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.

Something’s broken and it’s not just the weather

Common red soldier beetle – AKA hogweed bonking beetle!

The more times we set the trail cam, the smaller any sense of ownership or control we feel we have over the allotment. Last night the weather finally broke. We could feel it coming during the day as the temperature fell very slowly and an easterly breeze picked up. We spent the morning feeding the tomatoes, melons, cucumbers, squashes and courgettes; watered anything that was languishing in the heat and then sowed seeds for the autumn and winter. The weather front came up gradually and the sky filled with clouds – not the immense thunder clouds we’d half expected – but low and dense. Madame has a nose for the smell of rain on the way – it’s called petrichor – the smell, not her nose! -but there was nothing there. After we’d driven posts and ties in to support the taller plants in case of strong winds, we cleared up; ate our breakfast at lunchtime and then went on our accustomed walk eastwards along the river and back along the canal. The evening was still stifling, even with all our windows opened wide. Bath sits in a basin, surrounded by hills and in a prolonged period of high pressure the air gets more and more fetid. The much publicised clean air zone has reduced traffic by only one percent but repairs to the Cleveland bridge have diverted even more traffic through our neighbourhood so it’s worse than ever.

Consequently we’ve slept badly during the heatwave and last night there was the added distraction of imminent thunderstorms which we couldn’t wait to welcome – preferably without too much destructive power but plentiful rain to soak the earth and refill the water butts. We were up every hour during the night, peering through the shutters – our gardening lives are dominated by the weather – and around two in the morning we heard the first sounds of thunder some miles away; grumbling like a convoy of heavy lorries. At four the lightning came close and the rain began. With the wind in the northeast a cool draught woke us up again and we watched the rain gratefully through the window.

The rain didn’t last nearly long enough but at six I gave up and made tea and then kneaded a batch of sourdough bread for its second rise – which is when I decided to go up to the allotment to check for any casualties of the weather (there were none) and to extract and replace the SD card in the trail cam. It seems that we weren’t the only ones up and awake last night. There were video clips of a badger, a fox and later on, a ginger cat all out hunting on our plot. I love the way the fox hunts. He sits bolt upright and stock still with his ears almost flared; scoping the ground by slowly turning his head from side to side and rotating his ears independently. There were other clips of him coming and going along the paths so he spent some time on the plot. The badger hunts with his nose and the cat with all its senses primed. Fox and cat stalk their prey silently and then pounce, but it’s hard to imagine the badger doing anything of the kind. He’s a digger and a browser with a prodigious memory for the places he can find treats. Yesterday one of our human neighbours found a number of her bulb fennel plants dug up.

So how much sway do we actually hold on the allotment? Of course we can sow and tend our crops; but if we consider our work from a more detached perspective it’s clear that the major parameters, within which we garden, are largely beyond our control. Seasons; weather; pests; diseases, birds and larger animals are all part of the process, and if we try to interfere we often do more harm than good. Two days ago I found a dead rat on the patch. By the next day it was gone. The most likely culprit was the cat; but the remains could have been taken by either fox or badger after it had been feasted on by a multitude of flies and insects. Why tidy things up when that means depriving our neighbourly creatures of a meal? Wild gardening necessarily means stepping back from tidiness and control but it doesn’t follow that we have less food from the allotment. We expect to lose some crop, but that’s because the ground never belonged to us in the first place. It is we who borrow it from the teeming multitude of macro and micro life-forms who have been managing rather better without our help for countless thousands of years. The best we can hope to be is good tenants during our temporary lease of the land and so rather than just feeding ourselves we need to be mindful of the needs of all our neighbours. The thing about the earth is that when we treat it properly it brings abundance, but we are the first victims when we treat her carelessly and badly.

The trail cam just brings our larger neighbours to our attention. We’ve loved having so many bees, butterflies, hoverflies, dragon and damselflies as well as tadpoles and froglets in the pond. We do no more than provide a habitat for them and they pay us back tenfold by clearing up after us on the compost heaps, pollinating our plants and feasting on pests like greenfly and blackfly. To try to argue that these creatures lower the productivity of the allotment is crazy. The allotment produces abundance – more than enough to meet our need for food but also feeds our inner, spiritual needs as well; maintaining a huge community of which we are just one part. Even more significantly there’s evidence that the humble allotment is far more productive acre for acre, than many intensive farms; providing much more opportunity for engaging and creative labour. Farmers all over the country are going out of business, unable to make a profit. Local authorities, who used to be major holders of land for smallholdings, have sold off these resources but if they would lease new land from unprofitable farms it could be used to produce new allotments and smallholdings close to towns and cities that could produce good food locally and reduce food miles while improving biodiversity and creating many new jobs. Objections to this such a scheme can surely only be motivated by an ideological commitment to more chemicals, more false productivity and more growth.

