A Balancing Act

Updated: Jan 4

No matter what time of year it is, there's a particular spot in Suffolk, overlooking agricultural fields, wild flower meadows, idyllic country houses, tracks instead of roads, and it just gets me every time. There are a lot of beautiful views like this around, don't get me wrong, but there is a depth to this place that I have experienced in few other places before. Even if just for a moment, taking in this sight gives instant flight to dreams and desires; impossibilities become possible, a balance and peace is restored inside. It isn't just me, though, who has been held captive by this place; this view has inspired incredible and history making creative works by artists, writers and composers for more than a hundred years. Just down the way is where Benjamin Britten used to live, I can't help but chortle to myself when I think of how I breast fed my new born in what was once the study of a man who has long been a hero of mine. A room specifically designed with massive windows, from floor to ceiling, making up two of the four walls, looking out at that same soul moving scene, encouraging a fusion of people, nature and creativity.

My work and private life had brought me to this place on several occasions over the last few

years, either visiting near by farms, or a rare something social. Eventually, not that long ago, it occurred to me that this was a place where I could settle, raise my daughter, manage a reasonable size farm and living, and finally take that deep breath of relief, knowing that I had somewhere belong to again. This was only place I had ever visited, that I would seriously consider selling Longwater Farm and relocating entirely for. It was terrifying to feel that way. Having been a seasoned traveller with no particularly strong roots anywhere since my late teens, I had invested mind, body and soul

into my smallholding and business. The roots were finally down and I never thought I'd consider selling, I never thought I'd become disconnected with the place enough to start dedicating the bulk of my thoughts and plans in a different direction. Too much grief and change had made me turn away from the farm in recent times; it had become a symbol of my sadness and fear, it came to represent every mistake I had ever made. The achievement and beauty of the place didn't matter anymore. I didn't expect it, and it really was unsettling to feel that way. But this new project was exciting and rejuvenating. I started to make plans; if I made changes here, here and here, I could raise the value of the farm there, there and there, and then I could go to this old farmer and ask to be considered to put in an offer on this homestead in this beautiful place, if and when he was ready to retire and sell. It was a long shot, of course, there was no assumption that the farmer should agree; he may have had people he wanted to leave the farm to, or had a buyer in mind already, or something else entirely that wasn't my place to know about. But the fact that I was in a position to seriously have this conversation, at thirty six years old, as a single mum, having had no investment or inheritance from anyone, was pretty incredible and so I was going to run with it and see what happened.

Turns out this old farmer, who had lived and worked his land all his eighty something years, didn't have anyone in particular he wanted to leave the farm to, and was the last in the family line of farmers. He had occasionally spoken about not knowing what to do with the place in the future and so by the end of last summer, I decided to be bold, go and visit him and have a chat.

I put forward that when he was ready to retire and sell up, I wanted to put in an offer, and be considered to buy the estate. I told him that I could only raise two thirds of what the place was worth, but that the ad-on to my offer, as we had been friends for several years, was that he should stay living in the house with us for the rest of his life. That selling up wouldn't mean also having to leave his life long home; he could continue to potter about on the farm as he pleased, enjoying the same security and lifestyle he always had. I would fix the house up and keep home equally for him as I do my family. I would learn everything I needed to know about running the farm from him, help him, and within a couple of years we could style our own management handover. He would be looked after and be part of a family for the rest of his life, something I knew he dearly missed and I would be honoured to provide.

I made it clear that I had no intentions of asking him to leave me the farm and wouldn't accept a conversation around inheritance. He had often talked about needing to find someone to leave it to and I wanted it known that I understood I had no claim what so ever so I didn't want the conversation to ever become muddied in that way. It was a delicate negotiation of intentions and expectations on both sides. He made it clear the individuals he didn't want to ever take over the farm, and he made it clear that he didn't want the place to be absorbed into a bigger farming company. He wanted it to be kept as it is; a family home, a small business, that respected the land and the old ways. I was able to assure him that by accepting my proposal that all of his wishes would be adhered to. So there should have been quite a lot of clarity to this conversation.

We had this conversation in the garden and moving around the farm. Then we moved indoors, he sat in his grand old chair, in his kitchen come dining room come snooze room, next to his unlit fireplace. Rosie played on the floor with the little dog which was whining to get out of its cage and play too, while I made us all tea and corned beef sandwiches with an orange on the side. I put his tea on the table next to him, handed him the plate of sandwiches and settled onto a dining room chair opposite him. The board had been set and I'd moved my pieces into position. I sat in silence drinking my tea, and reflected on how I'd once had a similar conversation with my Grandad, before buying Longwater, nearly a decade before. The differences here were that now, I was much more sure of myself, but far less sure of the man in front of me.

