Daily Mail - Daily Mail Weekend Magazine

My search for Tv’s Crop stars

Farming’s not for the faint-hearted, as the hopefuls in Matt Baker’s new reality contest found out when they competed for a 340-acre plot

- Kathryn Knight

Ever since James Oliver got together with Mariana Landi three years ago, they’ve shared a dream of owning a farm together – with one caveat. ‘I always wanted to have pigs, but Mari said wherever we end up we’re definitely not getting pigs,’ James recalls.

That is, until a bunch of adorable piglets were put into their care. ‘Someone fell in love, so watch this space,’ says James. ‘I think it’s fair to say pigs are definitely in our future.’

Mari’s porcine conversion turned out to be one of the more unexpected consequenc­es of the couple’s decision to take part in new Channel 4 series Our Dream Farm. The brainchild of keen farmer and Countryfil­e host Matt Baker, it follows 11 people, some in pairs, as they compete for the tenancy of a Northumber­land farm under the watchful eyes of Matt and National Trust staff in charge of granting the ten-year lease to a four-bedroom Grade Ii-listed farmhouse and 340 acres on the Wallington estate.

Over the course of three weeks, the couples must demonstrat­e their ability with livestock (pigs among them) and their approach to conservati­on, nature and wildlife as they strive to show that they – and their business plans – are worthy contenders for this life-changing opportunit­y.

‘I think a lot of people are unaware of this world and I wanted to shine a light on that,’ explains Matt. ‘People assume farms are owned, but there’s a huge number of tenants out there who desperatel­y want to farm but don’t have the land. It’s the toughest lifestyle out there, there’s no doubt about that.’

Sally Richards, Wallington’s general manager, says the competitio­n is intense. ‘There are way more people who’d like our farms than we have farms to give them. They simply don’t come up that often, so it’s quite a rare opportunit­y.’ So rare, in fact, that 1,400 people sent in an applicatio­n, and were whittled down to the shortlist whom Sally and her colleague Giles Hunt, estate director for the whole of the National Trust, deemed to have the best background and business plan. ‘We followed our normal process,’ Sally emphasises. ‘It’s about business cases, about whether you are capable, and if you’re going to do the right thing for the community.’

The stakes were certainly high: one couple taking part had already sold their house in preparatio­n for the show and were living in a caravan. Other participan­ts include an auctioneer, a vet and a 22-year-old local who grew up on the Wallington estate and wanted the opportunit­y to have his own farm there.

They were certainly thrown in at the deep end, working in often subzero temperatur­es to do everything from creating a lambing shed for 60 pregnant ewes and supervisin­g the resulting lambs to building new gates. ‘They got everything – sun, snow and wind,’ says Sally. ‘It meant it wasn’t a rose-tinted view – “Oh, isn’t it lovely, the blossom’s out, let’s sit and have a glass of rosé,”’ says Matt. ‘They were literally filling buckets out of the utility room and taking them down to the sheep and ponies so they’ve got something to drink. This is what life’s going to be like if you get this tenancy, can you cope with it?’ He points out that being a farmer means embracing multiple skills. ‘You’ve got to be a jack of all trades – a businessma­n, a joiner, a plumber. You need brilliant vet skills so you’re not calling the vet out 24 hours a day.’

Aside from the practical skills, there are environmen­tal challenges too. Today, government policy is changing to incentivis­e farmers to protect the environmen­t, from enhancing watercours­es to reducing pollution. Luckily, James and Mari considered themselves more than up for the challenge. ‘When we wrote our applicatio­n, one of the things we wanted to show was that environmen­t and farming are not enemies, they can work together,’ says Mari.

Were they lucky enough to be given the keys to their dream farm? You’ll have to watch to find out.

Our Dream Farm With Matt Baker, Saturday, 8pm, Channel 4.

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Matt on the Wallington estate farm

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