Lorraine Howells went to university and taught science for 27 years, but has never lived away from her family’s farm.
Her mother and lorry-driver father lived with her grandparents at Cwm Carno Farm in the Rhymney Valley in Glamorgan. She attended local schools and, for four years, commuted daily by train to Cardiff University.
The pattern continued, though a car replaced the train, when she taught A-Level pupils at Heol Ddu Comprehensive School at nearby Bargoed.
“I travelled to save money and because I was needed to work on the farm,” Lorraine recalls. “Ever since I can remember, it has not been possible to separate my life from the different parts of the farming year.
“I have always been at home to help with lambing, haymaking, gathering, dipping and winter feeding, and I have never wanted it any other way.”
About 12 years ago Lorraine had the opportunity to take over the farm so she took early retirement. Now aged 63, she farms 300 acres with grazing rights for 1800 sheep on the Gelli Gaer and Merthyr Common.
This might seem perfect for a woman who, as a child, would climb out of her bedroom window to help her grandfather on the farm rather than do her homework.
But many would-be farmers would baulk at taking on Cwm Carno Farm. Over many decades the family boosted income by allowing open-cast coal mining on all but 30 acres of land.
The re-instated soil is hungry and can be difficult to manage in wet weather. As in all the industrialised valleys of South Wales, trespass, vandalism and marauding packs of dogs are also problems.
It is not unusual to lose around 50 of the 1000 Nelson-type Welsh Mountain sheep that are summered on the common.
Lorraine would never claim to own one of the best and tidiest farms, or to be a premier league farmer, but she insists that she produces top-notch prime lamb and Welsh Black beef.
“I get very cross about the way all the emphasis is now put on the environment rather than food production. The two have to be in balance or farms like mine will go out of business.”
Determined to try and make policy-makers listen, she has used the extra time available since she retired from teaching to get involved in farming politics.
She chairs the Farmers Union of Wales‘s Common Land Committee and sits on the Union’s Finance and Organisation Committee.
Without regret, she readily admits that she has developed a reputation for blunt speaking, and has been known to upset people inside and outside the FUW.
“I am elected to represent farmers at meetings and, if I am not prepared to speak up, I shouldn’t bother to attend. I am not always right, but I always try to reflect the views of ordinary farmers.”
It is possible her uncompromising attitude and her inability to speak Welsh have combined to deny her the most senior jobs in the union. Now she concedes that she is probably too old to seek high office.
With no hobbies, other than watching Wales play rugby, she uses time off the farm to represent South Wales on the Board of the Welsh Black Cattle Society.
From time to time she also serves in a butcher’s shop at Treharris, of which she has been co-owner for three years.
The enterprise was founded by a group of farmers to market high-quality meat out of native breeds of sheep and cattle. Animals are slaughtered in a small local abattoir, hung for the optimum period and retailed in competition with supermarket outlets.
“It started because we were all moaning like hell about prices. We’ve found that there is no fortune to be made, but there is a premium market for quality, even during a recession.
“Serving behind the counter also allows me to talk to the public and explain that farmers are not as bad as the press they get suggests. I just wish that politicians were as ready to listen.”
With her farm under bovine TB movement restrictions, Lorraine has welcomed the Welsh Assembly’s decision to try tackling the disease in wildlife, including badgers.
She says: “This is the sort of holistic approach we need, not just for TB but to get the right balance between environmental protection and food production.”
Given the very challenging natural and man-made management problems facing Lorraine, who never married, it is hard to imagine who will farm Cwm Carno after her.
Even she has days lambing outside, or struggling to make enough silage to feed the stock overwinter, when a comfortable retirement on a full teachers pension looks appealing.
But the passion for farming that stopped her staying away when at university, and the resilience of three generations that only survived on the land by earning off-farm income, soon dispel such a soft notion.
“I can still do almost every farm job, except mechanical repairs, and I get great satisfaction from helping to supply people with good quality food.”
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