The Townie Farmer

Building the good life without knowing a sodding thing

Kill Seeking


It’s time.

Huff, Puff and Snuff are fattened and ready.

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They’ve spent 6 months chez Rowan.

They’ve enjoyed the lush countryside.

And every juicy apple we could throw their way.

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They paid for their full board by clearing our future veg patch of all weeds and brambles.

And now they are paying the ultimate price.

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The process was perhaps best summed up by my daughter, Chloe.

This is how she explained to my slightly startled mother what was coming:

“Tomorrow, Granny, the pigs are getting killed. They are going to be electricity-ed. So there’s no pain. And then their throats will be cut.”

A difficult concept.

Articulated so well in classically straight forward, five-year-old language.

We did then have to have a chat about not sharing quite so much information with her school friends.

They might be even more startled than Granny.

Chloe saying farewell to the pigs

Chloe saying farewell to the pigs

Huff, Puff and Snuff’s fate was awaiting them at our local abattoir.

The challenge was getting them into the trailer first.

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Our pigs are not known for their co-operation.

They can be a bit grumpy.

They have a combined weight of 270 kilos.

Oli has been somewhat subdued by Lyme Disease and then a dislocated knee three days ago.

I’m 5 months pregnant.

Neither of us are at our physical best.

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Fortunately help to shift the pigs came in the form of our friends Rebecca and Toby, and Oli’s mother, Lorna…

Who was in her best cashmere.

Obviously.

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Rebecca tries to coax the boys in with apples

After much huffing and puffing with Snuff leading the way, all three were safely on board and ready for their final journey.

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I feel very sanguine about sending the boys to their bloody inevitable.

I’m not sad in the way that many people around me seem to be about their demise.

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Rebecca and Rory have one last peak

Plenty of the guys on site were determined to try and surreptitiously set them free ahead of today.

They couldn’t cope with the idea of snuffing out the building project’s porcine companions.

 

But I am a meat eater.

And having this sort of connection to the realities of our food, its production and eventual demise feels not only important to me, but Right.

With a capital R.

Proper.

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That’s not to say I am totally immune to the brutal nature of slaughter.

For me, it’s a bit like that feeling you get when you’re close to a cliff edge.

You peer over and think, “I could just leap off.”

At every stage of unloading the pigs at the abattoir I kept thinking, “I could stop this from happening.”

When I saw three noses lined up at the edge of the trailer, I thought, “I could stop it now”.

“Or now,” as we sent them down the ramp into the abattoir yard.

“Or now”, as I watched the solid metal gate close on their rotund behinds and that of the man dressed up in white wellies, blood splattered coat and blue hair net.

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I confess I didn’t like the fact my pigs had to be shipped off to an abattoir.

Didn’t like that their usual Oinks and Snorts fell silent from the moment they were loaded into the trailer.

But regulations mean I can’t currently despatch them while they unknowingly trot out to their breakfast at home.

It had to be here. At the abattoir.

As second bests go, it was a pretty decent one.

These guys were firm but professional in their business of killing.

They weren’t going to fumble.

It was a quick death for Huff, Puff and Snuff.

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And the point is up until now they’ve had a fantastic life.

Which is more that can be said for most of the pork, bacon, sausages, salami, ham and gammon stacked on the supermarket shelves.

The end is gritty, of course.

You can’t make slitting a pig’s throat into a nice thing.

But I think we can all learn from Chloe’s matter of fact attitude.

Be alive to the fact that eating meat means something had to die.

And try to make sure our animals have the best innings possible first.

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All is not lost folks.

Thank you very much to everyone who has got in touch with suggestions for burners, solar, crowd funding…

I so appreciate all your enthusiasm and help.

Just to keep you all in the loop:

Biomass is back on.

Kevin from Eco Engineering has come to our rescue.

It looks like we can do a log boiler after all with fewer frills and a major solar element.

For a lot less wonga.

As big Kev said, it would be daft not to do biomass given our glut of wood offcuts on site and from our business.

This version will be more affordable and he can help us access government assistance.

We’re meeting him on site next week to go through it all.

How does one go about recommending someone for knighthood?

The biomass boiler set up recommended by Kevin

The biomass boiler set up recommended by Kevin

Biomass Spoiler

It was meant to be the epitome of our new way of life at Rowan Farm.

