Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: Trips, rather than TV, show us the true face of farming
Farming in Essex goes under the microscope
“Well, I’ve moved into the jungle of the agriculture rumble to grow my own food”
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EAST Anglia, and here I include everything north of Witham, east of Bishop’s Stortford, going right up to the Wash, is still a fairly rural place with many farms.
On the map it’s redolent of a giant buttock turned defiantly towards Europe. Occasionally, when I hear of certain demands or edicts emerging from Bonn or Brussels, I think “Rightly so, too.”
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My scepticism is not so much to do with any dislike or distrust of our continental neighbours; it’s merely that I fear that the bigger a bureaucracy becomes, the more unwieldy and irrelevant it will be to many of its constituent parts.
On an early winter morning I sit in Gary the farmer’s kitchen and I ask “Should we get out of Europe?” Gary’s not so sure.
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That’s another thing, you see. Every farmer I meet is different. One might be standing in his feed-shed at dawn, ranting about the EU in ancient profanities, whilst another, such as Gary, will be more gently circumspect about matters.
A Suffolk man in his mid-60s, Gary was brought up in Ipswich. He wasn’t originally from a farming family. He went to agricultural college, gaining experience in Lincolnshire, Lancashire, Cumbria and Suffolk, before eventually settling here in Tendring 35 years ago.
He keeps turkeys, chickens and geese, although fewer of the latter. Up until 60 or so years ago, when sales of mass-produced turkeys took off, geese were the nation’s favourite festive fowl.
Gary describes himself as a commercial farmer and, when asked by potential customers if his turkeys are organic, he says no. And yet, he adds, after careful questioning about how his turkeys are kept, such customers will usually still decide to order from him.
My own knowledge of domestic fowl is limited to a little past experience of keeping ducks and chickens. Standing in the turkey shed with this farmer, I’m immediately aware that the birds are kept well. The shed is a sort of Best Western for turkeys. The deep straw is fresh, the large outbuilding smells clean and it’s pleasantly light. I notice that some of the natural light panels are tinted reddish-pink and later discover that turkeys, being colour-sensitive, are less prone to fight when kept out of direct sunlight. Only English-speaking peoples, incidentally, call the creature a turkey. Many nations call it “The Bird of India”. The Greeks call it a “French Chicken”, whilst the Turkish word for it is “Hindi”.
The turkeys I’m standing amongst now are large, feisty and fast on their feet. Gary says that if he walks the perimeter of the shed, eventually all of the birds will form up and follow him around the circuit. Having started when he was a lad in Ipswich, by keeping a few chickens, Gary knows a couple or three things about poultry. His present chickens, which wander around at liberty outside their fox-proof coop, are also in fine condition.
Fuelling the frequent misunderstandings between town and country is the fact that a few metropolitan media types have relocated to the country. Jimmy Doherty – a friend of Jamie Oliver, a pig farmer, festival host and TV star – led the most recent celebrity sashay out of the city. Alex James, Blur’s former bass player, is now an Oxfordshire farmer and cheese-maker. In ongoing rows over a possible badger cull, the unlikely new figurehead for those against it is Queen guitarist/astronomer Brian May. Fine. But where will this latest skipping race from La-la Land to New Rural Arcadia end? Hopefully with a TV series: The Loneliness of the Lambing Shed, presented by Morrissey. Yes, I’m looking forward to that.
I’ve often felt that it might be quite a good idea to re-introduce certain sections of the public to a countryside with which many of them lost touch long ago. I don’t, on the other hand, feel that TV programmes and celebrity magazines are necessarily the best conduits for such a reunion.
Farming and food processing in general, are, at core, about birth, death, blood and ordure. You can use words and phrases like “organic”, “responsibly-sourced”, “humane” and “sustainable” as much as you like. You can even don a Little Bo Peep outfit, play some Vaughan Williams music in the background and wrap everything up in red-checked gingham, tied jauntily with rustic twine.
But somewhere along the line there will still be death, gore and unholy miasma. Oh, and if you’re a proper farmer you can’t do flexitime. You can’t, in early spring, upon finding yourself feeling a trifle liverish, telephone your p.a. to find you a temp for the week. You must work as long and as hard as is necessary, until the job is jobbed.
A farmer such as Gary knows this – and so do I. Which is why I’m busy being a softy columnist and musician these days.
Before remounting my bike, I take a look at the flat Tendring landscape, with its gawping skies and final flashes of autumn colour. Gary’s very orderly farm, which is about as big as, say, 100 Wembley pitches, is managed only by Gary and his son, with a little seasonal help.
The handshake, before I set off for home, is expectedly firm, with its work-engrained texture of emery cloth.
“Respec’ due,” as you young modernists might say.