Before I start, I’d like to say that I recognize that the potential for twisting the truth in journalism is, whilst not massively honourable, prevalent, and I’d like to give Mr Henson the chance to perhaps develop on the comments he is said to have made in The Daily Telegraph which you can find here.
My main issue with what Mr Henson is quoted as saying is mainly that he believes ‘farmers are very good at being the over-worked, underpaid whingeing farmer’. I’m not sure who Mr Henson is meeting whilst presenting Countryfile and managing his Cotswold Farm Park, but I would strongly suggest they are not representative of the wider farming community.
‘When I wake up in the morning, I genuinely want to go to work’. How patronising. At risk of sounding ‘whingey’ (god forbid), farmers are hardly in the industry for monetary gain. There is simply no way that farmers would continue to work how they do, the hours they do, through the struggles they do, for their love of money. So why would they bother? Every single farmer I have met gets up, whether that be at 4am, 5am or onwards, and works exceptionally hard. Because they love their work. Perhapsunbelievably, farmers other than Mr Henson wake up and ‘genuinely want to go to work’. Otherwise we’d have a fairly unproductive agricultural workforce.
My next issue of contention is the suggestion that young people are being put off the industry because those older and wiser than us don’t feed us some glorified reality of how fantastic farming is. Please do not insult us by suggesting that we can’t handle the reality of farming. Quite honestly, if young people are encouraged to go into the industry thinking they are going to be well paid and live their lives in luxury, there’d be as many leaving the industry within 5 years as there was entering it. The absolute wonder of young farmers is our determination to succeed in an industry that has never promised us anything other than what we can see. All aspects of farming promote facing reality. You see life, and death, and hardship and struggle, but you also see success and the beauty of nature and get to spend your time doing something you are passionate about. If young people are put off entering the industry because a farmer has complained that his milk price has dropped below the cost of production, then maybe that is for the best. The agricultural industry does not suit those that are not willing to work for something other than a wage packet.
Saying that farmers should celebrate their lives and the ‘incredible environment we work in’ illustrates to me that Mr Henson appears to be a bit out of touch, and is also hugely insulting to the vast majority of farmers that are proud and hugely appreciative of their jobs and lifestyles. My Twitter timeline is constantly full of farmers sharing their thoughts, stories and photos. (Examples below…)
You can keep your high fells & windswept lakes, your quaint villages & posh cafes, because this is my piece of Cumbria and it's the best 🙂 pic.twitter.com/RQj5LTQFHv
Farmers are the most appreciative people I know, because they know of the reality that the good times can just as quickly turn into bad. Yes, agriculture is a fantastic industry with many positive aspects, but it is also tough and unforgiving. So forgive us if we want to have a little whinge that our herd of cows has gone down with TB, or we’ve lost 20 lambs to a dog attack, or an unseasonably dry Spring has stunted our crop, and forgot to look at the beautiful view for 5 minutes.
I always believed that Mr Henson was supposed to be a ‘representative’ of agriculture, a real life farmer working hard to feed the nation with a platform from which to promote the reality of farming. I’m not sure how his condemnation of ‘whingy’ farmers, and suggestion that we should be promoting the ideal industry to encourage young people to enter it benefits us in any way. It’s almost embarrassing that someone with his level of influence has chosen to turn against the people he is supposed to be supporting and promoting.
Well, thank you Mr Henson, but I think the industry could do without you sharing your opinion of our shortcomings. I, as a young new entrant to the industry, would rather I knew the reality of what I was getting into, and was prepared for what was to come, than fed some idealistic version of what, at times, can be a very un-ideal industry.
Would there be any public interest in a food assurance scheme solely guaranteeing an exemplary slaughtering process?
We’ve been talking about meat quality in my Farm Animal Production module for the past few weeks, and I’ve been really surprised to learn just how much the slaughter process can affect meat quality.
I knew that stressed animals produce meat of poorer quality, but the science behind it is actually fascinating. Long term stress prior to slaughter (12-48 hours) = depleted glycogen reserves in the muscle = high pH, darker colouring, drier meat. Short term stress prior to slaughter = breakdown of glycogen in muscle = production of lactic acid = lower pH, lighter colouring, tougher meat. Stress factors such as transit are obviously difficult to avoid, but handling in the abattoir and mixing animals unknown to each other are elements that we can control. There’s also the issue of certain breeds being more susceptible to stress, such as Jersey cows. There’s even pigs that will have inherited a lower threshold for coping with stress, resulting in sudden death.
