Succession: Heather Wildman and the Hard Conversations

First published as a Guardian Long Read

  • Bella Bathurst
  • Bella Bathurst
  • Bella Bathurst
  • Bella Bathurst
  • succession-1
  • succession-2
  • succession-4
  • succession-3

A country hotel conference room in Shropshire, a group of people clustered by the coffee machine. Others coming in, undoing scarves and coats, most in branded sweatshirts or fleece gilets. Different families scattered and bunched, finding others they knew, holding their coffee-cups awkwardly and sharing out croissants. Heather Wildman moved from group to group, making introductions: an arable contractor to a vineyard manager, a poultry farmer to a cheesemaker. The mood was subdued and a little apprehensive. Everyone, apart from Heather, stood by the room’s edge.  Heather positioned herself at the front, offered more food, more coffee, thanked everyone for taking the time, knew it was difficult with lambing and school runs. She is early 50s, smiled often and honestly, dressed with flair.  Her introduction was friendly, practised, self-deprecating, explaining both what the day would contain and making it clear she was one of us, not from Social Services, the Ministry, the Environment Agency or HMRC, not an accountant, a lawyer, a snitch or a nark –  ‘None of that.  I’m a farmer, and I help people.’  Heather Wildman is one of a very rare British breed, a farming succession facilitator.  Her role combines business consultancy, financial advice, legal mediation, succession planning and life coaching to those within agriculture.  A farm business counsellor, if you like.  She works to unknot the snags of identity and inheritance, using both group meetings and individual sessions to help farmers work out both the easy questions (‘Who’s doing the soil sampling?’) and the hard ones (‘Do your children want to farm?’).   Her job has only really existed in Britain for the past 15 years or so, and even now there’s a sense of novelty to it.  When things went wrong on a farm in the past, lawyers dealt with the legal parts, accountants dealt with the finances, bureaucrats dealt with the regulations, but no-one dealt with the people.  As she explains, she meets individuals who are on the brink of selling up / divorcing / shooting themselves / shooting each other, sits them down in a neutral space and gets them to talk about things they don’t ever talk about.
“‘Heather,’ she quoted one of her previous clients telling her, ‘The only way we’d ever talk about any of this succession business is if we’re doing 70mph down the dual carriageway and the central locking is on.’
For families unfamiliar with the process, this hotel session was designed both as an icebreaker and a chance for each farmer to note that what seemed to them like a lonely or singular crisis often turned out to be a universal one.   Heather outlined some of the issues which most often caused problems: how to divide the farm and its land unequally between the next generation, having conversations about what to sell and when, making a Will, arranging Power of Attorney, figuring out where the future is and how they might get there undamaged.
As she pointed out, farming isn’t the same as other jobs. It is the only profession in which everything is everything: history, identity, livelihood, direction, purpose, culture, money, sustenance, site of work and place of rest, past history and future hope, unfinished business and last resort. Famously, the average age of a British farmer is 59; the hold of the older generation is seen as so deadlocked that in 2019 Defra – the government body responsible for agriculture – began offering lump-sum payments to older farmers to persuade them to hurry up and retire. But retirement is a tricky subject; how exactly do you retire from your own home? According to 2020 research by Matt Lobley at Exeter University, 84% of UK farms are family businesses – ie. at least two generations of the same family are involved. Of the 688 farmers Lobley surveyed, 21% expected never to retire and 27% of those aged over 65 had not yet identified any successor.  But if the workforce is static, then the global economy is not.  The pressures on farms are intense and relentless: to get bigger on smaller margins, to compete against imports and keep up with big tech, and above all to feed and pacify the inspectors, regulators, contractors, banks and consumers who are their market.   And farming now makes no financial sense. Essentially, the price of food is low but the cost of land is high. So at the smaller end a traditional farm with land and assets worth, say, £1.8 million, may well be struggling to sell what it produces – its lamb, wheat, beef – at break-even point, let alone take a bare-bones income for those who live on it. Which almost certainly means that someone in the family is out there propping up the finances with another job, and may also mean that for the next generation, the prospect of working 24/7 to produce potatoes or apples or sausages or milk for a truculent public and an underpaying supermarket doesn’t seem all that alluring.
