It's not been hard because I'm writing about places and things I love, but it does feel like this post should somehow act as a fanfare for something special.
So I'm going to write about Yorkshire Dales farmers. Their work is on display all over the Dales, but we rarely get the chance to acknowledge and thank them for all they do.
The Yorkshire Dales would not look as they do without farmers. They literally sculpt the landscape. Without sheep, the fields would be very different. Farming in upland areas like the Dales is even more physically and economically challenging than elsewhere. Within the National Park we have many important habitats that are vital for so many species, and farmers play their part in managing this landscape, particularly the rich hay meadows. There are an increasing number of farmers such as Chris and Fiona at Nethergill Farm and Neil and Leigh at Hill Top Farm who are trying to find different ways to increase the sustainability of farming practices, both environmentally and economically.
Voices From the Land shares the reflections of Yorkshire Dales Farmers about their day-to-day practices and relationship to the unique landscape of fells and dales. It's a wonderful resource and gives great insights into farming in the past and some of farmers' concerns about the future of farming.
One aspect of farming that isn't talked about as much as it perhaps should be is the stress and loneliness many farmers feel. The impact of Foot & Mouth is still felt in the Dales farming community. I know of at least two families who mark the date of their father's suicide every year, remembering some really terrible times. Farming may seem like a dream profession to some - the chance to be active, among animals and outside most of the day. Most farmers genuinely love their farms but that doesn't mean it's an easy life. Mental health can really suffer in rural areas - something that farming charity RABI tries to help with.
Farmers maintain and build the distinctive drystone walls and barns we see everywhere. Everywhere that is, apart from Swaledale where as farmer's wife, Glenda Calvert will readily tell you it's not a barn but a "cow'us" (cow house).
I'm always surprised by how many women in the Yorkshire Dales describe themselves as a "farmer's wife" or "farmer's daughter", often with a mixture of pride and resignation. How many other professions are there where that happens? They may have careers in their own right, but whatever they do, they are married to farmers and farming life underpins everything they do and is an intrinsic part of their identity.
Depending on the seasons, such as during lambing or traditional hay making, more hands may be needed on the farm and no matter what other career someone has, the needs of the farm become paramount. When I run marketing workshops or arrange meetings I carry in my head a mental calendar of who is likely to be lambing where and when so I don't suggest dates at the wrong time. There have been a few times I've noticed someone surreptitiously trying to brush off a little blood, milk or iodine from their clothes because they dashed to meet me in the middle of lambing.
The harsh reality of hill farming means that most farms need to diversify, and it's often thanks to this that visitors enjoy some excellent accommodation whether it's a B&B or holiday cottage. Some farmers have their own farm shops, sell products they make such as Yockenthwaite Granola, or make a little cash by introducing visitors to their hungry orphan lambs at feeding time.
Young Farmers Clubs are at the heart of many Dales communities, providing youth clubs and social activities. I still remember the talk I listened to about Bibby's Cattle Feeds at the first YFC event I attended, in a desperate teenage attempt to create a rural social life. If a community needs any heavy lifting for an event, or entertainment in the form of a ducking stool, they always call upon the powerful forces of the local YFC.
Now we're looking forward to the Summer programme of country shows where farmers have the chance to show off their livestock and meet each other. If you see one advertised, do go along - they need your support and it's a good way to see a Yorkshire Dales community from the inside.
So, thank you farmers. I know they won't have time to read this but perhaps you can join me in supporting British farming whenever you can and perhaps consider making a donation to RABI.