It’s a seriously complex process. But done well, with the correct handling facilities, and suitable process for different livestock, the slaughter process should not be an overly stressful or painful experience for animals. Whilst I imagine it isn’t pleasant to watch, and understand that many wouldn’t want to, I am starting to believe that it could be an important and positive experience for both farmers and consumers. Education on the effects of a negative experience during slaughter (other than death!) for livestock and subsequent meat quality should create a conversation that encourages greater respect for the process and rewards those that are getting it right.
However, the abattoirs are in an impossible position. There’s a limited number of people that would be willing to visit an abattoir to see how their meat is slaughtered, but there’s plenty of people who believe that the ‘undercover footage’ collected by animal rights groups and activists is an honest representation of the majority. Of course, not every abattoir undertakes the slaughter process as it should, just as not every business operates as it should in any other sector. There’s bad apples in every bag. This is a thought that causes, or should cause, concern to the vast majority of farmers. As I’ve touched on previously, we invest a lot of time, emotion and money in our livestock. No farmer wants to imagine that their animal is suffering during their final moments. Just as no consumer wants to imagine meat could be below par due to an inadequate slaughtering process.
Personally, I would like to see the slaughter process become much more transparent. In my research for this blog, I Googled various wordings which I hoped would lead me to an abattoir website which openly advertised the ability to visit and watch the slaughter process. Frustratingly, I found none. Although there were plenty of articles (positive and negative) detailing a slaughter house visitor experience. I think abattoirs would be reluctant, understandably, to open up their business, as this also opens them up to attack and abuse.
But if the farmers and the consumers knew what we wanted from the slaughter process, demanded a scheme that allowed us to see with just a glance at the packaging if our meat had been slaughtered with the upmost care, attention and respect deserved by the animal, wouldn’t that be an improvement in our confidence not only in the abattoir industry but in British produce as a whole? Assurance schemes such as Soil Association, Red Tractor and RSPCA do specify slaughtering standards, but if your meat is not marked by their assurance, what sort of abattoir has it come from?
Maybe if we stopped shouting and arguing about those that are shown to be getting it wrong, and started celebrating those that are getting it right, and understanding the process as a whole, everyone would begin to feel more secure in the knowledge that the meat on their plate was free from stress at the time of slaughter.
I’ve been asked about this many times, and I’ve finally been prompted to write about it after I was asked again via Twitter.
So here goes. I’ve had many people say to me over the past few years ‘but how can you possibly love your lambs when all you’re going to do is kill them’. And I guess it’s a pretty valid question, because it does seem completely absurd. We get so excited to see what this year’s lambs will be like, and we take photos and we say how proud we are that they look good, and grow fast (‘fast’ being a few months, not weeks, as anti-farming organisations would have you believe!) and then we send them off. Either sell them live weight at market, or dead weight directly to the abattoir. But we all know what’s going to happen to them.
And I think the reason loading lambs to take to slaughter doesn’t affect the majority of us is because the inevitability is something we are used to. As a farmer, you don’t breed sheep, or any kind of livestock, because you want to keep every single one of them alive for as long as you can, otherwise there’d be no point in trying to farm. Of course you might keep the odd one, some farmers breed all their own stock, but they still have animals born that won’t fit with their desired flock or herd characteristics, and these animals will be sold. It’s just the way farming works, and I know it seems uncaring and harsh to a lot of people, but that’s why farming isn’t the right job for a lot of people.
I was asked specifically about the day the lambs leave, and to be honest, harsh as it may seem, it really isn’t that different to any other day in my opinion. When The Boss’ lambs go to market, we can spend nearly a whole day rounding them up, weighing them, drafting off the ones that are the right weight, tagging their ears with the electronic tags required and moving them to a separate field ready for loading in the morning to go to market. This can be done every week or every fortnight, depending on the amount of lambs you have and how far into the season it is.
It is a bit different with my own sheep, I’ll admit, because yes, I’m very proud of my lambs, and I don’t have many so I do ‘get to know them’, but farming is a business. And a lot of people forget that. Ultimately, I need my lambs to make a good price at market so I can keep expanding my business. So I can keep buying sheep, developing my blood lines, increasing the flock and buying new kit to make handling more sheep easier and quicker. It’s all part of the business.
As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I don’t think you can be any kind of livestock farmer without compassion and emotional investment in your animals. But emotional investment can come in different forms, and respect for your animals is crucial. Good farmers respect their animals, treat them with compassion, and give them the best life they can, while they can.
A good farmer has a lot of respect, appreciation for and pride in their stock, but a good farmer has to be a good business person too, and that involves selling your produce at the highest price you can. You can’t afford to be sentimental and keep animals that aren’t going to contribute something to your flock or herd. I think I’d be lying if I said that farmers get upset when their animals are sold, I think the most accurate way to describe it would be…indifferent? Maybe that’s too negative, but I’m struggling to find a word that describes the feeling of no feeling, without it sounding uncaring.
