Iknow that there are solo smallholders out here and this is a tribute to them, heroes all. If it’s summer, with long dry days, accommodating ground and the only thing that needs extra attention are the determined weeds in the veg patch, those of us who do our smallholding or small scale farming as a duo or family, can pretty easily accommodate one man or woman down, whether it’s a broken bone, a dose of summer flu or an extended time away from home attending to other business.
But this January, husband Andrew caught the unpleasant flu bug that’s been doing the rounds. He was knocked sideways and completely unable to get out and about.
No problem, I thought. We normally alternate our routine farm chores: one day I’ll do the pigs, poultry and sheep, the next day the cows. On a weekend if we’re not running a course, one of us will do everything on a Saturday which means you get the lie in on Sunday, or vice versa. It’s not as if I’m unable or unused to taking control of the whole shebang.
Mornings are the big deal. Pigs first, in particular feeding Poppy the sow before she tries to break down multiple gates and help herself to whatever porcine buffet takes her fancy. This January had been outrageously wet, so her five-month-old weaners were inside to let the ground in their paddock recover and give them a break from the permanent downpours which they really weren’t enjoying. Now that they’re in a barn, in addition to the normal feeding there’s twice daily pig mucking out too. Next the multiple geese, ducks and hens to let out and feed. Then two cowsheds to
muck out – with putting down fresh straw and filling their racks with haylage, the cows alone take me an hour and a half at a trot. To the sheep, at the far end of the farm where the ground is firmest, I have to walk round them all and feed those expecting twins – a 25 kilo bag of ewe nuts to share among that bunch.
By now I’m a little weary but there’s empty feed sacks to fill with logs for the fire and any number of small tasks – removing the wodges of dead leaves from the down pipes to stop the gutters overflowing, refilling feed bins, cleaning out a bird hut or two. You know the kind of thing.
I’m an everyday user of the skidsteer which we use to muck out the cowsheds, but although I’m happy to drive the tractor and trailer when hay making or collecting logs, I am not, to my shame, a daily tractor user. I have absolutely no idea how to use the front loader, so can’t pick up and shift large bales of hay or straw (we’re talking a third of a tonne or more here, so wheelbarrows don’t cut it). I don’t know how to use the rear hitch to attach the trailer, nor how to reverse it when attached (arghhh!) or empty the tipping trailer when full of muck.
After three days of husband out of action I’m stymied. I’ve neatly stuffed the muck trailer as full as possible with the bucket on the skidsteer, and now it needs emptying onto the muck heap. I’m about to run out of haylage bales for both cowsheds and can’t use the spikes on the front loader to pick them up or place them neatly, as Andrew does, exactly where needed. A new large bale of hay needs driving up to the top of the farm for the hoggs (the year old lambs). A massive straw bale needs putting into the lambing shed so I can scatter it about and bring in the ewes expecting doubles.
Luckily, very luckily, a friend comes in response to my call and does a couple of hours of impeccable tractoring about for me, and we get everything done including bringing in the ewe doubles. Their field is starting to get trashed and it’s much easier for me to feed them near the house. The ewes expecting singles will simply have to wait until Andrew is better as the barn they are going into is full of machinery that needs, you guessed it, a tractor to remove it all out.
After a week of this, to say I’m tired out would be on the money. The difference between solo smallholding and shared activity is massive. As any employee in a downsized (ghastly term) company knows, it’s simply not possible to do the work of two people, if you’re already a busy, stretched worker, over an extended period. Not unless you get fitter and younger every day. There’s a clear message here for smallholders doing this on their own – don’t take on too much, or the pleasures can turn into pains. For everyone, you need a network of skilled friends and neighbours who can help out when you’re in a jam, or details of professional contractors who will respond quickly and efficiently to your call for help (and some cash to pay for it). As much as I adore and need peace and quiet, I certainly wouldn’t want to be in splendid isolation, away from any possibility of kindly aid.
If it was summer and the cows outside, this solo responsibility would have been a doddle. If the ewes weren’t approaching lambing, I’d have simply taken the dogs for their daily stroll across the farm, to check all was well. But no. It’s January, horrendous weather conditions, a huge percentage of the livestock are inside with all the additional management that entails and the tractor work is full on, and I am ill-equipped, tractor-wise.
This makes me ashamed, to be frank. We have heaps of jobs that we share, from running the courses to the daily livestock chores, but in addition we have very specific, complementary roles. Andrew does fencing, ditching, mowing, topping, and all things tractor. I do everything related to selling our meat, lambskins and courses, dealing with the abattoir, the butcher, the tannery and our customers. I do all the paperwork, Andrew does the accounts. It works well, but this bout of flu has put my knowledge gap under a dazzling spotlight. I’m going to have to bite the bullet and learn how to do the tractoring stuff. During this time, a steer was booked in to the abattoir and it was obliging friend to the rescue again. My first task will be learning how to hitch the 4WD car to the livestock trailer without bashing a hole in the bumper, and then reversing the whole rig round corners. Heavens save us!
The difference between solo smallholding and shared activity is massive.
Debbie’s husband Andrew on the tractor
With the ewes
In the cowshed
Andrew Hubbard and Debbie Kingsley at their smallholding in Devon