Office worker to farm hand… a life-changing week.

and my thoughts on how YOU can help farming have a successful future.

I’ve just finished a weeks work that has made me feel knackered, bewildered, jealous, guilty, in-awe, sad, angry, stupid, thankful and optimistic…

I’m working on the idea for a new book for anyone going ‘Out Of Office For Good’. Either because they’re bored senseless by email and the virtual world and want to see some real fruit for their daily labours or whether economics — or even age — has made the office redundant for them.

I’m looking into realistic options and opportunities we may have. For which industries could you re-train and live a viable and fulfilling life?

This week I’ve worked on Home Farm Dulas in the Herefordshire Welsh borders and it became a special experience.

Not just because completely coincidently, I grew up in the exact same area of Hampshire as farmers Will & Maddie but through their unbelievable generosity and hospitality I’ve got to experience a tiny amount of what life on a farm is like — but over the kitchen table I’ve also received the wisdom of over 40 years experience.

We both come from NE Hampshire — one of us went to town and became an office-working cyclist — the other went to the country and became a shepherd. Very similar upbringings, very similar personalities — enjoy the countryside and community but also enjoy our own company — but living lives that couldn’t be further apart…

It’s been a week of very mixed emotions….

Will and Maddie look after 160+ sheep, horses, cattle, hens and five dogs on their 86 acres. Will works with them every day and loves it.

Labouring seven days a week, compared to emailing seven hours a day, knackers your body and in his late 50’s Will, just back from an operation, is certainly not finding it easy to do a job, that to all intents and purposes he could be doing for the rest of his life. We all suffer aches and pains — but they might stop us cycling for a few days or playing football — they don’t stop us earning the only income that keeps food on the table.
After just a few days I felt knackered, Will is labouring 12 hours a day, 7 days a week.

I’m jealous that Will & Maddie live in amazing scenery and get to be outside in it most days. Their happiness comes simply from a fair days pay for an honest days work, each other and the company of their daughters.

There is always someone knocking at the door, a cup of tea, another slice of cake and some good gossip. And this isn’t just anyone knocking at the door. Everyone who pops in, is an expert in something; metal work, fencing, tree craft, foraging, cooking, shepherding, a non stop supply of experts around the kitchen table.

And, there is little wasted time online, no mobile signal — I haven’t heard a home phone ring so much since mobiles came into being. Everyone wastes 2/3rds of their time online. In the city we’re online 8 hours a day, on the farm it was maybe 1. They are not frittering their life away.

We know farm earnings are criminally low but that’s been OK because its out of sight, out of mind. The reality….
Will bought cattle for £900 about eight months ago and since then has spent about £200 on each for food and other essentials. During the week, we drove four of them for an hour to the West Country’s biggest slaughter house. Will gets paid around £3.64 per usable kilo for each (sold in Tesco’s at £8kg) = total £1200. £100 ‘profit / payment’ for eight months of looking after each one, every single day.

Farmers hope each cattle has a certain quality of meat that means they could get 5p per kilo more — after 8 months labour — that just might earn them an extra £75.

Almost 50% of farm income though is through subsidies and they still can’t break even.

Ultimately the subsidies allow them to just about keep farming so that the supermarkets can buy the food at the cheapest possible price and make bigger profits themselves. In any commercial business Will would be getting £2,000 per cattle — not £1,200.

We know when we shop for lowest prices, someone else is paying (the producer) and someone else is benefitting (the retailer).

Zeon is the ‘boy’ on the farm. He’s been there since he left school at 14. I don’t know any other 18 year old who knows so much about animals or works so hard. All of which is expected of him. He can be at the farm by 6am, driving 30 mins there and working away using his muscle or tractor for 14 hours. He’s not shy and keen to share his thoughts and knowledge. A great kid. On Thursday, he had a haircut and bought some new boots as he was off to Scotland for an interview to work on a massive sheep farm. If he gets it and leaves the farm and his home, it’s a pretty momentous occasion.

I don’t know one parent who wouldn’t be proud of him.

