Much Ado About Farming

A few weeks ago, I found out about an event taking place in Yorkshire that I wanted to attend. After begging the day off, and securing a place to attend, I considered my options for accommodation. Running through my list of friends in the area, I realised quickly that it was the university’s Easter holidays, and so the usual array of floors, sofas and armchairs would sadly be unavailable. This opened up the opportunity to stay on the estate belonging to the aforementioned Sir Pheasant and his peasant farmer. The bedroom I was allocated was bigger than my university flat, and indeed contained more beds than my university flat; my unfortunate but terrifically honest flatmate pulled straws for rooms before I even moved in, and having picked the straw for the small room, kitted out with a futon instead of a bed, was perfectly and admirably honest and began unpacking. She did come to be quite fond of the straw mattress – or so she led me to I believe. All of this aside, the fact remains that the room I occupied during my stay on Sir Pheasant’s farm was absolutely enormous. Another lesson about the country: houses are bigger. The rooms in general in the house were vastly bigger than anything I’d seen in Twickenham or Richmond growing up.

I was curious about the farm, and on the mini tour to view the pheasants and Mad March Hares, I asked a lot of questions. The farm had both livestock (cows and sheep, for meat though not for milk – no Eau de Dairy Farm here) and arable crops, and having been told this, I opened my mouth to ask a question about the cows – only to be corrected before I’d even finished my sentence. Another countryside lesson: while colloquially the term ‘cows’ is used in general to refer to cattle, in Farm World calling a beast a ‘cow’ implies that the beast is female, and has had calves. ‘Heifer’ is the term for a female cow before she has had any calves. A bull is an “intact male bovine animal” while ‘bullock’ refers to a less fortunate male, who has been castrated. The cows (colloquial use) on this farm were all bulls, being farmed for beef. I have to say, I never thought I would know this much about cows (again, colloquial use), and I’m still not sure it will ever be useful, but for now it will become yet another part of my country disguise, so that people think I know what I’m talking about.

Continuing towards the hares’ boxing ring, we stopped on a dirt track between two fields. Sir Pheasant’s farmer, gesturing with one hand to all the land visible in front of us, told me,

This is all corn.

Corn. Okay, I thought, I know what corn is. I’ve eaten corn. He turned to his left,

This is wheat…

He swung round to the right,

…and this is barley.

I stared into the space in front of me.

I thought you said they were both corn.

He smiled, trying not to laugh, explained what he meant, and I think I understood him correctly (but if not please comment below and further my agricultural education!)

Apparently, ‘corn’ is a term used to refer to any sort of cereal crop, including, wheat, barley, and what I was thinking of as corn is called maize. It starts its life as a type of corn, specifically as maize, then is cut down, stripped and bagged up by the Birds’ Eye polar bear and sold as either corn on the cob or sweetcorn, or failing that is puffed up and sugar coated, and sold as Butterkist popcorn. Unnecessarily confusing if you ask me, and greedy of the farmers who already have an umbrella term for that type of crop – cereal. Why they need a second is beyond me, but as much as I rant here, I’ll keep my lips firmly zipped when out in public among more agricultural folk; until I’ve learned a little – okay, a lot – more, they remain the experts.

Once I’d returned from the far distance lands of the North Yorkshire countryside, two friends asked me about my trip, about the farm I’d stayed on, and I recounted the storied detailed above, about how I’d seen the pheasants and the hares in the fields, about how quiet and peaceful it was, and some more boring facts about the land. Apparently I’d misunderstood something, somewhere along the line, as when I said the farm was 120,000 acres, they goggled at me.

My mother will tell anyone who will listen that I have a good eye for space, and that I should have been an architect. I have always enjoyed things of a 3D nature; woodwork when I was little, and building Lego and Duplo houses when I was littler. As a teenager I had a penchant for all things interior design and used to mock up floor plans of our house. All of this, combined with an A* in Design Technology, an A at A Level in Product Design, and the school Technology prize, I should have decent spatial awareness. And like to think I do, but my grasp of space starts at mm2 and cm2, travels up through sq ins, to pretty much reach its limit at m2. I think a house my aunt used to live in had an acre of woodland out the back, but I was small and it was big and I never full explored the limits of the Acre.

