Thursday, 23 August 2012

Taking stock

Following on from the outdoor classrooms and learning from the seasons, I wanted to reflect on where I stand today.

Like many others, I wonder where time has gone and how best have I used the time.

Our daughter has recently turned 16 and has turned into a beautiful, confident and happy woman. Perhaps it was reflection on how fast children grow up but I thought of our lives when she was young and how they are now.

I ran a small croft plus a fairly decent gardening service when Rosie was tiny. We kept a lot of various poultry, hens, turkeys, geese plus a small herd of milking goats. The field which came with the house was divided between the poultry and crops. Rosie was always with me and helped collect eggs, helped to drive the goats to fresh pasture and learned never to go near the turkeys without putting up an umbrella. (It makes you look bigger than them and they won't chase you)

When we both moved up the glen, Rosie was at school and I continued gardening for people plus had enrolled to study medicine in Edinburgh. I had to get up extra early to feed a reduced stock, get Rosie's school uniform and breakfast ready for the childminder then travel the long road to Edinburgh each day.
While I loved University and would have plodded on with this arrangement, my father became unwell so studies had to be put to one side while I cared for him.

It was during this time that I met The Farmer; I had been able to offer part time shepherding to neighbours and we met when we were both helping a neighbour round up some cattle.
I asked him if he could use an extra pair of hands on his farm and he was happy to accept my help.

When I look at where I stood then, my tractor work was a bit rusty. We were taught how to operate and maintain tractors and machinery when I trained in horticulture, twenty five years ago. We were taught how to weld (and I wonder how many trainee doctors were accepted for university with a certificate in advanced tractor driving plus level 6 welding in addition to their Higher certificates!)

Under The Farmer's patient instruction, I quickly learned how to operate the various machines around the farm and found a confidence once it was realised that I no longer needed his help, that I could manage it on my own.

My eldest son was the main carer for my Dad but his escape from the difficult job of caring for a loved one with dementia, was to help out on the farm. He learned quickly and learned to love the peace which comes from long solitary work.

Dad was a meat inspector/ livestock officer and had taught me a lot about animals. I began going round farms with Dad during the 1960's and he would point out what to look for in good stock whether it was cattle, sheep or pigs. I became familiar with auctions, the complexities of a Caithness auctioneer in full flow, plus the abattoir. Dad was also an accomplished butcher and taught me about the carcass of an animal and how to cut it correctly for freezing or cooking.

Once The Farmer and I married then settled into raising our family and running the farm, we found a rhythm and got on with the work. All the skills that I had learned in my life were utilised to the max, even the hated book keeping.
Dad's lifelong teaching on stock became invaluable and he loved nothing better than to keep a watchful eye from his window or walk up to the farm to 'check the beasts'. "Fine beasts, those" he would say and that was praise indeed.

I walked into that farm a novice and now, ten years later, can honestly say that I am familiar and comfortable with the running of a farm. At first, it seemed like a baffling array of work but now I have learned that it runs with the seasons. You get into a routine (although every day is different) and very quickly one year morphs into another. "The same but different" springs to mind.

The Farmer has taught me how to shoulder the blows, how to accept failures, how to look for realistic alternatives as well as hands on farming. He has illustrated the complexities of our profession yet has prepared me well to cope with them.

I asked him this morning if my son and I were farmers. He thought about it for a while and then said "Yes". In his opinion we were. He felt everyone was still learning, including himself but this was a lifelong learning which everyone experiences.
He felt we had coped when he had been unwell and had kept the momentum going. We had stepped into his wellies and not missed a step.

I feel a huge sense of achievement today. Some days, it is important to stand and take stock, see what you have achieved.

Agriculture/ stock husbandry ought to be taught as part of the National Curriculum with outdoor classrooms available on farms.

Looking the future, when our Land is freed up from feudal shackles, the demand for land workers will soar. It would be sensible to teach this subject from a young age and even create an O'level/ Higher in the subject. Imagine the input from fresh new minds if the subject was really studied in depth on a national level. Imagine the progress and improvement for human and land.

So here I am, using my past as experience, standing in the now, looking to the future. Through a farmer's eyes.


  1. I look forward to being half as proficient as you in our overly large garden/tiny microholding.

    When you say 'farm workers' do you think we'll need people proficient in using machines, or with more traditional skills? over here, the traditional skills are alive in many places, albeit at the edges of modern agriculture.

    Which reminds me, I need to order a bow saw...

  2. Thank you, workbike.

    Always trying to better the proficiency and always learning something new here. It is work in progress.

    I think people should be taught both, traditional skills and modern technology. Strimmers are good when they work, scythes are an art. The old skills like proper hedge laying, dry stone walling, stook building etc are handy skills too.
    A good knowledge of trees, plants and grasses plus environmental changes are vital.

    I am smiling to myself as we found a large old saw in a shed and used it on some fallen oak when the chain saw died... tricky at first but great once we found the rhythm.