It is relatively rare that you find yourself reading a book whilst actively doing the things contained within its pages. I am currently in the middle of the lambing period on our Essex coastal farm. A round the clock watch is kept on our ewes and lambs: feeding, watering, bedding up and assisting mothers. The stress and tiredness can be palpable at times but when a new life comes into the world there are few better feelings. It was therefore a delight to be joined through some of this process by the words of somebody who knows what I am currently experiencing. Sally Urwin’s book is a joy from start to finish and would be a good read both for someone who has kept sheep for years as well as those who have never stepped foot on a farm and cannot sort their hogg from their tup.
Normally I shy away from books that are structured as pure diary entries or by month or season, but clearly it is a favourite format for many publishers at the moment, based on the newly published non-fiction books that I have read recently. Further, this format works very well in Sally’s book and seems to bring you closer to understanding her as a human being and the day to day struggles that we face which can seem wholly distant and perhaps even irrelevant just a few weeks after the event. At the time though a challenge or a problem can be overwhelming and seem impossible to get through.
With this in mind, Sally must be praised for her honesty within the pages, particularly when it comes to mental health which is an enormous issue, not just within the farming community but for all of us. It is brilliant that the stigma is beginning to be broken down but there remains a lot of work to be done. Many people battle through a mental health issue by themselves, and if they choose to open up to somebody else this can sometimes be weeks or months after they first experience the issue. Sally neatly describes how problems can build and the mind can play tricks on you, suggesting ‘impending disaster’, as Sally puts it, when usually a solution of some sort can be found. There are so many things to worry about when living a farming life, from financial stress to animal and crop health to the weather; and the ‘macho’ ‘get on with it’ attitude that has been culturally bred in to farmers, suggests to farmers that they are weak if they don’t battle through. As a consequence problems are often bottled up which can only lead to more issues in the long run.
‘‘My anxiety is so bad that I’m finding it hard to get out of bed let alone the house. I carry around a feeling of impending disaster, and tiny setbacks make me burst into tears.’’
‘’Even though lambing has finished and all the dreadful stress has passed, I suddenly have an attack of anxiety. Everything assumes the proportions of a disaster. The future looks bleak. Steve will never get another job. We’re all doomed’.
‘’Of course, life still goes on. I can’t stop feeding the children, looking after the sheep or doing the housework just because I’m anxious. To an outsider, I look OK. Probably a bit jittery and tired, but still coping and being an adult, doing grown-up things.’’
Sally effectively describes, through the course of a year, some of the reality of running a farming business which is riddled with problems such as difficult births at lambing, dealing with dead stock and having animals stolen, as well as all of the better times. Clearly she loves what she does, despite the issues, and I can fully empathise with her on that matter.
The book is gloriously funny at times. I found myself smiling and even laughing out loud. I think this is successful because Sally pours her entire self out on to these pages, exposing her life to its fullest state. It’s a very brave thing to have done. Even though we have never met (I hope that we do at some point) I feel I know her, always the sign of a good writer.
A Farmer’s Diary: A Year at High House Farm is published by Profile Books and will be out on 4th April 2019.
You can follow Sally Urwin on twitter @pintsizedfarmer