Farmers’ Blog

Nethercott Farm 

17th to 24th June 2016

Day 1 on the farm…

It’s the end of the first full day for us farmers at Nethercott Farm. We are all very much enjoying ample servings of delicious home-cooked food, the beautiful surroundings, working on the farm and some of us have already learnt the lesson of getting enough sleep before a long day at work!

Our journey felt very long but we were excited about what we were going to do this week. Thankfully, it wasn’t until about 20 minutes from reaching the farm the cries of ‘Are we there yet?!’ filled the air. The journey had been relatively straight forward apart from driving through a few pockets of rain, that is until we ended up down a one-track country lane… The wrong one-track country lane! Our extremely skilful driver Dave had to reverse us all the way out again. As we unloaded the coach and made our way into the beautiful farmhouse, we were greeted by a cup of tea and fresh scones with cream and jam – we already knew that we were going to be well looked after!

Last night we were very excited – it was like a huge sleepover with all of our friends! The first challenge was making our own beds (some people had trouble telling the difference between a pillow case and duvet cover – mentioning no names Mr Shield!) and unpacking our suitcases so that our rooms were up to Mrs Rye’s standards.
An early alarm call signalled the beginning of our first busy day on the farm – a lot to learn but a lot of fun to be had.

Group 1 were working with donkeys and ponies in the first session – some of us were a little bit nervous of this because we thought that Ned, the donkey, might nibble us or pull us over. We had to groom them – resulting in Eric the pony’s mane and tail being plaited and Apple-Jack and Ned sporting trendy Mohicans – and walk them to their stables. We then had to make an electric fence so the horses couldn’t leave the field. Surprisingly, no one volunteered to check it was working!

Our next job was to move the chickens from the chicken shed into the yard so we could clean out the shed and collect eggs. We collected over 50! The whiter the egg, the better the chicken is at laying. We sent the eggs to the kitchen to be cooked for tomorrow’s breakfast – yum! The eggs were shockingly dirty (we don’t think we need to mention what they were covered in…) We also got to hold chicks; they were very cute!

In the first session, group 2 herded cattle from the trailer into a new pen. It was tricky because they were trying to barge out all at once (now we know how teachers feel when we are sent out at playtime!) We then went to see a calf that was only 2 hours old. It tried, unsuccessfully, to stand up. It was important for us to keep our distance or else the mother cow would have been anxious. Following this we went for a long nature walk through the cow-fields, through a wooded area to look for otters (or octopuses as some of us first thought). We had a paddle in the river and learnt about some of the poisonous plants that are found along the banks.

This morning, group 3 were lucky enough to be the first group to see the piglets which had been born only 3 days ago. Liquorice, the sow, was feeding her eight piglets while grunting and snorting to protect her young. Unfortunately, one of the tiny piglet’s feet had been accidentally trodden on by Liquorice (she is a first time mum and this is quite common) and had a big pink bandage on. We felt very sorry for the piglet as Liquorice weighs a colossal quarter of a tonne – ouch! Liquorice’s litter had 8 piglets but Mike, our farmer, had once worked with a sow who had given birth to a litter of 21 – the world record is a litter of 27!
After this we went to the pig fields to feed the weaners and breeding sows (named Beetroot and Cocoa). We didn’t know that pigs are actually very clean and tidy creatures, which means we will now be very flattered when our parents tell us our bedroom looks like a pigsty!

After lunch (a delicious beef and potato pie followed by lemon drizzle cake), group 2 and 3 had to work together as a huge team to shovel gravel from an 80-tonne pile and take it in wheelbarrows to fill a giant hole that had appeared in the ground next to the pig house. It was back-breaking work and after the first few loads, Ben C announced that he had “the body of an eleven year old boy but the back of a sixty year old man!”… we still had 45 minutes worth of work to do! Our farmer, Stewart, was very impressed with what we had managed to achieve, with Dylan winning the prize of transporting the heaviest wheelbarrow. It was hard and exhausting work – especially pushing the wheelbarrows up the hill – and we all worked up an appetite – which was lucky as we then got to enjoy our second delicious meal of the day, jacket potatoes with cheese, beans and salad.