The Eco pivot on which we balanced our attempts to reduce our carbon footprint and live more sustainably.

Our plans for a state of the art biomass boiler would efficiently heat our home and water.

What’s more, all the fuel it needed was already on site in the twigs and logs provided by the maintenance our trees require.

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Rowan Farm at sunrise

It was about as green as it’s possible to get.

But last week our biomass ambitions went up in smoke.

We got the final estimate.

And it’s more than three times what we had budgeted.

We simply cannot afford it.

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The bad news comes at a tricky time.

The last couple of months of a project are always a bit manic.

Budgets start to get squeezed; time marches on; husbands/project managers fall really ill with Lyme Disease from a tick…

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Plastering and second fix electrics underway despite our heating system hitting a roadblock

We’ve been marching on regardless with interiors and external finishing touches.

But with the boiler we hit a bit of a dead end.

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Internorm windows and doors have been fitted…

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…and the cladding is very nearly complete, bar weathering to it’s eventual grey colour to match the roof shingles and original barn posts

In many ways we are victims of our own success.

We have insulated the house so well that the heat a biomass boiler churns out now massively exceeds our demands.

And all the relevant green government grants that might help us are based on use rather than initial outlay for a boiler.

 

Here’s the maths:

A regular boiler would set you back about £1k.

We had decided to cough up for around £12k in order to have biomass.

But the bill turns out to be more like £36k.

If we’re lucky, we might get a few hundred quid from the government to help.

It just ain’t enough.

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Even with the incredible generosity of our financial support system (aka my dad), we can’t make it work.

So in true first world problem style: we’ve panicked. I’ve (nearly) cried. And we’ve called on our usual Eco big wig consultant (aka Oli’s dad).

As luck would have it, Peter is the Professor for Engineering for Sustainable Development at Cambridge University.

Which is handy.

With a bit of head scratching we’ve come up with a compromise.

We can do some clever things to make a normal boiler super efficient including reducing the demands on it and generating our own electricity to power it.

But I’m still sad about the loss of the biomass boiler.

It was so out there, so innovative, so earthy.

So Rowan.

But maybe in the dead of winter when I’m not having to hand feed logs into a boiler that cost more than anything else on the build just to have a hot shower…

I might feel slightly differently.

Shingle Minded

It’s hung, clay-free and shingle.

Here’s our newly completed roof finished off with hand-crafted oak tiles.

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They’re actually rejects from France’s wine barrel industry.

Once destined to contain and add flavour to a vintage Bordeaux, at some stage in barrel production they were deemed not worthy.

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But for us they are the very height of worthy beauty.

And they have been reborn as a gorgeous and unusual adornment to Rowan Farm’s roof.

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Like all gorgeous and unusual things, they’ve been a tad high maintenance.

Putting them up has been something of a labour of love.

Each shingle had to be handpicked, tweaked and then hammered into place.

We probably could have moulded, baked and slung up our own homemade clay tiles in the time it’s taken to lovingly place each one.

And having been let down at the last minute – on the day he was meant to start – by our original roofer, Oli was forced to do one of his least favourite things on site. Working at great height every day for an extended period of time.

But he rose to the challenge.

And with invaluable help from the impossibly youthful Danny (who is twice as nimble as us, despite being twice our age), Oli has spent the last three months, alongside all his other jobs, carefully nailing each shingle to the building.

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The unique finish was worth it.

It glows golden in the sunshine; it blends beautifully with the rural setting; oak was definitely the right choice of material and it will see us through our and our children’s lifetimes.

Even one of our most vociferous objectors stopped Oli to tell him how much he loved the roof.

Just as well Oli wasn’t on it at the time or he might have fallen off with the shock.

So who knows? If a wooden roof can have such an impact, once we really get restoring Rowan Farm’s biodiversity maybe attitudes towards us might soften.

In the meantime, we’re dead chuffed with how our beautiful new home is starting to emerge.

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Dread Wood

It’s the noise you don’t want to hear when you are underneath several unkempt and ancient oak trees.

A loud, menacing creak that blends dangerously into a large and definitive crack.

You know you only have a split second to get out the way.

Only a split second before a heavy thump as a massive chunk of tree hits the spot where you’re currently standing.

