Researching the Bridge Farm sale

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Editor's Note: We hope Wednesday's episode in which Bridge Farm's dairy herd was sold sounded realistic. Writer Carole Simpson Solazzo explains how she went about ensuring it had the ring of truth.

A Farm Sale in progress.

As soon as our agricultural advisor Steve Peacock began talking about the Bridge Farm dispersal sale in our script meeting, I decided I needed to see one in action. I love this kind of research, and there is no way a writer could conjure scenes like this out of the imagination. You need to be there, in the thick of it, watching, listening, absorbing.


I was lucky to find a similar sale within easy driving distance, in the wilds of Cumbria. I say I was 'lucky'. I am well aware that my luck was the farmers' misfortune. They were selling up completely after generations of their family had farmed that land since the 18th century.


I decided to make a day of it, and took our eldest granddaughter, whose daddy is a sheep farmer, along for the ride. We took water-proofs and wellies. Even the best-kept farms can become a bit of a mud-bath in the rain.


The farm was packed, the atmosphere warm and animated. Chatting to some of the people there, it quickly became clear that many were local farming families from miles around, there to show support and solidarity for the farmers selling up. It was as much about celebrating the lifetime's achievement of one their own, as a business opportunity to buy a piece of kit or a cow.


There was the equivalent of 'Gourmet Grills', serving egg-and-bacon barms and sausage sarnies, (even veggie ones), and good strong tea, and an organic ice cream van. We tucked in, and then had a wander through the two big silage clamps where the machinery and equipment were on display, and spent a lot of time in the huge barn opposite, admiring the pedigree dairy herd.


I got a catalogue from the table in a small barn near the farmhouse, which had been set up as an impromptu office. Auctions are very traditional affairs, cash only transactions. Often sales are still made in guineas rather than pounds.

The classified ad for the Bridge Farm dispersal sale


Then a hand bell rang, and the auctioneer began, first selling off the smallest bits of equipment, before moving on to bigger pieces of kit, like the mixer wagon and the three tractors. And he used a stout walking stick rather than a gavel, which he smacked hard on his hand at the conclusion of a sale.


I didn’t get to meet the host farmers. Perhaps, like Pat, they hadn’t had the heart to watch as the herd that was their dedicated life’s work was broken up and sold off.


The herd sale began with the auctioning off of the hay bales, then moved on to the serious business of selling the cows and calves, one by one.


The ring was set at the bottom end of the barn. It was surrounded with tiers of straw bales for those who wanted to sit, with enough space in front for a few rows of the farmers intent on buying to stand.


The cows had all been groomed as if for a show, and they hadn’t been milked that morning, the better to show off the fine quality of their udders. What dairy farmers look for is even quarters, (udders are split into four of them), teats that point straight down, and a strong, full bag that doesn’t sag.


I took lots of notes during the auction, listening out for phrases and jargon used to talk about the cows, and at one point I recorded some of the patter on my phone, so I could get the rhythms and speed right when I came to write our Bridge Farm auctioneer's speeches. At script stage, my script editor Kim and I discussed how best to write the auction episode. We knew our listeners would be interested in the authentic sound of the auction itself. But more importantly, they would want to follow our characters through what was a very emotional day, one way or another, for each of the principals. I wrote more dialogue than I would normally, so that the auctioneer could be heard in the background, while we focussed on how our characters act and react in the fore.


I hope you enjoy the episode and think the research paid off. Sophie and I certainly enjoyed our day. Sophie even got to do one of her favourite things – 'drive' a tractor!

Radio 4 - The Archers

Radio 4 - Highlights: Bridge Farm

Radio 4 - Blog: The Story of Bridge Farm

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  • Comment number 8. Posted by RosieT

    on 8 Jul 2013 19:50

    And, of course, one of their "established business with regular customers" will be the Milk contract, with the Milk Cheque paying the Mortgage repayments, won't it?

    And who takes up the slack of this gallons of organic Bridge Farm Milk which is no longer available to "established regular customers" ?

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  • Comment number 7. Posted by Pip

    on 1 Jul 2013 19:06

    Hi Tayler (and Steve)- thanks for the extra info.. Makes me glad I've never kept cattle!

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  • Comment number 6. Posted by Tayler Cresswell

    on 1 Jul 2013 17:42

    Hi Pip

    I asked Steve Peacock about this and he sent the following:

    Dispersal sales are quite normal, whether the animals are raised organically or not. While Pat and Tony might have preferred a quieter way of selling the animals they would have struggled to sell 100-odd milkers and 50-odd followers to contacts in the organic community. They considered selling them through a livestock market but were persuaded by the auctioneers they were likely to achieve better prices at a sale on the farm. They were also able to sell redundant machinery and equipment at the same time.

    The other important point is there's precious little drama in selling cows privately. The big set-piece of a dispersal sale has lots of dramatic possibilities.

    Yes, cheese-making (and yoghurt and ice-cream) is an exercise in adding value to milk, but the Ambridge Organics' calculation is that they'd still turn a healthy profit, despite the extra cost of buying milk from a neighbouring - trusted - organic farmer. They have an established business with regular customers and the cost of buying the comparatively small amount of milk they need for processing is outweighed by the savings they are making - the cost of feed, vets bills, someone to milk five afternoons and a couple of mornings a week ... etc.
    Steve

  • Comment number 5. Posted by Pip

    on 27 Jun 2013 12:18

    I enjoyed this blog-thanks. However, a couple of things have puzzled me since this storyline about selling the herd began. The organic fraternity is pretty close-knit, and organic stock carries a premium (like organic produce). Surely Pat and Tony would hardly need to go to the stress, expense and inconvenience of holding a sale? Their organic contacts would have jumped at the chance of snapping up quality stock from a known source without all that hassle (and auctioneers' commission).
    Secondly, cheese is an exercise in adding value. It's usually something you make when you've got too much milk, not when you have to buy the stuff in.Buying in organic milk to make cheese will be expensive-how much more is the resulting cheese going to cost? And sourcing a totally reliable outside supply will probably be a nightmare.

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  • Comment number 4. Posted by araistrick

    on 27 Jun 2013 09:58

    You did a great job, well done. Emotional but not sappy and it got the Blogs going in a good way.

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  • Comment number 3. Posted by RosieT

    on 27 Jun 2013 08:57

    I am getting old, I was emotional, I missed out MILK farmers.
    OK, and I meant Beastly Brookfield Farm Ruth as Tom is no longer any sort of farmer, he is a food processor.

    I think it sad that there is no organic farm in Ambridge, and wonder how the "fairly local" organic milk supplier suddenly has the capacity to supply both the cheese/yogurt/icecream/cream as well as take up the slack for the regular milk customer(double check, not Brookfield) who is now without Bridge Farm Organic milk?

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  • Comment number 2. Posted by dickie

    on 27 Jun 2013 08:32

    Pat and Tony are still farmers, as are David and Ruth.

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  • Comment number 1. Posted by RosieT

    on 26 Jun 2013 19:20

    Such a sad, sad day. I cried too.
    Now Ambridge only has ghastly Mega Dairy Brian, Beastly Bridge Farm Tom, and Heart-attack Fatty-milk Ed as farmers.

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