Written for Cumbria Life.
After replying with a ‘Yes please!’ to the email asking if we’d like to write a regular column in Cumbria Life, the first thing I did was order celebratory jumpers from Oubas Knitwear for John and myself. Oubas make wool clothing about 5 minutes from our farm. I don’t know if local/sustainable jumpers are the new way to mark a happy moment or ten years out of London, my ethics and priorities have changed. Maybe both. Neither a bad thing.
When I joined John on the farm five years ago, I decided I didn’t want to go out and get a job, I fancied living the rural dream by getting my own rare breed sheep and a Jersey cow, acting as midwife during lambing and hatch out turkey eggs. I didn’t realise this idyll would also entail holding a lot of gates open in the driving rain, being shouted at by John for not being a mind reader, slathering about in mud in the dark looking for escapee sheep and helping fix the odd prolapse. Dreamy/nightmarish. And although I loved this new way of quiet but high-drama living, and my London art friends suddenly found my lifestyle quite exciting, I needed to find a way to bring money to the table.
Growing up the 70’s and 80’s, sitting too close to the television when Dallas was on, and later being subjected to my dad’s addiction to and identification with The Godfather in VHS form, my view of business was embarrassingly limited and negative. If I hadn’t set-up one up myself, I would not have realised that that just like people, they are deeply nuanced and that there could be so many ways to run a business that don’t justify exploitation as a Key Performance Indicator.
Moving to the Lakes for a full-time job with Grizedale Arts, I had to face the fact that I was a commitment-phobe, always with a foot out the door, never settling. I think I’ve moved home about 40 times. For the first time in my life I feel settled. I am committed to John and the farm and as I’ve put down roots and grown in in terms of my own personal development, so too has our business, reflecting who we are and what we believe in.
This Month: Maria is starting the expansion of The Soap Dairy into the adjoining barn.
As the days get slightly longer we can start to look forward to spring and lots of new life on the farm but the real work starts in the summer and autumn selecting which ewes or cows go with each tup or bull.
As we sell most of the female progeny to other farmers for breeding, it’s vital we get this right or it could severely lessen the value of them come the sales. When Maria first joined me on the farm she couldn’t believe the breeding sales at the mart and likened it to a fashion parade. The animals are washed, preened, polished and even given a full pampering session including profiling, trimming, waxing and some times even a colour and blow dry. It’s all in aid of catching the potential purchasers eye or winning the prized rosette. Many years of selective breeding, careful selection and records of health are all for this and the breeders reputation. If your stock go on to do well for the purchasers then the news will slowly filter down through word of mouth and there will be more interest the following year. If they do badly then ever man and his dog will get to hear of it in no time and like a bad Trip Advisor review, it could be damaging to your business. We love the thrill and excitement of the sale ring but we have found selling from the farm has many advantages. The buyers can see the type of system you run, the health and welfare and the unpolished article in its normal work clothes. Also because we only keep rare and native breeds, there’s less razzmatazz and a more carful selection of the right genetics to hopefully widen the gene pool. It also helps to show the viability of the animals as we’re showing the ‘before’ shot rather than the ‘after’ shot. Commercial viability is one of the things we have really focused on recently and we will talk more about in the coming months. Fellow farmers keep telling me that Rare Breeds are rare for a reason in that they are not commercially viable, but it’s more because of that thing called fashion that I mentioned earlier and the kudos of having your name mentioned in the mart report or ‘the bragging book’ as we call it. The trick is to do both.
This Month: John will be scanning the first batch of pregnant sheep.