Down on the farm again

I’ll write something more later about our trip to Pembrokeshire last week but on Friday we drove over to the Brecon Beacons to see friends we’ve been unable to visit for almost two years because of the covid pandemic. We stayed over for a couple of nights on their smallholding, which gave us all time to catch up, meet their new Welsh Terrier puppy, talk a lot about small farm economics and get stuck in on building a replacement stock fence. It may sound perverse but it’s both fun, and rewarding to get outside and do some hard manual work with an old friend. We had to drive in new fence posts in pretty unpromising ground; and the larger of the two crowbars we were using was over a foot taller than me, a couple of inches in diameter and took two of us to drive it in. I’m pleased to say it all went pretty seamlessly until we tried to tension the fence with the tractor and pulled out the rather ancient end post that looked as if it still had some life in it. It didn’t! But there we are. Everything on this smallholding gets recycled, repurposed and treasured until it actually falls apart.

Such are the excesses of rental costs for land and houses in the area that it’s impossible to make a living from farming or smallholding alone. Two and three jobs are commonplace; but we discovered as we drove around a long diversion through tiny lanes, that incomers, second homers and holiday rentals have displaced almost all the young people from even living in the area, let alone thinking of a career in agriculture. Where there were a dozen farms, now there are a couple of smallholdings and dozens of immaculately restored facades. It looks like the countryside but it’s rapidly becoming a vast suburbia with fields.

I’ve written often about the need to break up the agribusiness conglomerates along with intensive chemical farming; restoring local small farms with direct links to their local communities – but without action to restrain land speculation, this just can’t happen. Schools are closed, social care is handed over to a diminishing band of elderly volunteers, hospitals and health centres are concentrated in inaccessible places when there’s virtually no public transport. Local shops close down against the competition of supermarkets in the larger towns, and don’t even ask about banks, libraries, post offices and pubs; all of them part of the social and cultural capital of any thriving local community. And for what gain?

Aside from banging in posts and talking about farm economics, we ate together. This is where you can really taste the possibilities of local and sustainable farming. If you’re a city dweller you’ll probably never have heard of a hogget. It’s a sheep that’s too old to be a lamb and too young to be classed as mutton – between one and two seasons old. We ate roast hogget, raised on the smallholding on its abundant hillside grassland. The flavour (so long as you’re not a vegetarian) is so much better than supermarket lamb. We had home cured bacon – equally delicious – and as many vegetables as we could eat, straight out of the garden. A near neighbour runs a microbrewery for pleasure – and for barter. I was able to drink two old Bristol Beers that disappeared half a century ago and recreated in a Welsh valley. Simmonds and Georges were the big brewers when I was a child and I can still remember the smell of malt and hops that filled the area around Old Market and Temple Way on brewing days. The beers – if you needed telling – were indescribably better than the mass produced keg beers that displaced them. Who says that market efficiency improves standards? it just increases profits at the expense of everything else. Saturday breakfast comprised poached eggs that sat up in a way that you only witness when you keep your own hens. Ask yourself why eggs are so hard to poach, and the answer is because they’re bound to be stale by the time you get them from a supermarket.

While we were there I helped smoke some cheese in a cold smoker assembled from an old wood stove, some bits of plywood and a chimney made from a repurposed toilet downpipe – as I said, nothing ever gets thrown away. The sawdust for the smoker came from the giant combination planer, router and circular saw that’s used to cut and prepare planks – often oak – that are used across the house for furniture and a dozen other projects. On one of the oak trees growing alongside the barn there was the beautiful beefsteak fungus I photographed above.

Is life idyllic three miles from the nearest main road and on the side of a mountain? No it’s relentlessly demanding. The farm is subsidised by outside work and the animals and vegetables are all cared for in what – for most of us – is spare time. And yet it’s also a place of great beauty – a sometimes higgledy piggledy patchwork of unfinished projects and objects that have yet to find a new purpose. You can see the stars – it’s in a dark skies area – and you can listen to tawny owls at night and during the day a congregation of carrion crows or ravens might gather over a dead sheep on the hill. Life on a farm is full of beginnings and endings; of darkness and light – and it demands a lot in return for a gift beyond any price tag.

