Together again, at last

After a punishing 14 months in the wilderness, I was called up for prattling duty on the Word Podcast on Friday. It’s available here. I don’t mind telling you: I asked. As what a rare treat it always is to shoot the breeze, trade quips and occasionally draw breath with David Hepworth, Mark Ellen and Fraser Lewry (who took the pic above). We covered all sorts, including Marley (which I hadn’t seen on Friday), Levon Helm’s name, the intricacies of Christopher Guest, South-East Asian cuisine and … sorry, I’ve just remembered, you have to be a Word subscriber to hear the whole thing, but there’s a free 15-minute taster for all. Why wouldn’t you subscribe to Word anyway? You can do that here. Tremendous value, tons of benefits etc. Not only would you be helping to keep a thinking person’s monthly magazine of the old school alive – one that’s published by a small, independent publisher, lest we forget – you’d be allowing middle-aged men (and one younger woman) like these the opportunity to exchange hoary old rock anecdotes and dismiss entire modern conventions with the phrase “all that palaver” in a cupboard on a weekly basis.

Incidentally, the photo above refers to a story Mark tells about Lucinda Williams. I won’t spoil it.

Me and the farmer

When you get past a certain age, you stop expecting new things to take you by surprise. You think you’ve pretty much got the measure of what you’re into, and what you’re not into, and from which direction things that might occupy your mind will come from. And then you’ll find yourself hooked into a world you had no prior interest in. For me, such has become the Farming Today Podcast. It is my new favourite thing in the world.

Now, some context. I wouldn’t say I was not interested in farming before. Indeed, over the past 15 years, as I’ve become more and more sensitive to where the food I eat comes from, and how it gets to my plate, I’d say I’ve also become more interested in farming, but at one remove, like most vacuum-packed townies. Thanks to the organic revolution, and the cultural and legislative ripples extending therefrom, I now know the names of the farms where my meat comes from, as does every supermarket shopper who cares to read the label. I choose to order a lot of my meat from Abel & Cole, and it is accompanied by a tremendous amount of information about the farms – and farmers – it comes from. Assuming you’d rather eat local produce – and why the heck wouldn’t you? – this gets you attuned to the seasons. I’ve long been acquainted with “the hungry gap” and the difficulties of growing broccoli in a cold spring, or indeed a hot summer, without ever having once planted a seed.

That said, until my most recent stint on the 6 Music Breakfast show, I would never have sought out Farming Today on Radio 4. But because my Monday-Friday BBC cab ride put me on the back seat for half an hour each day, starting at 5.30am, I found myself listening with rapt attention to presenter Charlotte Smith one morning – Farming Today airs daily from 5.45-6am – as she linked items about Schmallenberg, public footpath legislation, the East Anglian drought and the National Farmers’ Union conference. (She and Anna Hill share presenting duties.) I found myself asking the next day’s driver if he minded putting Radio 4 on, and within two days I was a convert. I started looking forward to 5.45am.

Once back in the routine of the real world, I was thrilled, if not surprised, to discover that Farming Today is available as a daily podcast – including the 25-minute Saturday morning compendium – and I immediately subscribed, by now desperate for my fix of farming news. I need to hear what latest excuse Caroline Spellman is giving for the badger cull, and whether they’ve had any more cases of Schmallenberg at the Royal Veterinary College in Potters Bar.

Charlotte Smith and Anna Hill are excellent presenters, always linking the show from somewhere farmy, like a lambing shed in Shropshire, or a ford in Norfolk (I think it’s Charlotte who always forgets to take her wellies), and brilliantly and poetically describing what they can see (the classic “painting with words” found in much quality radio). It seems to me to be a very balanced programme; no more anti-town or get-off-my-land than the farmers are anti-welfare. The programme clearly acts as a bulletin to those in the farming community, but it strikes me that it’s designed just as carefully to appeal to those of us on the outside of the perimeter fence. Difficult questions are always asked whether it’s of those in government, or in industrial food manufacturing, or environmental pressure groups. (For instance, a woman from Compassion In World Farming, a group with whom I might generally ally myself, was given a hard time for persecuting pig farmers in a recent edition, and she failed to defend the group’s actions in this case. An item on halal meat was similarly fair, covering the inconsistency of labelling and the cruelty of slaughtering cows without stunning them first, without disregarding the religious reasoning behind it.)

Hey, Schmallenberg. It’s a horribly unpredictable new German viral infection that causes birth defects in lambs and calves and has begun to crop up across Europe and in this country – potentially the next bluetongue – and although you won’t read much about it in the mainstream media, if you listen to Farming Today, you’ll be well ahead of the worrying curve. As yet, it is a condition farmers are not even legally obliged to report, and as it’s thought to be transmitted by midges, there’s nothing anybody can do about it yet, with livestock farmers able only to cross their fingers during lambing. Unlike The Archers, which I’ve always disliked, this really is the everyday story of country folk, and I would hate to miss an episode.

I’m not really writing this blog entry with the intention of sending anyone rushing to the Farming Today podcast page, but the programme is an excellent example of what the BBC should be doing. Since tuning in, I have become much better informed about so many aspects of farming, from livestock to arable, horticulture to straw production. (Did you know that power stations use straw for fuel, which drives up the price and reduces the stock generally used by livestock farmers to feed their cows and to make their lives more comfortable in sheds and yards?) Even better, they have yet to mention Alex James in all of the editions I’ve listened to. Long may that continue.