Frosty Mornings Return

It’s been an odd fortnight of weather on the farm; warmer yes, but the wind was cold and lazy – it went straight through one. Heavy grey clouds sitting low over us – the sort that would always bring on Adrian’s asthma, and then, an about face for Saturday as we woke to frosts and bright skies once more.  

The moon on Sunday morning was so bright and the sky a beautiful blue streaked with gentle pinks. Apparently, it is called a ‘Snow Moon’ because in many parts of the northern hemisphere February is the month with the heaviest snowfall. By contrast, the day ends with a sunset that looks like molten lava it is so fiery red. An old rhyme comes to mind: Red sky at night shepherd’s delight, Red sky in the morning shepherd’s warning; We certainly have calm, dry weather. As for the ‘Snow Moon’ – there is no sign of snow in the forecast! 

On the farm, the fifteen young cattle, all calm and helpful, left the farm. This group have gone to an organic farm in Hampshire. Whilst our cows are a gentle, placid group, the young ‘teenagers’ in particular, can be frisky and jumpy and a high-spirited kick from a cow hurts, so we were grateful that they were happy to move off the farm peacefully. 

As one group leaves, another arrives – a new heifer calf is welcomed into the world and joins the other little ones in the barn. Later in the week, a bull calf arrived, and on Saturday another calf arrived safely. Long aware of the realities of the ‘coal face’ of farming, that day, we also lost a calf, and a poorly ewe also passed away.  

In the garden, the Snowdrops and Winter Aconite are all looking gloriously present finally peeping through the dead leaves. The Moorhen is very busy between all the areas of the garden, no longer only under the bird feeder, but enjoying the fallen autumn apples under the trees too. In the middle of last week, the pigeon outside the kitchen window was sitting on its nest! The bird song is definitely increasing across the day and is so splendid first thing.  

An unconscious move from us all here to move back to Radio 4 in honour of Adrian has been a very interesting experiment. Forget Suduku – try listening and retaining an important conversation heard while working in the morning, to share later in the day. A skill to be practiced it seems!  

The sounds of Radio 4 ‘pips’ are a welcome memory. For a long time, we travelled to work and school listening to Terry Wogan, and travelled home listening to PM.  We have also discovered we can use the school run to catch up with a ‘Podcast’ or two – something we have to date avoided! It turns out that a ‘Podcast’ is a fancy name for listening to people who know things, talk and discuss and share what they know. Now we understand the new name for a radio programme, our first find is “The Rest is Politics” with Rory Steward and Alistair Campbell. Fascinating, and surprisingly more heartening to listen to than the news alone. 

A swift ten minutes on the Today programme on the morning of 27th Jan alerted us to the fact that, for the third year in a row, DEFRA has approved an “emergency derogation” to allow sugar beet farmers in the UK to use neonicotinoids – which we, the UK & EU, voted to ban in 2018 across the whole of Europe – a ban because these pesticides are, as their guest Prof. Dave Goulson, a specialist in bee ecology put it: “the equivalent of Novichok for bees and other insects”. Even in small doses, it is incredibly poisonous to everything around the area it is used, and spreads to, and of course, those dangers live on past the sugar beet crop being harvested.  

Goulson made the point that it can’t really be seen as an “emergency” if this is the third year in a row that DEFRA has agreed this derogation… and that more helpful would be to work for a solution that means the use of the chemicals is stopped altogether. A startling suggestion was to grow sugar beet in other areas of the country where they are not blighted by this virus… and to grow something else successfully where they are farming sugarbeet. Shocking! 

Apparently, the DEFRA scientific advisors recommend a 32 month minimum before land where the neonicotinoids were used can be used for a flowering crop, thus they recognise the toxin levels in the soil, but fail to acknowledge the leaching into the water courses, streams, the roots of hedgerow flowers and trees, and of course, via the food chain and nano particles, into us humans too.  

It is very hard to balance the knowledge that while some try to maintain our natural habitats, big business continues to wield the power to consciously, knowingly continue to destroy it, in the interests of being “cost efficient”, i.e., make money.  You won’t be surprised to know that we have had to get a copy of Prof. Goulson’s book “A Sting in the Tail” to learn more about his work! 

For Brendan it has been a fortnight of two good opportunities: 

The first of two main events for me over the last couple of weeks was a visit to an exceptionally beautiful hill farm in north Worcestershire, (near Shelsley Walsh hill climb, if anyone knows the area) to collect a pair of very handsome Gloucester Old Spot piglets. Sadly, not for Rush Farm, but it was very nice to be introduced to Mrs Pigs 1,2,3 and 4 and shown around the beautiful Victorian stables. Of course, we are incredibly lucky with the historic buildings at Rush Farm that once housed a racing stud of some renown, but this farm was somewhat more delicate. Chatting over paperwork in the kitchen we discussed the merits of keeping heritage animals such as our Herefords, and also how those who are lucky enough to live at and spend time on these beautiful farms can open their doors to school children and other interested parties. It is so important that we as people know where our food comes from, so that we are able to make informed judgments about what we eat and where we source it. 