Heather splits her sessions into two kinds: the public (like the one in the hotel) and the private family sessions. These are individual two-hour meetings, always held at the farm itself and always with as many members of the family as can attend.  There, over tea and snacks, Heather gets them to talk about all the things they think but never say, all the never-spoken high-stakes stuff, the slammed doors and unsaid questions: who will inherit, who wants to inherit, who never wants to hand over, who carries on only because carrying on seems less exhausting than stopping, who secretly wants to just take the money and run far, far away? Who only keeps going for fear of waking the ancestral gods, the cold generations who ploughed in the old lesson: however bad things get, never sell, never sell, never sell?  The points Heather threw out to the hotel conference room in this public session were wide and smart. What – or rather, who – is the retirement plan? Do all the children know? What happens if that retirement plan is meant to be funded by the pedigree herd but something like BSE or Foot and Mouth happens again? Who would rather sell the farm than hand it to a daughter and who are the family raptors circling for the farm’s best cuts? Who would like to diversify but is being blocked by someone else? What are the fixed pressures (contract issues, difficult weather, illness) and what are the rising spikes (divorce, input costs, regulatory changes)? If they are tenants, would they buy if they could? Who is still working for free, waiting to be added to the farm deeds or the banking app, slave labour still in their late 40s?  In whose image is the farm still made and shaped?   A pause. ‘Think about it.  What is your reputation as a farmer? Honestly now, would you want to work for you?'[1]  A scatter of rueful laughter.
‘How many of you feel excited about the future of farming?’ she asked.
No-one in the room raised their hand.
‘Farming is famously miserable,” Heather said. “Even when it’s good, we look miserable.’  ‘So who stole the fun out of it?’  She looked round.   A couple beside me, both late ’50s, he with a phone in front of him which looked like it had also done time as a trowel, she glamorous, warm, blonde, both nodding to each other at Heather’s words. ‘Gosh, yes, ‘fraid so, that’s really true.’
The session widened out. Some of the attendees started to talk, drawn by the evident. A son in his thirties, recently returned from the city with his new wife to the old farm (‘You cannot underestimate the dullness of Shropshire compared to London’), a woman who next week will be handing back the keys to a tenancy she farmed for 20 years. (‘I’ll be leaving with two tractors. And pride.’) A man in his ’80s, still in overalls. (‘If you’re wanting money and holidays from this, you shouldn’t be in farming.’) Another man in his 60s going through a complicated divorce (‘What do you feel about the future of farming?’ ‘I’m scared.’)   A mother and son.  All the money earned from her decades of farm work has gone straight back into the business.  No holidays, no hobbies, no pension, no alternative.  ‘What’s the point of putting money into something if there’s a chance you might not live to enjoy it?’ she said, challenging.  It sounded like something she had often said before. ‘A pension is just a right, but the farm is a certainty.’
The room looked at her but no-one said anything.  The argument was too familiar.
Brian, in his late seventies, solemn, haggard, wearing a shirt so often washed the collar has frilled like puritan lace. As he explained, he ran a cider apple orchard, some sheep and an agroforestry business with a daughter (who is married) and a son (who is not). At present the son was managing the forestry and the daughter was running the sheep, though it was clear that they, their partners and their children all have divergent ideas about the farm’s future direction. Brian understood that he was the only thing holding the whole place together. If he handed it over to them, resigned his role as peacekeeper and retired, the farm would be on the market within months.
Heather went to the whiteboard and drew a series of boxes, labelling each one: farm, land, outbuildings, cottages, any other properties / businesses. The final box said ‘Debt’. Then, with Brian providing the answers, she filled in a rough value for each: say £700k for the farmhouse and two of the outbuildings, £1.2m for the land, £350k and £270k for the cottages, maybe £400-600 for other properties and assets. She waited, her hand raised over the last figure.  “Three,” says Brian, wiping his hand over his mouth.             £3m, wrote Heather in the Debt box. She looked at the others, inviting them to speak.
