Farmyard Tales

As a child I used to read the Usborne books ‘Farmyard Tales’. My memories are a little hazy; someone was called Poppy, but I’m not sure whether that was the dog or the daughter; a sheep ate a lot of flowers – I remember tracing the path with my finger; there was a red tractor, but I don’t remember what role it played in the story. My one, unerring memory is that on every single page was a little yellow duck, peeking out from behind a tree or under a bale of hay or anywhere else where in real life there would almost certainly not be a nosy duck, let alone a bright yellow one. But then illustrations of children’s fiction aren’t exactly known for the factual accuracy.

A few weeks ago I visited my real-life farm again. Sir Pheasant has relinquished his hold on it back to Mr Farmer, though not altogether willingly. He still struts about the place as if he owns it, his doting covey of partridges scuttling along behind him; but since October 1st[i] he is striving to come to terms with his impending doom as the first shoot on the farm approaches, and he is making funeral arrangements with the family (current plans are to be wrapped in streaky bacon and served with a port and quince sauce much like his ancestors before him.)

Sir Pheasant’s farm is in fact called Hall Farm and there is neither dog not little girl called Poppy, but there is a gorgeous black lab called Paddy, which is close enough for me. Not many flower beds to munch, but there are sheep and I’m sure they chomp through a few meadow flowers while out grazing. And there are plenty of tractors. I’ve already posted the photo of the blue one I drove, but there are others too (though not a bright red one). Most excitingly there is a huge big yellow combine harvester (cue the Wurzels.) Mr Farmer made the mistake of referring to it as ‘she’, much as one would to a ship I guess, but in light of it – and of course to poke fun – I’ve christened said combine ‘Sally’. Sally, being so yellow, takes the place of the ever-present Usborne duck, even if she isn’t small and doesn’t sneak from page to page. She’s the yellowest thing on the farm, and that shall have to do.

If you say ‘harvest’ to me, it conjures up out of the distance a dusty image of a line of sturdy little children plodding up to the stage in the assembly hall and placing their tin of fruit cocktail in syrup or chick peas in salted water onto the pile beneath an arrangement of orange flowers with grasses and wheat, a huge loaf of bread in the shape of a sheaf of wheat and a scattering of gourds, marrows, pumpkins and other autumnal veg that wouldn’t go bad too quickly. All this to the faint notes of a mostly-in-tune robust rendition of ‘We plough the fields and scatter…’ In real life of course, this is the children’s harvest festival at a suburban school and harvest is in fact a real thing that occurs with far fewer hymns and far more poor farmers sat for hours on a combine making its way slowly up and down fields. Or to be more accurate, this year at least, sat on said combine in thick obstinate mud waiting for a tractor to come and set them free, so they can continue cutting until the next boggy patch – probably in about ten minutes time.

When I visited Hall Farm in September I got to spend a morning actually helping out – or at least I hope I helped. The first thing we did was set about welding bits of metal to bits of fence and gate to repair and reinforce. I got to be the lovely assistant, though sadly with no sequins. Still, I made do with a box of solder and we got on with the job. Gate and post fixed, it was combining time and I got to have a ride around with Sally (this time cue The Commitments). The only thing I can say is that combine harvesters are absolutely enormous. Seriously Big with a capital B. And loud. And powerful. If Sally were human, she’d be one of those amazing black women, huge, strong, sexy and formidable, with an attitude almost as big as her voice. Think Queen Latifah in Chicago. Except painted bright yellow, churning wheat and with fewer solos. I sat on the combine for a big as we attacked a dry patch of field, and after a bit I got off for the not-so-country pursuit of taking photographs. Equally as impressive viewed at a distance, in the early Autumn sunshine with dust clouds following in her wake. Sadly, I had to leave at lunchtime to face the drive back from Yorkshire to London. Or perhaps not so sadly, as about ten minutes after I left Sally embarked upon a game of Stuck-in-the-Mud without the courtesy of warning poor Mr Farmer.

