Interview with a farmer: Emma Lee

A year and a half ago, I had no idea what it was to be a farmer. It was a world I had never collided with; my parents were social workers and I moved to London in my early twenties only returning a few years ago. I had a brief stint picking tomatoes and lettuces when I was 15 and learned that 'bag-in' meant 'lunch-time' but that was it. Having my own wool produced made me want to learn everything I could about the process. The farmers who look after the animals, the people at the mill, the textile artists and designers - everyone has a story to tell that adds to the story of the wool. So I thought I'd start sending little questionnaires to the lovely people I've been working with. Over to Emma Lee from Brown Barn Farms - where my lovely Lonk started it's journey.

1) Could you tell me a little about what you do?

We are a first generation tenant hill farmers rearing Lonk and Cheviot sheep and also have a small beef suckler herd and are just starting to focus on the Aberdeen Angus breed. We have two young kids 5 and 7. I work full time On the farm and Matt has an off farm ground work business. We run 200 breeding ewes and between 40-50 Replacement hoggs (shearling ewes that will replace any old ewes we loose or sell). And we expect to have between.300-350 lambs from them. We also run 5-6 tups (rams). We have currently about 30 suckler cows and their followers  (calves). So at any one time there can be up to 60 cows on the farm. We have 80 acres and farm buildings from our private landlord at our main holding Brown Barn Farm and we have another 140 acres of moorland rented from United Utilities.

2) How long have you and your family been farming?

Since about 2005 as mentioned above we are first generation farmers. Neither my husband or I were from farming families. I was a textile designer for many years previous to farming and my husband has been to agricultural college to study farming and has always worked on farms from a very early age.

3) What made you chose the breeds you keep? 

We keep Lonk sheep as they are a traditional hardy hill breed who do well on moorland and are native to the Lancashire moors. Cheviot sheep at they are a more commercial hill breed so we get a better return for these and they produce a bigger more commercially desirable lamb. We keep Angus Cows as it seems to be the housewives choice of the moment. They are in high demand at the auctions as super markets want this breed as they seem to post the marketing for Aberdeen Angus beef. Most supermarket shoppers who may not have the first clue about farming have usually heard of the Aberdeen Angus  (they do however get confused and think it is the highland!!)

4) If you weren’t farming, what might you be doing?

Probably stuck in an air conditioned office in the centre of Manchester if truth be told. I have done this for years as I have worked off the farm until finally being on the farm full time in Feb 2016. Matt has to work full time off the farm with his groundwork business as the farm can not sustain two wages nowadays.  I honestly think most farmers do it as it’s their passion as it is definitely not for the money. My other passion was for design and this is what I studied at unversity. I was a textile designer for many years and got to travel the world doing it but as much as I loved it it didn’t fire my spirit as farming does. I love being out doors with the stock, rain, hail or shine. I love the seasons, I love the highs and lows and the trials and tribulations . You are accountant, midwife, vet, groundsman, fencer, waller, agony aunt, childminder, mother, cook, cleaner, tractor driver, delivery driver, all at once. To some it seems like a hard life. To me it seems like a real life with a truer understanding and ingredients of what life is and can be all about. I don’t want to be anything else anymore......ooh.....except antiques and collectable I do love them haha. Let me sit I am auction with a blank cheque book.....yes I could so that (can I keep my dog with me? 😂)

5) What do you enjoy most about your job?

The stock. I love, love, love animals. I think I’ve answered that above.

6) The least?

The cashflow stress and the helplessness of not being able to keep something alive. Lambing and calving can take its toll but you have to learn to roll with the punches ‘where’s there is livestock there will be dead stock ‘ that’s what the old farmers always tell you. 

7) What is your favourite time of year?

Lambing and calving. Even with it’s ups and downs.

8) How do you see farming changing in the future?

Oh this is a Pandora box question and not something easily answered. My honest answer is not for the better but I just hope and pray the government start to support farmers, the supermarkets lose some of their foothold, people start to shop more local and the public start to be educated about food and food production. There is such a massive disconnect between farmers and supermarket shoppers. I think the education needs to start in school but how do you do that when even the teachers have no clue. My 5 year old knows more than her teacher. Small farms can not survive the way things are now and I absolutely hate large scale factory farming. Where is the connection with your stock? I know my stock. I love them and I know that is hard for people to understand when we produce animals for meat. But I am a meat eater and so are all my family. I would 100% rather eat the food I have raised myself and know how they have lived  and died than buy much of the supermarket packaged meat. Buying local from a butcher would be a fab way forward and that would help sustain small local farms.  I’ll get off my soap box now. I could write an essay.....!

9) Wool – how has the price of wool changed in your lifetime? Was it different in your parents/grandparents day?

 I can’t really answer this as we are 1st gen farmers so the wool price had always been poor since we began farming. I’m led to believe that the wool check used to be brilliant in years gone by and would cover the farm rent. Ours is not worth a thing anymore unfortunately.

10) Do you believe you get a fair deal from the Wool Board?

We don’t sell to the wool board as they can take a while to pay and the nearest drop off point isn’t very close. We sell to a company who use it for insulation and they pay us within a couple of days. We need to pay the shearing team so  the money has already gone before we get anything back from the wool buyer. I think we got about £30 left over from 250 sheep last year if I remember correctly after paying the shearers. That is then supposed to cover mine and Matt’s wages for the day for gathering sheep,wrapping wool and filling wool bags then the diesel to drive it all in the trailer 25 miles so we can be paid. I think that might work out at about  £5 each for a days work..haha now I’ve written that down I have to laugh! You wouldn’t do it would you....did it even cover the cost of lunch? Probably not as I fed the shearers too. Oh how I must love farming ha ha .

11) Do you/would you consider the quality of wool in your planning decisions?

The honest answer is that we don’t. However after meeting Kate @northern yarn my outlook had differed slightly but only really to support her venture. Unfortunately we will never get enough for our wool to make a big enough difference. We farm primarily to produce meat and our decisions have to be made for that .

12) What do you think of people like Northern Yarn, who take a clip and process independently?

I think it’s fabulous and I will support them in any way I can. It would be brilliant if all farmers could find someone like Kate to support them. I wish her every success with this venture and I hope Lonk wool becomes one of the most popular yarns there is. 

13) What do you see as the future of British Wool, if anything?

Honestly the bigger picture not really any changes, but anything is a help and seeing an explosion of the popularity of knitting and yarn can only be a good thing for farmers however it’s still very 'nichey' unfortunately. 

Thank you Emma for giving us an insight into your fascinating and highly skilled work ☺

Kate xxx