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The spot on the road at Rowan Farm where we had been moments before

This is what happened during my visit to site yesterday.

Oli, Rory and I were busy talking underfloor heating and cladding (both currently under way) when the ominous oak let out it’s final warning.

We scarpered away just in time as one enormous limb came crashing down where we had been moments before.

Dead wood trying to take us down with it.

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As luck would have it, our mate Oz – a tree surgeon – also happened to be on site at that moment.

He has now set about making the tree, and those surrounding it, as safe as possible.

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Ozzie under the broken limb of the oak

 

It had been making threatening noises for a few days.

And with heavy rain came it’s eventual downfall.

We know for next time to pay more attention to the wooden shouts and creaking complaints emitted by our trees.

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Collateral damage: A neighbouring tree hurt by the falling branch

Another oak next to it wasn’t as fortunate as we were.

It too lost a limb after being smacked by the other tree’s falling branch.

There’s a lot of work ahead to care for all the trees at Rowan Farm.

Decades of neglect and lack of management means many are not as healthy as they should be and some, like the oak that had it in for us, are downright dangerous.

It’s this sort of thing that I sometimes find a bit overwhelming about Rowan Farm.

There’s so much to know. So much to do. So much to keep on top of.

Thank crikey for helpful friends like Ozzie who can hold our hand along the way.

And do the dangerous work of giving an ancient oak a proper haircut.

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Frame At Last

It’s the stuff that makes a middle class housewife wet her pants with excitement.

This giant beast of a room is to be our kitchen and bootroom.

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The kitchen lean-to is the only part of the barn we have had to rebuild from scratch.

Toby had a riot swiftly demolishing the thing earlier this year.

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And the lovely thing about oak framing is that the replacement timber went up nearly as quickly.

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Oli and the boys got the whole thing up in less than a day.

You can now really start to see our new home taking shape.

Note the opening to accommodate our massive Internorm sliding doors on the left.

I’m actually tensing my jaw with excitement just thinking about them.

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Meanwhile, Oli’s also putting the oak shingles on the roof.

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The wood fibre insulation in the walls is all very nearly on.

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The oak cladding is poised for nailing into place on top of that.

The windows are being manufactured as we speak.

So it’s all go in Oli’s camp and he’s eating the build for breakfast.

Major progress. Major success.

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I, on the other hand, am an abject failure.

For someone planning eventually to ditch food shopping and live off the land, my progress is somewhat stilted.

If it weren’t for Ocado my family would currently starve.

My vegetable boxes in our current home – on which I’m practising ahead of planting at Rowan Farm – currently look like this:

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Not exactly abundant.

The Townie in me has come back to bite through my edible efforts.

A week ago these boxes were teaming with life, but not of the kind I fancy tucking into.

I’ve discovered growing your own food is actually a bit disgusting sometimes.

Last week I was sharing my veg with most of the invertebrate population of Hampshire. The stuff that made it to my plate was already pre-masticated by slugs, snails and caterpillars. And I dread to think what the rats and crows have been up to with it. The rest was too rotten to make it into the colander. It was all a bit gross truthfully.

I never washed my food before now. You can’t see nasty pesticides on lettuce from the supermarket.

But you can see a whopping great slug in amongst your chard.

It isn’t just the insects out to get me, but the plants themselves as well.

Vegetables misbehave in all manner of ways.

They get unruly and leggy; they throw up flowers and seed when you don’t want them to; they require constant watering and tending. They are bloody high maintenance.

This self sufficiency lark is going to be pretty constant.

Recently, I’d taken my eye off the ball and let my veg misbehave to the point of no return.

So I’ve razed the lot.

And they’re thinking about what they’ve done in the compost heap.

Horticultural guru Sarah Raven calls it ‘kerchunging’. Cutting right back or ripping out to start the process again from small sprout or seed. It’s apparently essential to do every once and a while.

A fresh start – having learned from my many mistakes – should hopefully see more successes in the next batch.

In the meantime, thank heavens for supermarket deliveries.

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The pigs currently inhabit where my food will be grown at Rowan Farm.

I hope they will root up all brambles and fertilise the soil up there for me.

Basically I’m outsourcing all the hard soil preparation to them.

I’ll then thank them for their efforts by killing and eating ’em.

That’s the lazy townie in me – getting pigs to do the rotivating.

