Posted 1st Dec 2016
Have you ever wondered just what being a farmer really involves? Well with the new experience day at Parsonage Farm, on Dartington Hall Estate, you can step into their shoes for a day, as our editor Anna-Lisa De'Ath found out
Arriving at the Dartington Hall Estate in the heart of the South Devon countryside, I was struck by the beauty of its location as I drove along the lane that winds through the 1,200-acre estate, past lush rolling pastures, mature trees and award-winning gardens. Eventually I reached the stunning Grade I listed medieval manor house of Dartington Hall where I would spend the night in a comfy room overlooking the lawned courtyard. The night before my farming experience I tucked into a delicious three-course dinner in the White Hart bar and restaurant adjacent to the Great Hall, which prides itself on serving locally sourced ingredients. However, tempting though it was to linger over my supper, I made sure I was early to bed, as the following day I was rising with the dawn chorus, just as the farmers do.
There’s something quite magical about getting up very early in the morning before the sun has risen. I felt like I had the world to myself as I drove through the estate to Old Parsonage Farm, where I was going to spend the day as a farmer. I arrived at the farm at 6.30am and was greeted by my cheerful hosts, farmers Jon and Lynne Perkin, who run the goat and Jersey dairy herd on this 500-acre farm. I also received an equally enthusiastic welcome from sheepdog Jimmy and effervescent Jack Russells, Trixy, Shandy and Fizzy, who have way too much energy for this time of the morning. Only farming folk could be this perky so early in the day. This hard-working couple have already been up since 4.45am doing the early morning milking of the Jersey cows, so I’m definitely not going to grumble about my early start! After a welcome cup of hot steaming tea with Jon and Lynne in their cosy farmhouse kitchen and a chat about what the day may include, I set to work helping Lynne milking the goats.
There are around 150 goats on the farm, a mixture of Toggenburgs, Saanens and Anglo-Nubians. Lynne uses their milk to make delicious ice-cream, which they sell at the farm and supply to local restaurants. The goats are bright creatures and know exactly what to do when they are let into the milking parlour. They rush to their stalls ready to be milked, more concerned with scoffing the feed that’s in their troughs than what we’re doing at the other end – i.e. cleaning their teats and attaching the milking clusters. It doesn’t take long to milk a row of goats, so after each batch is milked, we let them out into the yard and herd in the next ones. They all know the drill, although some are cheeky and try to disrupt the queuing system for their stalls, so Lynne has to persuade them to behave with a few gentle nudges!
Once the goats have all been milked and the parlour had been cleaned, I head out with Jon to lead the cows out to their pasture for the day. The Jerseys are beautiful beasts with their auburn coats glowing in the morning light and their huge brown eyes gazing serenely at me, wondering who this rookie farmhand is. It was a joy to walk behind them as they ambled slowly down the track to their field, with the sun rising over the rolling Devon countryside that surrounded us.
After these early morning tasks, we headed back to the farmhouse for a hearty breakfast, including Lynne’s delicious homemade goats milk yoghurt.
The jobs you help with for the rest of the day will depend on the time of year you visit; you may be up to your elbows delivering the newest arrivals at the farm, helping with land management or moving herds around the estate. On the day I visited, Lynne and I needed to move the goats around the farm, separating the girls from the boys, the youngsters from the older ones and deciding which girls were ready to go to the billy – an impressively large chap, with a distinctly ‘goaty’ aroma called Ty! Even Jon and Lynne try to avoid him rubbing up against him for fear of smelling of billy goat all day! I sympathise with the nannies!
Persuading a group of goats to go where you want them to is no mean feat. They are intelligent, quick and strong and had other ideas about being where we wanted them to be. But Lynne is highly experienced in persuading them to go where they’re told to, so with her goat-wrangling, (ably assisted by goat-herding sheepdog Jimmy and mildly hindered by Trixy, the hilariously over-enthusiastic Jack Russell) and me on hurdle duty, we eventually managed to get them all in the correct pens. Before they could be released into their respective accommodation in the barn however, we needed to make their beds. We filled each stall with barrow loads of sweet-smelling straw, only for the goats to gallivant all over it and rearrange it as they saw fit when we finally allowed them back in!
Following our goat wrangling escapades, we filled up their feeding troughs with pellets, then Lynne and I went out to check on the working Apaloosa horses they keep on the farm, mother and daughter Girlie and GeeDee. These majestic animals are much loved family pets, but also earn their keep by helping to round up the cattle and sheep on the farm when required. Having filled up their hay ricks and mucked out their paddock, we headed back to the farmhouse to tuck into a well-earned lunch.
There’s no time to sit around after lunch though as there’s always something that needs doing on a farm, so Jon and I headed off to inspect and feed the rest of the cattle who graze across the 500-acre farm which is spread out across the Dartington Hall Estate. Jon milks around 65 Jerseys in the dairy herd, but across the farm he has around 167 cattle, including Aberdeen Angus and more Jerseys. His bond with his beasts is undeniable; as soon as he arrives in each field and calls out to them, the cattle come running enthusiastically across the pasture to greet him and tuck into the pellets which he expertly pours into their feeding troughs. It takes a while to get around the estate but it’s great to see the varied types of land Jon farms on, from steep grazing pasture to flat marshland, rolling fields of red clover grown for silage to fields of wildflowers grown as part of his environmental stewardship initiatives. Although not yet certified as organic, Jon uses organic methods to work the farm and grows crops which will feed and improve the soil as well as feed his livestock over the winter months.
As we return to the farm, Lynne is already herding the Jersey girls back from their pasture, ready for evening milking. They gather in the milking parlour, udders full of rich creamy milk, waiting patiently for their turn to be milked. The cows form an orderly queue to enter the stalls in the parlour and calmly wait as Lynne and I clean their teats and hook them up to the milking machine. If you thought milking by hand was tricky, it’s even more of an art juggling the clusters of the milking machine, attempting to attach them to the cow’s teats while trying not to let them touch the floor of the parlour. It’s an art that Lynne has certainly mastered, me not so much! As she works her way along each row of cows, Lynne carefully inspects their udders, checks their health and makes sure that those cows who are on medication are not milked from the teats receiving treatment. She expertly knows when each cow has been milked enough and wends her way along the rows removing the milking clusters from their teats and cleaning them once more. After milking, the cows stroll languorously into their barn to tuck into some sweet hay before bedtime. It’s already 6pm and time for my day as a farmer to end. It’s been fascinating, it’s been mucky at times, it’s certainly been tiring, but it has definitely been fun. It really has given me a great insight into just how much hard work it is being a farmer.
But although this rookie farmer’s day is at an end, there’s no rest for Jon and Lynne, they still have the goats to milk, kids to feed, paperwork to do, supper to cook, before heading off to bed ready for another 4.45am start!
The ‘Farmer for a Day’ experience at Dartington Hall costs from £335 and includes one night's 4-star accommodation in a standard room at Dartington Hall with a three-course dinner at The White Hart bar and restaurant, with breakfast and lunch on the farm. Alternatively, you can opt to do the 'Farmer for a Day' experience on its own (without the accommodation and dinner) for £150. For more information or to book visit www.dartingtonhall.com or call 01803 847147.
By Anna-Lisa De'Ath