Till the Cows Come Home
One farm, two worlds, three generations
With a newborn baby in tow, Lorna Sixsmith and her husband swap their office careers for the dream of ‘the good life’, returning to Lorna’s ancestral farm at Garrendenny, Ireland. Now Lorna’s children play in the same fields – and their adventures echo those of generations of Sixsmiths before them.
The discovery of rural life proves more transformative, overwhelming and enriching than anyone could have imagined – but, above all, life-changing.
- A truly ‘down to earth’ account of country life.
- A rare and lovely glimpse of living in rhythm with nature, the seasons and the farming calendar.
- Gently humorous and deeply personal, one woman’s story of leaving her comfortable urban life to re-root herself in the land her family has farmed for generations.
Lorna brings to life the men who ploughed, tilled and harvested, who loved to work the fields with horses, never quite taking to tractors. Also vividly portrayed are the indomitable women who churned the butter and kept the chickens – selling eggs to earn their ‘hen money’. Peppered with chat about the weather and the price of cattle, this insightful, witty book gives an authentic sense of the poverty, the rituals and the unchanging aspects of country life.
Disclosure 1: Lorna and I are friends. I normally decline to review friends’ books as, no matter how much reviewers protest that they are impartial, they cannot be. I will rarely read reviews by people who I know are friends with the author of the book they are reviewing and I wouldn’t expect people to read my “mate review”. I have reviewed one of Lorna’s books (Would You Marry a Farmer?), but it is because of the review that we got to know each other; and I have, of course, read and enjoyed her other (farming and non-farming) books. So, this isn’t my normal type of review, but I do want to include this warm and charming book on my blog.
Disclosure 2: I am vegetarian (nearing the vegan end of the scale) and have been for thirty-five years. So why would I be friends with a dairy farmer and why would I promote a book by an author who “exploits” animals and sends them to an abattoir (unless I am going to shout from the rooftops that you shouldn’t read it, which I am not going to do)? Well, (a) I have dogs and cats and they are not vegetarian (a whole other argument I am not getting into here); (b) I have eliminated all meat and most dairy from my diet, but I eat eggs from my own hens and although I try to source “good” dairy produce for home consumption I am much less stringent about where it comes from if I am out, and if I eat dairy I have to accept that it comes from animals and those animals are more likely than not going to end their lives in the factory; (c) I would love if the whole world stopped eating meat and dairy, but this is not going to happen and so I veer towards compassion in farming rather than no livestock farming; (d) evidence indicates that ecologically some livestock farming is necessary for sustainability; there is also a great deal of evidence that individuals and the environment would benefit from everyone eating less animal-produced food – evidence that I totally believe in but is another argument I am not going to get into here; (e) Lorna, as a farmer and as a woman, is caring, compassionate, thoughtful and generous, and I am enormously glad to know her.
Till the Cows Come Home is a memoir about living in a small part of rural Ireland. Each chapter has a broad theme, such as straw, Christmas or dogs. Lorna tells not only her stories of growing up on her farm in Garrendenny in the east of Ireland, but also weaves in tales of her father’s childhood on the same farm and her own children’s games in the same fields. The anecdotes and memories are interspersed with history of the area and the people who lived in it, and snippets of folklore, old remedies and even a few recipes. The whole gives a social history that reflects the lives of many people who grew up in rural Ireland, for although not all rural dwellers relied on farming for their income, many had (and the same is true today) a small bit of land with maybe a cow and some hens.
The stories resonate with me as I too was brought up in the countryside, albeit in Wiltshire, England and not to a farming family. But I grew up with farming children and I lived in a hamlet surrounded by fields in which we walked our dogs and rode ponies and played in straw-bale castles. And if you didn’t have this upbringing, Lorna’s tales are so vivid that you will able to picture the time and live the life vicariously.
But this is not an entirely rose-tinted history. Lorna speaks of her first encounter with the death of an animal she had become attached to, and having to accept that “where there is livestock, there is deadstock”. She acknowledges that where she had a lot of freedom, her own children were more restricted as the dangers on a farm have become greater and farmers have become more aware – riding home on top of the straw bales or crammed four to a tractor cab give great memories, but who of us these days would allow our children to do the same? But there are still adventures to be had and memories to be made.
A thread running through all the stories is how farming has changed: size of farm, methods of working, mechanisation, family involvement, paperwork and overdrafts. I think people who don’t work or live among farmers can have a one-dimensional view of the life and I think Till the Cows Come Home goes some way to showing that it is a mixture of idyllic and heartbreak, hard work and play, stress and contentment.
Lorna and Brian’s farm has a herd of 130. A lot, but not so many that the couple can’t look after them themselves and few enough for them to get to know the cows as individuals, to be able to see early on if one of them is showing signs of illness and give it the care it needs. You can tell from reading Till the Cows Come Home that Lorna and Brian care deeply for their animals and you can tell from Lorna’s social media that she is passionate about the agricultural sector. But this is a business, and the bull calves end up being reared for the plate and the females are useful only while they can produce milk – and anyone who eats meat or dairy has to accept that this is what happens. There is a massive disconnect between consumers and a knowledge of where their food comes from. Till the Cows Come Home is not a scientific book or a text that sets out to lecture the reader, but it does give an insight into how your food gets on to the table and the people who make that happen.
I love the parts that show how the families down the generations have worked, and do work, as a team, and how neighbours help each other. Lorna and Brian were ensconced in a fairly settled, urban lifestyle when they had the chance to return to the unpredictable life of farming. But the family farm and rural living was firmly embedded in them both and return to it they did, giving up holidays and pensions and Sunday morning lie-ins to do so. That huge step is reflected in their commitment to their land and the desire to pass it on – to their own children or a new family – in an improved state from what they took over, which in turn was improved from the generation before. There are deep lows that have to be overcome, but also many small and large successes that are to be celebrated. The sense of their family being in it together is palpable.
Is the book sanitised? No doubt. Things aren’t always pretty on a farm – Lorna doesn’t shirk from acknowledging this, but nor does she write about it in graphic detail. I have animals and if I were writing a memoir, I would bleach it too – you wouldn’t want to read about how the donkey died, or the “unfortunate incidents” I’ve had with rabbits. These things happen, but it is clear that Lorna and Brian do their utmost to minimise their occurrence. Might reading about the cows’ personalities turn the odd reader into a vegan? That’s unlikely unless they were a hair’s breadth away from being one anyway. But if it pauses the reader to realise that food production has a long lead-in to the supermarket with real animals and real people making it happen, then that is no bad thing.
Would I recommend this book? I would wholeheartedly. It is an enjoyable and accessible read; informative without lecturing; relatable and entertaining; nostalgic but pragmatic; amusing and down-to-earth. It is part memoir, part social history, and part meet-your-food-producer. Farmers will nod their heads in agreement, rural dwellers will recognise their neighbours, and if all you’ve known is towns, then this delightful book will show you how your country cousins live.
Editorial Input & Design
Black & White Publishing has taken great care with the publication of the book. The dust jacket is vibrant and there is a cow pattern on the end papers (a cow pattern on the end papers!). Cute icons top and tail each chapter and there is a section of photographs.
Book Clubs & Reviews
Suitable for book clubs as there is plenty to discuss: childhood, memories, rural living, ethical farming.
Will Evans on the Father and Farmer blog: https://fatherandfarmer.com/2018/06/06/till-the-cows-come-home-by-lorna-sixsmith-a-review/
Maura McElhone on Falling for a Farmer blog: https://fallingforafarmer.com/2018/06/06/book-review-till-the-cows-come-home-by-lorna-sixsmith/