James Rebanks

A farmer’s notebook: why I’m not dreaming of a white Christmas

A farmer's notebook: why I’m not dreaming of a white Christmas
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It snowed the other day. I could tell from the light through the gap in the curtains and the muffled silence. The kids came into our room at 6.45am in high excitement and loaded with a comprehensive legal argument about how they had to stay off school because of the ‘dangerous’ roads and the ‘risks of travel’. I caved. I always cave. I hated school, and screw it, they’ve barely been this year anyway and haven’t turned in to deadbeats or junkies yet. Mark Twain said you shouldn’t confuse your schooling with your education, and he was right.

Twenty minutes later they were heading out in the dangerous white wilderness yelping and hooting with happiness to play in the snow, sledging, building snowmen (and women) using the dustbin for the body mould (try it, its brilliant and quick), and lying in the snow doing angel wing shapes. I know everyone else likes a white Christmas, but I’ll pass thanks. I’d like it to be dry, warm and sunny tomorrow. I will get up early on Christmas Day, go and feed my sheep and cattle, get the sheepdogs out, and try to come back into the house without being frozen and soaked. The drill here is that the stockings get opened on the bed when the kids wake up, then the main presents when the animals are fed after breakfast.

Tom, our youngest, aged 3, was soon back at the house with swollen red hands and howling. I got him warmed up at the sink and we talked about what he wanted for Christmas. For him, Father Christmas is a rather dubious figure with benefits (a stranger that comes down the chimney and comes in your bedroom? Who thought of this?). It means more dinosaurs, lots of plastic dinosaurs. He thinks and talks about little else and he knows his stuff. He is rather fond of stegosaurus with its tiny ‘ping-pong ball’ sized brain and plates for getting energy from the sun. He’s a big fan of triceratops with its three horns, and its ability to fight with his T-Rex. He likes these herbivores, but he knows that being a carnivore makes way more sense. He told me the other day that herbivores spend all day munching on plant stuff and have really bad wind. T-Rex doesn’t have to faff about munching ferns all day, he just runs out of the jungle, takes down his prey, fills his belly with red meat and then gets to chill out. And I’m a T-rex kind of guy at Christmas. It’s all about the good quality British meat, cooked and eaten with respect and each mouthful savoured. Dinner will be a plump free-range bronze turkey from my friend’s farm down the road (swapped for some belted Galloway beef from our cows). The vegetables will be from our other friends who we buy a box from each week. The more local it is and the more I know (and trust) the farm story behind each bit of the meal, the tastier it will be.

It has been a funny old year. In January everyone didn’t go vegan, despite noisy people all saying we would. I almost converted the farm to grow avocados. And I considered having a vegan sausage roll from Greggs to save the planet, but never got round to it. Then lockdown happened and meat sales went through the roof, my local butcher says every week is a gold rush under lockdown. For many people being at home has meant more time in the kitchen, and buying real food to cook, rather than the dubiously sourced crap they hide in our meals when we eat out, or in ready meals.

Of course, we should shop, eat and cook sensibly and with more awareness of our ecological footprint, and part of that is minimising grain-fed factory farmed meat, but we also need to get away from processed plant-based rubbish that corporations love to sell us, especially when it comes from fields that are as sterile and dead as concrete. The government this month revealed its plans for a more nature-friendly countryside, though it was suspiciously light on details – it’s almost like they are winging it.

This year, we have shifted even more to ‘regenerative’ farming practices to restore our soil, and our native habitats like wetlands, wildflower meadows, re-wiggled rivers, willowy and thorny scrub and woodland. This year’s revelation was introducing Saddleback pigs into our woods, which have shown us the good that wild boar once did in wild woodland (and yes, the bacon was delicious).

The question for me is not what we eat but how it was farmed, because everything can be farmed in disastrous ways. Please make a point of asking more questions this Christmas, food without a back story ought to worry you. The more questions we ask, and the more we understand, the better. We all got used to not worrying about food and where it came from, but it’s time to wake up from this coma. Christmas dinner is a good place to start.

Father Christmas lives in our village. He’s a right grumpy old git, goes by the name of ‘Barrie’ and he’s a bit of hoarder. You never see his reindeer, of course, and he chops and sells logs the rest of the year as a kind of cover. He says he’s not Father Christmas, of course, but he’s got the beard, and the belly, and grumbles like the Raymond Briggs cartoon Santa. My wife got him his shopping during lockdown and was a bit alarmed by what he was living on, a strange mix of supermarket trifles, Kit-Kats and turnip.

As I get older, I realise that the country is full of people who aren’t remotely interested in current affairs, books or the stuff on the TV. I reckon one or two people in our village are completely unaware of Brexit, or Donald Trump. Life instead is about the stuff it was always about: getting the jobs done, lighting the fire, cleaning the floor, and making sure that Gwenda down the road isn’t dead because she hasn’t drawn her curtains. You can snigger about such people for being out of touch, and a bit thick, but, in my experience, they are often very fine people indeed, just tuned to a different channel. One of the nicer things about 2020 is that all that external stuff seemed to vanish for weeks at a time, and we remembered that nurses and teachers mattered, and we bothered with neighbours and Gwenda down the road. Let’s hope we remember some of this when this pandemic eventually ends.

James Rebanks is author of The Shepherd's Life, and English Pastoral, published by Penguin.