Sep 23 2012

Season of Mists…….

…………..and Not So Mellow Fruitfullness

The wettest summer on record has come to an end. Dartmouth Regatta marked the close of the holiday season once more. Boats were moored up, caravans towed away, tents packed, holiday cottages emptied, children returned to school and, of course, the rain stopped. Here we are once more in a soft September bathed by the gently sinking sun. My long-legged shadow precedes me as I climb the hill to the top fields. Morning mist hangs over the river and steam seems to rise from the grass as it warms in the sunlight. Great skeins of squawking geese circle above before crash landing clumsily in the creek. Buzzards whirl overhead, crying their laments as they ride the thermals. Autumn is here again.

The land has suffered from so much summer rain. The wettest June for years was followed by a soaking July and August. And now mildew creeps stealthily through the garden. Vegetables rot in the ground never having matured, beans brown on their supports. All my potatoes, infested with wire worm, must be burned. Sweet corn refuses to ripen, courgettes wither. The vegetable garden is a disaster. The quince tree has some strange disease making me fear for its future. No wild plums glisten in the hedgerows; apples are sparse, blackberries too. Only the heritage tomato seeds out shine expectation. Though late, they are producing abundant weird and wonderful fruit.

And the cosmos are magnificent this year. Just one little packet of seeds has overwhelmed the garden in an uplifting blousy pink and white froth. I had so many seedlings I just shoved them in everywhere and anywhere and the result is unexpectedly wonderful. They sway gently in the breeze amongst giant anemones, hollyhocks and verbena bonariensis. They crowd in between the roses and fall over the hydrangea paniculata. What a bargain, just one little packet of seeds!

Despite all the rain our National Garden Scheme Open Days have been a wonderful success. We were lucky here at home to have two rare dry afternoons in June attracting lots of visitors fed up with wet weather. But nothing prepared us for the enormous success that followed.

On the Village Open Garden Days in July the sun suddenly shone, the crowds flocked to the village, gardens were admired and cream teas leapt from the trestle tables of Middle Meadow! People climbed the steep hills and admired the river views; they bought plants, exchanged gardening stories and left the village happy and dare I say, inspired by our fantastic gardeners! The atmosphere was wonderful and support from the village amazing. And, best of all, we broke the County fund raising record for the summer; Macmillan, Marie Curie, Crossroads Care and Help the Hospices will benefit from all the hard work the gardeners put in across the year. A triumphant couple of days.

So much for gardening; is it now time that finally I must concede to being indeed a Hobby Farmer after all these years of farming! Not the best title but maybe, perhaps an accurate one at last…

I’ve just found the old copy of Country Living Febuary1994 “How to Survive Redundancy, a second career” etc. My, that took me back a bit! There we are photographed climbing the hill, pitch forks in hand and dogs in tow, starting our new life.

We had already lived in our house for ten years when Thames Television lost its franchise and Paul helped to close down Thames’ Euston Studios agonisingly slowly, bit by bit, as transmission wound down over twelve months until finally he was able to write himself out of the script. He walked out of the studios after twenty seven years in television ”……I think it really hit me when the Transport Manager said “Can I have your car keys, please” and I realised I had taken a step quite without precedent in my life and I didn’t know what was going to happen tomorrow”. It all seems a life time away now.

Strangely enough the very same year our neighbour, born in our house, decided to sell up and move away. Most of the land went to his relation, brother’s wife’s sister’s husband, across the valley. Fortunately for us   we were able to buy back a very steep twenty five acres which said relation did not want, land which had once belonged to our house. With it came a large ugly 1970’s farmyard. We pondered our options; not a very promising farming potential. Lateral thinking was called for; fortunately we’re both good at that! We bought four sheep, a couple of Dexter cows, a few chickens and some turkey poults, oh, and quite a few books. And our neighbouring farmers were wonderfully generous with their knowledge too.

By 2000 we had built up a thriving little business breeding White Face Dartmoor Sheep, producing free range eggs, raising table birds for delivery every week, turkeys for Christmas and making up salad bags long before the supermarkets caught onto the idea. All this we delivered in our minute elderly refrigerated van to our fast growing list of regular customers. We supplied local businesses with our eggs, local hotels and pubs with lamb and chicken.

One day a visitor in a big queue in the village shop was heard to ask how long our eggs kept. “About half an hour “replied a local wag. We knew we had arrived!

One day we were surprised to turn up on BBC Spotlight, the Devon TV News programme which helped our sales no end. And in March 2000 the Weekend Times did a half page feature of us and another small farmer in Cornwall called “Farming for Fun”!  Despite the input of Antony Gibson, then Regional Director of The National Farmers Union, South West, the journalist clearly new nothing about farming and described us all rather disparagingly as Hobby Farmers! Some things don’t change

Our weeks followed a regular pattern. From Monday to Wednesday I ran courses for Plymouth University and my own Psychotherapy practice in Totnes seeing private therapy clients and doing Clinical Supervision for NHS GP Counsellors. Paul farmed and killed and plucked the chickens.

On Thursday as Paul continued with his work I began drawing and trussing the chickens. Then I packed, weighed and labelled them. I took the orders, worked, out the delivery route, wrote recipes to accompany the orders, picked salad and herbs from my polytunnel and made up the salad bags. I collected, graded, packed and labelled the eggs.

We were approved and regularly visited by Health and Safety, Trading Standards, Environmental Health, MAFF which preceded DEFRA and the “Egg Inspector” who always made me giggle, poor man. Fancy being called an Egg Inspector….and Paul had, of course, done the appropriate training to be awarded a professional poultry slaughter man’s license.

On Friday and Saturday Paul did deliveries while I cleared up, cleaned and caught up with paper work. On Sunday we crawled to church, planned the new week ahead, fed the animals, no one told them it was Sunday, and collapsed: some Hobby!!!

Now, here we are, quite unable to retire, though we have cut back a little i.e. fewer sheep, less chickens, no turkeys, just three donkeys, two dogs, two cats, etc., and I’ve got into pigs!

This is my second year.  Paul is facing another new knee operation in a few weeks, I’m so glad he only has two legs. My partner in pigs is once again Stephen. Last year we had three Middle Whites and three Berkshire between us. Having decided Middle Whites were favourite, six little fellows arrived last Monday. This time we have put them out in our big field, Sunday Orchard, were they are already busy wrecking the joint as only piglets can. Our neighbour and ex pig farmer kindly supplied us with a big ark which is fine now but may prove very cosy as they grow. They look so happy and inquisitive, digging and snuffling through the grass; so much nicer to see them in the fresh air rather than in a barn, however spacious.

The donkeys came to take a look when they arrived, first the beautiful Nutmeg, then fat Luke and finally old Bunty: “What on earth do you call those”? This year’s ewe lambs ran down the hill, took a look, quickly lost interest and returned to serious grazing. The wethers and rams where more curious and peered at them for some time drawn by the sight and sound of a bucket of food. They came closer and closer to the electric fence lead by the now recovered senior pedigree ram, Big Dez. Poor old chap, having had his ingrowing horns removed, a somewhat traumatic event for all concerned, his face has healed and he’s able to chew properly again,  putting on weight and back to his old self; sad though to have to lose those magnificent horns.

Soon Dez’s work will begin again. In a few weeks he will be in with ewes once more busy making next years’ lambs. The pigs will grow fat and roast pork and bacon sandwiches will be on the menu again. So the cycle continues; summer ends, autumn gentles us into winter and Christmas snowdrops point us towards the welcome of Spring. Round and round we go watching the valley change colour with each seasons’ individual beauty.

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