If only they did planting, watering, weeding, deslugging, harvesting, washing and cooking too…

 

Natural Remedy

There’s something about greenery.

Well actually, it’s not really green at all. The countryside is a bonkers, absurd, technicolor trip. Right now even the leaves on the trees at Rowan Farm vary from acid green to burnt orange to blood red. There’s an amaranthine array of bluebells strewn about the place.

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I don’t know why but there is something about this crazy kaleidoscope that’s just good for you. And the more you engage with it, the better it makes you feel.

I know naff all about colour therapy. I know next to naff all about horticulture. And I imagine by now I’ve demonstrated that I know precisely naff all about the countryside (although I’m doing my bleeding best).

But the flora and fauna and the effort that they command to help them flourish is nourishing in a way that I’m only beginning to realise, let alone understand.

The thing is though you have to consent to nature for it to get at you. Otherwise you can easily be emotionally immune to it. I admit I was for most of my life up until now.

That’s the thing about having been a proper, committed townie. Trees were to decorate pavements. Insects needed exterminating on sight. Salad leaves came in plastic bags.

So when that gaudy greenery gets me now, it still takes my breath away. It’s such a powerful draw and seems somehow magnified by the magic that’s in the soil at Rowan Farm.

The wellbeing of this exceptional environment is my and Oli’s lucky responsibility. We’re muddling along. We have so much still to learn.

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Sometimes I catch myself relapsing to my old townie habits.

Without boring you with the details, I arrived on site today with my knickers in a bit of a twist. I strode up to inspect our newly installed rooflights without once pausing to take in the most spectacular spring day yet this year.

Oli working on the scaffold in front of the newly installed rooflights

Oli working on the scaffold in front of the newly installed rooflights

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It was not until I stood at the window, looking out, that it happened.

Framed in the glass, Rowan Farm came in and embraced me and my funk disappeared.

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If you think this sounds like a load of hippy nonsense, I don’t blame you. Before my love affair with Rowan Farm, I’d have thought so too.

But I urge you to give the countryside a whirl.

Get outside; pause to take in the noisy, brash assault a rural field has on every single sense; and then get to work.

There’s no drug, therapy, spa day that I’ve experienced that comes close to giving you the same calm high.

Our door is open at Rowan Farm if you fancy dipping your toe in… We love a bit of free labour.

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Snuff in his wonky doorway communing with the sunshine

Pig Headed Bureaucracy

I don’t know how farmers cope.

I’m astounded there isn’t an Agricultural Administration Anger Management Crisis Centre on every rural street corner.

It wouldn’t be the farmy bit of being a farmer driving them there. That’s easy.

It would be the phone calls.

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From left to right: Huff, Puff and Snuff, blissfully unaware of what an administrative arse ache they are

 

It started relatively well, with just a minor governmental delay.

Ahead of the piglets’ arrival, I dutifully applied for my County Parish Holding (CPH) number from the Rural Payments Agency at the beginning of March.

After a few weeks of no word, I called them to discover they were a bit waylaid, but I was issued a CPH number over the phone.

So far, so farmer.

We were go for launch.

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Huff, Puff and Snuff legally and legitimately moved from Lyndhurst – their birthplace – to Rowan Farm on Saturday.

Paperwork and Pig Movement References were perfectly proper.

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Feeling very smug that I was so thoroughly organised, I called Hart District Council this week to get myself a Herd Mark now the pigs had safely arrived.

And here is where the pig pong hit the proverbial.

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My red tape first started to unravel when I spoke to Spamela at Hart.

There’s a competition there to see who can be the least helpful person in the Council offices.

Spamela’s winning. Hands down.

I knew things weren’t going well when she said, Herd Mark, Schmerd Mark. If I didn’t register as a food business I would likely be prosecuted.

When I argued that I had no business to register and was merely hoping to feed myself, my family and some mates a few sausages, Spamela did a lot of sucking through her teeth.

Unperturbed, I asked her to define the legal parameters so I could stay above board and avoid criminal proceedings. Spamela started using helpful, specific and definitive phrases like ‘sort of’.

Then she told me I’d taken the threat to prosecute ‘out of context’.

I think that’s the bureaucratic way of saying she was just messing with me.

