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Farm Shop Focus – Ashley Farm Shop

Having moved into a new area recently we set about trying to find somewhere we liked, close by, to purchase locally sourced meat and veg etc. We stumbled across Ashley Farm Shop, in Ashley, near Market Harborough and the inspiration for this blog feature was born!

The enterprise is definitely a family affair, with the farm shop run by Gill, and her parents, Ian and Sue, running the farm. There are often many reasons why farmers may open a farm shop, however with their experience at Farmers Markets selling herbs and bird food, and with a newborn baby to look after, Gill felt it was the right time to set up shop 9 years ago! I have to say I’m glad she did.

Gill admits that when they first started, they didn’t have much to offer. There was no bank loan as they didn’t want to start in debt, and the shop has gone ‘from strength to strength’ growing over time as their client base expanded. Living in the Welland Valley with good grass makes it easy to fatten lambs and cattle, the good grass gives the meat a great taste and encourages a loyal following of customers. Gill is proud that the shop can offer customers ‘local, good quality, and reasonably priced products, with full traceability’. It’s not just the lamb and beef products that are produced on-site (with Gill herself helping out the butcher twice a week, ‘packing and learning!’). Gill’s mum Sue makes most of the cakes and biscuits herself, and they also offer a large range of cooked meats, pork pies, sausages, burgers, lasagnes, cottage and shepherds’ pies. If it is something that they can’t produce themselves, the farm shop supports plenty of local businesses by supplying their customers with a fine selection of fruit and veg, chutneys, wine, beers, jams, gins and breads. However, if you’re looking for something a little less consumable, they still produce a popular range of birdseed, and sell a wide variety of herbs and other plants.

The farm is 150 acres, currently running 280 ewes, alongside Dexters, Aberdeen Angus and North Devon cattle. They also have approximately 250 laying hens who wander the farm, and the eggs are sold in the shop. The farm is also part of the Countryside Stewardship Scheme, helping to promote and support a variety of wildlife throughout the farm. The family had experience selling beef and lamb before opening the shop, which meant regular trips to market. Now, all their meat goes into supplying the shop, and Gill admits they are lucky as they can set their own prices for their produce, a luxury not all farmers have.

Although the shop itself is relatively small, I couldn’t believe the amount of stock they had to offer! Definitely not a place to be judged on size! (I can highly recommend the Baileys torte, although I’m informed it’s not always a regular feature, and the tomatoes were the best I’ve had in months.) If you’re in the area I would highly recommend a visit to the shop, we spent 10 minutes just deciding what meat we wanted to have that evening! If you’re a little further afield, but still interested in what the shop has to offer, visit their website at http://www.ashleyherbfarm.co.uk/.

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Just some of the extensive range of meat on offer. Source: (Ashley Farm Shop, 2016)
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The shop and team. Source: (Ashley Farm Shop, 2016)
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The shop is absolutely stuffed with fantastic products! Source: (Ashley Farm Shop, 2016)

A Taste of the Countryside

There can be no better way to get a taste of the countryside than lambing. I first got involved with lambing at 13, despite not being from a farming background, and I’m now 19 with my own flock of 15 breeding ewes. I think you could say I got the bug! Over time, lambing has taught me so much more than just the physical act of lambing a ewe. It has taught me confidence in myself, you need to believe that what you’re doing is correct when trying to lamb a ewe, or you’ll stall and lose precious time in getting the lamb out. It has taught me patience, those bottle fed lambs had to be taught how to suck on the teat, not always an easy process! It’s taught me the meaning of ‘work ethic’. Ewes don’t stop lambing because it’s gone dark, you have to be on the go pretty much 24/7 when it’s lambing time. If you’re not actively lambing ewes then you’re feeding, bedding up, bottling lambs, turning ewes and lambs out to pasture. It’s non-stop action. Lambing has also taught me inner strength and determination. You have to dig deep, there’s always that point where you’re tired, you’re hungry, your face is stinging with cold, you can see a ewe struggling out the corner of your eye and you just can’t get this lamb into the correct position inside the ewe. There’s been times when I’ve put my head onto the side of the ewe and just taken a few breaths, gathering that strength I need to continue working to try and get the lamb out. It is hard work, but more than anything, lambing has taught me that my passion lies in agriculture and maintaining a relationship with the countryside.

I don’t personally believe you could experience a better taste of the countryside than a season lambing (but I might be biased!). Lambing encompasses all that farming and the countryside is about. You’ll see life, you’ll see death, and everything in between. Experiencing the high of finally turning out that lamb that you thought might not make it, and watching it charging around the field, is something not to be missed. Lambing is an excellent way for both young and old to get involved in the British countryside and farming. It is what you make of it, if you want a challenge I’d suggest searching the NSA website for a lambing placement (1,500 Suffolks lambing outside should do it!). If you want something a little less intense, take the opportunity to attend an Open Farm Sunday event near you. These are a great chance to see first-hand what the lambing sheds are really like, a brilliant way to ease you into the idea of lambing a ewe!