Group 3’s final job of the day was tending to the dairy calves. We gave them milk, protein pellets and barley. They very much enjoyed sucking on our fingers, much to Miss Boniface’s disgust! Mike told us loads of interesting facts about cattle, including the difference between dairy cows and beef cows. Did you know that a cow is only called a ‘cow’ once it has given birth to two calves?

We have just enjoyed a hot chocolate and freshly made cookie before bed, and are excited about our second full day on the farm tomorrow. Hopefully after a bit more sleep than last night…

Day 2 on the farm…

As we have now nearly completed each of the farm jobs, we are very nearly ‘experienced’ farmers and will continue to revisit the tasks for the rest of the week and be able to do these without too much instruction. Most of us woke feeling a little more refreshed than yesterday after a better night’s sleep and as it was Sunday we were looking forward to two things: Sunday roast and our afternoon walk, although we were a bit apprehensive about the day after seeing the rain!

Before breakfast, Group 1 head down to Bridgetown Farm on a tractor where we checked up on the calf and lamb which had been born on Friday. We let the lamb and the ewe onto the field and fed the bulls. The calves in the field were really cute; they were headbutting their mothers for food and then suckled on their udders.

Group 2 went to let the chickens out first thing in the morning. We desperately tried to beat the previous day’s impressive egg count and, to our disappointment, only managed to find the grand total of… 3! We learnt about the different breeds of chicken and how they lay eggs, and how mass produced eggs are different from free range. In a mass producing farm, the chickens are under constant light as this encourages them to lay more eggs in less time. After about a year they are ‘moved on’ (putting it politely) as their egg numbers will drop, whereas a free range chicken will be kept and will lay eggs for around five years!

Group 3 started the day visiting the milking parlour, where 180 cows get milked twice daily – we can only imagine how long this would have taken to do before they used the machinery they do now. We couldn’t believe that dairy farmers have to work 365 days a year – Christmas Day and birthday included! When a cow has just calved, she produces 50 pints of milk a day and this reduces over the 10 months before she has two dry months before giving birth, where the whole process begins again! They will keep doing this for 10 years! We haven’t yet seen the cows used for beef and we are interested to see how these differ from dairy cows.

After breakfast Group 3 then went up to the classroom to prepare pudding for lunchtime: Bakewell tarts! We had to work in teams to make pastry and fill it with jam and sponge cake mixture, then decorate them with almonds and glacé cherries. We were really excited to see who would get ours for dessert and some of us tried to give ours a ‘brand’ so we could recognise them!

We all sat down to a delicious Sunday roast with a number of claims that it was the best dinner we had ever had! The pork was from a pig that had been reared on the farm and the vegetables we ate were from the garden, which we are sure makes them even more delicious. Mrs Rye especially enjoyed the crackling – she ate all the leftovers on her table!

Our legendary Sunday afternoon walk was somewhat of a washout, but we didn’t let the rain dampen our spirits! It was a very eventful couple of hours: being ankle deep in a swamp of cow poo, coming face to face against a herd of cows and getting absolutely drenched (even through our waterproofs!) as a result of the fine English summer weather. Unfortunately our view was a little obscured by low-level mist and cloud but we could still just about see Nethercott and the other buildings from fields on the other side of the valley. It was extremely tiring walking up the steep hills and wading through knee-length grass but the best bit was running and sliding down the grass into the muddy puddles! Some of us were totally caked! At one point some of us were really lucky to see a kingfisher dive into the Okement river.

After the walk Group 2 had a very soggy journey on the tractor to see Reggie the bull. We found out that he has between 20 and 30 cows to impregnate! A vet came with us because she had to take a poo sample for tests – luckily for her there was loads to choose from!

Group 3’s last job for the day was to take the donkeys and pony to the field so we could clean out their stables and refresh their food and water. We learnt how to command them to walk and stop safely. Because of the terrible weather they were reluctant to leave their stables – after our long day in the rain we couldn’t really blame them!