‘What do you want?’ asked a farmer at the other end of the room.
‘I want my children to get on,’ said Brian.
‘And if that’s not possible?’
Brian looked down at the table.  ‘To keep farming myself.’
‘Is that realistic?’
Heather waited, and then said, “This isn’t easy. These are all really hard conversations.  Sometimes, you think the elephant in the room is, ‘What about if we sell?’ But really it’s, ‘What happens if we don’t sell?’”
She brought it back to the centre and pointed to the words written down one side of the whiteboard.  ‘So what are your dreams?  What do you want to have or to be?  Are you ready to change?’  A pause and then finally, ‘If you’re not enjoying what you do, then why are you doing it?’

Wildman comes from a family farm in Cumbria. She has one brother, who took on the farm near Cockermouth, and she left school at 15. “The farm was never offered to me.  Not bitter,’ she says, only half-joking.  Instead, she went to work in a bank, married a dairy farmer, moved to Galloway in south west Scotland, had two kids, worked in contract farming for a while, and then when her kids were grown, did a year’s scholarship  researching farm succession in Australia in 2012 looking at succession and change within agriculture. When she returned to Scotland she met up with some of her farming contemporaries.  ‘I was buzzing, positive, just come off the Nuffield scholarship, and I went to catch up with people that I hadn’t seen for 25 years.  I was shocked.  They were tired, they were broken, they were depressed, miserable, really unhappy.’ So many had remained there in the fields, penned into farming jobs they didn’t want, finding it impossible to say what they meant.
So now, nearly a decade after her return, Heather travels all over the UK, whirling between farm visits and group sessions in the ‘fun bus’ (the mobile home she uses as portable office and accommodation), sometimes returning to places she knows well, sometimes going for the first time.  Over time, she’s developed an ability to gauge the emotional temperature of a room and pitch herself right within it, and a manner which walks the line between friendliness, professionalism and detailed agricultural expertise. Much of her skill is in an almost musical sense of timing; knowing the right and, more importantly, the wrong moments to ask the incendiary questions, sensing the tender spots and inflammations, finding the best way to begin the healing. As one farmer who knows Heather’s work well puts it, “Sometimes you can’t get it right, but the real trick is not to get it wrong. Heather’s a pleasure to watch when she’s playing a room.”
Back in Shropshire at the group session.  Clare, a tall elegant woman in her mid-forties, is pointing out some of the issues which arise between the generations. She and her husband Rob ran a successful arable and potato farm on the other side of the county in partnership with her husband’s father. With Clare working part-time nearby, the whole operation had ticked along amicably until Rob’s mother died three years ago. Since then, the father’s existing drink problem has worsened. In the past year or so it had also become clear that he was showing the first signs of dementia, though since he was also refusing to see a doctor there was no diagnosis and thus no possibility of arranging Power of Attorney.  It has reached the point now where the father’s decisions (often made at the wrong end of a bottle) have become either erratic or dangerous, or both. Rob is having to hide the keys to the farm machinery and has recently had to ask several local suppliers not to accept purchases made by his dad.  The farm grows  potatoes for a big crisp manufacturer nearby but the firm is now aware of the father’s condition and is becoming twitchy.  There is a will but it is decades out of date, made before Rob and Clare came into the business and naming their uncle (now himself in a nursing home) as successor. Clare and Rob have no children and lately his dad has been suggesting that he might hand the farm on to Rob’s sister, who lives in Sweden and has no interest in the business.          ‘What do you want?’ asked Heather.