After 20 minutes of this enlightening experience, Spamela told me I shouldn’t be speaking to her anyway but should instead call Winchester Trading Standards to get a Herd Mark.

Like all good comedy sketches, when I got through to Swinona at Winchester she told me I needed to speak to Spamela at Hart.

Determined to drive on despite a crying toddler now clinging to one of my legs, I called Hart again and this time got Hamish. Who sent me to Abraham at Customer Registration at the Animal and Plant Health Agency. Who sent me to Boaris at the Rural Payments Agency. Who sent me to Loina from the Customer Advice Team. Who sent me round the bend. And then put me on hold.

I still don’t have a Herd Mark.

Although I’m registered with a CPH number, it won’t download onto the right computers at the right office to match it up with APHA’s database.

I hope you’re following because I’ve lost the swill to live.

I’ve been told to sit tight while Orwell’s Officials sort it out.

I’m starting to wish I’d never bought the sodding swine in the first place.

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(*All names have been changed to protect the litigious)

 

 

Building The Ark

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Huff, Puff and Snuff will need a house.

One that neither wolf nor westerly wind will be able to blow away.

 

 

 

 

So the Guthries did what we normally do:

Look up pig arks online.

Shudder at the price.

Decide to do it ourselves.

Spend nearly the same amount of cash on materials.

And then two full weekend days of labour building the thing.

Turns out pig arks are actually exceptionally excellent value.

 

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But oh what a morally-enriching experience it was.

 

We roped in a spot of child labour – as is our wont.

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And our own small selection of slaves tested out the accommodation.

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I also managed to get the telehandler stuck in the mud shifting the thing to the pig pen.

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But now the ark is ready.

The three little piggies’ arrival is scheduled for next weekend.

 

Hard Rafters

It’s the roof of concept.

The moment the barn proves it’s a viable dwelling.

The incredible realisation that this conversion is 100% going to work.

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The new roof rafters are on.

And they’re sound.

It shows that the barn is definitely structurally solid and the conversion will be a success.

In the next week or so we will have a building ‘in the dry’.

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So we finally have a roof over our heads.

And it’s got me thinking.

We are so incredibly lucky to own somewhere like Rowan Farm. It’s going to be a knock out pad. It will be where we earn our keep. It will feed and water us. It’ll host some cracking parties.

And I can see how it would be very easy to pull up the drawbridge.

Recently one of our objectors complained to us that a delivery driver to Rowan Farm “came from a very rough area”. She had seen his address on the side of his truck and was convinced he was heading back to his insalubrious lair to plot some sort of criminal attack. “It only takes one conversation in the pub,” she said, “And the next thing we know we’ve been burgled.”

Now, put aside the fact that this is an outrageous slander on a seriously decent bloke, with whom we do a lot of business and know pretty well. Put aside the fact it is snobbery of the very worst kind.

This is a fear that keeps her awake at night.

And I’m genuinely sorry for her for that.

Because one of my greatest fears is succumbing to this sort of middle class terror myself. I can see the danger of isolating myself within my very great privilege and losing any sort of perspective.

Bourgeois guilt is what keeps me up at night. And it’s just as cliched.

There will be no drawbridge at Rowan Farm.

Having been inspired by Jamie Oliver’s charity, Fifteen, Oli and I plan to set up a young offender apprenticeship scheme for our company. But I confess we have failed to get very far with it yet.

So when I received a message this week from an old friend telling me about her family’s organisation Farm Buddies, it seemed like a god incident.

I know only too well the restorative abilities of being outdoors, physical labour and hanging out with four-legged friends.

Farm Buddies offers those benefits to people in challenging circumstances. The social enterprise finds placements on farms for people in the care sector. Whether it’s a ten year old kid in danger of exclusion, somebody struggling with addiction or a vulnerable elderly person, they place them with farmers to learn the agricultural ropes.

I think it’s a genius idea. They have had major successes in improving mental health. We’re meeting Farm Buddies’ founders next month.

www.farmbuddies.org.uk

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In other news, the pigs’ palace is very nearly complete ahead of their arrival. Man Mountain Vince and the crew from Kiwi Fencing have been putting up Huff, Puff and Snuff’s pen today.

Oli is taking time out of building our house to build the three little piggies one instead.

They will be Rowan residents before we will be.

Lucky little blighters.

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