So this might not be the most helpful answer, or the answer that you all wanted, but what I’m trying to highlight is the inevitability of it all, no farmer ever expects to keep all the animals born on their farm, so there aren’t really any overwhelming emotions on the day when they are sold. I think the public see a lack of sentimentality as an example of how ‘cruel’ and ‘evil’ farming is, but those people don’t consider that farming is, at the end of the day, a business.
I don’t know if Charles Dickens had ever been lambing, but he’s definitely hit the nail on the head here. I don’t think you’d find a sheep farmer that could say lambing is ever the best of times, or ever the worst of times. Extreme fluctuations between the two might be a more fitting analysis.
So if it isn’t the best of times, why do we look forward to it so much? With the days slowly (really bloody slowly) sliding by as this uni term approaches its end, I’m not going a day without thinking about the next month of being elbow deep in a ewes nether regions. Lambing for me is as exciting as it is nerve wrecking. Of course when you’re doing something you’re passionate about, you’re emotionally invested in the outcome. I don’t think there’s a single person who’s lambed who hasn’t had a favourite ewe, a favourite pet lamb, that one animal they really want to see do well. Because as much as the anti-farming lot would argue this fact, I do not think you can be any kind of livestock farmer without compassion and emotional investment in your animals. So when the next crop of your animals is being born, you’re excited to see what’s going to emerge. You’ve looked after the mother, fed them, vaccinated them, seen them grow, invested time and money in them, and now you get to see what they can produce for you. Think about that and tell me that isn’t sort of amazing.
I’m excited to spend every day in the countryside I know and absolutely love. In the fields, working until I’m exhausted. There’s something about coming home and setting like a rock when you sit down for too long that is almost addictive. Through the aching muscles, sore shoulders and arms, tired legs and dry hands, it’s satisfying to know you’ve pushed your body physically and mentally that day. At lambing you get to see the immediate rewards of that hard work, and I think that’s maybe why *most* farmers would tell you how much they look forward to lambing time.
Lambing can also be the worst of times. That feeling of exhaustion at the end of the day doesn’t go away overnight. Especially when you’re waking up worrying about that ewe you left with her small lamb, you can hear the rain lashing against the windows and you’re anxious about what will be in the field when you go out the next morning. Not to mention the vast majority of farmers that physically get out of their bed, don their waterproofs, and go out to check their stock at 2am. Days turn into weeks, weeks turn into months. Being physically and emotionally exhausted for that length of time drives you crazy. Mistakes happen. You’ll lose a lamb that you know needed checking if you’d just had the time and energy to make the effort. You blame yourself, you blame your colleagues, you blame your dog, you blame the weather and the short hours of sunlight and the lack of sugar in your tea. I’d be lying if I said I haven’t sobbed angrily at a particularly stupid ewe who wouldn’t follow her lamb onto the trailer. I’d be lying if I said I’ve never rested my head on the soft, greasy wool of a ewes side after finally catching her in the driving rain and wind, silently gathering the strength to put my hand in, and praying I find two front legs and a head. I can’t quantify the amount of internal dialogue I’ve had inside my head, arguing with myself over whether I’ve got the strength to pull this lamb out of a particularly tight ewe (yes, that is a thing!).
But there it is, the hard work and the determination and the never-ending cups of tea pay off. Because suddenly lambing stops as quickly as it started, and you don’t know what to do with yourself apart from look at your ewes and lambs, watch them graze and grow and jump around like, well, spring lambs. And you can be safe in the knowledge you worked damned hard to have this moment watching your stock flourish. And then it’s on to the next job, because we all know farming never stops for long!
So, how do you promote an industry? Especially an industry as diverse as British Agriculture. When so many people don’t even know how diverse it truly is! I certainly didn’t before I came to university. But that’s the problem, why has it taken nearly two years of a university education for me to start to comprehend how diverse, skilled and dedicated this industry is?
There’s thousands and thousands of people involved in the farming sector (400,000 to be precise-ish) so why is it so hard to make ourselves heard about how fantastic this industry is? We’ve got social media, we’ve got television, we’ve got radio, and although there are people working hard to positively advertise British Agriculture, there’s not enough of us.
Of course, there’s the industry big leagues. The NFU, Farmers Weekly, Farmers Guardian, they’re all working hard to get the ‘voice’ of Britains farmers heard, but I can’t help but think that they’re often preaching to the converted. If I went around university, and asked students how many of them follow the NFU on Twitter, ‘like’ them on Facebook, or read their publications, it would be the majority. If I went onto the street and asked the same question? Over the past few days the NFU have held their annual conference, and my Twitter timeline has been filled with some amazing facts and figures about the agricultural industry in the UK. I’ve put some below for any readers that haven’t seen them.
