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Subsidies? A headache no more

Steve Dockings isn't a typical learndirect client. First there's the location. Sharland farm is high on Exmoor in Devon, not particularly near anywhere, and miles away from the local college. Steve's farm is 50 hectares (124 acres), which he describes as a "small farm, but not a smallholding". The Dockings family has been farming in Devon for generations, at Sharland since the 1920s. Steve has a mix of crops and a flock of Lleyn sheep, a breed said to be "quiet, prolific, with great maternal instincts".

Modern farming is a business with tight profit margins. Few farms survive without some kind of diversification, and Sharland is no exception. Steve does contract work for other farmers and is in the process of launching an advice service for people who own small amounts of grazing land. "It's for people who might keep a couple of horses, offering advice on paddock management" he says.

Managing budgets, grants and the new EU single payment system means dealing with a blizzard of paperwork , so Steve has felt for some time that he needed to improve his computing skills.

"I would like to get stuck into spreadsheets, make the computer work for the farm," he says. "I'm struggling with that at the moment. There's a lot more maths to farming than people realise."

The traditional college course was a non-starter, partly because of distance, but mainly due to the time intensive nature of farming.

"Sometimes you just can't leave I there's lambing and the harvest."

The answer came with an advert in the local paper: the local community college at Chulmleigh was offering flexible study. Steve signed up for a level 2 (GCSE equivalent) course after hearing positive reports from another farmer. "I'm doing numeracy - I call it maths," says Steve. "After that it could be a computing course."

Steve hasn't been near the converted classroom that serves as the learning centre for months: spring and early summer are the busiest times of his year. But that doesn't matter. "The flexibility is very important. The tutor keeps in touch and I'll be able to start again in the autumn: November is a quiet month on the farm," he says.

He's found the actual courses straightforward.

"It's going OK," he says. "Definitely worth it. It means that I can keep up with the kids - and anything that encourages me to keep up to date with the farm paperwork has got to be good."

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