The second event was a day very well spent attending the LEAF annual conference at the beautiful Stoneleigh Abbey, near Coventry. Surrounded by stunning frescos and oak panelled corridors (not to mention one of the first flushing toilets, which so impressed Queen Victoria she ordered nine on the spot for Osbourne House on the Isle of Wight! In an interesting case of nominative determinism, the flushing mechanism was invented and patented by one Thomas Crapper).  Alice and I, along with about a hundred others, settled down for a morning of talks and discussion chaired by Countryfile’s Tom Heap. You may have seen LEAF’s standard mark on fruit and vegetables. It is not an organic certification but seems to signify that the grower has a very positive attitude towards good stewardship of the land. 

Hearing the story of Wild Ken Hill estate in Norfolk – which began its conversion to regenerative agriculture about four years ago – was absolutely fascinating. The decision to abandon conventional methods was made solely for financial reasons, as the huge input costs required were slowly eroding the estate’s profits, while year on year the poor ground needed more and more input as it couldn’t support crops by itself. To see the soil health data change through the application of composts and teas made on the farm, and with the introduction of animals in rotation, was quite eye opening. Of course, we have seen it at Rush Farm too – if you walk off the farm, you will immediately find that the heavy clay clings to your boots far more than the land we treat biodynamically. It is a huge relief to hear that the circular, regenerative approach to farming is starting to gain real traction in the mainstream, an idea reinforced by the conference’s main sponsor who was a conventional agricultural bank. Apparently, they have taken the view that if they don’t invest (and encourage others to also) in regenerative farming, then in twenty years there will be no farms left to pay them back! 

The importance of biodiversity, and the immense complexity of quantifying our carbon capture abilities in the UK, was highlighted by the director of Kew’s Wakehurst project in Sussex. There were an awful lot of numbers which seemed to prove much that a biodynamic farmer would take as a given, such as treating the farm as its own organism. One of the points made which really stuck with me though was the thought that we should not try to deny our human nature and rewind everything, but rather manage our country in a really positive way. “Take something good, leave something good behind” seemed to be the general mantra. With their huge membership and large visitor numbers, one of the most interesting studies we learned about (in my opinion) was the fact that spending time in nature makes people considerably happier. Of course – we all knew that anyway, but what was really fascinating was that it seemed that the natural environment that had the largest positive affect on human happiness was that of well managed land. Not wetlands, or moor, or wild forest, but carefully stewarded countryside. I think that it would be almost as foolish to deny humans’ effect on the British countryside as it would be to carry on as we are. 

Finally, we were all jolted into uncomfortable attention by a lecture by a well-known climate scientist who highlighted the catastrophic problems that conventional agriculture (and particularly soya-fed animals) are having on our planet. It seems that globally, we produce around 6000 calories of food per person, per day. So, we produce easily enough to support our burgeoning population. The main drain is human grade food that is fed to animals, having a detrimental effect on environment, and an appalling rate of return. Why should we be doing this when we can produce much higher quality meat from land which would otherwise be unsuitable for producing human food? It would take a book (and I’m sure there are many already) to give this subject a proper hearing, but it was interesting to hear all the same.  

It was a fantastic day, hearing many ideas both challenging and enthusing, and it was a pleasure to meet other people involved in producing food in a way which restores our landscape. Who knows if there are changes, we could make to our systems at Rush Farm, however as Grandpa would I’m sure have reminded us, it is always vital to have your ideas challenged and refreshed. 

You’ll guess how much we all appreciate a teacher who inspires, after all, that is what teaching should be (we think!). We are none of us, yet, finding poetry a natural home, so, after listening to an interview where someone share their memories of their favourite teacher – who led their very first class with a poem, which turned out to be a song – which turned out to shape their lives… we will end with those lyrics (below). Perhaps these words have shaped your lives too. For us, this song was on an album, on loop, as we toured Dartmoor in an August too many years ago, waiting for Sebastian’s A-Level results. So long ago that we had to travel from telephone box to telephone box, phoning our grandparents, who would receive the results in the post!  

The Sound of Silence’ Simon & Garfunkel 

Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence 

In restless dreams, I walked alone
Narrow streets of cobblestone
‘Neath the halo of a street lamp
I turned my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
That split the night
And touched the sound of silence 

And in the naked light, I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never shared
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence 

“Fools” said I, “You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you”
But my words, like silent raindrops fell
And echoed in the wells of silence 

And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
Then the sign said, “The words on the prophets are written on the subway walls
In tenement halls”
And whispered in the sound of silence 

From the farm, thank you. 

Anne, Chris & Brendan 

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