After tea, while two of the groups gladly stayed in for lovely warm showers, Group 1 (after just about drying out) went out in the rain again and to the dairy. We mixed milk powder with warm water to feed the calves which was poured into artificial teats for them to drink from; they have to be taken from their mothers soon after being born so that the cows’ milk isn’t wasted from feeding their young. The hungry calves were very friendly and starting sucking on our hands and licking our coats!

We wrote letters home tonight so they will be posted and hopefully received soon. More rain is forecast for tomorrow and then (fingers crossed) the rest of our time here will be dry!

Day 3 on the farm…

Another wet start to the day but, like true farmers, we braved the elements to carry on with our jobs regardless.

Group 1 started the day in the milking parlour. We were amazed at how complex the machines were but how David the farmer made it look like a walk in the park! After the cows had finished milking, David put green antibacterial liquid on each of the four teats of their udder so that they didn’t get infected when they went back onto the field; cows (and all mammals) can suffer from mastitis just like humans. The whole process worked like clockwork and we couldn’t believe exactly how much milk is produced on the farm each day.

It was Group 3’s turn to visit the poultry first thing this morning where we saw Wellsummer, Light Sussex and Brahma chickens, topped up their food and collected the eggs. Most of the chickens managed to brave the terrible weather while the children managed to brave being pecked and fed the chickens by hand! It was this morning with our farmer Mike that the children had a realisation about how different life would be in the countryside… As conversation wandered to ‘streaming’ a film, Mike announced that the only stream he knew of was the one at the bottom of the field which was overflowing due to all the rain!!

Group 2 started the day at Bridgetown Farm where we saw Boris the bull (named by another school after Boris Johnson because apparently he looks like him!). After breakfast we went to see Liquorice and her piglets. Mike the farmer was trying to treat the piglets who had been harmed by Liquorice, but this was no easy feat (or trotter!): he had to try and grab them without the sow noticing and treat them before they squealed or else their mum would get agitated and possibly attack (or in Mike’s word ‘savage’) him in order to protect her young. So while keeping one eye on Liquorice and trying to treat a squirming piglet, he ended up with more antibacterial liquid on his arm than on the pigs! After this the group took the wieners to be weighed. We had to work together to guide each pig into a cage to be weighed to see if they were ready to be sold for their meat. A pig has to be around 180lbs to be sent to slaughter but they were around 160lbs (in case you’re wondering, Mr Shield is more than heavy enough to be taken to slaughter!)

We were then very excited to be the first group to have a Forest Schools session. We arrived in the smoke-filled spinney where the fire was already flaming! Over the session we did loads of different activities ranging from building dens with logs and sticks, to creating charcoal to use for drawing and writing. Many of us chose to decorate our own – and other people’s faces – with the charcoal, with some interesting pieces of facial hair appearing as a result!

Group 1 were in the kitchen today, making pizzas and bread for tea! We had to measure and mix the ingredients for the pizza base and then spend 10 minutes kneading the bread which was a lot harder than we expected! Once the dough was smooth and springy we rolled it out, laid it on the pizza tray and covered it in homemade tomato sauce, cheddar cheese, mozzarella and basil. When they were ready to be cooked we rolled out some more dough and plaited three pieces – the girls were pleased to show the boys how it was done!

Group 1 and 3 worked together to shovel more gravel into wheelbarrows to fill potholes in the road down the lane. As Group 3 were seasoned pros at this they quickly showed Group 1 the ropes and the whole group were once again congratulated on their teamwork.

Group 3 had their tractor ride to Bridgetown farm this afternoon after the rain had stopped. On the way we saw Michael Morpurgo’s house but unfortunately we didn’t see the man himself. We drove into the field and watched the cows and Reggie the bull and then fed the cows in the shed. We noticed how different beef cows are to dairy cows: they are less bony, have smaller udders and have more muscle and fat. The different cows use the energy from their food in different ways, depending on whether they need to make better quality milk or build more muscle.

Thankfully, the rain cleared up mid-afternoon and we’ve been able to enjoy some free time playing out in the garden, on the fields and in the meadow (apart from Group 2 who had their evening job tending to the calves in the dairy shed!)

