Highs and lows of life on the farm

At the beginning of the year the McKenna family traded city life in York for a new start running their own smallholding on the edge of the Yorkshire Wolds.

Wendy and Shaun McKenna love life on their smallholding.

Eight months on, Shaun, who sold his stake in a successful business to buy the farm, and Wendy, a former hairdresser, admit that the learning curve has been a steep one. They’ve experienced incredible highs, such as the arrival of the Highland cattle that Shaun had always dreamed of owning, and devastating lows, including losing one of their ducks to a fox and having to destroy their handsome cockerel after it started viciously attacking people.

The couple are fully aware that there are major obstacles yet to be overcome; when I visited they were mentally preparing themselves to send their three free ranging pigs for slaughter, having postponed making the decision several times already.

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Despite the challenges, Shaun insists that they wouldn’t return to their old life ‘for all the tea in China’.

In fact, Wendy admits that it’s something she has nightmares about, and concedes that the lifestyle change has dramatically altered her outlook: “I used to go out for lunches and on spa days, and now I find that I really don’t want to be away from this place. I wouldn’t have thought twice about blowing £80 on lunch, but now I think to myself that money would buy me a Hebridean sheep for our flock or two more pigs! I can’t bear to waste food either; nothing is wasted here. Any leftovers are fed to the pigs or the chickens.”

The couple appear happy and relaxed, despite the fact that they regularly work 12-hour days and have only had two days off since they moved to Long Meadow Farm near Everingham in February.

The exotic holidays abroad that they used to enjoy are very much a thing of the past, but Shaun jokes that a summer spent working outdoors has given him the best tan he’s ever had.

He adds: “It’s harder work physically than we expected; you know it’s going to be but until you’re doing it you just don’t realise. I have a whole new respect for people who work the land. When we harvested the hay, a local farmer came and cut, turned and baled it for us but we then had to get 218 small bales and 25 round bales into the barn before it rained. It was a very hot day and the kids all helped, but it still took us seven hours.”

A wander around the gardens, paddocks, stables and barn reveals that the couple, with the help of their six children and five grandchildren, have really made their mark on the farm. Shaun has replaced the rickety old bridge across the stream with one that he crafted himself and robust new livestock fencing lines the various paddocks, which are now occupied by a small herd of Highland cattle, Hebridean and Shetland sheep, three pigs and a pair of pygmy goats. Chickens and ducks free roam freely, and the vegetable patch is bursting with homegrown produce.

The garden is very much Wendy’s domain and, thanks to her hard work, the family were self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables during the summer months. She has put the glut of seasonal produce to good use, making jams, cordials, chutneys and other goodies, which she sells from a stall at the farm gate.

She proudly reveals that her Ginger Cow Company-branded products are already generating an income: “It has earned me £1,000 so far, but it feels like £10,000 to me; I’ve really earned every single penny of it and I guard my earnings very closely!”

Wendy was thrilled to find a note that a satisfied customer had left on her stall saying that her strawberry jam was the best they’d ever tasted.

Discovering how to care for their new livestock has been one of the biggest challenges that the family have had to face, but what Wendy and Shaun couldn’t learn from their ever-growing network of contacts they’ve taught themselves by carrying out research online.

For example, when they noticed that five of the hens they’d rehomed from a commercial egg unit were suffering from prolapse, Wendy googled the condition and watched a film that showed her how to treat the birds herself. She proudly reports: “They all mended, we didn’t lose any of them.”

The unexpected appearance of a newborn lamb late one evening in early spring came as a huge shock as they’d bought two ewes without realising that both were pregnant.

When Pip, as she became known, was rejected by her mother, the owner of a neighbouring farm advised it was unlikely that she’d survive. Undeterred, Wendy set about researching how to care for the lamb and the McKenna’s operated a round-the-clock bottle feeding rota. Pip became a firm favourite with the entire family, even sharing a bed with their Border Terriers.

Wendy said: “She’s now living out in the field with the other ewe and her lamb, something that people said would never happen. We introduced them gradually over a six-week period and, although the ewe would never feed her, she will let her sleep with them.

“I know that, commercially, the right thing to do would have been to destroy her. A friend of ours, who farms over the road, gave us that option at the time. Although we have to make Long Meadow Farm pay, we’ve come to the conclusion that, as long as the animals pay for themselves, that’s fine. We don’t see them as our primary income source and realise that we have to explore other money-making options.”

Wendy gleefully adds: “One of my bucket list wishes was to hold a newborn lamb and now I can actually say that I raised one!”

However, the harsh reality of sending the animals that they’ve cared for to the abattoir has become an increasingly sensitive issue for Wendy, who admits: “You see life and death in the raw here. I find it difficult to eat lamb now.”

Shaun is more comfortable with the idea on the basis that their animals have enjoyed a longer, and much better quality of, life than those on larger, commercial farms.

He said: “We’ve deliberately not got attached to the pigs because the idea was always that they’d become meat for the freezer, but they’ve been the least bother of all the animals and seeing them go will definitely be the hardest thing we’ve had to do to date.”

“With the cattle and sheep we hope to sell on the males and keep the females for breeding. The pygmy goats are for breeding, rather than meat, as they’re very much in demand.”

During the past few months there have been countless memorable occasions, such as the day the family bought their two pygmy goats without considering how they’d transport them home. Thankfully, they were small and well-behaved enough to sit with Wendy and Shaun’s daughters on the back seat of their Land Rover!

A notable high point for Wendy was when she won prizes at Bishop Wilton Show for her eggs and homemade flapjack. She explained: “Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve always wanted to win a rosette. Although I didn’t get a rosette, I was delighted to get two prize cards – a second and a third.”

The family enjoy the opportunity to share their new home with family and friends, who jump at the chance to come round and meet the animals. They recently hosted around 100 guests for a huge picnic on the lawn, serving homegrown strawberries with cream and homemade ice lollies for the children.

Both Wendy and Shaun admit that they feel healthier and happier than ever before, having finally achieved their life-long ambition to own and run a farm.

Wendy said: “It is idyllic here; I think it would be impossible to be unhappy when you wake up to this and spend every day outdoors.”

Shaun added: “I’ve enjoyed counting the different species of birds we see here in the trees and have taken photographs of very single plant that has appeared in the gardens and woodland. I’ve even seen a baby swallow take flight for the first time.”

So far, 2014 has been a year of firsts for the McKenna family but, now that they’ve settled into their new surroundings, Wendy and Shaun are feeling a little better prepared for whatever the coming months throw at them. With the busy summer season drawing to a close, they’re looking forward to spending cosy winter evenings thinking about how to develop their fledgling business further. Watch this space.