Clare laughed. ‘I want a day off!’  Everyone in farming talks about being hefted, she said: the term to describe cows or sheep which have been so long on the same land they feel wrong when off it. Rob was like that. They had worked so hard to get to where they were, driving the business forward, and now it felt like the farm drove them. The contract must be fulfilled, the staff paid, the debts paid or forgiven. For Rob, the situation with his dad was a temporary hitch, just another month’s hoop to jump through. For her, it was the last straw.          ‘Have you talked?’ asked Heather.
‘Yes,’ said Clare. ‘But we don’t agree.’
‘What’s your succession plan?’
For a moment, she cupped her face. ‘To work until we drop.’ When she looked up again, there were tears in her eyes. The farmer next to her reached over and patted her hand.

In late July, I spent three days shadowing Heather on some of her individual farm visits – eight farms, all in the Scottish Borders, all sizes, all types.  All the meetings were part of a series of scheduled farm business health checks.  On some of the farms, these final sessions worked exactly to their two-hour schedule, the decisions about who gets what, and how, and when, and why, and who paid out and who pays in, all answered years before.  But for others, Heather’s questions prompted a more troubling rummage.   Scuff away at a molehill and in a couple of sentences the whole mountain starts to slide.   Nine farms had chosen to sign up to this cluster of individual sessions, partly as a way of understanding where they stood, partly because there was a lot of detailed legal, financial and practical advice being offered for free, and partly because it was useful to have someone both knowledgeable and kind asking a different set of questions. The farms were all sizes, all situations, all within the south of Scotland. All were family businesses, most had stock (dairies or beef cattle, sheep), and most also had diversified businesses or income from other sources (architecture, glamping, wind turbines). Critically, all of them were determined to keep farming.
But not all of their neighbours were.  Many were considering the possibility – however remote – of selling. Just at that moment everyone in southern Scotland seemed to know of a farm for sale, or was next door to a farm about to come up for sale, or had considered maybe selling some of their own least-good fields. ‘It’s been the talk of all the shows,’ as one local agent put it.  Farmers who would never have thought of selling five years ago are now having that conversation, and those who might once have had the conversation but taken it no further are now calling an estate agent. Again anecdotally, the most common reason is succession. The older generation – those in their seventies and eighties – are retiring or dying, and the next generation – those in their forties and fifties who have worked on-farm for decades but still have decades to come – are concluding that it might be nice to get out more.  A farm sale, any farm sale, is a big deal. Sell a flat and you’re selling a place to sleep and eat. Sell a farm, and from one day to the next, you’ll have lost your job, your home and your identity. Once you start unsnagging that web of history, connection, energy and pride from a place, you can’t put it back.
Often the reasons for selling are personal (no successors, successors who don’t want to farm, siblings who want to be paid out, health issues). Sometimes it’s global (cancellation of a big contract, rising repayment debt, red tape). Prices for beef and sheep have held up unexpectedly well post-Brexit, but there is the sense of an ending. Interest rates are going up, but the price of milk is going down. Again. Not all farm sectors receive subsidy, but beef, sheep and dairy (the mainstays of Borders agriculture) do. The Basic Payment Scheme, the main form of government financial support available to farmers, is being phased out after this year, which will make the difference to many between profit and putting the farm on the market. Inheritance tax on a sale (one of the big reasons for not selling in the past) is no longer a strong enough brake in itself. And cumulatively, the consensus is that many farmers are done – done with the insistence that food must always be cheaper, done with the debt, done with the effort of pushing a boulder which just keeps getting heavier up a hill which just keeps getting steeper.
But the picture is conflicted. If there is movement in some local areas, then it’s business as usual in others. Around 20 to 25% of all UK farm sales go through Savills Estate Agency. They – and their competitors – remain adamant that nationally there is no significant change in either the overall acreage coming to market, or the numbers of individual farms up for sale. The only change, they say, is in who the buyers are. In the past, at least half of all farm sales were farmer to farmer. Now – depending on the area – farmers who might once have been interested are vastly outbid by people ‘from off’.  Those Borders farms coming up for sale will probably be snapped up by buyers outside the region: corporates and investors buying land to plant trees for carbon offsetting, hobby farmers who have made their money elsewhere and now want to see if they can make their ideas grow, private individuals who fancy a grouse moor, land-bankers hoping for the chance of residential planning permission or future wind turbines. [9]  Often when large acreages have been released, the people buying have been investors treating land as an asset class: forestry, development, sporting estates, buyers who won’t ever get closer than a real-estate video shot by a drone. Very few, if any, will physically farm the land themselves.  Even if they do retain its agricultural use, they will almost certainly either let it out or contract the work to others.