Whilst lambing and sheep play an important part in my life, they are not all that the countryside has to offer. There are other aspects of farming, so important in shaping the countryside that we know and love, that all offer great experiences for any person willing to give them a try, even if just for a short term holiday position. Dairy, beef cattle, arable, and game keeping all allow the individual to experience a taste of the countryside they may not have considered. If farming isn’t your thing, country shows are another great opportunity to experience the atmosphere of the countryside. They offer a comprehensive glimpse into all that goes on in rural areas, from farming, to shooting, to hunting, even extending into falconry, and Pony Clubs.

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Back where it all began! Feeding pet lambs one very hot lambing season.

 

Introducing Paul…

 

This is a little out of the ordinary for me. I’m writing about a topic that usually sends me into ‘emu mode’ when it’s brought up. But I think it’s time for me to write about something I’ve been living with for 18 months now.

I’d like to introduce you all to Paul. Paul is my prolactinoma. Which means that Paul is the BENIGN tumour/adenoma/growth that I have on my pituitary gland. I definitely don’t like to admit it, but he’s had a big influence on my life recently.

I’m mostly writing this post to help raise awareness about pituitary conditions. I suppose I’m also writing it as a ‘coming to terms’ with things step? I’m not sure.

So, Paul. Paul is a macroprolactinoma. Which means he’s in the bigger bracket in terms of pituitary tumours, not really that good. Bigger ones (macroprolactinomas) can occasionally interfere with eyesight as the optical nerves sit close to the pituitary gland in the brain. When I was first diagnosed, he measured 1.3cm by 1.1cm. The pituitary gland is really important in terms of producing and regulating various hormones. These include; growth hormones, puberty hormones (LSH, LH, testosterone etc.), thyroid stimulating hormone, and prolactin. Prolactin is the important one.

Prolactin is usually associated with pregnancy. It helps with milk production in lactating mothers and high levels interfere with the glands’ production of LSH and LH. These are essential for maintaining the menstrual cycle.

So what happens when you have a prolactinoma? In my case, I was a fair way into my teens and hadn’t started my period yet. I was also really worn out and run down, and carrying a little extra weight (there’s no evidence that untreated prolactinomas cause weight gain, but I definitely lost some once I’d been put on my medication.) My mum and I decided that I should go to the GP to have some blood tests. We had no idea what we were looking for, or expecting, but my bloods came back with exceptionally high levels of prolactin. By high I mean that ‘normal’ levels might be 50-200, mine was closer to 5000. Cue more blood tests to check for definite, and then I was sent for an MRI and lots of different tests that (I think) included looking at my adrenal function, bone density, eye tests, and a heart cardiogram. They’re all to do with the side effects of having a prolactinoma.

The MRI showed that I had a significant growth on my pituitary gland and the answer was found. Luckily, prolactinomas are relatively easy to treat, surgery is only necessary in rare and severe cases, so I take a tablet that inhibits the production of prolactin. The problem with prolactinomas is that the excessive production of prolactin feeds the tumour, causing the tumour to produce more prolactin, and so on.

It’s been quite a long, frustrating journey. I’ve had more blood tests than I can keep track of, 3 MRIs and lots of visits to different doctors. I’m finally at a stable stage of my treatment. I’ve been told I don’t need any more MRIs for a while (thank god!), just keep taking my medication, keep having blood tests, and in 3-5 years I might be able to come off my medication. However, my journey unfortunately doesn’t stop there. Because when I decide I want children it all has to start again. As I mentioned, prolactin is associated with milk production in mothers. This means that if/when I get pregnant my prolactin will naturally need to rise, I’ll have to come off my meds and the extra prolactin being produced could cause trouble with Paul again. That’s in the future though.

For now, I’m healthy, I’m happy, and I hope that I can raise awareness of pituitary conditions with this post. If you have any questions, feel free to drop me a note on the Contact Me page. For more information, The Pituitary Foundation is a really useful reference: http://www.pituitary.org.uk

The Boss

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll have seen me refer to the ‘The Boss’ during the summer holidays and lambing. Well, I thought it was time I revealed a bit more about the man responsible for most of my farming experiences.

The Boss, more commonly known as Wilfred, is a Northern Irish farmer who moved to the UK with his father and brother and all their families. He is one of the hardest working men I know. He currently runs around 600 sheep, including Pedigree Texels and Beltex, a suckler herd of 40 cows, a sizeable boar unit and processes and delivers logs in the winter.

