We are back in Somerset again, slowly heading northwards over the next few weeks to complete Zone One before we arrive in Wales for Zone Two.
We spent nearly three weeks at Evergreen Farm, owned and run by Emma and Pete. They are a mixed farm, rearing chickens, ducks, turkeys, pigs, sheep & lambs and veal calves. They also open out one of their fields to campers for limited time each year.
The days and weeks at Evergreen have a rhythm which we quickly fell into;
Sundays and Mondays are quiet so we took those as our days off each week – we had some lovely walks in the woodland opposite the farm, did plenty of wildlife spotting and nature exploration and borrowed one of the farm cars for a trip to some of the nearby little towns.
Tuesday is slaughtering day – sheep, cattle and pigs go to a local, family run abattoir which involves selecting which animals are going, loading them onto a trailer, checking they have their ear tags in place and replacing them if not, completing the necessary paperwork for transporting animals – cattle have the equivalent of a passport which stays with them from birth to slaughter, sheep and pigs have transportation forms. This ensures that meat is traceable by movement throughout it’s life and is another check for animal welfare to ensure animals are not travelling long distances or loaded in trailers for long periods unnecessarily. The animals are loaded into pens at the abattoir and slaughtered by humane means with a minimum of fuss or stress. This has the obvious benefit to the animal of a speedy despatch but also ensures the meat is as good a quality as possible as the endorphins and stress related chemicals which are released into the blood stream and body of a frightened animal would produce tough and poor tasting meat.
Once killed (a stun to the head with either an electric pulse (pigs and sheep) or a bolt (cattle) animals are hung up by a back leg and have their throat slit before they have a chance to come round from the stunning. They are then bled and gutted and hung for a week. Some farmers have the butchers at the abattoir joint and process their meat but Pete butchers his own pigs and sheep and has a specialist butcher come to the farm to butcher his veal calves so he collects last weeks animals on a Tuesday ready to take back to the farm.
Tuesday morning is also a local market, Star and I visited it with Pete on our last week with them and enjoyed selling eggs, pies, pasties, sausage rolls, burgers, sausages and meat to local shoppers, along with exchanging banter with fellow stall holders, trading produce at the end of each market day. This market also has a live poultry auction so Star was in her element watching all the chickens, ducks, geese and other more exotic birds arriving (there were peacocks and some fancy pigeons the week we were there) and being put into their show cages, then watching the auctioneer fast talk his way into selling them all off. She watched Pete bid on, and win, some laying hens and came back later with a serious face to convince me she had bid on and won some ducks – I believed her for a while!
Pete has a licence to slaughter his own birds so there is a dedicated Killing Room on the farm. Our first Tuesday there we helped catch chickens and turkeys and got involved in the slaughtering process of them, similar to the pigs and sheep they have an electric current applied to their heads to stun them, then their throats are slit while they are stunned. They go in a hot water plunge bath to open their pores and loosen their feathers then an electric plucker machine removes most of their feathers. They are then finished off by hand and legs and heads removed. Obviously we were not allowed to do any killing but we witnessed the whole thing and assisted with the processing once they were dead.
Wednesday is spent in the kitchen baking for Emma – she turns all the unsold meat from the week before into pies, pasties, scotch eggs and sausages rolls, using as much bartered for local produce in her baking as possible. Pete meanwhile is in the cutting room dealing with the meat brought from the abattoir yesterday. Pigs and sheep are cut into joints – legs and breast for roasting, chops and ribs, specialist cuts like neck of lamb, pigs trotters and organs like heart, liver and kidney, some meat is diced for use in stews or pies and some minced. Bacon is cured using a dry cure method (similar to this one) which results in a far nicer bacon than wet cured in brine, less salty and no pan full of water to dispose of like you can get with some cheap bacon.
Next the processed meats; the mince was mixed with flavourings and preservatives to create sausage or burger mix, then minced again for a nice fine texture. Pete does a huge variety of flavours including traditional, cumberland, hickory smoked, sweet chilli, pork and apple, pork and leek, sage and onion, lamb and mint, lamb and rosemary. Then the mix is either put into the burger press or fed into the sausage machine and Pete makes strings of sausages.
I got involved each week in the packing and labelling process, arranging a variety of sizes and numbers of meat to make sure we had a good choice to take to market for people wanting to feed just one, to a whole big family. Meat had to be packed in a vacuum bag, or placed on a tray and wrapped with cling film, then weighed and labelled with details including price, ingredients if it contained any processing (such as the bacon) or ingredients (such as the burgers and sausages) and use by date.
One of the weeks we were there we also went to a cattle market and livestock auction with Pete which was a very interesting experience. We took along some ewes and lambs to sell, so had the selecting, loading and paperwork to complete and then the putting into a pen at market. The sheep auction had the auctioneer walking between the pens with the group of interested people following him along and bidding. A variety of people were there to buy from farmers looking to increase their own farm stock, to abattoirs who buy meat to kill and sell in their own farm shops to to buyers, to big buyers who buy livestock in one area and move it to another to get a better price to sell at – trading and the buyers who look for meat stock.
