When Isabel and I managed to scrape up enough money for the deposit on Uphill Farm in 1998 it was a dream come true. I grew up on a little farm in Essex on the east coast of England, Old Chase Farm.
The imperative to return to our roots affects people in different ways, but for me the space, beauty and tranquillity of the rural life has always held great appeal.
Old Chase Farm really was little, just twenty acres, less than nine hectares. In the 1970's we grew strawberries for market, sending them to Covent Garden Market in London at the end of every day in
the season. Strawberries were grown in the open then, in actual fields, and we would have several acres under plastic cloches each year for the early market. Some of my earliest memories are of helping my
mother to set these plastic tunnels. It was a grim job, usually done in February in the teeth of a bitter east wind straight from Siberia. After Britain joined the European Common Market in the early 70's
the traditional market for picked fruit deteriorated badly, becoming victim to extensive sporadic imports from the continent, and my parents switched to Pick Your Own style growing. We also branched out,
growing other soft fruit like raspberries and gooseberries, sweetcorn and runner beans. It was a hard living and got more so as the decade progressed. Eventually my mother would return to accountancy
(eventually becoming the finance director of a large building firm), which she was very good at but hated, and my father would turn the farm into a storage site for caravans, which was ugly, much more
lucrative and a lot less work. A parable of farming in Britain in the late twentieth century.
When I was eighteen and nineteen I worked in a neighbouring apple orchard, called Chase Farm. We had sixty acres of trees, both old fashioned half standards (mostly Cox's Orange Pippin) and dwarf
trees on M9 rootstock, mostly more modern varieties like Spartan and Discovery. During the winter of 1983/4 I learnt a lot about top fruit growing, pruning over forty acres of trees alongside the
manager Ray. Ray was a lovely man. Stone deaf and in his early sixties he was a slice out of time from old Suffolk, with a very old fashioned accent, the kind you never hear any more. He had that
old country way of working that seemed slow when watched, but at the end of the day you realised that a huge amount had been done. After I came back from hitch hiking around Europe I worked in the
orchard that summer, for the main season right up to the point I departed for college. Ray had a falling out with the owner and, in the absence of anyone else, I ended up managing it for several
months. It was a colourful experience as all of the summer staff (and there were around fourteen pickers and packers) were ladies over forty, which to a nineteen year old lad was a management
challenge, to say the least. They were very kind and the experience left me with a much higher fear threshold when confronted by the prospect of managing people. As has been the way with nearly
all small British farming, the orchard closed in the early nineties, the recipient of a generous EU grant to grub out all the trees and shut up shop. These grants were intended to reduce the huge
acreages of rubbish Golden Delicious in the low countries and France but instead they pretty much killed what remained of our top fruit industry. There used to be hundreds of thousands of acres of
apple orchards in Britain, many of them delicious varieties. Now only a few thousand remain. It is a truism that people hate markets because they tell the unvarnished truth, and in this case they
told us what we probably already know – when it comes to fresh food, we in Britain have no taste.
When we moved in to Uphill, it hadn't been a working farm for many years. The previous owners, whose family had owned it since 1890, had little interest and had let the land to the neighbouring
farm. There were no modern farm buildings, no equipment, in fact none of the detritus and junk that I always associate with a running farm. This was good in one way, but it did make getting the
farm back operational quite a chore. The land itself had been neglected and was poor in both grass varieties and nutrition, which has taken years to slowly reverse.
Uphill lies around 800 to a 1000 feet above sea level, and we get a lot of rain, nearly two metres a year. For this reason most of the farming in this area is stock farming, sheep and cows.
I had absolutely no understanding of stock when we came here so I went into the stock side of the farm with a neighbour, Simon. Broadly speaking, he looks after the animals, I deal with the
harvest (we make a lot of hay and silage as winter feed).
I don't like sheep and our farm is too high up and too small to be a dairy farm these days, so we have a suckler beef herd, where the calves are allowed to suckle their mother until old
enough to be weaned naturally. We keep pedigree South Devon cattle, an old breed with a very nice temperament.
Last year I started planting my own little top fruit orchard. It's small, just an acre and a half, but that'll be more fruit than we (and I suspect everyone we know) will ever eat. And
it'll be just enough winter pruning for me to keep my hand in. I've chosen quite a few odd Westcountry varieties so far, but I'm going to add a few old favourites this winter,
Russets and Discovery.
Uphill itself originally had just forty acres of useful grazing land, and quite a bit of that could not be cut for hay as it was very steep (we live on a 1 in 4 hill). We were fortunate
enough to be able to add over a hundred acres to the farm last year and are now expanding our herd to suit. The economics of this are dubious – small farming really is in the terrible
state you hear it is in Britain, but I live in hope that one day we may get a decent price for our produce. And our daughters are growing up on a working farm, connected to the earth and the
reality of the world.