Farming for Townies - summer
PUBLISHED: 10:55 19 January 2010 | UPDATED: 08:56 21 February 2013
No-one spins an agricultural yarn better than Hilary Chester-Master of Cirencester's Abbey Home Farm. As the sheep cast off their winter woollies, August is a month of shear fun. Read all about it in Farming for Townies, our instructive guide
At the beginning of August, we wean our main flock of lambs as, by now, they are 16-ish weeks old. When the lambs have been safely separated, their mothers are sheared. Our main flock of Lleyns - who look so pretty in their thick coats - seem completely transfigured when their wool is taken off. But if the sun is hot, they probably appreciate losing their winter woollies. In the days of old, not only great churches but whole towns here in the Cotswolds were built on the wealth of the wool trade. Nowadays sheep fleeces no longer buoy up the finance of any Cotswold farm I know. They are generally sold into the carpet trade but, lately, we have been keeping back a few to sell to local spinners and weavers.
And, of course, the knitting wool! It might sound a bit mad, but of all the things happening at the farm in the last few years, finding a spinning mill which is Soil Association-certified (so doesn't douse the fleeces with chemicals before spinning), getting our fleeces there, spun into Aran 50g balls and brought back to sell in the shop has been one of the most exciting things I have done. I guess I should also mention my slight disaster... Not knowing much about the world of spinning and weaving - although I am the proud owner of a beautiful old wheel and hope to use it again one day - I was advised to have quite a lot of the wool spun into single-ply onto cones for weaving. You might wonder what the problem is with that? Well, two years later, I haven't sold one cone! So, any spinners out there who can advise me as to what to do with quite a large (actually enormous) sack of single-ply local wool on 500g cones please, please get in touch. The knitting wool, I am pleased to say, has delighted many a customer. They not only seem thrilled that they can see the sheep it comes from and that it has no chemicals in it, but also that it knits up well and is not overly expensive. Thank goodness for that! A new batch from last year's fleeces sold in balls, and now also in hanks, is going into the shop as I write. So if you fancy knitting a winter scarf or sweater from local organic wool, then look no further.
The combine harvester must be the most recognised piece of farm machinery, apart from the tractor. In August it can be seen here working its way through fields and fields of ripe crops. If a combine near you is already roaring through the fields, it will probably be on a non-organic farm, as their crops tend to ripen first. If you look carefully, you will see that the combine cuts the crop and then separates the grain from the straw. A tractor with a large trailer might be driving alongside the combine, catching grain pouring out of a spout on the side. The combine has the capacity to store a lot of grain within it, so sometimes the tractor driver will be sitting in the corner of the field awaiting a fresh load. Tom, my son, has done three years of harvesting here and has, I think, enjoyed the enforced rest as much as the driving! Not to say it is a job for an idler - the hours are long and very unpredictable, so no social life in August.
Once the trailer is full of corn or pulses, it heads to the grain dryer/store where the grain is offloaded and tested for moisture content. It is very important that we read this correctly. Not only are we looking for a maximum of 15 percent moisture content; we must also check the crop is not too hot. If it is not dry and cool enough, it is prone either to going mouldy in storage or getting infested with insects - either scenario would be a disaster for the farm.
It is also very important not to over-dry the grain. Too much heat on milling wheat destroys the gluten that helps bread to rise. Too much heat on seed grain can stop it from regrowing. To achieve all these objectives, John and all other farmers I have ever met pay particular attention to the weather whilst they are harvesting. It saves so much time and so much energy - of both the fossil fuel and emotional varieties - if the grain is harvested and put under cover when the sun is shining. Then it will be dry enough not to have to use the dryer, although if it has been a very hot day it might just need cooling down: 'conditioning', in farm talk. Even though we prefer not to have to use it too much, we are very proud of our grain dryer. It is '60s vintage, and made by Alvan Blanch of Malmesbury, which sells sell grain-drying equipment all over the world.
If you have ever wondered what the difference is between all the fields of corn you can see, here is a brief resume of what we grow and why.