The cattle market was an arena with the cattle brought in to parade around while the auctioneer took bids, he was amazing to listen to and had clearly been doing the job a long time. The cattle ranged from week old calves just off their mother’s milk that morning who would need to fed formula by their new owners to couple of year old cattle ready for meat, milking or breeding.
Thursday is a market day at a slightly further afield market which Ady did twice. It doesn’t bring in a huge revenue for them and is further to travel but does run year round whereas some of the markets are summertime only, so they keep this one going to ensure an income and presence at markets year round. Again this was selling pies and pasties, meat and sausages. There was more trading of produce between stallholders and it is clearly a valuable networking resource and place to get local news, gossip and keep the local food producers community alive. Back at the farm the veal butcher comes in on a Thursday to joint any veal calves slaughtered the previous week; creating various roasting joints, steaks and escalopes, diced meat and osso bucco (which literally translates as hollow bone and is the leg, or shin, apparently very good for slow cooking in stews or casseroles). So there is more packaging and labelling to be done along with top up baking.
Friday varied rather as during our first week I went along to a local market they had been doing but had been less profitable so ended up being their last time there. It was an indoor pannier market whereas the other markets are all open air ones, so interesting to see the contrast and slightly different feel to it. The second Friday we were there was the Royal Wedding so I went along to help out at a local event celebrating that with the wedding shown on big screens and local traders selling a variety of produce from food to handbags and several local charity stalls too. We were cooking this time; our own bacon, sausages and burgers to sell alongside our pies and pasties and meat to take away and cook yourself. We did really well on all counts but the hot food sold particularly well with us having to run out and buy more rolls and do some speedy burger making by slitting open some sausages when we sold better on one than the other! Flexible and adaptable definitely key skills when selling at a market! They do a regular local market too which Emma does on her own each week every Friday too.
Saturday was another market, this time on the quayside through the summer at a nearby seaside town. We only went along once and Ady was offered the chance to work on a neighbouring stall selling fish. In the interests of embracing opportunity, learning new skills and the offer of free fish for dinner that night he jumped at the chance! Dan the Fish Man is a real character and Ady really enjoyed working alongside him, learning a fair bit about fish and even more about how to sell it! I worked on Pete and Emma’s stall selling burgers, sausages, veal steak sandwiches alongside meat and pies and pasties. I particularly enjoyed the banter between stallholders (especially with the attractive man selling fish on the stall next door!) and flogging the pasties for a pound at the end so we sold out. Dragon and Star particularly enjoyed the ice creams Pete traded for some sausages with the ice cream van.
Alongside all of this daily change is the general day to day running of a farm; feeding, bedding, mucking out the animals, checking their general health and condition and dealing with any illness or injury, collecting eggs, getting in supplies such as animal feed, baking ingredients, sausage skins, packing materials, bags for the market stall, dealing with paperwork and of course living your normal life too! Not to mention the times of year when animals need breeding or birthing, maintenance needs doing or trying to plan ahead and speculate to accumulate.
A regular refrain from Pete was ‘if I had the money I’d…’ or ‘what I’d like to do is…’ or ‘when I get time…’ and I think the luxury of seeing all of these needs before we have the pressure of needing to be making a living or dealing with our own animals or land is realising that planning and being very realistic about how long tasks might take and will cost is essential. One of the biggest costs in keeping animals is feeding them and we learnt how valuable a field of grass is to a farmer as this time of year is the first cut for silage. We were lucky enough to be down the road from a farmer who does this on a grand scale and was happy for Pete to take us along one evening to witness it happening, huge impressive (and expensive) machinery in full operation with a team of farmers driving tractors in a sort of synchonised dance around the fields. This is large scale, million pound farming and not where our dreams and ideals lie but fascinating to see and try to learn which elements and aspects would scale down to our planned level.
Pete and Emma are not WWOOF hosts, they took us in because their friend is a WWOOF host and had booked us to stay but then was not really able to have us. She had spoken to Pete & Emma about us as we were going to spend some time with them learning about butchery so they were aware of the idea of WWOOFing but not the finer points of the arrangement. I think they have a lot of offer as hosts; they are very good teachers with a huge amout of knowledge and practical tasks to share with WWOOFers aswell as the need for plenty of help! We did explain the usual guidelines of a set number of hours work each day in exchange for food and board, or a camping pitch but we also offered to work more hours if we were learning and getting something out of it. Most of the time we were and although we put in regular 11 or 12 hour days with Ady still getting up to do all the clearing away and washing up after dinner we were happy to do so in exchange for all of the new skills we were being taught. We learnt a fantastic amount in our time there, we picked up skills and knowledge, all sorts of ideas and things we want to research and discuss more and add to our potential wish lists. We got a candid and honest view of their lifestyle, the highs and lows and were able to see what we do and don’t want for ourselves. They were generous people with an interesting life totally different to our own, different backgrounds, different values and different priorities and meeting people who don’t act, think or live like us was high on our list of reasons for having this adventure. We did have a couple of days of rather less pleasant or productive from our point of view tasks; things like tidying out a shed and digging ditches which although relevant to their farm and useful to them were dirty, dusty jobs which we would not be willing to do too often. I was fully prepared to muck out chickens, pigs and cows, get covered with muddy lamb footprints and dragged through the mud by a sheep though.