I sometimes worry that it’s all too easy to romanticise, to glamourise the small farm – but compared with an intensive dairy farm, poultry or pig unit it’s a paradise. Comparatively speaking, intensive farming is a death cult when compared with a well run organic farm or smallholding. Of course there are deep ethical and moral issues about taking any life, and the small farmers I’ve met take that very seriously. It’s a decision for each one of us. The killing of an animal for food is a big deal and we can’t escape responsibility by handing the act over to a supermarket that hides it under plastic packaging. When we kept chickens I killed a few every year for the pot. I arranged for a lesson from the local butcher before I began and he taught me the most humane way of doing it. I never enjoyed it but I thought it was my moral duty to do it myself. We only culled surplus cockerels and I would take them first thing in the morning as they waited at the bottom of the ramp ready to oblige the first unwary hen that popped her head out. I like to think that their last thoughts were happy and expectant ones! and once you’ve watched them hatch, raised them and seen them living free in an orchard with abundant grass, windfalls and delicious bugs, slugs and worms – I promise you’d never take the meat for granted or throw away and waste a single bit.

Farming isn’t for the faint hearted – but then, neither is living. So to finish, here are some moths from their garden, and a novel use for unsaleable sheep wool as a slug barrier.

Food and farming joined

At the beginning of the sequence of covid and then brexit we saw the fragility of our food chain demonstrated in the most telling way by empty shelves in the supermarkets and perfectly good food rotting in lorries. At the time we resolved that we would switch our shopping towards high standard and locally produced organic food as soon as we could. It’s been a year but after a lot of research we’ve found an organic farm shop that’s only ten minutes drive away and sells fresh meat and fish too on Wednesdays. These all come from the immediate locality. The veg are not so local because there are a lot more livestock and dairy farms locally than there are market gardens, but then they’re all labelled with their place of origin and we grow a great proportion of our own veg in any case. There are two organic veg outlets five minutes walk from the flat. The fish come either from West Country inshore fisheries or further afield for the offshore catches. Staples like grains and beans can easily be found in Bath which has a strong alternative food tradition. Is it all more expensive? – honestly yes – but that’s because the hidden cost of intensive food production and distribution are never counted in the ticket price, (although still we pay through the nose in terms of poor health, environmental damage and pollution), and of course we still buy a significant amount of food in a supermarket that’s worker owned and demands high welfare standards from its suppliers. You can’t let the perfect drive out the good, as the saying goes, and to an extent the higher price is mitigated by the fact that we never willingly waste any of it. Our tiny food waste recycling bin is only emptied a couple of times a week at the very most and one of these days when funds permit we’ll try out bokashi composting and/or build a worm farm up at the allotment. What’s for sure is that eating is – or at least should be – as much an ethical issue for omnivores as it is for the most committed vegan.

But there I go sounding a bit worthy. The best news about shopping locally is the fact that it creates a lot of local jobs and you can have a conversation with a person who really cares about what they’re selling. Today we joined the queue for the fish van and overheard a conversation he was having with a customer about the way the Brixham trawler skippers were re-jigging their markets after brexit. Then, when our turn came he was delighted to tell us that our smoked mackerel – the darkest I’ve ever seen – were smoked in Arbroath, and the smoked haddock (OK I love smoked fish) was processed in Peterhead where this particular supplier would only smoke the largest fish. In the butchery no-one even raised an eyebrow when I asked about mutton, and the butcher told me they only occasionally get hogget. You’ve really never tasted lamb until you’ve eaten hogget – lamb in its second year. We were given a leg by a smallholding friend and it was simply the best flavoured lamb I’ve ever tasted. We even found out that they make all their own faggots; no-waste butchery on the very farm the animals are raised on, and the great thing about a proper butcher is that you can often buy the cheapest cuts at incredibly good prices. In the food section there’s even a refrigerated Jersey milk dispenser, and unless this sounds like a bit of a promo, we tried the sausages last week and neither of us particularly liked them. However there’s another local butcher on our river walk and he makes the best we’ve ever tasted. Ask yourself when was the last time that food shopping was this much fun?

As we left the shop we found this family of pigs with a whole paddock to themselves. The piglets were a little shy and scooted off behind the ark when they saw me, but it seems to me that if you’re going to eat meat at all it should be produced on farms like this and lead a naturally fulfilled life in the open air before being humanely slaughtered. Traditional mixed farming is certainly one part of a sustainable farming future; producing excellent food while returning fertility to the ground. I go back often to Michael Pollan’s excellent advice – “eat food, not too much, mostly veg!”

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