I’m also in awe that in any normal day a farmers job could entail farming the animals or produce, taking bookings for the B&B, making cider or apple juice for sale, converting a barn into a wedding venue, sorting a field for campers, teaching local (troubled) kids about farming, selling lamb, sorting some woofers, making cheese, jam or wine, dealing with the horse owners or working on other new ideas that might just create a new income stream.

You think you multi-task?

Sad and angry

The financial situation is just plain horrific. In cities we complain about the effects that Brexit will have on us and those who voted for it. Brexit is morally horrible but I bet in the long run it will have little effect on our actual daily, city lives. On the farm any uncertainty about the continuation of subsidies could be a matter of life or death — of the farm or even the farmers that can’t cope. Imagine living with two years of uncertainty about 50% of your income. It causes Will sleepless nights.

To get to my age and know almost nothing about farming life, how to look after animals, what labour, skills and processes really go into producing the food we (over) eat every single day, is just pathetic.

I’ve worried about employees that were late for work or that the coffee shop Wi:Fi is crap. A farmer is ‘always on the look out for problems’. Is that lamb blind or got white eye? Is the mother feeding it, lame or caught a disease that could wipe out any income? Real life, real problems.

I don’t know how the abattoir made me feel.
The trip, with 4 cattle, to the slaughter house didn’t make me want to return to being a vegetarian but it did make me hope I can stick to eating just local, seasonal produce. The abattoir is obviously a depressing place but it was an incredibly professional and clean run business. You would imagine there are few countries that are as accountable for the quality of food that makes it to our table.

The countryside in this country is amazing. I spent a week in the middle of The Golden Valley triangle of Ross-On Wye, Hay-on-wye and Monmouth.

Watch the movies Shadowlands and On The Black Hill for a taster.

My personal take away
I hope I can eat local, seasonal food as much as possible. I cycle because I love the outside but it’s a pretty useless occupation. Will is outside because he needs to be, being useful and loving it. Farming provides that. Are there occupations that could provide that for me?

And, I have to stop wasting so much time online. 2/3rds of our time on screens is wasted. Say 35 hours a week, that’s 24 hours a week, just pissing around. That’s a significant percentage of our city lives, WASTING AWAY.

First thing I’m doing is deleting all these email newsletters.

There is a future for farming and it’s mainly from those who (happily) are saying ‘fuck you’ to all the supermarkets underpaying them and finding a niche they can sell direct to the public. Whether that is as a supplier of an absolute premium product that goes direct to the best shops or restaurants creating their own farm based brand, running a retreat venue or offering classes and workshops.

There are more success stories coming along. There has to be! The average age of a farmer is in their 60’s, because they need to continue to work for the income or their children are not ready to return and run the farm, until they can see a reasonable income is possible.

The hero of this new scene is Kate Humble and her Humble by Nature. Watch her current BBC series about successful niche business like Tyrrells Crisps, Chase Vodka and Nomnom Chocolate that are using farmland to create their product and sell it direct.

Check out Farmers Weekly & Kate Humble Programmes.

You want to give farming a go?
I was going to write about where you can learn, gain experience and become a farmer but they are all wrapped up in one answer. Go and offer to help work on a farm for free and you will learn more about life — your own! and farm life than you can ever imagine.

City and farming life is so disconnected — as before, it’s like another planet — which is pathetic. Go yourself or send your kids to find out.

The real answer though…
Farmers need to create niche ideas and connect to those in the city who want some part of country life in their lives. But as a generalisation there is not enough farmers with (on and off line) marketing skills and connections to make their ideas fly. You can provide that.

Why not explore new niche farming brands? Find one you love and offer to help them connect, establish and grow it. You might get to help on the farm but more importantly you can use your real skills to help it launch and flourish.

I’m working with Home Farm Dulas on their beautiful new barn venue and ten rooms of accommodation.

Who wants to join me for the first ever ‘Golden Valley Cycling Weekender’ on 3rd/4th June? Two days of glorious riding. Saturday through the valley and villages and Sunday up over the Black Mountains and Beacons. 4,000m of climbing in beautiful scenery with Maddie’s great cooking and Will’s hospitality! And you might even be needed to help feed the sheep…