What happens on a farm in early summer? Meet the Genever family who farm in Uffington
If you stumbled across a sheep on its back, its legs waving in the air, would you know what had happened - or what to do?
Can you point confidently to a field and name it as wheat, barley or rye?
Despite living in an area where we're never more than a mile from farmland, many of us are clueless about what happens through the seasons, and so, as an utter novice when it comes to rural life, news editor Suzanne Moon spent some time with the Genevers, who farm at Uffington.
A quirk about farmers, explains Kate Genever, is that they have a constant conversation going on about the weather.
“It’s a farming thing,” she adds over a cup of tea and homemade cake in the family farmhouse in Uffington, with sisters Susan and Liz, and parents Paul and Yvonne.
She’s quite right. After just an hour chatting with the Genevers, weather crops up repeatedly. It influences what happens each day on their 580-acre farm, how their crops are used, how their animals are cared for and, ultimately, how they will fair financially in any given year.
“Ideal weather now would be sunny during the day with rain at night,” says Susan. “But because that is not what’s guaranteed, you can’t plan ahead; you can’t say on the third Wednesday of June we’ll be doing such and such.”
Having weathered a cold and dry April, followed by a cold and wet May, June has brought warmth and with it a lot of grass, Liz explains.
“While we’re having a lot of rain and sunshine it just keeps growing, and so one of the main jobs at the moment is cutting grass for silage,” she said.
“That’s what people start to see in the fields at this time of year - the big black bails containing cut grass, which will be used as animal feed in winter.”
The Genevers’ is a mixed farm, growing crops and rearing sheep and cattle.
Whether their peas and wheat end up on our plates is largely down to the weather, which can raise or lower the quality of their crop, as well of those who compete in the same market.
Some of what the Genevers grow, such as the barley, is always destined for animal feed. Sheep and cattle are the focus of ‘3 Daughters @ Croft Farm’, the branding used by Kate, Susan and Liz for the meat boxes they sell.
The boxes are far removed from mass-produced meat, instead having the feel of a community feast to which people are invited to join. Every couple of months a bullock is turned into cuts of beef and the message goes out to regular customers that they can put in their orders. The next will be ready on June 18, while lamb will be available from September.
A combination of Brexit and more people cooking at home during the pandemic has pushed up beef and lamb prices to the highest they have been for years, according to Liz.
The lambs weigh a minimum of 38kg when they are taken to the live animal auction at Melton Mowbray Market, or to the abattoir. Just under half of that weight is meat, which fetches a little under £6 a kilogram, meaning each animal yields about £100. The price will drop as more lambs become ready.
“Prices started to go up last year, partly because many farmers thought Brexit would ruin the lamb trade and so they sold off stock, bringing a bit of a shortage,” said Liz.
“Another factor is people have been eating out much less in the pandemic and treating themselves at home more, having been inspired by TV programmes such as MasterChef. With more time to spend in the kitchen, people want to cook from fresh.”
The Genevers have just under 300 breeding ewes which are ‘north of England mules’. Shearing starts this weekend, with two contractors who will shave through the flock in a morning, taking off fleeces each weighing about a kilogram.
At this time of year, when the sheep are out in the fields, the Genevers start each day with shepherding jobs.
“We’re looking for anything that’s not quite right,” said Paul. One of these things is ‘cast sheep’.
“It’s a particular problem at this time of year because a lot of grass is available to the animals and they get bloated with gas,” Paul explains.
“If they then lay down and accidentally roll onto their backs, they can’t get up because their bellies blow out sideways and act like pannier bags.”
Anyone spotting an upturned sheep is urged to step in to nudge it back onto its belly so it can stand again. Doing this quickly is crucial for the animal’s survival, and a sheep’s timidity means there is little danger to the helper.
In addition to their flock, which can be seen grazing in the fields off Casewick Lane, the family has 35 ‘suckler cows’ - their calves stay with their mums until weaning at about eight months and then they graze or are housed with their mates until ready for market. Dad to all the calves is Tango, a bull the Genevers describe as “small, but quite able to make up for it”.
Often in spring the ewes and lambs occupy the field in front of Uffington’s church, creating a bucolic scene much-photographed by passers by.
The Genevers are well aware of the interest, and encourage people to find out more about life on the farm.
“We’re hoping to run some farm walks in future, where people can choose a technical level to suit their knowledge,” said Susan. This would start with an introduction to farming - a walk to see the livestock and crops with the chance to ask questions - while those with more of a grasp can join a walk which tackling farm topics in greater depth. They hope it will stay sunny for the walks, or, at the very least, dry.
- Details of the farm walks, and a look at harvest time at the Genevers’ farm, will be featured in a future edition of the Mercury.
A potted history of farming in Uffington
Albert Genever was born in Uffington in 1902.
He left school at 13 and went to work at Grange Farm near Ryhall where he earned 7s 6d a week as a farm boy.
As time went on he received land as a gift, giving the Genever family their first few acres.
Albert’s sons, Paul and David, followed their father into farming, but David was blinded in an accident on the farm in 2004.
His son, James Genever, continues to contract farm the crops for his uncle Paul, 75, and wife Yvonne and their three daughters, Kate Genever, 50, Susan Genever-Jones, 47, and Liz Genever, 40.
All three third-generation farming women went away to study and work in various occupations, before returning to the farm over the past few years. They continue to work off the farm, as this income is important to ensure the farm can be sustained.