Roger Evans writes his diary early in the morning, before breakfast.
He has a fine view through his Shropshire farmhouse’s kitchen window: a pond in the middle distance, Canada geese, a far-off row of trees which Roger himself planted years before. Gomer the dog – and sometimes George the robin – are there for company as into the diary go honest musings on the never-ending challenges of farming life, tidbits of neighbourhood news, reminiscences, jokes and funny stories.
If you haven’t discovered Roger’s diaries yet, you have a treat in store.
For many years now, the lifelong dairy and poultry farmer – former chairman of First Milk and sometime Cream Awards’ Dairy Ambassador of the Year – has shared his thoughts and reflections in columns for the farming press.
More recently, readers have had access to book-length gatherings of the diaries, courtesy of Merlin Unwin, specialist in countryside publications. These have been considerably successful: over 30,000 copies sold, to date, says the publisher. Land of Milk and (no) Money – available since September – is the latest installment.
What, then, new?
Change, after all, has been afoot. Spanning the months from October 2020 to June 2022, Land of Milk and (no) Money covers the second half of the Covid pandemic, the last of the lockdowns, announcements of new trade deals and the first serious price hikes of the current economic crisis.
And as input costs spiral, and despite recently going organic, Roger reports getting less for his milk in 2022 than he was four years before.
Life, in other words, has not been getting any easier. And, as if the financial and other difficulties that beset the farming community weren’t enough, it’s a community, we’re reminded, that continues to attract an unfairly bad press and to be widely misunderstood – even by those who live alongside it.
We’re told the story, for example, of how, one morning in October, 2021, a local semi-retired sheep farmer receives an unexpected visit from a new neighbour. Before the farmer can even offer her a cup of tea, the individual informs him that she has been watching him through binoculars and is outraged by his use of rubber rings for castrating and shortening the tails of his lambs (‘You will need to stop that!’). The newcomer is deaf to any explanation.
As Roger reflects,
Some of the people who move into the countryside think that it was designed by Enid Blyton and packaged by Mothercare and that it should fit around their vision and not around the real world, the life-and-death world, of the people already there.
Roger Evans’ books regularly point out the misconceptions brought to bear on rural life by part-time participants – be they second home owners, ramblers or even conservationists.
For, well-intentioned though they be, these misconceptions are almost always naive. Roger regards with bemusement the promotion – by, among others, The Wildlife Trusts and the BBC’s Countryfile – of populations of ground-dwelling birds like lapwings and curlews in areas dominated by red kites, buzzards and carrion crows.
‘Fifty years ago,’ Roger notes, ‘the predators would be in the control of gamekeepers, but they aren’t allowed to do that any more, and it’s starting to show’.
But – for those who don’t know these books – it would be misleading to imply that there is anything impatient or aggrieved in their tone. The diaries – and this must be the key to their likeability and success – take everything in their stride.
However hair-raising the mishap – from the flooded kitchen that couldn’t be stopped for three days, on account of the water mains also feeding the farm, to the evening when Roger inadvertently takes out one of his front teeth on a stick of rock that someone brought him back from holiday in Newquay – there’s a strong sense of seen-it-all-before, and an appropriately philosophical shrug.
And cues for memories. As – in this case – picking the hazelnuts (and breaking more teeth) from the hedges lining the track leading back from a day in the fields.
Some of these reminiscences have all the quality of old rural photos (of which, it’s no surprise to learn, Roger is a fond devotee). Who remembers stooking? Roger did it as a schoolboy, before the coming of the combines, and recalls how important it was to leave the sheaves to ripen in the field: ‘go to chapel three times before you cart them’.
If the writing tends sometimes to the repetitive (thanks, not least, to a noticeably hands-off approach to editing), that’s in the end not inconsistent with the book’s essentially homespun feel.
Roger Evans is like the neighbour you’re always happy to see in the pub, jokes and anecdotes at the ready; together with the reassurance that, whatever changes, and especially when it changes for the worse, some things stay the same.
Which makes the developments of April 2022 all the more disconcerting. Without warning, Roger and his wife are given twelve months’ notice to quit the 215 acres they’ve rented for the last twenty years. (‘No reason, no explanation, just a red card.’) And with so much TB around, the only sensible thing to do is sell the dairy herd without delay.
Suddenly, Roger and Ann are faced with the most uncertain of futures.
Even at this point, though, our diarist refuses the role of the hard-done-by. ‘I intend to enjoy that land for the next year,’ he resolves. ‘It is there I see the most spectacular views and of course “my hares”.’
Here’s hoping, too, that – whatever happens next – he also intends to keep on with the diary.