Writing competition: Readers tell us about ‘The View From Here’

From scenic landscapes and cluttered kitchen tables to growing kids and farming plans, your views are many and varied, judging by the entries to Farmers Weekly’s latest writing competition.

We asked you to tell us about “The View From Here” and we enjoyed reading all yours musings. They made us think, laugh and – in one or two instances – cry.

Mary Hosking nets £100 for her winning entry, which we are publishing here along with those of the two runners-up.

Winner: Mary Hosking, Buckinghamshire

For many years, my view – for anything up to 10 hours a day – was restricted to the four walls of the milking parlour, except for quick forays into the collecting yard to chivvy up recalcitrant cows.

From there, I could glimpse the lovely line of the Chiltern Hills in the distance and see if any showers were sweeping our way across the vale, while in the foreground the view was of grass meadows, bordered by a willow-lined brook.

Four years ago, my life changed. We had a new milking parlour built – herringbone as opposed to the old abreast one – and as I’m rather vertically challenged (5ft tall and shrinking) my days of being main milker were over. Three rousing cheers – as far as I was concerned anyway.

See also: Bestseller Rebanks shares ‘Shepherd’s Life’ secrets

Of course, it didn’t mean I stopped doing stuff on the farm. However, in theory, I was no longer “tied to the cows’ tails” to the same degree. Did it mean I broadened my view on the world? Did I start gadding about to make up for lost time?

Well, no. Two years ago, my husband and I had three days away, the first time for 32 years.

We went to Cornwall, where we stayed with family in a cottage right on the edge of the sea wall opposite Saint Michael’s Mount. It was halcyon spring weather; at night, the full moon laid a silver path across the sea.

The call of home

Rising early as ever, we explored the deserted beach before breakfast. It was idyllic and I thoroughly enjoyed it, but do you know what? I couldn’t wait to get home. Sad, aren’t I? Or maybe not.

As I see it, if I can enjoy the small pleasures of home life – the cats and dogs, the farm and the garden – without hankering after bigger (and probably more expensive) thrills, then I’m one up on those who can’t, and count myself fortunate. And how often do you hear a dairy farmer saying that in these troubled times?

Naturally I don’t always feel this way. I certainly didn’t on the evening of Christmas Day, when I looked out to find a large portion of the herd careering round the garden. “Fortunate” was definitely not the word that sprang to mind on that occasion, though one that did also began with an “f”.

And then there are the “what the hell am I doing this for?” mornings. You know the ones I mean. When you’re squelching through mud in the pouring rain, or battling with frozen pipes in biting easterly winds and everything that possibly can go wrong does – from the milking machines breaking down to the cat being sick at breakfast time.

Luckily, on the plus side, there are also the “now I know why” days, when spring is at its loveliest, or summer at its height and the world is a magical place brimming with new life and hope.

Worth the hard work

Sometimes, when there is news of some horrific natural event or man-made atrocity, we have been known to say: “There are a lot worse places to live than Buckinghamshire”.

And it’s true. There are no earthquakes or hurricanes, no really serious floods or long-term droughts, and our conflicts are (mostly) unarmed.

We started out here with just four suckler cows and 20 sheep on a virtually bare site of 50 acres, with no electricity or running water, and no house or buildings. We have worked all the hours God sends.

We have lived through all sorts of difficulties – high interest rates, insufficient milk quotas, BSE and all the rest of it, not to mention the current crippling anxiety of the disastrously low milk price.

And now, with our son, who has more or less taken over the management side of things, we have increased the farm size, built up a dairy herd of 150 cows plus followers, and have the necessary infrastructure – even if some of it isn’t quite how we would like it to be.

Lucky to be here

With both our children grown up and with five grandchildren, we have so much to be thankful for, particularly when you think of the plight of so many others in the world.

I cannot bear to think of how awful it must be to be turned off one’s own land and have to flee the country of your birth because of conflict, or any other reason.

So as I look out of the kitchen window, past the cat demanding to be let in, over the cow-ravaged garden, to the peaceful scene beyond, I give thanks for blessings received, and hope and pray they will continue.


Runner-up: Xanthe Farrell, Worcestershire

The feeble winter sun skips its way across the hills as it fights through the gathering storm clouds. I turn my head away from the icy rain lashing my face and try to concentrate on the matter in hand.

I am watching my new sheepdog, Fluke, being put through his paces. I am hoping the trainer, Alison Smith, will tell me he has the potential to be a working dog, but at 17 months old he has some catching-up to do.

I say he is “my” sheepdog, but this boisterous young collie isn’t mine at all; he belongs to the farm on which I rent a cottage.

I have lived here since 2002 and the changes I have seen in farming over the past 14 years are the reason I am now stood in the middle of a muddy field in Worcestershire.

Learning curve

When I first moved in to my dilapidated but cheap estate cottage, my interaction with my landlord, a farmer, was minimal.

I was just another commuter on the daily grind between office and home. Moving from the city to the country was the start of a steep learning curve.

The nights were dark, the nearest shop three miles away and streaming movies on the internet was a distant memory. What surprised me the most, however, was just what an industrial workplace the farm was. A hive of constant activity, this mixed arable and dairy business was a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week operation.

My mornings would often start with a cow staring at me through the kitchen window and my nights would often end with a frantic search for the cat in the grain store (her favourite place).

There were farmworkers, cow hands and other tenants, but we rarely mixed. Farming felt like a closed shop that you were born into – an exclusive club that didn’t encourage new members. They went about their work and I mine.