Doug Linton is a cowman through and through. He may only be 10 years old, but he is already as dedicated to the health, welfare, breed genetics and championship  potential of his parents’ pedigree dairy herd as they are.  At teatime on a windy summer’s day in the Scottish Borders, Doug stood in Whinthank’s kitchen flipping through pictures on his mother’s phone, reeling off names, dates, shows, dams, sires, traits: Ayrshire heifer, heifer, heifer, top-of-class Holstein, Holstein from slightly different angle, Highland Show, Ayrshire, Ayrshire, Holstein Holstein Holstein, Jersey, back of Jersey, side of Jersey, front of Jersey, trophy, rosette, Doug grinning, collie, collie, collie, collie glaring at pissed-off-looking cow, top-of-class Holstein. The display was rounded off with 97 eyelash-by-eyelash close-ups of Stormzy, the championship Ayrshire they were taking to the Telford dairy meet.
In the Lintons’ kitchen, in addition to  various school awards (‘Excellence in Reciting Scots Poetry’), there were cows on the mugs and sheep on the walls, milk churns on the windowsill and bulls on the plates. Pushed to the back of the kitchen table there was even an old Waddington board game, Elite Cow, and when Heather and I both refused milk in our coffee, Doug’smother Kelly said reproachfully, ‘That’s not much of an advert for us, is it?’
Heather pulled the laptop out of her bag and started in on her questionnaire.  She knows the Lintons socially, and Kelly had already been to one of her group meetings, so the mood is informal, cheery.  For the first few minutes, they were catching up on news and family (”Oh, you should have seen her back in the day! This is Wild Heather you’re sitting beside”) while Doug fretted from foot to foot, afire with impatience to be back out on the hill.
Iain walked in. Doug, still working his way through an extensive library of cows, scrolled back to one of the Ayrshires. ‘She’s a bit grumpy the day … Dad, Dad, Dad?’
‘Aye?’ said Iain.
‘How many more shows this year?’
‘Two. And then Telford. Three.’
Doug went back to the phone. ‘She’s mine,’ he said, flipping forwards and backwards between several dozen identical portraits of a Holstein calf. ‘Right from when she was born.’
‘Why don’t you go and fetch her in?’ said Iain.
Doug turned and hurtled from the room. WE. NEVER. STOP., says the back of his Celtic FC t-shirt.
The room went quiet. Iain sat in the chair in the corner and leaned against the wall, a man with exhausted eyes and gale-force hair. Iain’s in his late forties, Kelly is in her early thirties.     ‘Ten minutes,’ he said to Kelly warningly. ‘That’s all.’
Kelly sat facing him, a plate of freshly-made bread and jam between them. She, like Doug, was ready, fizzing, urgent. She enjoyed these sessions and there were things she needed to say.
What had she made of the previous succession meeting? Heather asked.
‘Oh, that was great, I loved that!’ said Kelly. ‘You make a difficult, divisive topic into something …’
‘Worse?’ said Heather.
‘No! No. I mean, fun.’
Heather began going through the questionnaire.
‘Do you have a will?’ Heather asked Iain now.
Iain closed his eyes. ‘Aye,’ he said, ‘But it’s old. Done before my dad passed away.’
He knew he ought to update it but he and his mother had just spent six years dealing with local solicitors over a straightforward farm inheritance  from father to son, an experience which had done nothing to strengthen his appetite for lawyers, lawyers’ fees, or legal paperwork. Besides, he said, he’d not got time for all that succession stuff when he was ‘away dealing with the big things.’
