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August 2021

Written for Cumbria Life.

John: As the summer slowly turns to autumn on the farm, we start getting exited about the sheep sales. It’s a time for being proud of your achievements as well as investing in the future as the last year’s crop of lambs start being sold and future sires are purchased. Farmers from throughout the Lake District valleys congregate at the main sale centres so it’s also a great opportunity to see old friends and catch up on some farming gossip. The farmers and their sheep will be dressed up for the day, the best crook will be placed carefully in the vehicle, the lambs or rams loaded in the trailer knee deep in straw or sawdust. Days of preening, pedicures, fake tans and powdered faces, all go into the big sale day and that’s only the sheep. The farmer will have his or her best country wear on and smell of sheep dip and coal tar. The price the sheep make this day is the culmination of many years of selective breeding, care and nurturing generations of offspring to provide what their cohorts desire. This may be females for the lowland farms to breed from or rams to produce the next years progeny, all dressed up to make the best impression. The sale ring will be packed to the rafters (COVID allowing) with folk that may not have seen each other since the last sale, the chatter will be exited if the trade is good and subdued if it’s bad. As farmers we don’t get a regular income: no wage packet or monthly orders. These days make or break the bank balance and the soul, but this year looks like being a good one so let’s enjoy it while we can and revel in the beauty that is a Bonny Lamb. 

Maria: This month John went on a mini break to Wales with a fabulous, enthusiastic team of people that work with us: Becky, Sarah and Joe. I volunteered to stay on the farm to look after the animals so that John could have a well-deserved holiday. But, to be honest I was delighted to be left at home and it was a break for me too. I realised that in the six years that I have been on the farm, I’ve never been by myself for more than a few hours at a time. After years of living alone, moving on to a family farm was a big culture shock. When I lived in my last flat in London, if there was an unexpected knock, I’d quietly peer through the peephole before either tiptoeing away or unbolting and unlocking the door, annoyed by an unscheduled visit. Now, friends and family easily wander in and out of the house every day.  This morning, John’s dad came to the door with a bag of apples he’d just picked before spending the day working with John; our friend Rachel is staying for a few days before setting off in her van to Germany where she has a shearing job lined up; tonight we’ve organised a BBQ as some friends from Jersey are staying with us too. I love the openness of our farm but spending those few days on my own was a real joy. It’s easy to lose yourself in the busyness of life and to have some quiet time felt really important. And I also managed looking after all the animals without having to call on anyone to help!

John took some time on his trip to visit the Welsh Organic Tannery. After the disaster with our last batch of sheepskins, we began looking into setting up our own tannery and John wanted to visit their small set-up to get an in idea of what we’d be letting ourselves in for. Joe, who was with John on the tannery tour, got very enthusiastic and has decided that he’d like to take this up as his own business venture, enticing Sarah to work with him. We are delighted about this. Firstly, because it means we don’t have to start yet another business from scratch, but also, we’re excited to help them set up their own independent business. So, hopefully in the next year so, the Lake District will have a sheepskin tannery where farmers like us can have their own sheepskin rugs made.

July 2021

Written for Cumbria Life.

Maria: I listened to an old BBC radio documentary called ‘A Night in the City’. Recorded in the nineteen fifties, the plummy interviewer talks to an array of characters he meets in Manchester at night. One of the men, referred to as a ‘Gypsy’, tells the interviewer, “It’s the same as with you, Sir. You’ve had your ups and downs of life. You’ve not always had it sugar… If you didn’t have your bad times as well as your good times, you wouldn’t know you were born…. I’ve had my hardship as well as my smoothship.” I listened to that documentary about 20 years ago, living in a flat share in London. I found it again the other day, and although my life feels infinitely better than it was twenty years ago, the line about hardships and smoothships very much sums up this month on the farm.

The smoothships were great. We helped at James Rebanks’ farm on shearing day. The shearers worked non-stop in the scorching heat while we rolled the fleeces, sorting the dark from the light, in preparation for spinning. But it’s always a good social event when you’ve got a shearing team come to your farm. Music was playing and we all had a bit of a dance when a slight breeze made the job easier. Then Joyce Campbell came down from Scotland with her best Cheviot wool for us. We want to do something special with her fleece. She’s such a fabulous farmer and a great advocate for farming and for women in farming in particular, so I’m really pleased to be able to work with her. John and I have been shortlisted for a Cumbria Farming Award in the Farm Diversification category. And I’ve been nominated for an EVAS award, a women in business enterprise award.

The hardships have been that a huge wholesale meat order got left outside by the courier company in the blazing sun over a weekend so all the meat was ruined. The fifty sheepskins we sent off to the tannery got fly infested so the whole lot had to be disposed of and a mink got into one of my poultry runs and killed most of my turkeys. I’ve built up resilience since I joined John on the farm, which you do when you challenge yourself or are forced out of a limiting existence. We both take bigger steps than we used to, out into new projects, and with that comes risk. We can’t scuttle back to what was comfortable to us because that place is gone. So, while we’re building a bigger life out in the open, we’re more vulnerable. The good thing is that during the hard bits, we always pull together and are kind to each other.

I also got an email this month from Andrew Hogley, the CEO of the British Wool Board, asking if we’d have a meeting with him. I really didn’t know if this would be a hardship or a smoothship for us.  By law, all wool should be given to the Wool Board and sold by them on the farmers’ behalf. And it’s actually illegal to burn it, which some farmers do because it’s worth so little. There are many small companies, like ours, working with their own wool, or buying direct from farmers. You can apply for an annual dispensation to not send your wool to the Wool Board, to use it for craft or artisanal purposes but we’ve never applied.  I worried that our being quite public about using James and Joyce’s wool, and criticising the low price the Board get for wool meant that they were going to shut me down and make an example of me. I do like to take myself to worst case scenarios! Fortunately, though, that’s not what happened when we met with Andrew over Zoom. He couldn’t have been more supportive of what we are doing and has given me some very sound advice. So last month might not always have been sugar but that day at least was a smoothship.

John: As Maria has said it’s been a very testing few weeks. Doing things differently brings lots of challenges alongside some success. The weather has been amazing, I can’t remember such a long spell of constant sunshine since the mid seventies, it’s meant we’ve made loads of hay. Normally we wrap all of our haylage in plastic to preserve it as we don’t get the weather to make hay. Hay needs to be complexly dry so the weather has allowed us to make decent winter feed when it would be impossible in the past. I can remember the days of eaking out dusty hay through the winter because of a poor summer, so having the ability to persevere the crop in cling film had been a revelation. But as we move forward like the rest of society we need to look at reducing the amount of plastic we use wherever we can. By making mainly hay this year I’ve used only a third of the plastic I normally would, which is good for the environment and my pocket as not only is it expensive to buy but also expensive to recycle. 

We are doing lots of other things to try and reduce our environmental impact, alongside the obvious of increasing biodiversity on the farm, reducing inputs and the use of plastic. By making more of the wool we produce we hope to help revitalise this amazingly versatile and carbon neutral product. It seems crazy that most of the clothes we wear are made from plastic leading to increased levels of micro plastics in our oceans. This is why it was so great to have such a positive meeting with the new CEO of the Wool Board; his passion to change both the organisation and promote wool products was so refreshing.