied so much depending on the season and what the cows had been eating.”
Fiona has two brothers, one of whom, Bruce, now runs the farming business - predominantly arable these days. This, and the fact that there weren’t many girls going into farming at that time, meant that Fiona was able to take a back seat on farming as she got older.
“There was no expectation that I would be involved in the farm,” says Fiona. “Being a chatterbox, I had a natural affinity for languages and so ended up at Bristol University studying French and Russian – not exactly perfect training for Easton Farm Park.
“I then worked in human resources for a while and completed a postgrad course in HR management, which has proved indispensable in running a business and employing people.”
Fiona spent eight years in London before her return to the farming fold.
“One of my jobs in London was as HR manager for a dot com business, which crashed when the bubble bust in 2000-01. At the same time, mum wanted to step back from the farm and I took the opportunity to return to my roots and take over the reins.”
Fiona made the move with her husband Toby, who she met at university, and it’s safe to say he wasn’t from a farming background.
“I remember buying him a pair of wellies when he first came to Suffolk and he was amazed that he could go through a puddle without getting wet! It took a while, but I finally managed to get him to fall in love with Suffolk. He still commutes to London but can’t wait to get back home.”
Fiona spent the 10 years following her return to the farm in a very hands-on role, taking part in every aspect of Easton Farm Park. This has eased off over the last six years as she and Toby began to grow their own family, which now comprises Lola (6), Flo (4) and Billy (3).
“They love the farm and it gives me the greatest pleasure in seeing what we have to offer through their eyes,” says Fiona. “I have always loved the farm, but now I see the magic too in introducing children to animals and the countryside.”
And that’s exactly the point. Lola, Flo and Billy may be the fourth generation of this farming family, brought up around the sights, the sounds and the smells of the farm, but for thousands of other local children Easton Farm Park provides a link to the county’s important farming industry.
“My uncle Jimmy had the vision of bringing children into the countryside and I know that he still keeps a watchful eye on what I am up to,” says Fiona.
“There are two roles for Easton Farm Park. The first is to get children outside in the countryside, to run around in the fresh air. The other is to introduce children and families to food and farming so that we can understand where our food comes from and enable us to make healthy and responsible choices when feeding our families.
“We are a very rural county and everyone passes a field regularly – it is important to help those who aren’t involved in agriculture to know a little bit more about what is going on in those fields and why.”