Rosamund Young

5th October 2017

Interview: Sophie Missing
Photographs: Sophie Davidson

5th October 2017

Interview: Sophie Missing
Photographs: Sophie Davidson

It’s late August in the Cotswolds, warm with the suggestion of a storm in the air. Had we come to Kite’s Nest farm a few weeks earlier, we would have driven past fields of lavender ready for harvesting. Even at this in-between time of year, not quite autumn, not really summer, it’s beautiful.

Run by brother and sister Rosamund and Richard Young, and Rosamund’s partner Gareth, the 390 acres that make up Kite’s Nest farm have been in the family since 1980, when the Youngs set about turning it into one of the first organic farms in the country. Today, as then, the cows (and now sheep) roam free and decide where they graze and shelter. In 2003, Rosamund wrote a book about her herd, The Secret Life of Cows, describing how, left to their own devices, characters like Fat Hat II and Amelia play, grieve, forge friendships and exhibit as many quirks of personality as humans. Previously available through a small farming press, the book has just been republished by Faber & Faber who have sold foreign edition rights to eight countries and counting – so the local taxi firms have had a lot of business ferrying people to the farm recently.

The quarry-tiled kitchen – pleasingly full of bovine paraphernalia – is the hub of the house. Customers walk through the room to get to the shop downstairs where you can buy 100% grass-fed beef and lamb, plus Rosamund’s hand-milled wheat. If you’re lucky you’ll get a sack of potatoes from the garden or some foraged field mushrooms too (the postman is keen on the latter).

We eat thinly carved, flavour-packed roast beef and a bright crunchy beetroot salad at the long kitchen table with Abby, a student who’s helping Rosamund and Gareth on the farm (Richard now works for the Sustainable Food Trust). A mulberry tart winks from the windowsill and after a slice or two it’s time to move. Abby has mowing to do while we hop in the Daihatsu (“boring but the Land Rover’s got one door missing and you might fall out”) for a cross-country tour in which we meet matriarch Dizzy Lizzy and other members of the herd before heading back for a cup of tea.

Warm, funny and inquisitive, Rosamund is as happy chatting about how King Edward potatoes got their name (“marketing”) as whether Shakespeare wrote his plays (“It’s like the best Agatha Christie but you can never find out for sure”). When it comes to sustainability, farming and food, she is passionate without ever being preachy. Spending time with Rosamund is an incentive to think about how we eat.

Continued below...

How did you come to write The Secret Life of Cows?

Somebody said to me the other day, “Have you always been a writer?”, and I said “I’m not a writer, I’m a ghost writer for the cows” [laughs]. I never ever thought about writing. But 15 or 20 years ago somebody was here writing an article about us, because we were organic, and every time he asked me a question about the cows I illustrated my answer by telling him a story about what they’d done, because that’s what I do. It was nothing extraordinary, just like you might talk about your dog or your cat. He said, “Have you got any more stories like this?” And I said, “Well of course, they happen all the time.” He said, “I wish you’d write them down.” After he’d gone I thought, well okay, I’ll write down that one I told him. Then I found I enjoyed doing it. So I kept doing it, just in a notebook, by hand. He came back six months later to buy some beef, and when I showed him what I’d written, he got three of the stories published on the front of the Sunday Telegraph Review. He rang me up and said, “They’re going to give me a thousand pounds for this article, is it okay if I give you £500?” I said, “Yes please!”

Somebody said to me the other day, “Have you always been a writer?”, and I said “I’m not a writer, I’m a ghost writer for the cows”

What happened then?

I just carried on, and when I thought I’d come to the end I tried to find a publisher and couldn’t. I basically gave up. Then, just by chance, somebody came to the farm who owned a mobile bookshop going round agricultural shows. He emailed my book to a little publisher in Preston, Farming Books and Videos, who’d set up in her back bedroom basically. It was the second book she ever published. When it sold a few and then stopped I presumed that was the end of it forever. Then suddenly last October, Laura [Hassan, Rosamund’s publisher at Faber & Faber] rings me up – and it’s been like Christmas every day since.