The fact was that before my visit to the farm, at the ripe old age of 23, I couldn’t have marked out how big an acre is to save my life, and even now I’m still not utterly certain whether a hectare is bigger or smaller than an acre. If I’d known then even roughly the size of an acre, I could probably have worked out that 120,000 acres was a little larger than the farm I’d seen. In fact, a 120,000acre farm would be double the size of the city of York, and approximately one seventeenth of all North Yorkshire. So having announced with faux confidence that I’d stayed on a 120,000acre farm, it’s no wonder my friends goggled; they must have thought I’d been staying with the Grand Old Duke of York, or someone of equal importance. After a quick telephone call, it transpired that the farm I described was in fact just as fictional as the Grand Old Duke. In reality, Sir Pheasant’s farm is 300-400acres. This fact and the absurdity of my initial description brought gales of laughter to my friends when I confessed, but I should be grateful – it brought humour, laughter, and yet another smidgen of agricultural enlightenment. And aside from that tiny, negligible misunderstanding, I promise you that everything else about the farm is true: there are strutting pheasants, boxing hares, plenty of corn (wheat and barley among other types), a lot of bulls, just a few sheep and at this time of year, a smattering of lambs to keep them company.

Eau de Dairy Farm

Last week I went on a mini-tour of the shooting grounds of the Home Counties: E.J.Churchills, West London, Royal Berkshire and finally Holland and Holland. About the individual grounds I shall have to write another time, because, as all those who follow my Twitter account with know, I recently promised a friend I would write about cows. This came about after a comment I made in the office, about some cows I’d seen at the end of my shooting-ground tour. I told him I’d visited a dairy farm, and met a horse. He asked me whether it was a big black and white horse with udders. And I explained that the dairy farm I’d visited had also had a livery (stressing this word somewhat proudly, as it seemed a genuinely country-sort-of-word that might help secure that notion of ‘fitting in’ I’d had at the charity shoot). He went on to ask me more about the farm, and in particular what type of cows were bred.

–       Brown ones.

The ensuing laughter suggested that apparently this isn’t an accurate description of a breed of cow, and also ruined any notion I might have had that I was becoming country’.

It turns out that the cows in question were in fact pedigree limousin, but I have to say that the name means nothing to me. They were big, creamy brown cows, the colour of a not-too-weak white tea. I was shown some of the new calves, only around a week old, and it was fascinating to see that, while I had no idea of the specifics of what makes ‘a good calf’, I could clearly tell the difference between a ‘good’ calf and a ‘weak’ one when the two calves were pointed out to me. The good calf had a much more symmetrical face and body, a broader, flatter back, wider, more muscular rear (rump?) and looked healthier; if it had been a child, my mother would have described it as ‘bright eyed and bushy tailed’.

That same weekend (the same weekend in fact as the boxing match of the Mad March Hares,) I was also shown some bulls, on a different, livestock farm (that’s a meat farm to me) where beef is farmed for Waitrose and other supermarkets. And the biggest difference between the two farms, far more noticeable than the set up, machinery or even the cows themselves, was the smell. It turns out being in the countryside elicits far deeper sensory experiences than those found in the city. Either that, or I’m just used to the sights, sounds and smells of Greater London.

I’d already been lead to believe that dairy farms had a distinct smell. A couple came into my showroom a few months ago, the parents of an ex-colleague and, more importantly for the purposes of this anecdote, the owners of a dairy farm. Just after they left, another colleague (the nephew of a dairy farmer who accompanied me to the Halloween hunt ball mentioned previously) walked into the showroom and asked whether they were the parents of the woman with whom we both used to work. When I said yes, he said,

–       Ahh, I thought I smelled dairy farmer.

At the time, I thought he was joking; whoever heard of a person being able to smell someone’s profession, and this after they had left the room. He attempted to convince me of his sincerity, but I have to say that until I stepped out of the car onto the dairy farm the other week, I still doubted him.

But it’s true. The livestock farm, with exclusively male cattle, smelled vaguely farmy, for want of a better word. The warm, pungent, almost fruity smell of manure, mixed with fresh air and general agricultural dustiness. But the dairy farm smelled very different. It was sweaty, tangy, sour, not unlike milk past its best. Difficult to describe, I have to say it was not a pleasant smell, but definitely distinctive, and I began to understand what he meant now about being able to recognise smell of a dairy farm. Once that scent gets into your hair and clothes, I imagine it’s virtually impossible to remove.

The second thing I remember most vividly about the dairy farm was the farmer’s manner with the cows. None of them had names – no Daisy, no Buttercup, and no Ermintrude to be seen. I assumed that a farmer, who sees hundreds if not thousands of cows, generation after generation, pass through his farm, would be ambivalent towards the cattle, see them purely as a means to an end – the end in this case being the milk and profit accrued from it. But far from it. He leaned over the fences and pointed out beast after beast, telling us when how old they were almost to the day (the calves) or how many calves they’d had and when (the cows). As we chatted, cows wandered over to the railings and stuck their heads over the fence to be petted, as my dog does when I walk into the room at home. And just as I would with my dog, he scratched behind their ears and above the brow ridge, and they stood calmly enjoying the attention. I liked the fact that the farmer really did care for his animals, and while not silly about them – they are after all there to produce milk and thus an income – it doesn’t stop him being affectionate and concerned. Any milk that comes from that farm definitely comes from happy cows, and that I like.