‘But if you die,’ said Kelly, looking at him, ‘That’s not like a small thing, is it?’ She turned back to Heather. ‘And we’re not married.’
‘Do you want to be married?’
‘Yes!’ said Kelly.
A quivering silence. Iain’s face was far down in his mug of tea. ‘Aye, well. A hundred percent of divorces start with a marriage.’
‘God!’ Kelly snorted, ‘I’ve only heard that a thousand times!’
Heather explained the urgency of settling the succession issue.  If Iain was to die tomorrow, Iain’s two brothers would have an equal claim to the farm and its assets. Which meant that Kelly would probably end up having to fight Doug’s cause in court. It could be years of expensive uncertainty. At the moment, Iain – with Doug and someone part-time to help – did most of the physical farming, bringing the cows in for milking twice a day, feeding and watering them in winter. But if something were to happen to either of them, that would change overnight.
There had been moments recently when the Lintons had thought about selling. Things were difficult. Which was not unusual; things are often difficult in farming. What was different this time was that there was very little prospect of things getting less difficult in both the near and far future. Around the time of Doug’s birth, Kelly had a health scare and Iain knew then that if it ever came down to a choice between family or farm, family came first. Wellhouse’s continued existence depended on both adults remaining fit and able to work. Iain and Kelly had talked about either reducing the size of the herd or putting the farm on the market. With their cows winning championships at national and regional shows, they could charge a premium for any stock they sell. But even so, selling up was not some far-distant question on an impossible horizon.  At the end of a couple of hours, Kelly was only just getting started. There was so much to figure out, and Heather’s presence had made that possible. More importantly, Iain had stayed for the whole session.
Back outside in the sun and the wind, Doug had gone to fetch his calf.
‘Take pictures!’ he shouted to me, flinging his arms around her neck. The calf – possibly the most well-documented calf in Scotland – stared blandly into the lens.
‘Can we do the others?’ Doug was halfway to the shed even as Heather was racing through hasty goodbyes and starting up the fun bus, already almost late for the next appointment.

Two sessions on, the following day, we were 30 miles from Kelso south of Edinburgh in the Scottish Borders, on a first visit to David and Sara Gemmell, their daughter Erin, and two one-eyed dogs who raced joyfully out of the house to greet Heather’s terrier, Pickle. David is in his late sixties and until recently farmed with his three brothers, each of them managing their own land but running as a four-way business partnership – “an astonishing brotherhood”, as Erin puts it.
The Gemmells have three children, a son and two daughters. Their son Patrick has learning difficulties and though he’s still involved with the farm, it will be one of his sisters who makes the choice about whether to take it on. One sister, Lorna, is a vet at a practice in Kelso with a partner who plans to take a farm tenancy in Argyll. The other, Erin, 32, had just got back from travelling and was helping out at the farm, buttering lunchtime buns and listening with half an ear. Once Heather had started in on the questionnaire, Erin brought over the plate and sat down at the other end of the table, facing her father. The current of love and respect between the three of them ran almost at the edge of audibility in the room, but in her there was a restlessness too, an offhand briskness when it came to questions about her ongoing role in the farm.
David talked about his heart attack last year. He was out with Patrick and leaning over a gate to pull up a bag of feed when he felt his chest clutch. When he straightened up, he saw his own emergency in his son’s eyes. It took him – and the rest of the family – a while to recover.
Heather asked Erin what would happen if either parent was injured or ill, or, in time, was to “go doolally”.             Erin got up again. ‘I don’t want to think about that.’ She’s not sure what she wants to do next; her degree is in psychology and she doesn’t really see farming as part of her future. And anyway, she said, sitting back down, “The farm will always be here.”