I find it hard to look at the statements in the above tweets and believe that people wouldn’t want to support British Agriculture (but I am biased!). There’s no reason not to. But if there is a reason, it’s because people usually aren’t aware of what brilliant food we produce, and all the labour, technology, knowledge and passion that goes into producing it.
I think it’s a difficult job to undertake, promoting British Agriculture to the population of the UK. Almost as difficult as my GCSE Maths teacher trying to teach me to do equations. The interest, on many occasions, just isn’t there. In Mintel’s latest survey, 77% of respondents agreed it was important to support British farmers, but only 56% said they buy British food whenever they can. So if it’s important to support British farmers, why aren’t you buying their produce? That’s why promoting the industry is so important.
It really is my opinion that most farmers are rubbish at promoting their produce. Since shops and supermarkets have developed, there’s no need for a farmer to be a salesman as well as everything else. But when the supermarkets have so many other goods to sell, why would they make a special effort for us? (Although Lidl is doing a pretty good job with their #Lidlsurprises adverts like this one). This is our industry. We’ve got all the knowledge, we’ve done all the work, so why don’t we start shouting about it?
I realise not all of us have a natural aptitude and talent for cameras (Yes, I’m looking at you Gareth Wyn Jones) and not all of us have the literary talents of James Rebanks, but we’re all part of communities, we’ve (probably) all got a smartphone, we can all talk to people, and tell them about what we do, why we do it, and what our hard work produces. If you’ve got the chance then Open Farm Sunday’s are a fantastic way to get the public involved and interested in what we do. There’s companies you can get involved with that are using QR codes on packaging to allow the consumer full traceability of their product. (Something I wrote about for Farmers’ Weekly, article here, and would absolutely love to see supported and developed). Even just going down to your local and talking to someone that might not know that UK meat is produced to some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world.
76% of the food that the UK population eats is produced by us, and I think it’s time that more British farmers were proud of that fact, and started giving their produce the promotion it deserves.
Prompted by an article I wrote for Farmers Weekly, which you can read here, while on work experience, I have decided to try and write about a subject I believe I have some experience in.
I’m not going to come out and start accusing people that I have met throughout my life of sexism or misogyny or woman-hating. Those words are active, they require an intention, a motive, and the experiences that I have had whilst trying to establish myself in the agricultural industry could not be labelled as any of those things.
Because half the time, the people that have tried to stand in the way of my ambitions don’t even realise what they’re doing. When I was at school, and I started to vocalise my passion for agriculture and farming, the response was always ‘oh so you want to be a farmer’s wife?’ My response was, and still is – No. I don’t want to be the farmer’s wife. I want to be the farmer. (Apparently a revolutionary idea to some). But why should that be the immediate response? It was accepted that a few of the boys in my year would go to university to study agriculture, but I was constantly encouraged to do something else. ‘Why don’t you go and study English, or Journalism, or be a vet?’ Essentially; ‘why be a farmer?’. Maybe that was just my school, or maybe this is something experienced by many young women venturing into the industry. I suspect the latter.
I often get the impression that in agriculture there is still an unspoken doubt as to whether women can farm. I’m not talking about individuals here, although there are those that are very vocal about their opinion on the ability of a woman to make her own success in the industry. I’m talking about the community as a whole. Why do I scroll through my Twitter feed and feel thankful that I’ve finally found some female farmers to inspire me to keep treading this path? We’re still at a stage where young women and girls in the industry have to actively seek out their inspirational figures, they have to find their determination and their boldness and their confidence in a way that I don’t believe young men have to. As a young person in agriculture, you have to prove yourself. You have to prove that you’ve got good stockmanship skills, that you can be trusted to drive that tractor, that you can cope with the pressures of lambing, but as a woman, you often have to prove that you’re justified in even wanting to farm.
I think I can say that I’ve finally reached the point where my life goals are no longer questioned. It’s sort of sad that I even had to justify them in the first place, but I’m so proud of how far I have come in the last 5 years. And why shouldn’t I be? Society loves to tell women not to shout about their achievements, not to be too loud, or seem too arrogant. But I’ve come from no farming background, with no family ties to agriculture, and got myself experience, contacts, some sheep, and now I get to write about it. So if I want to shout about my achievements every once in a while, I damn well will.
I don’t often discuss my interest in poetry, but I discovered the poem ‘Apologia’ by Oscar Wilde a long time ago, and there’s one stanza that I remind myself of frequently when I need some motivation to kick ass and do what I need to do. I hope it strikes a chord with anyone reading this who might need it.
