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Clarkson on Farming
Following the landmark success of Jeremy Clarkson’s new series ‘The Farm’ on Amazon Prime, Read This magazine is delighted to have an interview with the man himself. His farm ‘Diddly Squat’ is near Chadlington just outside Chipping Norton.
‘The Farm’ follows an intense, backbreaking and frequently hilarious year in the life of Britain’s most unlikely farmer and his team, as they contend with the worst farming weather in decades, disobedient animals, unresponsive crops, and an unexpected pandemic.
You’ve lived on this farm for many years, but what was your involvement before you took it over: how interested were you in running it?
Oh, not at all, not even slightly. We had it for all sorts of inheritance tax reasons, and I was very busy with writing newspaper columns, there was Top Gear to start with and then latterly The Grand Tour, as well as other projects and shows. The farm made no money, it didn’t cost any money, it was just a nice thing to have. It was run by a chap from the village who was a farmer, and then when he was retiring, I suddenly thought, “I can do that.”
You say on the show, “People told me not to do it.” Who told you not to do it and why?
Literally everybody! Because farming is a vocation. You either need to be born into it or you need to go to agricultural college and learn how to do it. You can’t just say, “I’m going to do farming.” I think John Humphrys tried to do farming – it lasted a year, and by his own admission he hated it, couldn’t do it and it was too difficult – it is phenomenally difficult!
You got quite excited about buying a huge Lamborghini tractor. Was the machinery part of the appeal?
No, not at all, quite the reverse. I’ve spent all my life playing around with great big machines, so that was the last thing I needed – but as soon as I knew that Lamborghini made tractors, I said, “I’ve got to have one of those.” Because I didn’t know which tractor to buy, I thought I might as well buy one that sounds nice. So I went off and bought one. But no, I didn’t decide to do it so that I could drive big tractors all day long. I just thought it would be fun to get to know the farm. I still don’t know it, but I have a much greater understanding of how it works now than I did when we began.
Did you know what you were taking on?
No, because in my mind, you put seeds in the ground, weather happens and food grows, but that’s simply not true. We did put seeds in the ground – I’m looking at a four-acre patch over there – and nothing grew. Nothing. An entirely organic operation, total failure. It’s a very, very complex business. I know of no profession that requires you to be so multi-abled. You have to understand soil, weather and science. You have to be a mechanic, a midwife, a businessman, an agronomist, and a water diviner. You also have to be a gambler. My only qualification is driving around corners too quickly while shouting, which is of no use at all.
And your girlfriend Lisa has helped you hugely, especially in the farm shop?
She does work her socks off, she’s there in the shop now. I think she’s really enjoying doing that, because she’s even less of a country girl than I am – though she’ll probably say different. She was born in Dublin and has lived in Switzerland, Majorca, and London … and yet there she is with her filthy Doc Martens on, stomping around, running that farm shop and loving it.
You enjoyed spending time with the sheep, didn’t you?
They were great, but expensive. There’s simply no money in sheep farming, it’s a brutal existence. You have to pay somebody £1.45 to give a sheep a haircut, but the fleece is only worth 30p. How do you run a business where you’re losing £1.15 for every sheep you shear? I’ve owned cars that have depreciated less. Literally, you can lose more money on sheep than cars, it’s just a nightmare. However, even though I started out hating them, I ended up liking them because of their wilful disobedience. I just thought, “How hard can it be? You put sheep in a field, they eat grass, then you eat them”, but it’s just so difficult – and they never get decent illnesses like a cold or a hurty finger, everything they catch is revolting.
Tell me about castrating the lambs. You seemed to have quite mixed feelings about that?