It must be nice to feel that there’s going to be a whole new audience discovering it.

It is – it’s just so extraordinary, something I never thought would happen. It was just coincidence really; one of the people who work for Faber was in a secondhand bookshop and heard somebody ask for my book and made a mental note. It coincided with Faber publishing the collected diaries of Alan Bennett in which he mentions reading my book, so the two came together. Apparently Alan Bennett had never met a cow in his life and never wanted to and thought they couldn’t possibly have secret lives – he actually says in the foreword that he thought this idea was daft, then [after reading my book] he didn’t.

 

Has he met some cows now?

I don’t suppose so, no! I’d love to introduce ours to him.

When did you move to Kite’s Nest Farm?

We didn’t actually move here till 1980. I was 28 or something. But I’d always been on a farm: from birth for 12 days in Condicote near Stow-on-the-Wold, then Clapton near Bourton-on the-Water until I was 13, then Saintbury near Broadway.

I love the cows’ names in the book and how literary they are – the orphan Jane Eyre was a favourite. Have you always given names to your cows?

Growing up, we had a dairy herd – Ayrshires. My father milked them, and I had to walk through them every day, going to school, and I just remember always feeling totally safe. The calves were taken from the cows and you put milk in buckets and you walked in to feed the calves. But I don’t ever remember naming anything until I was 13 or so – we moved farms, and then I started helping with the calving and getting more involved.

I never bought a pint of milk until I was 58 but we stopped milking the house cow, and now I feel guilty, but it’s so convenient

Self-sufficiency is important to you – when did you start thinking about that?

I was desperately determined to be self-sufficient from when I was 15, but of course you can’t be, because somebody in the house is going to want to buy bananas or tea or something. But we tried: we had a huge vegetable garden and we made fruit juices, we had our own meat and cheese, our own house cow, our own wheat. The pastry [for the apple and mulberry tart] is made from our flour – I mill it freshly when I want it.

Do you make your own bread?

I started when I was 16 and I found I really enjoyed it, and we never bought a loaf between the ages of 16 and 40. To begin with, I bought flour. Then I thought, how stupid, we’ve got wheat in the field – so I took the wheat to a miller. Then I thought, I need my own mill. Gradually it all came together.

Who taught you how to bake, or did you work it out by yourself?

I probably looked in several books, Elizabeth David particularly, and just experimented. I tried sourdough a lot, using yeasts off wild plums and things – I never quite perfected it, though it was pleasant. But I’ve become lazy and I buy it now.

I don’t think you sound lazy!

You can buy organic bread in Broadway [one of the nearest villages to the farm] and it’s very good. I never bought a pint of milk until I was 58 but we stopped milking the house cow, and now I feel guilty, but it’s so convenient. It’s a strange thing; I was determined never to stop, but that’s just what happened.

If you wait till the mulberries are almost black they’re very sweet, but of course if you’re just two minutes too late they drop off or the birds have them.
Rosamund on her recipe for mulberry and apple flan

When does your day start?

Usually about 6am in the summer, a bit later in the winter. I don’t like getting up when it’s dark – I don’t function properly. But in the summer it’s much easier. The trouble is, a day doesn’t end – quite often I don’t get to bed until 12 or 1am. Things always happen; somebody will get out, or a water trough will break down…

What do you have for breakfast?

We always have either porridge or muesli or perhaps a boiled egg. We’ve got handmade, Rosamund-made, sausages which are fantastic, but they’re frozen so you have to remember to thaw them. I mix them with a rusk that I make from our flour and organic herbs and they’re quite good.

I’m sure they are! Having made them and knowing what’s gone into them, I’m sure you appreciate them much more.

Well, in a way, the more you know, the more awkward other things get. When I go to London, I take sandwiches. I don’t want to go into a shop and buy things, because you know so much about what could have happened: all the shortcuts that were taken… Though a great big rucksack with loads of things in it is heavy.