Day 4 on the farm…

Another fantastic day for us farmers!

Our diary entries for this evening were to think of the ‘funniest part of the day’… Safe to say there have been a fair few of these! Lennon’s entry described how he started to take a sheep for a walk… and ended up being ‘taken for a run’ by the sheep instead! There was also an unfortunate incident of some manure falling off a passing tractor onto one of the wheels and subsequently being flung in all directions – including into Lola’s hair!

It was Group 1’s turn to groom Ned, Apple-Jack and Eric, giving them another new hairstyle! Our farm task today was moving grass from where it had been cut from the fields to the pigs and the chickens. We couldn’t believe the heat that was generated from the grass that had started to pickle in the heat! This was an example of one of the essential tasks that we didn’t realise that farmers had to do – their job is far more than the feeding of animals that we expected!

Group 2 were in the kitchen today: we prepared the vegetables which were to be used in the soup for tea and made bread. We demonstrated good teamwork, measuring and mixing the ingredients and then rolling and plaiting the bread. Knowing how the food was prepared and made meant that our tea was even more delicious than normal!

Group 3 had a very busy morning. First we had to help David and Simon move a herd of cows and Boris the bull from one field to another. David has been looking at buying a new bull for the farm and he saw one today that cost £4000! Then we went back to see Liquorice and the piglets where Lizzy had to check the piglets who had been hurt. It was great to see the piglets running around and play fighting as last time we saw them when they were only three days old and they were just feeding the whole time! Taking the weaners to be weighed was great fun – we had to create a moving human fence to guide them up the yard. We couldn’t believe how strong they were as they tried to pushed past us to get to the fodderbeat!

We really enjoyed our forest schools session. We had great fun creating things out of wood, rush and willow, and sitting by the fire. Che, Alfred and Ellie created a den using huge logs and tarpaulin while the rest of the group were using the saw, drill and log splitter to create various things; another way to make the most of and enjoy our beautiful suroundings.

We can’t believe we are over half way through our week! The days are going so quick but on the other hand it feels like we’ve been here for a long time! Looking forward to more adventures to come in the week.

Day 5 on the farm…

In our diary entries tonight we had to think about something we had done today to make us proud. Having this time of reflection really made us realise what we have achieved this week. We have learnt so much and acquired so many new skills in such a short space of time, there is so much that we have to be proud of. Some of us have overcome fears or tried new things that we never would have expected, for example being with certain animals or even trying new foods! Some of us even mentioned that we haven’t missed home ‘quite as much’ as we thought we would because we have been so busy and had so much fun!

We are now onto the third or fourth cycle of completing activities around the farm: seeing to the chickens, taking the weaner pigs to be weighed, moving and putting up electric fences, feeding the calves, clearing out the stables and loads more. However Groups 2 and 3 had a new experience today as gardeners! Andrew, the gardener, told us how the walled garden helps to grow plants that wouldn’t be able to be grown in this country or can be grown for longer than they would do without it, for example figs. We ate some carrots, broad beans and peas that had been grown in the polytunnel and to our surprise we were told that we could eat a flower! Then we got to work in the garden, putting food leftovers through the compost dragon to be used throughout the farm, digging up garlic and getting rid of loads of bind weed by the raspberry canes.

This morning Group 1 were at Bridgetown Farm where they saw a five hour old calf – it had already started walking but was a little wobbly on its feet! Little did we know that we were about to embark on a new adventure… Nothing was out of the ordinary as we then went to the field to check on Boris the bull and the cows – but Boris was nowhere to be seen! David thinks that maybe he had gone for a wander upstream! As we piled on the trailer to get back for breakfast, David went driving off on his quadbike in a quest to solve the mystery of Boris… We haven’t heard whether he has been found yet so we will update tomorrow!

In Group 2’s poultry session, we were introduced to the geese. Stuart explained how a goose can be encouraged to lay still on the ground: he picked it up by the wings and carefully folded them behind its back! The submissive goose then allowed him to open his mouth and show us its teeth.

