Monday, 7 June 2010

It's Not All Sunshine and Sheep Shit

As well as Milkweed Farm, we have Teasel Farm. Neither are really farms, just large fields, but we're working on making both more productive. Milkweed is small enough that I can manage it myself. Teasel is four times the size. It's a permanent grass pasture and we rent it for animal fodder. For the past few years we have rented it to a friend in the village, someone Mike's known for 20 years. Their youngest son is named after Mike. Their oldest son is at college studying to be a gamekeeper.

We had rented the field to him at "mate's rates", about half the market value. I was under the impression that I was building up social capital in the community, working in partnership with the local farmers so everyone could get a break. It turns out he's been subletting Teasel farm and earning money on it without our knowledge. And other farming friends of ours knew it was going on and no one told us. We only found out by accident.

I put a huge amount of stock in fairness, and the whole situation completely floored me. I didn't know how to process it. I thought we were part of the community. Now I feel I've been relegated to the "outsider" position, new to the area and new to farming. I'm the stooge, the mark for a grift.

I having been stewing on it for over a week, trying to understand how I misperceived the situation. Anthropology was my major at university; I tried to examine the situation using the theories I learned in those four years. No answer is wholly satisfactory.

I've baked, and spun wool, and sat watching the meat chickens settle into their new surrounds to mitigate the hurt and revive my flagging spirits. I've listened to podcasts from NPR, and talk radio from home to remind me that there are other perspectives and that I do fit in somewhere, even if it's miles from here. I've read other people's blogs and cheered for their successes. Thank you guys for being so positive.

On the plus side, the situation made confront some misplaced idealism on my part. I thought working for myself and working with animals would buffer me from social ills and the worst parts of human nature. No dice. People are everywhere and I have to find a way to manage my interactions with them. I can never be wholly self-sufficient while I need people to cut my hay, bang in a fence post or level a lumpy field edge. Since I don't have social capital, I will have to use money. Pay and be paid. For now, that will have to do.

I also realised that as much as I like learning to care for the land and livestock, I hate trying to navigate the government bureaucracy that goes with agriculture in Britain (and probably elsewhere). Well that's just tough. There are compliances, environmental standards, subsidy requirements, and I'm going to have to spend time to learn them if I want to make my farm my living.

I spoke to another neighbor farmer, one I respect as a stockman and producer. I sat down in his kitchen to ask about organic control of docks over a quick cup of tea. I ended up leaving nearly two hours later with more information and a better understanding of Milkweed Farm's bigger picture. He also recommended a reputable land agent, someone who's paid a fee to help you manage your tenants and farm bureaucracy to get the most return for your efforts. I've called to set up a meeting. I hope with a bit of time and guidance I will learn to be my own land agent. I can chalk this episode up to experience.


Jenny said...

That's left a really nasty taste in your mouth, hasn't it? It's just taking the Mickey and very unpleasant!

You seem to be in the midst of some humans who don't seem to have any common courtesy or decency. What a dreadful impression it gives: greed and disdain. On behalf of the rest of us, I apologise.

Poppy Cottage said...

What a bummer. Mmmm... some people have a double meaning to the word 'friend'.

But then again life is too darn short to waste it by being bitter, invite them for a cupper, spit in their tea. Believe me you feel so much better. Bit like when you clean the loo with your soon to be ex husbands tooth brush and then watch him clean his teeth. A sort of wonderful feeling of calm comes over you....

Jennifer Montero said...

Jenny - You have nothing to apologise for, on the contrary, it's positive comments and fascinating blogs by intelligent, funny, like-minded people that help me to shake off the bad stuff. Thanks!

Colette - Now THAT paints a picture...I think I will try and stay on your good side!

Paula said...

I hope that you were able to kick this guy off your land... what a crappy lesson to learn.

I also hope that this doesn't completely kill your faith in your fellow man. I guess going forward, your leases will be in writing (if they aren't currently) and you'll specifically spell out things that aren't allowed, like subletting. I wonder if you have legal recourse to take back what he was earning on your land, but I doubt it. I also doubt that you guys are the kind of folks to go that far, but personally, I would be so pissed off as to look into it.

