As Countryfile’s seven million viewers can attest, farming is not for the faint hearted. Farmer and presenter Adam Henson reels off the problems he faces on a day-to-day, month-to-month basis: government policies, exchange rates, “foreign invaders” like Schmallenberg virus and Bluetongue disease, inclement weather.
“Autumn 2012 and spring 2013 were horrendous: dying animals, suffering crops, financially very difficult. It can be frustrating at times, but what you learn as a farmer is to be resilient and slightly entrepreneurial, and to be able to change direction when you need to.”
So how did townie Nigel Slater fare when he turned his back on his chic urban kitchen in north London and moved into a converted barn near Moreton-in-Marsh in the Cotswolds to try his hand at farming with Henson? “The farmer’s life is very, very hard,” says the writer and cook.
“When we’re putting food in our shopping baskets and on the table, I do think it’s quite easy to forget that.
“I’m not going to pretend it was hard for me – it wasn’t – but you do realise just how dependent that life is on nature and on the weather. I know a lot of people assume that it’s hard because you have to get up very early in the morning. It’s not. It’s hard because it’s unpredictable.”
Another problem, he thinks, is that we have little connection with the realities of rural life. For a start, we have almost no idea where our food comes from, because supermarkets are so anxious not to distress squeamish shoppers.
“The shops package things in a way that almost divorces it from the fact it was a living animal,” he says. “You don’t often pick up lamb in a supermarket and it’s got a lovely photograph of a little sheep with big eyes.”
The cook in him has little time for such sentimentality. “I don’t get soppy about farm animals. I know some of the crew became very attached to some of the animals. But to me, no: they’re food.” So while he enjoyed playing football with the West Country pigs on the farm, he had no qualms about butchering them.
In their new BBC1 series – Nigel and Adam’s Farm Kitchen – Henson grows and rears produce for Slater to cook in the barn. “We’re looking at what it takes to produce the top 50 fresh foods that we put in our supermarket trolley in terms of taste and cost,” explains Henson, “as well as some of the science behind it and growing techniques.”
Among the more challenging foodstuffs were durum wheat (to grind into pasta flour) and rice. What Slater hadn’t anticipated was that he would be the one clambering behind the wheel of the combine harvester. “I’ve never had so much fun in my life, partly because I haven’t driven for about 40 years. I thought: should I tell them? No, that means I’m not going to be able to do it.”
Just as intimidating for Henson was becoming Slater’s sous-chef in the barn kitchen. “I’m a complete novice at cooking, mainly because I lack the knowledge or the time. But those are probably both excuses!”
When he’s off-screen, Henson farms for real on the same farm where he grew up, just outside the small Gloucestershire village of Guiting Power. Like his daughter Ella, 15, who loves helping with the lambing, the young Adam was never happier than when mucking out his father’s rare-breed pigs. (His son Alfie, 11, likes to spend his week- ends building dens.)
“The country life was so exciting. I was always pulling on my wellies, chasing my dad out the door just because I wanted to be with him on the farm. I never really considered anything else. When I was at school, I was quite good at pottery but my dad soon persuaded me there was no livelihood in that. I haven’t thrown a pot since.”
As for Slater, he hasn’t always been a milk-fed townie. He was born in Wolverhampton, but his family moving to Worcestershire when he was a teenager where he spent “very happy summers” fruit-picking and getting as brown as a berry. “A lot of the kids at school went into the family farms around there. I didn’t give it a second thought, purely because I knew where my future lay, and that was in the kitchen.”
So have his sojourn in the Cotswolds and turn on the combine harvester caused him to reconsider – to yearn for the good life? “For five minutes. I love being out in the fresh air but I also like telephone reception and the internet to work. The number of times I wanted to hurl my mobile across the farmyard because I couldn’t get coverage. So no, that ain’t going to happen!”
“We’re getting better in the countryside now!” protests his co-presenter. “We’re getting broadband and mobile phone signals, although you didn’t really hear me very well on mine.” (An earlier interview had to be aborted because Henson was mostly crackle.)
“I love visiting cities,” he continues. “There are some amazing things to see and do on a day trip or a long weekend.” But? “But that’s plenty: so busy, so fast, so many people, no gates to open, no sheep to look at. Living on a 1,600-acre farm in the middle of the Cotswolds is a gift.”