Dealing with the sudden death of a loved one is hard enough, but how do you cope when that person was also the driving force of the family business?
Following the loss of her husband Norman, Debbie Billen and children James and Janet were left with the responsibility of running Barton Farm without a guiding hand.
The 240 acre farm, in the picturesque Dorset village of Toller Porcorum, has been in the Billen family for generations. It passed to Norman Billen in 2016 after his father retired. Norman, who was 52 when he died, had big plans for the organic farm. No one could have predicted the cruel twists of fate that left Debbie a widow.
“Norman tripped and cracked his kneecap,” Debbie explained.
“He had to have an operation, but everything seemed fine. I remember visiting him and he was chirpy, having just had his lunch. Then it was like someone had just switched the lights off. We never even had the chance to say goodbye.”
It was later discovered that Norman suffered from a hereditary condition that made him susceptible to blood clots. He developed a clot that stopped the oxygen from getting to his brain.
“It was a surreal time,” said Debbie. “But however bad we felt, we still had to get up every morning and do the milking.”
Running Barton Farm was a challenge for the family. Prior to Norman’s death, James only worked part-time on the farm while Debbie focused on her day job for the Dorset Wildlife Trust and Janet managed the accounts.
Hardest of all for Debbie was watching her son struggle to come to terms with the overwhelming responsibilities that had been placed on his shoulders, at a time when he was also trying to deal with the loss of his dad.
James confessed: “There had been no handover so I was just coping from day to day.”
Debbie came across RABI online and made the all-important call. Welfare officer Cathy Denslow went out to meet the family and quickly arranged for the family to receive some business advice from Promar and a £2,000 grant to fund some temporary farm help.
“Things were quite tight at the time so for James to be able to bring in an extra pair of hands was a real lift,” said Debbie.
“It wasn’t just about having someone to help with the work either; it was such a relief for me to look out of the window and see that James had someone to talk to and he wasn’t on his own.”
James, who already knew about RABI through his links to Young Farmers, admitted that he wouldn’t have called. He said: “I would have been too proud to call. It’s quite hard asking for help, especially when you don’t really know what you’re asking for.
“But it made a massive difference to know there’s someone out there who will listen to you. And being able to bring someone in to work for two months enabled us to tidy up a lot of loose ends and finish some jobs off.”
The family is still adjusting to life without Norman. For several months they ‘went through the motions with heads down’.
Debbie said: “We’re all learning together. We’ve had to rethink everything and make things as manageable as possible for James. We’re still keeping each other going as much as possible and taking each day as it comes.”
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