Over the next couple of days that same sense kept recurring, that the farm rolls always on, too big to fail, too old to die.Several people talked of the farm as a character, as if these places at the end of all roads were not merely clods of land but entities charged with destiny and force, each one with its own individual culture, benign or autocratic, abundant or blighted. Which means in turn that over time each farm begins to behave like the nation state it has become, taken by its own internal history and grudges, its diplomatic crises and border skirmishes, its sovereign debts and old contaminations.Bring a group of farmers together in a room and their farms swagger in before them, each individual taken by the place and landmarked, shaken and branded, a re-set hipbone or a cow-kicked shin.
“Sometimes,” Erin says, not looking at anyone, “I think, ‘What the fuck am I doing here?”
The Gemmells talked of farming’s fall in public favour, its 30-year hurtle from high-status centre-of-the-village to the current media image of farmers as semi-criminal benefit scroungers who hated the nature they harrowed.
‘Farming’s just about a dirty word now,’ said David. ‘If I was starting again, I don’t know if I’d be a farmer. It’s a hard life.’
Neither parent was pressuring Erin to take this place on. Through hard work they had built it up from not much, but if it all had to be sold because no-one wanted it, then so be it. Sara and David would rather three happy children than one child roped to a millstone.             ‘You do what you do,’ said David, ‘And when you’re gone, you’re gone.’
‘What do you two want?’ asked Heather.
Sara looked at David, who looked back, giving her some kind of invisible authorisation to speak.
‘To cut back the stock a bit,’ she said, ‘Cut back on our borrowings.’
‘I want to do this better,’ said David, ‘But with less stock.’
Heather went through the figures with them; assets, debts, balance. The farm along the road from which they rent land was under offer, meaning they would probably lose the use of it. If the Gemmells lost that grazing, it might be a good moment to cut back, they thought – though, ‘there’s maybe that bit of reluctance about selling the cows,’ said Sara, glancing again at David. An understatement. They love their cows; selling even a portion of the herd would be as wrenching as selling land.But when Heather had rendered down all the numbers – buildings, machinery, stock, land –to one cold figure, something significant started to move, a kind of vertigo in their eyes. They were both richer than they thought, and freer, and more tired.
‘When was your last holiday?’ asked Heather.
‘We had a night off a few months ago,’ said Sara.
David laughed softly at himself. ‘It’s in farming’s DNA,’ he said. ‘”You’re still not working hard enough.” You’re never working hard enough.’
A while back, the Gemmells had hosted a visit for residents at the community where Patrick lives and had enjoyed the experience of seeing the animals through new eyes. Heather mentioned therapy farms, school groups, forest schools – all the potential for diversity, diversification, new income.
Erin was still in her chair, listening. A lot of this was information she hadn’t known. As Heather tapped through the questions, Erin said quietly to me, ‘That was silly. The idea that the farm will always be here is almost childish; that wasn’t what I meant. You think because it’s always been there, it’s always going to be there. But I know that’s not real. It can all change so quickly.’
By the end of the morning’s meeting there was an action plan, a series of undertakings of varying urgency. As Heather left, Sara and David came out to say goodbye. As they did so, Erin slipped past them to the back of the pickup where the sheepdog was sleeping. She stroked his ears and then buried her face in his fur.

At the end of the third day, Wildman and I stopped for a catchup. She talked about the things that linked all the nine farms we’d just been to. “I love my job!” she said, her face alight. She is energised by the skill and instinct in what she does, but also by its importance in people’s lives. Each of the families had their own succession challenges and the farm its own sense of health or foreboding. In every kitchen there was a huge clock staring from the wall, and home baking, and phones that buzzed the whole time like drones. And in every single one, it was not possible to pull land apart from love. All of those farmers do what they do for money, for home, but most of all for each other.

Some version of family farming – dysfunctional or harmonious, exhausted or exploitative – has shaped Britain for 7,000 years. The land worked the people and the people worked the land. But does that subcutaneous bond between a parcel of land and a person have a value, or just a market value? And if you take that away – take the family farm away – what does Britain look like then?

First published as a Guardian Long Read on 9th Jan 2024

Back Back

Please fill in the contact form below. We will respond as soon as possible.