I met Wilfred through my mum in 2013. I rang him up to arrange a time to view some ewe lambs to buy. My first lot of sheep. As I’ve explained previously, I had been paid for some non-farming work experience and sheep were first on my wish list. I remember feeling his eyes on me as I picked a runty, long legged ewe lamb, telling mum that I’d give her a chance, I liked her. I enjoy reminding them both that although she didn’t lamb her first year, she gave me two strong lambs this year. A month or two later I was meeting Wilfred again, as he offered me the use of a Charolais ram to put to my eight ewe lambs. He told my mum that although I lacked confidence in myself, I was a hard worker, and he’d be happy to have me work for him over the summer.

Wilfred has taught me almost everything I know about farming (My mum taught me almost everything I know about lambing sheep). He took a chance that no other farmers around us at that time were willing to take. They saw me as a hobby farmer, never believing I’d push through and buy my sheep, never seeing me as much other than a teenage girl without the knowledge or physical strength to make it on a farm. Well, Wilfred and I showed them. I can catch and lamb a ewe, I can dose and weigh lambs, I can drive a tractor and change a shear bolt, and a hell of a lot more. Wilfred gave me the chance to confirm my suspicions, farming was what I wanted to do. And I can never thank him enough for that.

His patience (seemed) endless. I must have rung him five times on the afternoon that he first left me to rake up hay on my own with a single rotor rake. My brain just couldn’t get the system of which direction I was supposed to be going round the field organised! He’s watched from the next door field while I spent 20 minutes trying to change my first shear bolt before ringing him and asking for a hand. And he’s definitely been patient waiting for me to get the hang of reversing trailers! Maybe he’s patient or maybe he’s just chilled out, but I thank him for it.

Farming with Wilfred has taught me so much about myself. It’s taught me confidence in my actions; you’re often on your own doing jobs and it’s important to believe in yourself and what you’re doing. It’s taught me patience; animals do not always understand a sense of urgency, in fact, rushing them will probably only slow you down even more! It’s taught me inner strength and determination. I might not be a muscly man, but I can certainly pull my weight around the farm. If I can’t do it by sheer force, I’ll figure out a different way.  Working on a farm tests you mentally and physically and lambing is a prime example of one of those times when you have to dig deep to get jobs done.

Not only has Wilfred supported me whilst working for him, he’s supported me with trying to build up my own small flock. If it wasn’t for Wilfred and his knowledge, his help, his dog and his trailer licence, there’s no way I would be where I am now. We often discuss how my flock is going, and where I’m heading. There’s no greater compliment for me than when Wilfred says my lambs are looking good. (I think he was even a little bit disappointed that I castrated my Texel ram lamb, he seemed to like him!).

I respect Wilfred and everything he does to an exceptional degree. He’s one of the best farmers/business men/mechanics/men I’ve ever met. He took a big chance on me a few years back and I hope I’ve proved to him that it was worth it. We’ve moved house now, but I’ll return to Wilfred’s farm for lambing this Spring. I’m not sure how it will feel to walk off that farm for possibly the last time, I think it will always feel like the place where I transitioned from an unconfident, but determined girl to a confident and willing young shepherdess with even more determination to get where I aim to be in this industry.

So, thank you Wilfred, here’s to more farming craic this Spring!

ilfred

 

Dressed (not) to impress!

As first posts go, fashion probably wasn’t my first thought. But hey ho, it’s on my mind so here we are.

My sense of ‘style’ will probably remain the bane of my Mother’s life for the rest of time. Sometimes I’m quite impressed with what I manage to pull off (floor length gowns, high heels etc.), other times I’m quietly shocked I’ve dared to step out the house. Arguably the best part of going to Harper is that I can plan my dress for balls on the colour of my wellies and my welly sock selection. Arguably the best part of working on a farm is that I can go to the supermarket in waterproofs covered in lamb afterbirth and straw and only a few people dare to look me up and down. I do not own a skirt, however I could probably change my coat twice a day for a week and have spares. Maybe my sense of style could be called ‘practical’. I have a favourite shirt. It is a Mens’ XS. I wear it to work on the farm, I wash it, I wear it to lectures at Uni. It goes with every pair of jeans I own, and every coat I own (essential). The label is faded and there’s escapee threads in a few places, but I paid £15 for it and it gets more wear than anything else in my wardrobe. Long live the checked tattersall shirt! My wellies are the most expensive item in my wardrobe, including my Leavers’ Ball gown and my tweed jacket, and I pride myself on keeping them ‘well muddied’.

If I’m feeling sort of girly, I might wear some moccasins, I might wear a more fitted blouse, one of my ‘smarter’ coats…that’s probably it. I’m not saying all female farmers are like me, but the thought of trying to cope in day to day life with the constant threat of my knickers being exposed is too much pressure for me. I strive to be comfortable and ready for anything the British countryside (or its’ four legged residents) might throw at me. Jeans, boots and a baggy shirt will do for me. Sorry Mother!

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That one time I wore a full length dress.
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The shirt in question.