It seems to me to be quite cruel. “Right, they’ve been born so let’s cut their balls off!” Wait a minute, they haven’t even had a chance to get cracking yet! I wanted to present a programme where the viewer gets the unvarnished truth. We’ve all seen Kate Humble in an agreeable stable, fresh straw, with a baby lamb, bottle feeding it, but I don’t think many people, myself included, have the first idea how their lamb chop gets to the table. I didn’t want to shy away from showing the sheep being castrated, or the deaths, and the disgustingness of it – because that’s how the lamb chops are made. You also see how much money it costs later on, which is terrifying.
You seemed fairly conflicted when you had to take them to slaughter, though not quite enough to turn you vegetarian?
Oh, never! I’m never going to be a vegetarian. I’ve got pigs now, they’re very endearing so it’s going to be quite tricky eating them, but mutton does give me terrible heartburn, it’s like their version of payback. Nothing gives me heartburn apart from that mutton. We put it in the freezer and I still eat it to this day.
Has the farm shop been a success?
It’s doing really well. A handful of locals didn’t like having a farm shop nearby, which I can’t quite understand. I mean, if we’d built a nuclear power station I could understand their concerns, but not a tiny farm shop. I’m not quite sure what their beef is, but they don’t like it. The people from further afield seem to though, they like the milk and the eggs, and it’s good for local farmers to sell produce without going through a middleman or a supermarket. One woman makes sausage rolls and scotch eggs, so she’s got somewhere to sell them now, it’s great! It’s a nice little business, we’ve got mail order now, it’s online. Lisa’s made lots of friends from suppliers, which is really good. It’s a nice little community. We sell our honey, our eggs, our trout, milk from the neighbour’s cows, it’s a really nice little shop. I go over there for lunch, get myself a ploughman’s… how idyllic is that?
You take quite a straightforward approach to the marketing and the labelling, don’t you? Like ‘water with no s*** in it’.
It’s extremely pure spring water so legally I could say it’s got 0.0% faecal matter, or I could just say it’s got no s*** in it, so I decided to go with the latter. We actually had to stop selling it, because it turns out that water gets bacteria in it if you just leave it alone for a minute. I thought we could put a bottle underneath the spring and sell it. No. no, no. Many, many rules. We can drink it, but we have to deal with those rules before we can actually sell it.
And it’s not honey, it’s ‘bee juice’?
Well yes because it’s the juice from bees. We have cow juice as well. There are a lot of kids around the area who like coming in and getting their ‘cow juice’. We’ve forgotten nowadays what milk tastes like. Genuinely we have. Everybody drinks almond milk, low fat milk, watered down milk and what have you. The milk we sell on the farm tastes like the milk I drank when I was a kid, so you drink it and go, “Oh, my God, that’s milk!”
You also sell a homemade candle that smells of, according to the label, ‘my b*****ks’. Explain the thinking behind that marketing?
Gwyneth Paltrow does a candle that says ‘This smells like my vagina’. So I thought, “Fine, well, if she can do that, I’m going to have a candle that smells like my b******s.” It actually smells like an old, comfortable leather jacket. It’s a very nice smell, if you like scented candles. I’m not really a fan, but there we are. Lisa’s bought 10,000 of them.
Let’s talk about the machinery. For someone who has made a living out of cars your entire life, it wasn’t perhaps quite as easy as you might have expected?
No, and I still can’t do it. I can’t attach anything to the back of my tractor because everything looks like something will go BOING and have my arm off. Everything looks like that, everything’s covered in hydraulic fluid and everything’s covered in oil. I don’t understand how to do it, and then when I do do it, I don’t understand how to adjust it. So, I have to ring Kaleb. Mercifully, we’re in a part of the year where I don’t actually have to attach anything to it. So, it’s quite a peaceful time now.
Is that an odd experience, to take a driving lesson again after all these years?
Of course it is, I have to drive slowly! It was my first driving lesson in 40 years. A tractor has four wheels and a steering wheel, and that’s where the similarity between it and a car ends, because a tractor has got hundreds of buttons – hundreds. This is before you get onto the laptop screens that operate whatever’s on the back. It’s like running a factory while driving a car.
