Farming For Townies - Christmas

PUBLISHED: 11:34 19 January 2010 | UPDATED: 14:58 20 February 2013

Chicken for sale

Chicken for sale

Hilary Chester-Master has kept us up to date on the farming year throughout 2007. Now she signs off with home-produced birds on sale in the shop and a locally-grown Christmas dinner to look forward to.

December means short days, not light until 8, dark by 4.

Fortunately it is a relatively quiet month on most farms as the shortened amount of daylight obviously restricts the time farmers have available to do outside jobs. Lots of routine work, feeding and checking the animals inside and out, and bedding up the cows in the barn. Bedding up, to those not in the know, means giving the cows new straw to lie on. Although I prefer seeing animals outside, i have to say that our cows do look very comfortable tucked up, their bed getting higher and higher as more clean straw is piled on top of old. Every six weeks the whole barn is mucked out, a big job. The muck is put into long heaps called windrows and turned regularly to make compost. Here at Abbey Home Farm mucking out happens mid December, giving the cows a lovely new bed ready for Christmas. I often think there is a touch of the Nativity when i walk through the barn. And a special sort of peace from the quiet breathing of relaxed warm animals.

More December jobs? Most farmers probably have a long list of wet weather jobs. Here both John on the agricultural side and Keith in the vegetable garden have ongoing wet weather lists, machinery maintenance usually dominating Johns. Even earlier in the year when it seemed to be wet all day every day there were still jobs to do.

Mid December sees the scanning of the small February lambing flock to see how many lambs are expected and the tupping of the larger May lambing flock. If you have been reading this column regularly you will know a lot about tupping and the life of a ram. The short hours of daylight mean rams need to work very hard to do their job as they tend not to mate in the dark. Interestingly, when May comes along (what a lovely thought) according to John, when a lot of lambs are suddenly born on one day it can be traced back to a 'good weather day' in December when the rams felt full of vigour. Sounds plausible.

In the vegetable garden we are still harvesting lots this month. Armfuls of kales, sweet red russian, common curly, black kale sometimes known as nero de toscana, carrots, main crop potatoes at last, the biggest swedes we have ever grown, cabbages of all colours and sizes. After the very difficult summer with so little sunshine it is a miracle that so much has grown so well. I salute Keith and my new team of gardeners and I salute the magic of natures ability to address the balance after such extreme conditions this year. Weather extremes asided, the Cotswolds are not renowned for vegetable growers, in fact we are few and far between probably due to our soil type. Cotswold brash is not really the place to grow vegetables on any sort of scale and I often think it surprising that we can grow straight carrots and parsnips at all seeing the heaps of stones right across our fields.

After filling the shop with all the parsnips, sprouts, red cabbage and carrots Christmas shoppers can buy, the gardeners one by one get a well earned rest. Their work is nearly done for the year, time for some holidays in January and February. There will still be plenty to harvest after Christmas though. The salad packs take some picking, the roots need weekly lifting and the brassicas need daily harvesting. Blot on the landscape they may be to some, but polytunnels in moderation are a wonderful thing. We and many other small growers across the county can produce fantastic selections of salad leaves throughout the winter that need no fossil fuels to grow or to pick and no gas packaging for a long shelf life as it can be merely hours from picking to your plate. Mizuna, japanese mustard leaf, ta tsoi, pak choi, landcress, rocket, purslane, the list goes on and on. A taste of summer in the winter.

Woodland jobs? December is a good time for planting young trees and gapping up hedges. The ground is not yet too cold and there should be plenty of rain which is needed before the spring growth starts.

The abundance of hawthorn berries, windfall crab apples and sloes this year should provide an ample food source for the all the birds on the farm this winter. Any windblown trees are chopped up for next years fuel supply for our cafe woodburner.

You will know if you have been following the year through this column that at Abbey Home Farm we try to have as closed a system as possible, trying not to buy in replacement animals or feed unless absolutely necessary. The feed bit works well until we look at the pigs and chickens. Pigs are what is known as 'monogastric' which means they only have one stomach like humans and cannot get the same amount of nutrients from grazing as ruminants such as cows and sheep. In the times when most people had a pig at the end of the garden they were fattened on leftovers from the household. In a commercial situation this is not possible. The pigs and the laying hens do both get any old vegetables that have not been cooked, but sadly there are laws now which stop us giving them kitchen waste. So we are reliant on buying in specially formulated rations. Like wise the laying hens and our new table birds. Scratching around in the field is an important part of their diet but to get enough protein to lay well we need to supplement their diet with layers pellets. And you know what I am going to say next. Yes, they are very costly, particularly organic and particularly this year after such a poor harvest throughout the country.

The table birds are now, after two years in the planning, on the shelves in the shop!

We put up a notice saying 'here at last, feedback please.' I know we shouldnt blow our own trumpet but the comments have made it all worth while, although the finances wont add up until we get a lot quicker at the whole process. The attention to detail they are given, from a warm welcome at one day old, to being checked and chatted to three times a day every day, through to the craftsmanship needed when they are killed, plucked and portioned has resulted in what more than one person has said is the best thing they have ever tasted.

So the calendar year is drawing to a close and I hope the townies and maybe others too have learnt a little more about the farming year. I would like to thank John, our farm manager for his monthly imput, and Clare, his wife who has taken most of the pictures on these pages throughout the year. This year has not been easy for anyone making a living from the land. Our cereal crops have been near disastrous in some areas, average in others. Luckily the animals have produced well, giving birth to about 800 lambs, 135 piglets and 39 calves. This gives us plenty of choice when it comes to planning what to keep here on the farm next year.

History is repeating itself here at Abbey Home Farm. When Wills' grandmother ran the farm there were 20 or more farm workers here. In 1990, when Will and I took over the farm business there were 5 people farming 1800 acres. Now, at the end of 2007, the farm, together with the farm shop, cafe and vegetable garden employs 29 people, though not all full time by any means. In Mid December we will all celebrate Christmas together.Nearly everything we eat will come from our own labours: the meat, the vegetables, the potatoes, the milk, the eggs, the cream, the raspberries, the red and blackcurrants for the pavlova. We will toast our gardeners, our herdsman, our shepherd, our poultrymen.

And let everyone who reads this raise a toast to the many farmers and smallholders of the Cotswolds who work so hard to provide their communities with good old fashioned real food, and may you all be encouraged to support them well in the year to come.

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