“Many a man hath done so; sought to fence in straightened bonds the soul that should be free. Trodden the dusty road of common sense, while all the forest sang of liberty.”
After meeting Kristina at a wool event in the Summer, I was massively interested in the origins of the business, Romney Marsh Wools, and how they focused on utilising a product already found on-farm and diversifying it into a successful business. I saw the vast majority of the range they have on offer that day, and the quality, visual aesthetic and price of their products cannot be argued with. The business uses the wool and lanolin within to create an amazing range of products including; slippers, scarves, blankets, toiletries and, of course, wool!
·Who’s involved in the business and the farm?
We currently have 3 family members and 2 general farm workers involved in the business.
·What is the history of the farm? Has it been in the family for generations or recently acquired etc.?
Ours is a sixth generation family farm so we have been farming in our local area for over 130 years. Of course over that time the farm has evolved to fit the farming markets and trends of the day, and according to the ideas of each family member who has been in charge.
·Are there any other enterprises on the farm?
We have a company called Romney Marsh Wools, which sells products made from the fleeces from our own sheep. We founded the company in 2008 in order to advertise the quality of British fleece and the huge diversity of products which can be made from it. Eight years on and the business is now going from strength to strength, selling a wide range of products to customers and stockists across the country as well as shipping to private customers from many countries including Australia, New Zealand and the USA.
·How many sheep do you currently run, and what breeds?
We keep over 1,000 breeding Romney ewes which we mostly cross to a Suf-Tex ram for our commercial flock. We keep some pure for the fleece and also have a small flock of around 80 Saxoni Merinos which are rare in the UK and provide a wonderful fleece for wearable products as well as luxury throws.
·How do you market the lambs you breed on the farm?
The lambs from our farm are all sold live through market. We also from time to time sell breeding ewes and rams to private individuals.
·When did you start the Romney Marsh Wool business?
In 2008 we identified an opportunity to diversify by adding value to the wool crop. The flock is sheared on the farm and hand-processed by traditional weavers in the UK and sold as high quality life-style products.
·What prompted you to start the business?
The business was started largely to make use of our wool. As you can image 1,000+ sheep produce between 5 to 6 tonnes of wool a year, and the Romney fleece is one of the finer British Fleeces so we felt we could make some really nice products from it and increase the value of the fleece. It was also important to us that we use the company to promote the benefits of wool and encourage people to turn back to traditional materials.
·Is the ‘100% British’ side of the brand an important selling point?
Yes, for us it is very important to keep our products 100% British, not just in the origin of the raw materials but also in production. We believe that our customers like the traceability of the products and that the heritage is important, not just as a selling point but also as a matter of preserving the history of British fleece and the crafts built from it.
·Do you think that the public are currently more appreciative of British products than they have been in the past?
Yes, we have seen from our own customers that they are beginning to think more about the origins of the products they buy and are looking for more environmentally friendly options than man-made fibres being shipped across the world. Organisations such as the British Wool Marketing Board and Campaign For Wool have been instrumental in the increase of awareness around British wool. There is definitely a current trend towards buying local, whether that is the food we eat, the gifts we buy or products for our homes. There is also more appreciation for the quality of British made products.
·Obviously there is next-to-no profit in wool production for farmers, with many changing to ‘shedding’ breeds, do you think the industry is improving? Is there going to be a more profitable market for British wool in the future?
Whilst there is still very little profit in fleece, we have already seen an upward trend in the prices of fleece, thanks largely to the British Wool Marketing Board and the work that they do for British sheep farmers. We fully believe that this upward trend will continue due to the current focus on eco-friendly, natural materials. With technology leading to inventions such as wool insulation for homes and solid wool furnishings, we feel that we as a nation are only just beginning to explore the full range of products which can be made from wool. Hopefully as these products become more common and more people turn to the benefits of an entirely natural and renewable material, the prices of wool will continue to increase.
·What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve experienced whilst trying to merge the farm and the business?
One of the biggest challenges is balancing a large and very busy farm with a growing business, both of which are very time consuming. As the company was formed to take advantage of the fleeces being produced on the farm, there has been little challenge in getting the raw material, although the need for high quality fleece has made some small changes to the way we farm. For example, we avoid using coloured sprays to mark our sheep, preferring to mark their foreheads with sheep crayon instead and we are careful to reduce the amount of chemicals used on the fleeces to the absolute minimum. We also now shear our lambs in their first season as well as our older sheep as the fleece is much finer and softer from the lambs. As mentioned earlier, we started our Merino flock purely for the quality of the wool. However most of these have been very minor challenges and have developed naturally along the way as we came up with ideas to improve our end products (and also make life easier for our lovely weaver who cleans our wool by hand!).