Actually seeing grain being harvested was just a little bit amazing. There are hundreds of thousands of tonnes wheat held in grain stores across the country, and much of it will go off to a commercial bakery to be made into the bread we buy off the shelves in Tesco and Sainsbury’s and such. More will go to feed the animals that are slaughtered to provide the building blocks of my sausage casserole or coq au vin. The more I learn about agriculture and the production of the raw ingredients that I take so much for granted, the less inclined I am to buy from supermarkets. One of the exciting bonuses about work  (that I may have already mentioned) is the farmers’ market that is held every Thursday. In the office this translates to ‘Sausage Thursdays’; there is a man with fresh sausages cooking on a griddle, and at 9.05am once everyone’s switched their computers on, orders are taken and one kind-hearted soul pops over to the Sausage Man and comes back clutching steaming rolls filled with all sorts of combinations of sausages of various varieties, onions (or not) and range of dripping sauces. But as well as hot sausages, you can buy fresh, local meat, fish, cheese and veg. Sometimes there’re homemade baked goodies (though I still prefer to make my own) and other bits and pieces too. A few weeks ago it was my turn to host a group of friends in our own version of ‘Come Dine With Me’, and I themed my menu around British, seasonal food – and sourced as many ingredients as I could from the market and nearby deli, nicely named ‘Market Square’.

The menu proceeded thus: we had beetroot and goats’ cheese tarts to begin, with homemade pastry, a huge bunch of locally grown and freshly dug up beetroots, and British goats’ cheese. For mains, a pork and apple braise, with apples so local I picked them from the garden just before cooking, and served with squash and purple sprouting broccoli. The squash was a disappointment; I had wanted to serve pumpkin, but despite my expectations and best efforts hunting one down – it being the beginning of October at this point, and me armed with a deerstalker and pipe – I couldn’t find a pumpkin anywhere. But butternut squash sufficed. For dessert we had sticky cinnamon figs, with mascarpone and pistachios, having been assured by the good old Interweb that figs were in season, and this being backed up by their presence at the market. And finally we had a range of local cheeses, including a Sussex blue and an award-winning Sussex goats’ cheese, which I’ve sadly forgotten the name of. These lovely cheeses were accompanied by nothing other than the terribly local Twickenham Preserves’ rhubarb chutney, and crab apple and quince jellies.

Overall I was delighted with how much I managed to source from the market, and with the reasonable prices I paid. I didn’t feel ripped off in the slightest, and was happy to know I was helping local farmers get a good price for the hours of labour they put in. It’s something I’m keen to continue doing – once I’m all moved out and fending for myself (second time lucky) I’m wondering whether I can fit my weekly shop into my lunch hour, and pop to the market every Thursday. We shall see.

To top off the night, I was almost as delighted with the wine suggestions and donations from work. They’re proving to be a very supportive and helpful bunch to work with. The girls and I enjoyed a not-yet-on-the-shelves sparkling white as an aperitif, which we all enjoyed very much. Then a heavy pinot noir rose to accompany the beetroot, a dry cider with the pork and finally a tawny port to go with the figs and cheeses. I suppose in thinking [writing] about it, I should have served English wine to go with my British-grown farmer-friendly menu. Oh well, something to consider next time round.


[i] The first of October marks the start of the pheasant-shooting season, for the enlightenment any city-based readers. Let it never be said that this blog is not informative; I strive to share my muddy enlightenment, and in doing so to educate as well as shoot and bake.

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Beam The Wheat Up, Scotty

I’ve always thought I have a good awareness of the source of my food, and I’ve been proud of myself for this – or of my parents I suppose. Lambs in the fields on holiday were very cute and fluffy and sweet. And tasty. Pigs were funny and to be laughed at when I was little, and they made delicious bacon and sausages. While away on my gap yahh, I lived for a short time with a Nicaraguan family. My ‘brothers’ lassoed a goat and tied it to a tree, and my ‘mother’ slaughtered it. The next morning the top half of the goat’s head was hanging off one of the bamboo poles that made up the shower as I washed; I walked through the ‘kitchen’, ducking under the intestines to do so; I walked past the brain sat on a rough wooden shelf by the door; and sat down to a breakfast of beans, rice, egg and fresh goat. Yet despite this ‘awareness’, I’ve never considered is the origin of the ingredients and the sheer scale of the production process. A friend recently introduced me to the TV programme ‘How It’s Made’, which showed how during the manufacturing process of Canadian ‘Sticky Buns’, an entire sack of ground cinnamon is emptied into the mixing vat – a spice that I use a teaspoon at a time. I visited Sir Pheasant’s Farm a second time recently, actually getting to see it in action, and this was when I realised how big everything involved in farming is; I’ve never even tried to imagine it before.