Tell me about some of your most frightening moments? We see you at the beginning of Covid, and you say to Kaleb, “I’m scared s***less.”
I think everybody was. You know, I’m 60 years old, overweight, I’ve had double pneumonia, and even though I don’t smoke now, I have in my life smoked half a million cigarettes. So, I’m kind of a poster boy for dropping dead, I really am. I’m not like Kaleb, or some fit young footballer who doesn’t even know he’s got it. I was fairly confident that if I got it, that would be it. That’s how I think we all felt at the time.
Throughout the year, you had some of the worst weather this country has ever had. You couldn’t have picked a worse year to do this?
We were very lucky in a sense because if nothing had happened you’d end up with a quite a boring programme. However, we ended up with Brexit, five separate weather records, and Covid. That’s a treble whammy coming at us. Ordinarily for the lambing, we would have had a number of people there to help, because I don’t know how to birth a sheep but because of Covid, we couldn’t have anybody. So, I had to do it all night long, and I had no idea what I was doing. We had Ellen, but we had to stay two metres apart. I went in the wrong hole one night. Honestly, Ellen is going, “Can you not feel anything?” I was going, “No, there’s nothing up here.” She’s going, “You must be able to feel its legs.” So, I’m going deeper, and the sheep was looking at me like, “What are you doing?” So that was all very embarrassing. I had my hand up its bum.
Ordinarily, you’ve always got a film crew on hand that could hold something or pass something, but we only had two people: camera and sound. No director, no production assistants, none of the normal flotsam and jetsam you get on a film crew. I was having to do a lot of the things that I would ordinarily have called on an expert to help with. Mercifully though, only one lamb was stillborn. Two died subsequently, but thankfully it all went very swimmingly, in no small part to Ellen.
You seemed to get a real buzz out of it?
I really liked lambing. I was cross that I was so busy this year I couldn’t be as involved in it.
Has this series changed your perception of farming?
Yes. Farming is just an immensely complex business, there are idyllic evenings when you find yourself leaning on a fence looking at your sheep, or stopping for a ploughman’s when you’ve been on a tractor all morning – but sitting and filling in your EU paperwork, or running an accident book isn’t great – especially not with Kaleb on the farm! Like with many jobs, you have to be so many things in order to do it.
And yet, despite all of that difficulty, you said that the first six weeks of lockdown was among the happiest you’ve ever been in your whole life?
Without a doubt. I was very lucky with my situation in comparison to many others over this difficult period. From a personal perspective, I didn’t feel any pressure to go to parties; there’s no pressure to get on an aeroplane and go and have a holiday, which is always tiring and you have to put sun cream on. There was no pressure to do anything. You can simply get up, you don’t have to shave, and then Lisa and I just buggered about doing all the jobs that are necessary on the farm. The weather was actually behaving itself. Summer last year was lovely. And there were those nights when we’d be at the lambing barn with a bottle of wine, waiting for a lamb to come, and the sun would go down, and it was really rather nice.
What’s the plan for the future? What’s happening now?
I’m carrying on with it. I did a lot of the cultivating this year, though I’ve slightly stepped back from sheeping. But I’m carrying on with the farming, because I like it. We’ve got pigs now, and we’re putting in some polytunnels to grow chillies and tomatoes for the shop. I’m still very much involved on a day-to -day basis.
That may mean stepping back a little from other things in your life. How will you balance everything?
Who knows? Put it this way, I still need to earn a living, and farming doesn’t do that.
But you have fallen a bit in love with farming?
I really have. I don’t like attaching things to the back of my tractor. Well I can’t attach things to the back of my tractor. Kaleb thinks I’m mad, but I can’t do it. Apart from that I really do enjoy it.
What have you learned about yourself?
That I’m not a farmer, and never will be. I do enjoy the process of farming, it was fun and still is. When you get rid of James [May] and Richard [Hammond], it’s amazing how smoothly things run.