·Would you have any advice for farmers thinking of diversifying into a business directly derived from something they already produce?
Our advice would be to go for it! But spend time researching and testing the market before you dive in. If you can add an additional income from something already being produced on the farm, it can be a great thing and can be truly beneficial to the farm. However, it will not come easy. It requires hard work and there will be times where it feels like it is just not going to happen. But if you are prepared for this and can keep working through it, it will definitely be worth it! Try to talk to other farmers who have diversified, especially any who have done something similar to what you are planning. Check out any potential competition in your area and have a clear plan of how you will make your ideas work, how you’ll sell your products, what market you’re targeting etc.
·Do you think it’s important for farmers that are able to, to try and diversify where they can?
Definitely! It gives additional security to the farm, and at a time when market prices are low and costs are high it can be very beneficial. It is also a great way to promote British farming and encourage support from your local community.
If you’re interested in the Romney Marsh Wools story, and their products, head over to their website at http://romneymarshwools.co.uk/index.php, I can personally recommend their slippers as the comfiest and cosiest I’ve ever worn!
Knowing the words that are written beneath this, it is hard to write an introduction to this blog that will do them justice. I had the absolute honour of interviewing a writer and farmer that I greatly admire. So this blog is certainly less about what I have to say!
For those that don’t know, James Rebanks is a hill farmer from the East of the Lake District. His first book, The Shepherd’s Life, is a particularly special piece of literature for me as James writes about his life and experiences farming on the fells (and other things that I won’t spoil for you!) with such poignancy and honesty. Truthfully, and in my humble opinion, his writing style is only akin to works I’ve read in English Literature classes. The Shepherd’s Life was also the 3rd bestselling work of nonfiction in the UK in 2016, so there’s your proof! So I would thoroughly suggest purchasing James’ book (either of them!) or following him on Twitter, where he also seems to be reasonably popular with a meagre following of 89.1k…But honestly his photos of farming life on the fells offer welcome relief from day to day life. Anyway, enough chat, I’ll let James take over.
Did you ever hope/think you’d one day write a book, and did you ever have any doubt about your abilities?
I have known ever since I was about seventeen that I was meant to be a writer and a farmer.
For most of the past twenty years that seemed a quite unlikely combination of daydreams. At times I almost gave up.
But it has worked out in the end, because that is basically my life now.
As for doubting my abilities.
I am filled with insecurities and self-doubt. I’m not sure what anyone makes of my words until they read them and tell me. Most writers I know confess to feeling the same way. You never feel cocky, for the simple reason that half of a book is in the reader’s interpretation of your words. You can’t second guess that bit, so you are always full of doubt.
But, if this makes sense, as well as having lots of self-doubt, I have always deep down believed that I was probably capable of writing very well, and in my more confident moments I always thought that if I got a break I would be recognised as a writer of talent. Most writers daydream like that as well. That’s what being a writer is, half terror and half daydreams of being the next Hemingway.
I read vast amounts of books, and have done for twenty years, so I have had a hunch I was useful as a writer. I have written nice stuff for magazines for years. I just didn’t know how to get in to the Book Writing Club.
Do you think there is a link between people that are involved with nature and the countryside, and their ability to write?
I don’t know much about other people, but my love of nature is intrinsic to my writing. At its simplest, my love of nature is about seeing beauty and poetry in things around me, and recognising that they are beautiful or interesting. I don’t have to contrive that interest, it is who I am. I am genuinely cheered by seeing wild things each day. I was lucky to have people around me in my youth who drew my attention to such things and made such a way of seeing seem normal, and part of living a good life.
It is perhaps a short step from seeing beauty and poetry in natural things to writing those thoughts and sights in to words.
But most country people perhaps have a similar way of seeing, and most don’t write books. So clearly other things have to happen to turn someone who sees things in to a writer.
What’s your favourite poem, or a quote from your favourite piece of work, and why?
I think The Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway is the best book ever written. Flawless. Perfect. I read it about twice a year. I read it to see how far beneath perfect I am falling.
Do you struggle to balance the day to day running and responsibility of your farm with the time you dedicate to your writing, and how do you balance the two?
Yes. I struggle badly with that. Writing well is like an obsession, it takes over you like a kind of fever. But farming is obsessional as well. Farming tend to wins in daylight hours, and writing tends to win in the dark hours. In winter I focus on writing when I’ve done my day’s farm work. I wrote The Shepherd’s Life at nights, mostly between 9pm and 2am, in a room where I lived with my wife and two kids in our sheep shed, because our house was only half built. I’m not James Patterson or Stephen King turning out a book a year, and I have no intention of ever doing that, that requires your whole waking life (and I’m aiming for quality not quantity). My farming life is who I am, I don’t want to do less of it. So writing has to fit around it. Which perhaps is why I love writing poetry the most, as I can write a poem in the hour spare I get before sleep. Writing a book is a major undertaking. Exhausting. The hardest thing I have ever done. It requires sustained focus. I can write 1,000 words easily anytime. But writing 100,000 words that flow as a story that works. That’s really fucking hard. It is a year or more of determined focus.