The main crops we are harvesting here are winter and spring-sown wheat, triticale, beans and spring-sown oats. Cereals are grown for their energy-giving properties, and beans for their protein. Some is for animal feed; some is for us to eat.
The winter wheat we grow is called Claire, not because it is the name of John's wife, but because, he says, it yields very well. It is used for animal feed, biscuit making or flaking for cereals.
Triticale (Benetto) is actually a hybrid of wheat and rye. It is good for animal feed, high in amino acids, particularly lycine.
The beans we grow are a protein feed for animals. They are harvested very dry, ground up and mixed with triticale to make a dry ration. Around half stays for our animals and the rest is sold off-farm.
Spring wheat (Paragon) is mainly suitable for milling. Doves Farm, Shipton Mill and Marriages - all names you might be familiar with - often buy our milling wheat. Next time you bite into a Shipton Mill sandwich or a Doves Farm biscuit, it might have been made with our wheat. We have talked for years about making a loaf with our own Paragon flour, but we are still on the look-out for somewhere to mill the relatively small amount we need. One day, there will be a loaf on our shop bread shelf made from our own wheat.
Spring Oats (Firth) are also for milling. We can't, as far as I know, mill our own, as oats have a lot of covering around the seed. There are only a couple of organic mills in the country that can 'de-hull' before rolling them to make what we know of as porridge oats. Before this process, they are fine for animals but not for humans.
We also grow seed crops of wheat and beans to sell to other farmers for next year's seed. We market this through the Organic Seed Producers.
We get more money for crops grown for seed, but they have to pass certain tests by the Ministry. They must also, of course, be disease free, and have less than one wild oat per kg - a tall order for organic farmers!
The higher the quality of any of the corn we grow, the more likely that it will be sold for human rather than animal consumption, which has a great financial benefit to us. This depends on the weather, and highlights the importance of timely harvesting.
We sell our grain through OAMG, the Organic Arable Marketing Group, which encourages grain processors to use British organic grain, and of which we were founder members. It is a farmer-owned group trying to bring stability to a volatile market, which is particularly undersupplied at present. Two reasons among many for this situation are the 2006 drought in Europe, which resulted in generally very poor yields, and the change in Soil Association standards, which has resulted in a greater need for organic animal feed. There are also many more dairy farmers converting to organic systems who now use the cereals they grow to feed their own animals rather than selling off-farm. This is, of course, best farming practice as far as we see it; but for those farmers who need animal feed and don't grow their own grain, and for the milling companies, and - of course - the consumer at the end of the chain, it is not such good news just at the moment.
Good news for customers? The vegetable garden here is starting to erupt (!) with crates of fantastic vegetables coming into the shop. Sugar snaps, lettuces, early spinach, young carrots, small beets, garlic, onions, spring onions, broad beans, tomatoes... By the end of August we will have 30 or 40 different veg on sale from the farm. One customer said to me the other day that she waits all year for our tiny orange tomatoes that literally explode in the mouth with sweetness.
This year, the soft fruit is very early and very impatient to be picked. Coming up to the shop, you might see our wonderful student pickers from Cirencester, boxes tied round their waists, working furiously.
The yurts and the holiday cottage are often full with people enjoying the countryside, the simple life, and particularly the cafe at the shop when it is pouring with rain. Farms all over the country have been diversifying into holiday lets to help the finances, and we are really enjoying sharing this lovely farm with so many different people who often come from cities and are not used to seeing a deer or a woodpecker when they wake up in the morning.
And now preparations are in full swing for the wind and solar-powered Ragged Hedge Fair we hold on the farm on September 1 and 2. We hope the harvest will be over!
- For more details about our wind and solar powered fair see www.raggedhedgefair.co.uk
- For more information about Abbey Home Farm, log onto www.theorganicfarmshop.co.uk; or visit the farm's Organic Farm Shop on the Burford Road, Cirencester, GL7 5HF. You can email on firstname.lastname@example.org or ring 01285 640441.