Despite my naivety about the breed of cows I have to end this post by pointing out that even working on a dairy farm doesn’t teach you everything about them. Months ago, I was at a pub quiz with my colleagues, gin and tonic in hand, and a question was asked about cows. We all spun round in delight – we had the aforementioned nephew of a dairy farmer on our team after all – as the compare broadcast the question:

–       From where on its body does a cow sweat?

But even he was stumped and could do little more than guess. A lifetime’s experience of cows hadn’t taught him this, and yet, after just a few months just tiptoeing around the edge of country life, I can share with you that a cow apparently sweats predominantly from its nose. You learn something new every day.

Agricultural Genres

With a degree and many photographs of me in a silly hat under my belt I moved, as people do, to an entirely new area. I knew no-one and had no contacts. I promised myself then that I would accept every invitation I got, and invite myself along where possible. The result of this was me tagging along with some colleagues to a friend’s friend’s birthday night out.

The birthday girl in question is what I believe is called an Event Rider (or something of that nature), riding very expensive and very beautiful horses in very competitive events – and being paid for it. We arrived at her house, and as it opened the big wooden gate (a novelty in itself) revealed a variety of buildings looming up in the darkness: a house, a very big shed (this turned out to be the stables), and what looked like a giant’s food mixer set into the ground: a sort of wall or fence (the mixer’s blade) fixed to one side of a central post, making out the radius of the circular wall around it. Three statues of horses stood in the gravel drive. Looking at the buildings and machinery around us as we pulled up, I opened my mouth and declared: “I’ve never been on a farm before”.

This obviously isn’t true.  We’ve had family holidays staying on farms, where we’d chased chickens (when I was little) and bottle feed lambs (when I was a little bit older), and primary school trips had given me great experience of orienteering through mazes made of small hay bales. But as a newly initiated adult, I’ve never been on a farm as a venue for a visit, party, occasion or any event other than visiting a farm.

The truth of the statement turned out to matter not a bit, as the three other occupants of the car burst out laughing. It wasn’t apparently a Farm at all, but a Horse Yard, where some of the aforementioned very expensive very beautiful horses ridden in the events lived, slept, were fed and watered, washed, brushed and sunbathed (there was actually a contraption to give the horse sufficient UV something rays. I’m sure there’s a legitimate explanation for why the horse needed a tanning salon but I can’t for the life of me remember it). To me it still sounds like type of farm – one for horses – but there you go. So with another faux pas and much hilarity enjoyed by my new friends, my country education progressed another step.

Meeting the horse later was a whole other experience in and of itself. The beast was huge. And we’d had a few drinks, making all the bigger. I made sure to stay near the head end of the animal, on the other side of the wall to talk to it through the little window. And I have to admit, though I’ve never cared much for horses, admired and petted from a safe distance, it was a stunningly beautiful, powerful-looking creature, glossy and silky silky smooth to touch – and its legs looked so muscular I felt fully justified in my decision to stay near the head end. But then, for £45,000 I should hope it would be a fit and healthy specimen.

The blasé nature of how the others waltzed into the stable showed me another entirely alien side to country folk. The hostess grabbed a large dustpan and brush quickly mucking out the horse before we set out for the night, despite her cream satin dress and matching heels, her devotion to the horse more important than her outfit (though she somehow managed to stay as clean and cream as she’d gone in) and her devotion to the animal was obvious. I think, one day, I’d like to learn to ride. Something to add to the list.

During the drive home the next day I provided yet more amusement for my friends when I mentioned someone I met at university who farms beef and peas. I explained that he was a meat farmer, thinking before I opened my mouth (for once) that a herd of cattle could be farmed for milk as well as meat – and I was quite proud of this forethought and the resulting distinction. Again, raucous laughter pervaded the car, as one of the boys, the nephew of a dairy farmer, kindly explained to me as one might to a small child the different genres of cattle farming: dairy vs. livestock (and peas are a type of arable farming). As with the yard/farm differentiation, I maintain that farming livestock is the same as farming meat, but as being laughed at every time I speak about it might get a little time consuming, I’ve tried to take it all on board. I started afresh, talking about someone I’d met at university who was a livestock farmer (and who also grew peas).