The very definite downside to this host was that Dragon and Star did not get as much out of being there as we would have liked. For safety reasons they were not allowed the run of the place and contact with the animals was far more minimal than in other places. This will hopefully not be an issue in future hosts as we have been clear in our introductory email exchanges that the children are expecting to work and learn alongside us and are interested in how everything works and have their own wishlist of achievements during the year; previous hosts have been very good at including them either with us or by giving them tasks of their own to complete and teaching them new skills too. Pete and Emma were perfectly happy for Dragon and Star to make use of their lounge, dvd collection, large screen TV and big box of lego which was very generous but not how we planned the childrens’ days being this year. It meant we missed each others company and I had concerns that if not learning practical skills alongside us or our hosts, or simply spending time chatting and asking questions in the way they did when we were at home it is hard to demonstrate that an education is taking place. That is not to say that they didn’t learn anything as they did, and I am a firm believer in education being everywhere, even when not blatantly obvious; Star very happily gave change to customers on the market stall, they both learnt where to position themselves when herding a flock of sheep, Dragon was a dab hand with the mincing machine and they both had a go at plucking turkeys and catching chickens.
We did leave a few days earlier than originally planned for a variey of reasons; Dragon was not feeling very well, we were all quite wrung out from four solid weeks sleeping in the van and our final days workload fell into the dirty, phyically tough and simply not very pleasant category. When we left the house it was with a promise to ourselves that this year was to be enjoyed not endured, that while we were aware we would meet challenges along the way that tested us and sometimes had to be faced and got through it is not a punishment and we are doing it to learn and acquire new skills not because we ‘have to’. Ady was fully prepared to grin and bear it and enjoy the feeling of having ‘got through’ it whereas I was more aware of the childrens needs and happiness and the freedom to not spend time doing things that make me miserable. A family conference in the back of the car sitting in a field in the rain had a majority decision leading to a consensus. Overall though it was a very positive experience which ticked many things off our list of things we want to learn this year. I think we have also given them the idea of becomming WWOOFing hosts themselves and that maybe they learnt a little from us in return.
Bad: Didn’t have as much time with Mummy & Daddy at this farm.
Good: I learnt lots in our time there.
Learnt: How a slaughterhouse operates, how to turn a sheep.
Bad:I didn’t feel as though we had as much freedom as at other hosts. There were lots of areas we were not allowed to go and things we were not allowed to touch.
Good: I liked the dog there – Jess, I enjoyed the day I went to market with Mummy
Learnt: That all animals are stunned before they are killed, I didn’t know chickens get stunned before they are killed.
Bad: We made excuses and left early because our last few days would have been spent on labouring type tasks with the hosts parents, rather than doing markets and finishing the last week working alongside hosts. I sort of wish we had been honest about why we left early or explained that we were not prepared to do the proposed jobs.
Good: The sheer magnitude of the things we learnt; the confidence that our host showed in me.
Learnt: That location of your land can be more important than what you grow or which animals you rear in terms of finding your market.
Bad: It was not a balanced hosting for the four of us as a family. Whilst Ady and I gained a lot from visiting markets, seeing livestock auctions, going to the slaughterhouse, some basic butchery and meat processing and livestock handling as well as the more academic conversations with the hosts Dragon and Star were not able to get as much from those things on their level. I am sure they did gain from their time there but it was not the deal we promised them in exchange for leaving friends, family and home behind and I feel bad about that. I was very proud of them for having discussed it between the two of them and coming to me with their concerns and an action plan at the end of the first week and continuing to discuss things with us and show maturity, intelligence, a bigger picture ability to their thinking and find ways to make the best of things. So I guess it offered an opportunity to demonstrate that though. Another bad is that many of my green ideals were compromised and I had no way of recycling, creating less waste or living in the eco-friendly manner I am passionate about embracing.
Good: Such a thought provoking place to have spent time. I have had loads of ideas and sparks of interest in new directions as a result of things we saw, conversations we had and the places we visited while we were there. I am feeling more sure that we want a certain type of life than ever and this is certainly giving us some more concrete ideas about what we do and don’t want. It was the embodiment of why we decided to go WWOOFing really, despite not being an offical WWOOFing host, a real ‘suck it and see’ opportunity.
Learnt: About farmers markets, some practical eyes-wide-open stuff about what free range really means along with some other terms such as ‘farm assured’ and ‘freedom food’, that many of our previous career experiences can still be very useful to us in a new life as the skills are very transferable, about livestock auctions and what aspects of the farming lifestyle are tough with little reward and which aspects are quick wins with large financial gain for very little work, which are gambles and risks and which are slow and steady and how to combine all of the above for the most solid but rewarding overall picture.