Clearly your farm work inspires a vast majority of your writing, however are there any other major influences in your creative process (your degree, other interests etc.)
My writing is largely linked to the things I have experienced, and seen, smelt and heard. Yes. But it is also heavily influenced by what I have read. I’ve read thousands of books over the years, and I could show you in my writing the different influences that went in to my having my voice on the page.
I also did a history degree at Oxford, and that had an influence as well, because I studied ‘peasant history’ in Europe and realised how important and great that subject can be. In the UK academics didn’t traditionally take rural people’s culture seriously, but since WW2 on the continent lots of amazing historians led by people like Fernand Braudel focused on what ordinary people did, and how it shaped history. I am also fascinated by economics and my writing often relates to economic themes, and changes. I try to ask questions, through stories, about whether we are heading in the right direction to a better future, or just floating along on a slow boat to hell.
What would be your go-to piece of advice for any young person hoping they might get the opportunity to write as you have?
Read. Read. Read.
Then. Write. Write. Write.
Then read lots more.
Write by imitating the writers you admire.
Then try and find your unique voice. And your subject.
Eventually you’ll either discover you are lousy, or boring, and no one is interested, or that you have something you can use.
Finally, writing without readers isn’t really writing – it is just something you can tell people about at dinner parties. So show what you write to other people, and learn how your words affect them for better or worse. The more readers the better, I think so anyway.
Find someone you trust to give you feedback, and if they are right, listen and make changes.
But live your life. Writers are always better when they’ve got something to write about. Failure makes good stories, so go out and try lots of things. Nothing is wasted.
They say everyone has a book in them, but it’s such bullshit. Most people can’t tell a story for toffee. Most people are lousy writers, even some that get to publish books.
Why do you think people that live in urban areas, even different countries, are so drawn to your writing?
Good honest writing from a person who lives a traditional working rural life is actually very rare. People are curious about me and my life. But actually lots of it isn’t about me at all, they are curious about their own relatives and ancestors who lived lives that resemble mine in some way. When I do book talks I get queues of people telling me that their grandparents where shepherds in Italy, or fruit farmers in Kent, or grew vegetables in Thailand – everyone has a farming or land based story, or roots. So to hear a story from the land done well relates to their own history.
But the interest is also about the world we live in. The whole modern world is based on the idea that we gave up the dirty brutish existence of being peasants and small farmers. Progress was meant to be leaving the land. Life on the land was rubbish wasn’t it? Who knows? Maybe this shepherd guy who writes…
I hope my writing intrigues people because it might be a voice from the other side of that deal, saying ‘Hey guys, you lost a lot in that deal, as well as making some gains’. Modern life disconnects people from nature, gives them crumby places to live, work that is often boring, deskilled and low value, and offers leisure activities that can seem after a while facile and consumerist. A lot of people are wondering ‘what is this all about?’. Our society is increasingly unequal, increasingly unfair, and increasingly unsustainable. People are wondering how we got in to this mess and whether our grandparents might have had a better life in some ways. My book fell in to a moment in time where people were thinking about these things. People bring their own meaning to books.
Throughout your life, you have challenged the norms that both the farming and educational community had previously set, how did you get people to understand that you were serious about achieving your ambitions?
I’m not sure anyone except my wife took my ambitions seriously. Maybe my dad on my farming aspirations. No one else. So you have to have a lot of internal focus and determination. I can be a machine at times, utterly ruthless about anything peripheral – but that doesn’t necessarily make you a great friend or brother, or human being.
People tend to laugh at you if you vocalise your creative aspirations, or expect you to fail entirely. The odds aren’t good of success so they are often right. My life changed when I found one person who believed in me entirely, 100%, without any hesitation. And you only actually need one person like that. Everyone else is irrelevant. You can prove the crowd wrong later on when you’ve done the legwork and things start happening. And even if you don’t then screw them for their cynicism anyway, and just ignore them. Better to try and fail than be a cheap cynic.
I’d like to express my sincere thanks to James for taking time out of his farming and writing to answer my questions.
All rights reserved by the author – James Rebanks. No part of this can be republished without his permission.
I decided to write about something that’s relatively new to me, but has really influenced and encouraged me in the past year.
