Sunday 29 April 2018

Looking up

I’ve had my head down busy sowing, pricking out, potting on and planting the vegetables as well as regular livestock management. It pays to remember to look up from time to time.

Blenheim Orange apple tree in full bloom

Saturday 14 April 2018

Bringing home the bacon

Yesterday, to our abattoir and butcher again to collect two pigs we delivered at the beginning of the week. In contrast to lambs, you get an awful lot of meat from a pig. Double that if you follow the common practice of taking two at a time. This means that collection day is quite a busy and time consuming affair. It helps if you are well organised and have reserved sufficient time to the task of sorting the meat once back home.

When you take the pigs in you need to provide instructions as to how you want them cut unless you are going to do the butchering yourself. As we have done this a fair few times we have a pretty good idea of what our cutting instructions will be. Here’s our basic list which we do vary from time to time.

Rolled boned shoulders
Rolled boned legs
Loin joints
Tender loin fillet
Rack of ribs
Offal (liver, kidney, heart, cheeks

It helps if you know your way around a pig and what you want as far as joints are concerned. It’s not straight forward as if you want more of one thing, say sausages, it usually means less of something else, such as belly joints or strips. Or if you want bacon this might mean forgoing loin joints. You also need to be quite specific so that you get back what you intended. If you want offal (and we do) then this needs to be requested. Occasionally I’ll make brawn but you won’t get the head back unless you ask (get the butcher to quarter it for you). Do you want any joints for home curing? Do you want the blood back for black pudding?

Some butchers provide a packaging and labeling service but this can add quite a bit to the bill so we are happy to do this ourselves. The meat comes boxed up. What we do is identify the main joints. These are generally too large unless you have a banquet planned. We cut shoulder joints into three portions and leg joints into two or three. You still get ‘family size’ joints this way. We weigh them, bag these up and label. We use good quality freezer bags and for smaller items, like packs of bacon, a vacuum packer. We also keep a separate list which we can tick off as the joints are taken from the freezer as a simple means of stock control. 

The smaller cuts are dealt with next: tender loin fillet, loin, rack of ribs. Next we bag up chops in pairs. Then the sausages are dealt with. We bag them up in packs of four or six which are usable quantities when de-frosted. The liver of a pig is quite substantial so this is cut into meal sized portions. The whole process can take several hours. 

The meat is primarily for our own consumption but we do sell some of it. We sell a few half pigs, some joints, but mostly sausages. This is not the result of any marketing effort but just word of mouth within our social network. This helps offset some of our costs. But we also get very good feedback about the quality of the meat (which concurs with our own assessment) and as a result returning ‘customers’.

Monday 2 April 2018

Nearby farms and farmers

Our holding sits right in the middle of arable farm land. It’s of constant interest watching the changing agricultural scene during the year and seeing the farmers do their work. The farm landscape is typical of the area: flat land traversed by fenland drains to the north of us. To the south the fen landscape edges into the sandy brecklands with the characteristic lines of Scots pine trees, whose growth leans with the prevailing winds, marking the field boundaries. This is a solid and productive agricultural area. It is very different from the more picturesque agricultural scene, punctuated by quaint villages, to the south of the county or the somewhat over manicured countryside found in the affluent areas of, say, rural Kent or Surrey.

There is very little livestock farming where we are. It is almost exclusively arable. The main crops are wheat, sugar beet, potatoes, onions, salad crops and, a bit further away, carrots and other root crops. There is hardly any of the otherwise ubiquitous oil seed rape brightening up the early summer scene. I gather this needs more moisture retentive soil. One interesting crop near to us is amenity turf. The flat, sandy and virtually stoneless soil provides a perfect growing medium. It can look a bit incongruous to see 40 acre fields looking like bowling greens. I gather that one time the turf from Wembley was sourced locally.

Sugar beet is a very important crop for local farmers, grown under contract with British Sugar whose nearest factory to us is in Bury St Edmunds. The beets are harvested in late autumn and early winter and the familiar great heaps of them are stockpiled on field edges ready to be collected by big lorries. If you buy sugar and want to buy British, then it is bags of Silver Spoon you are after, rather than Tate and Lyle that uses imported cane sugar.

The surrounding farms are mostly small, perhaps 200 to 400 acres. They have been in the same family for three, four or five generations. Typically they were started small as an additional sideline by someone who worked a trade, then, as the years passed, additional land was acquired to allow them to eventually become full time farmers. During, and immediately after the Second World War was often the time of expansion as land was still relatively cheap. Some of the poorer land was brought into cultivation by the War Agricultural Executive Committee as part of the war effort to maximise food production. 

This was the case with the field on the other side of our eastern boundary. Our neighbouring farmer told me it was once water logged land and the AEC helped drain it for his father to start growing crops on it. (Potatoes are going in this year). One of the old drove roads nearby is concreted and this was laid during the war to help improve efficiency for the local farmers to get to and from their fields. 

The farms, being small, are invariably farmed by their owner on their own and in one case by a father and son. Contractors might sometimes be brought in for some operations. Virtually everything is done sitting in a tractor which travel up and down our road front all day. In the past, when farming was less mechanised and labour much cheaper, they would have employed help either regularly or seasonally. There is a larger farm not far away where the tractors and harvesting equipment are much bigger and more sophisticated. A big machine edges slowly along the rows cropping, cleaning and packaging the crops as it travels along. They also employ migrant labour to hand pick the coriander and salad crops which I assume can’t be machine harvested. 

When I bump into the local farmers I often stop and chat. They are all friendly and are interested in what I’m up to in the smallholding. If they are passing in their tractors they always wave. They work very hard, sometimes late into the evening, headlights on. So much farming is time-specific and if a crop needs drilling the task has got to be finished. Crops have to be harvested before the weather turns so they can't stop until the job is done. 

Last summer was quite wet and it was a tricky time for farmers choosing the moment to combine the wheat. One morning I came across my neighbour with his elderley but serviceable combine harvester testing the moisture content of some wheat grain samples. “I should be able to make a start this afternoon” he said. Once started it was flat out until all the grain was in, leaving big straw bales dotting the field to be collected later.

Our neighbour's elderly combine harvester

The straw is used for bedding in another farmer's pig unit. It has now been returned as manure back to the same fields and is being being ploughed in to beef up the otherwise light soil ready for planting the Maris Piper seed potatoes.