Group 3 had to do a stock check today which involved walking through fields and counting the number of cows. Stuart took us to ‘Wood Field’ which has since been named ‘Death Hill’ by Michael Morpurgo due to its sheer slope. The view was absolutely beautiful and we enjoyed some moments of silence, listening to the sounds of nature. Stuart gave us two challenges: the first was to walk (when all we wanted to do was run or roll!) down the hill, and then we had a race UP the hill! Alfred the Powerhouse steamed up the hill with ease, followed very closely by Dylan, with Ellie winning out of the girls.

Tonight we opened our letters from home while we enjoyed our hot chocolate. We really enjoyed reading them and, with a few tears, were thinking about how much we are looking forward to seeing our families on Friday. But first we have two more days on the farm to enjoy!


Our last day at Nethercott Farm 

Our last blog! It’s come round so quick!

We only had two jobs on the farm today, and at last we were working in glorious sunshine!

Group 1 had our final dairy session this morning, followed by our gardening session. Like the groups yesterday, we all tried the vegetables that had been grown and spent some time weeding the flowerbeds.

Group 2 went to Parsonage Farm for the final time to see the sheep and pigs, and went about feeding the cattle. We then made our last visit to Liquorice and the piglets, again watching how the farmers care for the injured pigs (who are definitely getting stronger every day!). We also went to feed the weaners in the field, where – no surprise – someone ended up falling over in the muddy sludge!

Group 3 had our final turn at letting out and feeding the chickens (learning about the different types of food depending on their breed and age) and had quite a generous egg collection. We saw how some of the younger hens have been born with some deformities: one has a cross beak, another has a bent toe and another has a hump back. Mary, our farmer, seems to think that there has been a mix up and the cockerel may be related to the hens, which is not good for breeding. We decided that it might be best to not attempt to incubate a wellsummer egg until a new cockerel has been bought. Many of us then had a new experience today when we held a chicken, and we were also lucky enough to hold chicks that were around three weeks old. After breakfast our final job was to walk the donkeys and pony back from the field (Mary was very impressed with the way we did this!) and spent some time grooming them. We had been looking forward to this all week after seeing a number of different plaits and hairstyles that had been given previously!

As promised, there is a Boris the bull update from yesterday: he was eventually found on a field in a neighbouring farm, on the other side of the river… and the farmers had to drive seven miles to retrieve him! He seemed to have walked up the stream in search of some other heifers! David guided him back to the farm and he is now on a red card, meaning he couldn’t go out to play in the field this evening!

After lunch we all enjoyed a walk into the village (not least because we no longer had to wear our waterproofs and wellies!). The scenery was beautiful as we wandered down country lanes and today’s clear weather meant that we could see for miles across the fields and over towards Dartmoor. The village is very tiny and picturesque, with around 20 houses, a pub, a church and a village hall! We spent some time listening to Catherine talk about village life and thinking how different the village of Wrotham is to the village of Iddesleigh. We also spent some time inside the church.

Tonight we had our celebration evening after Mr Shield hosted a quiz to demonstrate what we had learnt this week. Each group was awarded a ‘Farmer of the Week’ along with a runner up as decided by the resident farmers at Nethercott and our lead teachers. We also had the opportunity to say thank you to Mr Wakeman; he first came to Nethercott farm when his eldest daughter was in Year 6 – she is now 35!! Every year since 1991,Mr Wakeman has given up his time to come to the farm with children from St. George’s, and it seems fitting that his first visit was in fact to Nethercott farm. To mark this momentous occasion we presented him with a t-shirt, some badges made by Mathew and, most impressively, a book with a personalised message from Michael Morpurgo, which he hand delivered to the house himself! Unfortunately it was when we were out on our walk so we didn’t get the chance to see him. George and Luke also performed a song and rap about Mr Wakeman and what he has done for us. We are very grateful for all he has done!

We are now all packed up and ready to go after breakfast in the morning. We have had a lovely evening reflecting on our fantastic week and we are now very excited about getting home to share our stories with our families and friends.