I think my sporting performance throughout school could be described as ‘minimalist’. It seemed like every sport I tried just wasn’t ‘for me’. Too short for netball, lacking in hand eye coordination for rounders and hockey, too slow for lacrosse. Although, I did manage to wangle my way into the A team for rounders in my very last term at Prep school, successfully earning myself a ‘half colours’ tie! So maybe that was when I knew the potential was there…I did enjoy playing lacrosse, there aren’t many rules other than not hitting people on the head, and that ability to channel some aggression into physical exercise actually encouraged me to want to do well. Alas, it was not to be. I have quite short legs, and really am not a running type of person, unless it’s after a four legged animal. My lacrosse career was short lived, and I stopped playing sport as soon as I could.
However, I think I might have found my calling. Coming to Harper, you soon realise that rugby is a massive part of the sporting life here, and the first Wednesday of term in 1st year, my friend and I watched a 3rd team match (we won). Women’s rugby had never been offered to us at school, despite a number of us expressing interest in our final year that we’d like to get something set up. But at Harper it was, and I realised that it might actually be something I wanted to try (plus I’d been advised to just take up any sport I could to avoid the inevitable weight gain of 1st year!). I wasn’t too keen to wander over to training by myself, so I got my friend to come along with me. I was grateful that the girls were so welcoming, and I’ve not doubted my decision since.
I have never been so proud to be part of a sports team as I am to be part of Harper Adams Women’s Rugby. In 1st year I played winger, our coach described me as ‘aggressive’ so I guess I did ok? Fast forward a year, and I (somehow) managed to get myself Vice-Captain of the team and now play hooker, the one in the middle of the front row in the scrum. I think that highlights the impact rugby has had on me. I went from being someone who didn’t really have much interest in sport, never achieved much with it, never even played rugby, to the Vice-Captain of the 1st team and (I hope) quite a respected player.
There are a lot of preconceptions about women’s rugby. We know. There’s the mothers who walk past our stand at Open Day and frown and say ‘oh no darling, you don’t want to play rugby’. There’s the lads in the bar that suggest ‘yeh but all women’s rugby players are lesbians aren’t they’. There’s the guaranteed reaction ‘you don’t play full contact do you though?!’ when you tell someone you play. We have a fair few opinions to contend with, and I’m proud to help educate people about what women’s rugby is all about!
Firstly, your daughter might actually love to play rugby! The players I’ve met are some of the most welcoming, chatty, lovely girls I’ve ever known (until it’s 10 minutes to go and the opposition are heading for our try line!). I’ve met girls at training and matches where I can fully admit they ‘don’t look the rugby type’. But there’s a place for people of all shapes, sizes, interests and personalities on a rugby pitch. Trust me, just because someone walks into the changing room with a full face of makeup, nails painted and hair done, doesn’t mean they aren’t keen to end up as muddy and bruised as the rest of the girls on that team!
Secondly, people that suggest women rugby players are all lesbians are ignorant and make themselves look stupid. What a completely irrelevant and untrue statement. Yes, rugby could be seen as a ‘manly’ sport, but (correct me if I’m wrong) I don’t think having the ability to tackle someone to the floor and mental capacity to play a very intense, physical sport, has any influence on your sexuality? In fact, I think it’s pretty badass. Maybe the men I’ve met that suggest this correlation are intimidated because they know I could flatten them in a second, despite being 5’2”? Who knows?
Thirdly, yes, we bloody do play full contact! We aren’t china dolls! And if you’d seen the fine array of bruised legs from our team on a Thursday morning, you’d understand how tough we are! We play contact, we have contested scrums and lineouts. We. Play. Rugby. Just the same as any lads team out there. And I know all the girls are massively proud to be able to say that.
I was asked what the biggest barrier facing the sport is, and how it can be overcome, and I think these preconceptions have an awful lot of weight when it comes to women and girls wanting, or not, to play rugby.
There’s a lack of media attention surrounding women’s rugby. We’ve had an England Women’s Rugby team since 1982, we’ve had a Women’s World Cup since 1991, and the England team are currently the title holders, having beaten Canada in the final in 2014. But unless you go out of your way to find women’s rugby being streamed online, it is extremely difficult to get access to, and the sport and its supporters need to work hard and shout loud to get it recognised amongst the public and media as something exciting, something worth watching and playing!
There’s also a lack of opportunity for girls to get involved with rugby at school. Whilst the figures suggest it is growing in popularity, what are schools doing to nurture this interest and encourage and enable girls to play? The facilities, coaches, knowledge is presumably already there for boys to play, why not the girls too? If you’d like to find out more about how your daughter, granddaughter, niece, whoever, can get involved with rugby, or how you can go about getting a team set up, the RFU have loads of information on their website at: http://www.englandrugby.com/my-rugby/players/womens-rugby/.