I had my first experience driving a tractor, and believe me when I say that a tractor is much, much bigger than a car, particularly if the car you’re used to driving is a little Pug (a 107) and the largest car you’ve driven is a 306. The tractor wheels come up to my waist, you need a set of steps to climb into the cab, and even the steering wheel is about three times bigger than in my little car. It’s also hugely less sensitive; to turn even a small amount requires one to virtually spin the steering wheel like a top (I’ll admit I’m exaggerating for dramatic effect). I did like that fact that you don’t need to press the clutch to change gear – you just click a button with your right hand (at least on the tractor I was driving, a Ford New Holland) but then there are many many more gears than on my car.  That said, all of the ones I used at least were the equivalent only of first or perhaps second gear, i.e. ‘slow’. Once used to the giant machine, and driving around a field in it, only then did I realise quite how big an acre is. Consider that farmers have to dig, plough, drill (to me this translates as ‘sow’) and fertilise the fields by driving over them, not to mention all the various sprays. Combine this with the tortoise speed of the tractors and whatnot that they drive while doing so, and you see quite how labour intensive farming is. The vehicles may be big, but the fields are much, much bigger.

On Tuesday morning, a man called to make arrangements that someone would come and pick up some wheat later. If he could make it, it would be early evening. If not, he would come the next morning – at about 5am. Luckily for me, reluctant as I was to get up before sunrise, he arrived around 5pm so I got to see the wheat being loaded. The truck that turned up seemed about three times as long as my house is wide. This could be another exaggeration, but honestly I’m not sure and wouldn’t be surprised if it were true. Before the truck/lorry arrived, we moved the combine harvester out of the way – though I didn’t drive it, for the sake of the rest of the farm; the wheels on that are bigger than me, and it requires not steps but a ladder to get into the cab. Here I learned that the engine on a combine harvester is Loud with a capital L. I’ve decided that the reason so many farmers shoot is either because they’re so deaf from the combines that gun fire next to their ears is nothing, or so they can reuse their ear defenders from shooting when farming. The loading then began, as the wheat was transferred to the enormous lorry, described by its misguided driver as a ‘wagon’. He obviously long ago mastered the art of understatement. The teleporter was kitted out with a big metal bucket on the front – and by ‘big’ I mean it could hold about 1 ½ tonnes of wheat per scoop, so a little bigger than the 5l bucket my mum keeps in the garden. 29 tonnes of wheat were being sold, and with1 ½ tonnes moved per journey, the little teleporter (and when I say ‘little’ I mean in comparison to the tractor and combine harvester) moved back and forth with its farmer in the driving seat more time than I could count.

The teleporter is a piece of farm machinery I have taken issue with. After someone described one to me a while ago, I forgot its name, and later mistakenly referred to it as a ‘Transporter’ which caused much amusement amongst my more agriculturally-minded friends. But I have to back up my mistake. From what I’ve seen, a teleporter is used to move things from point A to point B. And in doing this, it transports its load. It does not, in any sense of the word, teleport it. No Star-Trek-esque equipment vanished the wheat from the shed only for it to miraculously appear moments later in the ‘wagon’. No Willy Wonka style laser was employed to dissect it molecule by molecule at point A, and beam them through space to reassemble at Point B. No, the inaccurately named teleporter transports, and therefore even if it is officially wrong (though descriptively accurate) to call it a Transporter, I just don’t see the joke. But I will give the farming community the benefit of the doubt, note it down as part of my Country Education and assume that the understanding of the humour will come to me through time. I am thrown back 12 months or more to a conversation about tractors with Sir Pheasant’s Farmer where I described a tractor as having a ‘sticky out pokey thing’ on the front; a description that still haunts me to this day and I fear I will never be allowed to forget. Hopefully, eventually, whether in five or fifteen years time, I will have found the hidden humour in the teleporter/transporter confusion, and also learned the name of the sticky out pokey thing (I still don’t know what this is called. It’s sort of like a huge tow bar, but on the front. If you can enlighten me, please do = you can comment below!)

When the teleporter was finished and the wagon full, the driver secured a tarpaulin over the top, produced a flimsy paper receipt that was the trade for the wheat (that would soon be swapped again for a cheque for so many thousands of pounds) and drove off. Looking into the shed, the 29 tonnes he had taken appeared to have made little more than a large dent in store – there was so much left. The wheat that was taken will be ground down and added to by thousands more tonnes, to be baked into cakes, biscuits, bread and God only knows what else, which will be sold in supermarkets and corners across the country. So when I think I know the origins of my food – because I know how to make bread and cakes, and I know that animals become my food – I have so very little idea of the quantities and scale of the manufacturing processes. I can’t picture how many thousands of cows and bulls must be reared to keep our fridges stocked in mince and our restaurants in steak; how many eggs must be laid for the ingredients in the food we buy in the supermarkets, as well as the boxes of them for sale. And so I have concluded, farming’s quite a big deal really.

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.