Sorry, Jen. Maybe this is the universe's way of nudging you closer to the plate- time to really become a land manager, which is all that farming really is. Good luck.

Poppy Cottage said...

Thought you might say that!! ;0)

Cynthia said...

Oh, what a shame. It is such an awful feeling to find out someone you think is a friend has been taking advantage of you.

Kerry said...

Some people are selfish greedy bastards, but some people are decent. Unfortunately, you don't always know right away which is which. My suggestion is a variation of Poppy Cottage's: invite the bastard over for a cup, then plainly and simply explain to him that he and his "tenant" are to be off your land this minute. And he should also start calling his son by a name other than "Mike" because you're takin' that back, too!
If you're feeling more Good Fellas than good guy, you can also break his knees with a cricket bat and assure him that he will never f@#k with the Monteros again.

Jennifer Montero said...

Paula - Lesson learned. That's why I will be employing a land agent to make sure I get a fair rate for the land and to ensure all tenants sign a binding contract. It's the "fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me" principle.

Cynthia - I know it's happened to all of us at some time or another.

Kerry - It's the "12 cookies scenario" to the extreme.

I have actually honored my agreement to sell him the cut of grass from Teasel this summer, but thrown his tenant off. And I withdrew the offer of the cut of grass from Milkweed. We're making our own hay now.

But grass and keep are in very short supply. Farmers are always desperate for more. He's going to struggle to replace the 30 acres we rented him, and he will pay a lot more to do so. It won't hurt us at all. No cricket bats are needed because it will hit him in the pocket where it seems to matter more.

martha in mobile said...

You are wise to now keep business and friendship separate. One may have many views, practices and opinions in common with a friend, but usually not all; and when the dissimilar ones intersect (if ever), the friendship can break down. I have close friends upon whom, were I required to work with them on (for example) a political issue, I would long to commit friendicide.

Kate said...

Boy, that sucks! So sorry to hear about this situation. It would certainly dampen my week. I do wonder though if it's just possible that everyone who knew about the situation and didn't tell you just figured you also knew? Maybe it's not the case, but if it were, it might lessen your feelings of betrayal and being an outsider. I've been an expat myself, so I know how real cultural displacement is and how it feels.

I hope you can put this behind you soon with a clean heart.

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

God does that suck. I think this is the corollary to what you always say about farm life -- it isn't the pristine barns and the fluffy animals and the new-mown hayk it's the shit and the insects and the diseases and the heavy lifing. And it's also not the tight-knit community where everybody watches out for his neighbor and nobody lies, cheats, or steals. There are sleazebags in every walk of life, and yours is no exception.

We can't make other people behave well. We can only do our best to behave well ourselves. It's easy, and natural, to expect that honesty, consideration, and fair dealing will elicit the same from others, but sometimes they just have to be their own reward.

It's gotta be hard to not feel like a patsy, when people knew about this and didn't tell you, but would you rather be an accepted member of this community, if these are the kinds of secrets they keep?

Jennifer Montero said...

Martha - That's very true, and your term 'friendicide' made me laugh.

Kate - Unfortunately our others friends told us they knew. It's a very localised farming community where everyone has been tied together for generations, so loyalties are already in place (as well has long standing feuds, but that's another minefield to navigate!). They did what they had to.

In the scheme of bad things that can happen, this was so minor that it's easy to put behind me though I hope I've learned some lessons.

Tamar - That's exactly it. Even in paradise there was a snake. I expect people to share my values which is a bit naive.

But I will continue to behave as I want others to behave towards me (it's "the Sesame Street principle"), just maybe without the rose tinted outlook. It helps that I'm a part of this on-line community of great people. It REALLY helps.

E in Philly said...

I've been reading M&T for a few months now, lurking and living vicariously through your adventures. Just came across this post, and want to thank you for the perspective. And you DO belong, both where you are and where you're from. That's a lesson my beloved is learning and that I will learn when we return to his homeplace across the sea.

Thanks for inspiring my better nature.