The weather is a mess of our own making; the air we breathe is polluted by our addiction to oil, and we are sick from extremes of poverty and wealth; eating industrial junk; and stricken by loneliness and separation from nature. We’re governed by a bunch of clodhopping clowns with no vision and no plan except more of what’s killing us and it’s high time we pushed back and demanded something better. End of rant – but I hope you like the video clip.

Busy bee

OK its probably a hoverfly, but cherry blossom on the riverside in November is a lovely sight!

By 5.00am I was wide awake and in the kitchen today. Yesterday I resumed breadmaking after a break since August when we put ourselves on a low carb diet; and, notwithstanding all my protests that it’s impossible to make a really satisfying 100% wholemeal sourdough loaf, I went ahead and started one anyway.

We survived the first lockdown by cooking (not so bad) but also eating far too many portions of comfort food; bread, cakes, biscuits and preserves and thus it came to pass that we were becoming more generously proportioned than is good for us; in fact we were as fat as Christmas hogs. The last three months of frugality have worked well, we’ve both lost approaching a couple of stone and the threat of nameless but horrible consequences has receded – no doubt like the devil seeking an opportune moment. I won’t bore you with the self glorifying details but there were two particular milestones – rediscovering my waist, and then a joyful reconciliation with a load of clothes that had been folded up and stored with a sigh years ago when it all started. Hilariously, I also discovered that when my old jeans were properly installed around my waist rather than clinging precariously under my belly I no longer needed the shortest leg length. Toulouse Lautrec eat your heart out!

The challenge with wholemeal sourdough is to get it to rise without the sharp edged bran damaging the structure by puncturing the bubbles of carbon dioxide. Those of us of a certain age will remember the Grant loaf – often as hard and dense as it was possible for a dough to be. But Doris Grant had one thing absolutely right; wholemeals don’t need as much kneading, and they ferment quickly, so leaving them for too long is more likely to lead to a collapsed dough than a life-changing loaf. My idea was to cut out the second rise altogether and see what happened; I just had my illumination at exactly the wrong moment and so I started the batter at a time which ensured I would be awake at 4.00am worrying about the dough overflowing the banneton. The idea is to catch the dough when a poke with a finger creates an indentation that feels springy and mends itself immediately. This morning I missed the optimal moment by a couple of hours and a dangerous looking muffin top was just overhanging the banneton (reminding me of my old jeans) , but mercifully the loaf forgave me and with a good sprinkle of rice flour as lubricant it slid from the peel into the hot oven without collapsing.

Yesterday the sun shone and so we took ourselves for a long walk along the canal and back – about eight miles in all. Aside from the cherry blossom I also spotted winter heliotrope in flower on the canalside. In fact there were intimations of life and growth everywhere, if you took the time to search them out. But the other thing we noticed was how much larger the population of permanent narrow boat residents has become. At a time when decent housing in Bath is beyond reach for so many young people, quite a few have taken to the water in a range of boats from the spick and span to the downright messy. In fact one of the floating homes we saw yesterday isn’t a narrow boat at all but an improvised raft.

Noah’s Ark?

A little further on was another boat stacked so high with stored artifacts and second hand timber it seemed to be anticipating a siege –

Are we supposed to get annoyed about this? To me it shows resilience and, after all, people have to live somewhere and if we allow a housing crisis to develop we have no right to criticise the improvised methods of survival that desperate people are obliged to adopt.

The highlight of our walk was a conversation with a young man who is developing an organic smallholding on an unpromising strip of land between the canal and the railway line. There are several such allotments dotted along the canal and this one was well stocked with pigs, goats, chickens, geese, ducks and one or two exotics in the background. A strip of land that would otherwise be producing nothing but brambles is coming to life and producing food in a largely self-sufficient way. What was so nice about our conversation was that notwithstanding maybe fifty years of difference in our ages, we shared the same experiences and enthusiasm for low impact and sustainable agriculture. I’ve just started reading the recently published “A small farm future” by Chris Smaje – you should check it out – it’s a closely argued book that repays slow and careful reading, but if our conversation with the young smallholder yesterday is anything to go by; the ideas that inspired and motivated us in the seventies and which have been so diminished and derided within this grim era of neoliberal economics, have been slowly gathering momentum and heft in the background. There’s a whole community down on the canal and it’s functioning with its own distinct (and distinctly more sustainable) culture. In my darker moments I’ve sometimes feared that everything we believed in and worked for over the past fifty years has been crushed, and that there’s no-one left to pass all the accumulated experience on to. After our long walk we came back to the flat with more of a spring in our step because there are signs of hope along the canal and in many other places. Goodness only knows how this will play out over the coming decades, but yesterday it felt as if the cultural tectonic plates really are moving – too slowly for some, no doubt – but that’s the way of the paradigm shift. For decades there is nothing but almost inaudible questioning of the status quo, the way we do things round here – and then suddenly one day it all clicks. Like sourdough, the best things are worth waiting for – and I think I’m about to have to eat my own words about the impossibility of creating good 100% wholemeal sourdough. Let’s have a taste!

I’ll tell you what it tastes like tomorrow ….