The summer is slowly cranking up – we are past the longest day. The mad rush of spring catching up on lost time after our extended winter - everything from March to June happening at once - has quieted. Now we want the sedate and orderly progression of seasons. As farmers, we are so reliant on the weather happening at the right time in the right order. We sit on top of natural processes, imagining we control them. The weather gave us a little slap to remind us who’s boss.
When Rose and I first spoke about their cheesemaking plans, she explained that one of the big obstacles was that they had not yet found an appropriate place on the estate to build the dairy. A couple of places had been proposed. She had her favourite. Neither one was without its problems.
One of them, Manor Farm, was close to Rose’s house and the main road through Nettlebed, with a lovely view over the hills looking to the south west, but, unfortunately, also with a tenant who was not far into his new lease. It was pretty unlikely that he might be prepared to give up one of his barns just because we quite wanted to turn it into a dairy.
The miracle of spring is here in May. The farm had a bleak and wintry look through to the end of April, every bit of our 52 degrees north of latitude – we are as far north as Newfoundland. Buds burst into a blasting cold gale, the grass shrivelled into purple bonsai, all the right shape but dwarfed. The wildlife had a hunted, hungry look. I saw a treecreeper, the shyest of birds, come towards our bird feeders, where normally only the bolder birds come. Now, with sun and balmy warmth, birds are singing loud all day, bumble bees are starting their busy summer. I had no idea how much those simple sounds lift my heart. Oddly enough, the house martins arrived 11 days earlier this year than last year – perhaps they know something we don’t.
The end of our long winter? The bitter sting in the winter’s tail last month makes the sweet weather of April all the more gorgeous. The late spring has the plants seem prescient – primroses, bluebells, blackthorn seemed to hold back their flowering, waiting till after the frost, only to come with a rush when the weather finally warms up. The leaves unfurl, the hedges bloom, the grass speeds up its growth, young rabbits appear, birds take on the busy air of those with many chicks to feed.
We’ve been hearing in the news about how many deer other people have, how much damage they are doing to fields and delicate habitats. I’m glad to hear it’s not just us. I love to see the deer, and you can have too much of a good thing.
February has a reputation for being wet and gloomy. I long for it not be that way, and grasp at the lighter mornings and evenings. The sun does more than scrape itself off the horizon. The morning chorus of songbirds kicked off earlier in the season than I remember. I know it’s birds defending territory, but it is a gorgeous start to the day as first one bird, then others join in till you get a swelling joyful sound.
The days slowly lengthen, the sun creeps a little higher at noon and wider at dawn and dusk. The dark mornings have me slow to wake, the dark evenings tricksy - is it six or midnight? I drove my car one dark evening along a lane, came to water over the road. In the dark I didn't see how far the water was from the stream, and drove on. The water was over the headlights and I could see a flooded car and tractor beside the road - can't stop or the car will take in water. I made it to the humpback bridge, which is covered in water, can't turn round, maybe I'll make it across the next low bit of road. I set off, lights go under water, the car sighs to a halt. There is silence, then I hear the gurgling of water coming in through the doors. The windows don't work. Will I be able to get out? I open the door, water pours in almost to the top on the seat. I scramble into the boot to put my wellies on, get everything I can think of onto the roof, and climb onto it myself.
The dark time of year, dark mornings, night comes so early. When we have sun it seems very special, and with a thick enough coat and hat is a magical time, precious brightness, low light highlighting every bare twig and blade of grass. The earth feels like it is ruminating, digesting last year, brewing next year. The undergrowth disappears, leaving everyone’s tracks clearer. Tom & I were in the garden one late afternoon, and about 20 wild boar solemnly trooped by on the other side of the stream, a couple of sows, a few gilts, but mainly this year’s piglets. Boar, like the farmed pigs they are so closely related to, have large families. Tasty, but scary when you get too close. When we said we wanted more room for wildlife on farms, I’m not sure we meant this: be careful what you wish for, you will get it.
The rainy weather of June has everything growing, breeding, putting stores by for winter. The trees, fields & hedges are dripping with the heavy tresses of well-watered leaves, using July’s peak sunlight. Plenty is everywhere, including lots of insect life. I love watching the house martens ceaselessly combing the high air, the swifts scything across my path, inches above the ground, then swooping up. The birds keep us free of insects - the midges come out when the martens go to bed.
Farm visits are always exciting to me. After a certain point, cheese alone doesn’t satisfy me, and I really begin to hunger for the history behind the plate. My recent visit to Achadinha Cheese Company in Petaluma, California, was richly rewarding. Joined today by my friend Gavin (wedding photographer by day, cheese and farm photographer a couple times a year), we wound our way along Chileno Valley Road, past rolling green hills, up to the wagon wheels gracing the Pacheco Dairy entrance. Along the driveway, we could see grazing goats, but also nearly 30 cows, some chickens, a dog, and a cat. There are also pigs on the property, but I think they kept out of sight that day.
In the wake of the California Artisan Cheese Festival, publisher Stephanie Skinner and I took a trip out to visit Joel Weirauch at his eponymous Weirauch Farm in the hills of Sonoma County, California.
Joel's holding Irene, who was bottle fed at home for the first month—her mother had udder problems, so Irene got very comfortable around people. She's one of the older lambs: some of the wee ones in the barn were only a few days old, but they all have names that start with "I"; Irene, Iris, Ivy, etc. Nex year, every lamb will have a "J" name, and so on.
Joel and his wife Carleen are making humane, organic, farmstead sheep cheese in an old-fashioned, new-fangled way: bootstrapping their way into the business, renting land and using recycled schoolhouse trailers for aging caves. Never throw anything out, eh?