First-time farmer

This is how it stayed until one night in 2011, when I came back from work and was annoyed to find one of the farm tractors blocking my drive. I knocked angrily on the cab window and was met by the tearful face of my farmer landlord, who I had always assumed to be a hard-bitten, hard-edged man.

“What’s wrong?” I asked. “They are gone,” was his reply. The “they” in question turned out to be his dairy herd.

After 30 years in the dairy industry, the farm could no longer carry the losses from reduced milk prices and rising overheads. Selling the herd was the only option, but it felt like the life had been sucked out of the farm and those on it.

That day marked a change not just in the life of the farm, but also in our friendship as I moved from tenant to confidante and occasional farm helper.

I often get a knock on the door to ask if I can come and lend a hand on the farm and I am glad to do it as he farms alone now and doesn’t have workers to rely on.

The chance to get out in the fresh (if rather chilly) air is a great stress-buster and feeling useful again has been a rewarding experience for me.

I am learning more about farming every day and I am gradually becoming accepted as the townie willing to get her hands dirty.

Budding shepherdess

In 2014 the farm acquired a new sheepdog – a border collie who had spent his first few months locked in a tiny flat in Birmingham. The farm did not have the time to train him into a working dog, which is where I stepped in.

I had wanted a dog since I was a child, but the circumstances were never right. I have to work full-time now so it would still not be practical, but sharing the care of the farm dog has provided a great solution.

I can take him training, which means he doesn’t get in the way of the farmer during the day, and eventually the farm will have a cost-effective working dog to help manage the sheep.

So this is why, today, I am stood shivering in a cold and muddy field, watching a dog chasing sheep around a small paddock.

I am pleased to say that, despite a shaky start, Fluke passed his assessment. He has a future as a working sheepdog and it seems I may yet have a new career as a budding shepherdess.

The nature of farming is changing and with it the make-up of those working in the industry. I am proud to be playing my part, however small, in supporting the industry and helping at least one farm to carry on.


Runner-up: Paul Cobb, Kent

The view from here changed a lot last year.

The farmer who rents the land I can see from my office window grubbed out a windbreak, turning two fields into one. For good measure, he hacked back the windbreaks round the field edges, piled all the wood up and burned it.

You can see what I’m doing here. “Grubbing”, “hacking” and “burning” are words that get used when farmers change the countryside in a way people don’t like. And quite a few in the village didn’t like it.

But although I have an office in a house, not on a farm, I knew why it was happening. The fields had been orchards and the windbreaks were not only redundant but shading the crops – and were so big that they were starting to collapse.

They needed tackling and, as for the windbreak that went, the result is still a small field, but one where it just about makes sense to use a combine.

Embracing change

It is all about change. A lot of people who live in rural areas don’t know much about farming and they certainly don’t like change

If the countryside is a view from your window or a backdrop to your walk with the dog, why would you? Things should stay as they are.

I’m lucky. I grew up on a farm, I work with farmers, and I get to see a lot of the countryside. I love the history of farming and the countryside, and how farming has created and changed the landscape around it. Always.

I don’t want a countryside that’s fossilised and sentimentalised; I want a working landscape that provides barn-filling crops and fit livestock, room for wildlife and somewhere for people to enjoy.

Farming has to be a balance between all those things, and that can be hard for people to understand.

My father loved the land he saw around him, and I learned as much from him about birds and wildflowers as I did about crops and stock (more, if I’m honest – I work as a farm environment adviser).

But he knew a small dairy farm in the 1960s needed to modernise, and he did it. New buildings went up, leys were sown and arable crops grown for feed. We lost some of those meadows where he used to show me the wildflowers.

Strike a balance

Ah, I hear you say, but isn’t that the point? Look at the losses of habitat – it is estimated that semi-natural grassland in lowland England and Wales declined by 97% in the 50 years up to 1984.

That is what happens when things change. It is not comfortable reading for anyone, I agree, but it happened at a time of unprecedented transformation in farming – and the rest of society.

The task now is to keep what we have left, appreciate its value and manage it in the best way.

Farmers have understood that, and taken up the challenge through agri-environment schemes and voluntarily. It’s still not an easy balance to strike, but it can be done.

More and more farmers are realising the environment is not just grass and trees, or even birds and bees, but the soil and water systems that all of life depends on and that need protecting and nourishing.

Of course, while someone might see a windbreak being “grubbed”, they are unlikely to notice the zero-till establishment of the crop in the field and how many earthworms there now are in the soil – but that’s another challenge.

We need our Open Farm Sundays to show that the care a cross-slot drill takes with the environment is just as valid as the hedge that has been laid or the nectar flower mix that has been sown.

Mind the gap

In the end, there was not that much ruction in the village about the windbreaks.

Compared with some of the concerns around housing development proposals, it’s not a huge issue – and at least the field stays as farmland. But I do worry about that gap in understanding, and how we close it.

My own son gets out into the countryside a lot – admittedly, often on a mountain bike – but at least he knows what he is seeing around him, because I’ve told him. I hope he thinks he’s lucky.

But Linking Environment and Farming (Leaf) and Farming and Countryside Education (Face) and anyone else trying to explain a working countryside does have their work cut out, and all of us who have a chance to do our bit, however small, should do so.

It’s easy for our view of farming to be only of the inside. We need to ask ourselves: How does it look from the outside?

The view from here has improved – I can now see the church tower in the next village, and the hills beyond. Let’s improve everyone’s view.

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