On The Menu

Lunch with Rosamund Young
Kite’s Nest Farm, Worcestershire, August 2017

To eat:

Kite’s Nest Farm roast beef
Boiled King Edward potatoes from the garden
Raw beetroot and carrot salad with apple juice dressing
Mulberry and apple flan with cream and yoghurt »
Raspberries

To drink:

Apple juice
Tea

Would you have time to stop for a proper lunch like this on a working day?

We do eat – we eat well – because we can’t keep working if we don’t. It might well be sandwiches or poached eggs or a salad. Generally we eat what vaguely looks like a proper meal at night. But we do actually eat three meals a day, because you need to when you’re doing physically hard work. I’d like to have a proper lunch and then a very small supper – I used to do that years ago, but it just doesn’t seem to work out these days.

Do you enjoy cooking, or do you see it more as means to an end?

I do, for people I like, which is usually the people who are here. I don’t think I could run a restaurant, I wouldn’t be organised enough – everybody would sit there for three hours waiting for their food. But I do enjoy it because it’s all part of the thing, you know – I love farming and I think what you do to the soil is so incredibly important for the planet and for your own health, so you eat what you produce. In the spring we were foraging quite a bit, eating wild garlic, comfrey and dandelion, chickweed and nettle, all sorts of things. It’s good to use what’s there.

I’ve just been so lucky – I’ve never had a job, I’ve never had to go for an interview… If you’re in farming, if it’s in your blood, then that’s it

Do you eat much meat?

We do, because we have it. I often wonder whether I’d be vegetarian if we didn’t produce meat but, you know, I take the animals to the slaughterhouse and I feel I can justify it to myself if I give them a good life and see it through to the end. It’s not perfect, I’m not going to pretend it is, that there’s no suffering. But we have got a very good abattoir so I’m really grateful1.

You must have seen lots of changes in farming over the years.

I’ve just been so lucky – I’ve never had a job, I’ve never had to go for an interview, I haven’t experienced the ignominy of being told “No thank you”. If you’re in farming, if it’s in your blood, then that’s it. But I know three farmers whose children have chosen not to farm, which would have been unheard of in the past. I think technology’s got a lot to answer for – people get seduced by the fascination of technology which didn’t happen years ago. But of course we’ve got modern machinery now which you can’t mend with a spanner; in the past you could mend everything by kicking it or hitting it. Now if something goes wrong, a man comes out with his laptop, plugs it into the tractor and tells it to behave itself. It’s so counterintuitive, because if you’re a farmer you get an oily rag and set about mending something. Farming should be about looking at the plants, looking at the animals, and making decisions rather than letting machines make them.

Why is food so important to you?

I’m very obsessed with the power of food to make people well – or not well. I looked after my mum for 40 years: she was an invalid, and she had an incredibly awkward diet, so every day I was making tiny little meals from scratch. She got dramatic reactions to chemicals in food; that’s partly why we became so self-sufficient and I had to make bread twice a week for her. If I got the food right, she could be completely happy and pain-free and able to enjoy life and talk to people. If I got it wrong, she could become either ill or in pain or bad-tempered, or all three. It was just amazing, the effects. So that heightened my awareness. I feel that a lot of people never know what it’s like to feel well because they eat rubbishy food which looks nice; they spend their hard-earned wages on something that’s been concocted to look attractive. But of course we all need different things, that’s the interesting thing. A cow needs grass and that’s it. A hen needs wheat, and preferably grass as well, but people all need different things.

For more about Rosamund Young, Kite’s Nest Farm and The Secret Life of Cows, click here

 

  1. Rosamund adds: “This is unbelievably awful, but in the past 10 years or so about 800 small abattoirs have been forced to close and that means animals have to travel further. It’s crazy. The way the EU regulations were interpreted was probably more to blame than the regulations themselves. In French, a vétérinaire means a meat inspector, but the English translated it as a veterinary surgeon, which means that they had to have a vet there when the animals arrived – a huge extra cost. Lots of things have happened to put pressure on small abattoirs to update, upgrade, spend more money, and some of them have gone out of business. But it’s the animals that suffer. It’s been done a bit on the quiet and I don’t really know who’s benefitting.”

Posted 5th October 2017

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Interview: Sophie Missing
Photographs: Sophie Davidson

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