From copywriter to farmer

Petite, blond Sylvia Oliver has nearly completed her year's training. I was curious to know what had motivated her to leave her steady job as a copywriter for an advertising magazine in London, where she lived and worked for nine years , to come to Devon and learn how to run a small farm.

Yes, she gave the usual reasons: complexities of city life, constant pressures of deadlines, and ''impossible'' demands of the advertising syndrome. And she said they made her realize she was ''only existing, not really living.''

But it was a more personal incident that triggered her actually leaving city life for a year of work and study at Beacon Farm, a small holding maintained by the Yearner Trust.

''The climax,'' she explained, came one day when she was lighting the fire at home. She suddenly realized the piece of paper she was using actually had on it the advertisement she had spent so much frenzied thought on only a few days before.

''So what!'' she exclaimed to herself as she saw it go up in flames.

Beacon Farm is one of two small mixed farms owned by the privately run Yarner Trust to give students - primarily adults - practical training in self-reliant organic husbandry.

Eric Clarke directs both the trust and the farms. He studied at Liverpool Veterinary College and trained for four more years on a number of farms in various parts of England. Then he settled for 22 years on his own 90-acre holding in Somerset.

He started the training program at Beacon Farm in 1980. Mr. Clarke says his chief aim is to teach the students to be aware of and sensitive to the needs of others.

As he put it, ''Animals, plants, and soil are telling us their needs all the time, and we have to learn to read the signs and respond to them.

''This is essentially a caring husbandry rather than exploitation.'' To carry that thought a bit further:

''By seeking natural solutions to problems rather than imposing one's own will, an integrated and balanced pattern of working and living is achieved here.''

My visit started with a simple meal taken with the seven resident students. Homemade bread and cheese accompanied a seven-vegetable salad - all produced at the farm.

Some students come for much shorter periods of time, perhaps just to get that initial taste before taking the plunge. And the mix is decidedly international: Swiss, German, French, Italian, and, of course, people from throughout the British Isles.

A four-week introductory course in small-holding farming is held twice a year , and is part of the syllabus for the full-time students.

Covered are the cumulative efforts of making the best use of land, labor, and capital. Also, special instruction in vegetable and fruit growing, poultry, pig production and beekeeping, sheep and dairy husbandry, and then those delicious results - baking, preserving, cooking.

Further instruction is given in accounts, records, calculations, building, and farm-implement maintenance, sound business practices, and marketing.

In fact, everything to make a ''go'' of a small farm.

Sylvia told me with considerable pride they had been successful in fertilizing and rearing several batches of handsome Old English pheasant fowls. For my stay, one of the cooped bantam hens hatched her brood of eight.

The farm project is housed in especially converted premises which include a library and tutorial room, kitchen, dining and sitting rooms, laundry, and residential accommodations for up to seven students.

This year students will learn more about harnessing both sun and wind to help cut down on farm costs, and although the soil is heavy clay, most tilling is done by hand - a far cry from copywriting in a London advertising agency.

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