What makes a farmer? Some might say it takes generations of farmers in your blood and some might say you become a farmer the moment you own land.
But here I am neither owning land or generations behind me but very much a farmer
If there is one characteristic that I wish I could capture as a farmer it is our ability to be resilient, I took a portrait of mark and I this year as I wanted to capture who we are, as farmers.
Resilience as a farmer allows us to be aware of our own emotional responses, To rise from the lows and stand tall during the peaks
But be elastic to our ever changing situations, we have to accept there will be problems but we need to be open and willing to adapt.
The past year has taught us all something about ourselves that we didn’t know, taught us to understand our own situation and how in my case incredibly privileged that is.
During lockdown we had space for our two wildings to run free, we weren’t cooped up day after day in a tiny flat we didn’t have to do school work, we just carried on our normal farming lives with two mini farmers.
That’s not to say it wasn’t incredibly tough at times, in February during the third lockdown I hit breaking point, here I was trying to farm in another hideously wet winter with two boys whose sole ambition is to follow their hearts and run free.
Mark was at work 5 days of the week and here I was everyday at home, not seeing my friends and being able to share our woes but on a wheel struggling to juggle the needs of the farm, the business and my boys.
My two Wildings
We had unexpectedly lost our young working dog Pip, who at 2, was a key member of our team, so when on new years eve we were given a diagnosis of a rare bone leukaemia we were incredibly shocked, she stayed with us for another week, pampered as I lay cuddling her into the early hours every evening for 7 long days, I would sit there with her sprawled on my lap with my hand feeling her gentle heart beat dreading going to sleep as I couldn’t bear climbing down the stair in the morning to check if she was still with us. She lay by that roaring fire soaking up the heat until we knew she could no longer stay with us and time had come to say the most heart wrenching good bye.
This spring I was also in the midst of starting an appeal process with the Rural Payments Agency who had decided three years into our Countryside Stewardship scheme to declare some revenue options invalid and then fine us for having put in a revenue claim against those elements that were very much valid in the May when I submitted my claim. Its so nonsensical that I struggle to even put it down on paper, but to suddenly loose £4500 of expected income was not what I needed during an already pressured situation.
I was recommended by a fellow farmer to seek advice from the Farming Community Network who can help with appeals to the RPA, but to my embarrassment, I phoned them to explain my situation and within a minute of making that phonecall and hearing the kindness in a fellow humans voice, I broke down in floods of tears an outward response to the anxiety and stress inside, everything had reached a point that I could barely explain the situation, my emotional response was no longer resilient but utterly exhausted.
With the wonderful help of Adam, from FWAG, it was eventually sorted and the money repaid and they declared all to be well again but at what cost. Here I am farming with nature, trying to rebuild this little slice of land and the government organisation designed to support us, is failing time and time again with their incompetence, how long can we remain resilient?
There have been times when I struggle to see how we fit in to the future in the UK as farmers, how can our little farm survive? but something else happened this past year to me, I realised in my heart I am a revolutionary
I no longer see it as enough to just accept the state of agriculture but to be part of a revolution within it and stand up for my beliefs and to raise questions
Sometimes we need to go through pain to be able to see clearly, the past autumn with ever dropping scanning rates in our ewes I slipped back into the role of trying to fix a problem through an input instead of listening to what my flock and land were telling me. I brought in pre tupping buckets, happily putting them out in the fields and the ewes went mad, jostling at the buckets, fighting over the sweet treats I had delivered. But within a week a mass break out of pink eye had happened within the flock, I had ewes going blind and I barely knew what to do, working with our vet we had to inject every ewe showing symptoms and slowly I got on top of it.
As I stood over the flock one evening I realised my error as a shepherd, I had done this, I had caused the problem, by bringing in those buckets I had changed my animals natural behaviour, I had encouraged close contact allowing the bacteria to spread which would never of happened had I trusted in my system.
And if one lesson was not enough, to ensure I was fully understanding my mistake, after delaying tupping due to the outbreak we put our rams in and then they developed pink eye, which then during scanning turned out to have caused an even bigger drop in scanning percentages.
So here I was bruised and battered but not overcome, and my husband reminded me of the words of the wonderful Adam from fwag “if you run a low input system you cannot expect high outputs”. Like minded people allow you to see a way that sometimes you don’t see yourself, I needed to stop and remember I was approaching it all wrong, it wasn’t about my scanning results but it was about my ewes, my land and our produce and doing it the way I wanted to not the way I was being influenced by every feed and farming company was trying to encourage.
Last year in the news there was an awful story of a fire in a pig farm in County Down, up to 2000 pigs died in that fire, the news reported the utterly horrifying scenes, the impact on the farmers and the firefighters but I cannot help but question why do we have 2000 pigs in a single barn?
I want to raise this question not to criticise but to understand how our food system has become so industrialised this is seen as normal.
We are told this industrial level of farming in particular pigs and chickens is better for the environment, in fact the school where my son is starting in September sent round the school menu and what I found rather startling was the complete lack of beef or lamb on the menu, here on Exmoor we grow wonderful beef and lamb on grass, yet the meat options were all but one lonely beef burger, pork or chicken, even swapping a meal that is traditionally beef to use pork instead for bolognaise. Why are we not questioning the shift into these industrialised food systems?
As I stood in my fields one late afternoon, I watched as the cows gathered under the ancient oak trees, reaching up with their tongues, wrapping around the leaves before pulling and ripping the leaves free to slowly feast on the Oak's rich nutrients,
The swallows sweeping through the cows as they moved, and I felt complete and utter euphoria, laughing out loud with the joy as they passed so close to my body I felt the power of their wings.
I see the barn owl silently pass over my head, I see the newts on my sons hands as he shrieks with joy of finding another newt in the abandoned trough, I see the lone oxe eye dairy appearing in our hay fields.
Because I am a farmer not because of my background or land ownership but the fact I am connected to the land, my surroundings, I can be resilient to struggles because I can return to this very place and know in my heart this is where I want to be no matter what the future holds for us as farmers.