"You'd kick me out once you got this place, you wouldn't want to look after me." That was a two square pawn defence move right there. It took me slightly off guard because I knew I was true to my word, but it was a reasonable fear for the other side. We continued to talk through questions and details for an hour or so, the nights were still light so we were in no rush. But then it became apparent that his opening statement wasn't a defence at all.

"What would I want with all that money? I wouldn't know what to do with it." Once I've traded money for anything it's unlikely I would ever want a say in how it's spent, but somehow it now became a part of the game to provide a solution to this problem. "I need to find someone to leave it to, really." He went on. My ideas on the subject weren't sufficient. "I'm here all alone and you're all alone now. You must be lonely too." I had in fact recently separated from Rosie's dad, and this farmer knew more personal details of that time than most other people, so again, he caught me off guard knowingly and quite deliberately. Another piece had been moved forward. I sensed that the conversation was reaching a brittle state.

"If you married me, you could move in here and you'd inherit the lot when I die. You'd get to keep your place in Norwich and rent it out, and I'd train you to manage this place and you could run it when I'm gone. You'd be a widow early."

Well that was all rather premeditated. I was stunned, but I didn't take it seriously, he must be joking, badly.

"You're fifty years older than me, chap. You're my friend, I care for you as a friend. That is not going to happen. Ever." I laughed to take the edge off, except he looked genuinely hurt by my words, perhaps I had been too harsh. But the intrusive comments started to come thick and fast. "Well you aren't with your bloke any more, are you? When was the last time you had sex with him? I'll look after you. Wouldn't you want to share a bed with me?"

"Stop, stop, stop," I interrupted, I couldn't hear anymore "I have just come to you with a legitimate business proposal. If it was a man who had just had the same conversation with you, you wouldn't dream of dismissing it like that. You would never dare ask a man when the last time he had sex was, in order to decide if his offer to buy your farm was worth considering, so why are you doing it to me?" The farmer was roaring with laughter, perhaps a bit embarrassed, I'm not sure. "It's better if we are both clear with each other right now," I went on. "I absolutely promise you that I will never marry you, it isn't how I feel, it isn't what I want. It shouldn't even be a part of this conversation. But I want to know now if you'll consider what I have said."

"Oh wouldn't you? Oh right. Why's that then? Aren't I good enough for you? Age don't make no difference." I couldn't believe what I was continuing to hear, he sure as hell wasn't hearing me.

"Well it does and it doesn't. Besides, I've said no, it isn't going to happen. Thank you for the offer, but no. So will you think about my proposal or not?"

"Yes I shall think about. I don't know what I shall do yet, but I like what you've said and I'll give you an answer by Christmas, and we can keep on talking about it until then, who knows what will happen, you're a lovely little lady. I want you to move in here and be with me" He concluded with a big grin. It was for the best that we left it there for the day. The board was set and the pieces ready to go forth on both sides, it seemed.

I was livid. Not at his proposal which I still didn't believe, but at the complete break down of equality and my inability to regain it in any way purely because of my gender. The hour long drive home was like a journey through every memory I

had collected without realising it, of every time a man had slighted me because I was a woman. Every time a contractor had visited the farm, and having been greeted by myself and Paul would ask who the landowner was, only to cut me out of the conversation and talk only to Paul despite being told to address me. On one occasion I overtly stopped a man from talking about a quote or some such with Paul and to speak directly to me, to then be called feisty and aggressive and then ignored again. The time I was told it was too dangerous for girls to drive tractors. The time I was told it was a luxury for mothers and women to work. The time I was told that it is still a social expectation that women should give up their homes and goals, and relocate to wherever their partner is/wants to be. The countless times a stranger (male) would stop what they're doing in order to see me back as I'm reversing into a space. The time that man said that my problem was that too many men had let me have my own way. On and on my memories surfaced, and I allowed the rage that accompanied them. By the time I got back to my farm, I had decided to not take what the farmer had said too seriously, he must have been joking, surely? Women do that, we take things like this too seriously, right? And besides, he said he would think about my proposal. It was a golden opportunity for both of us. He sees that, surely.

For the next few months I continued to have conversations with the farmer on this topic, as well as many others, but every single one became a dance of me trying to stick to my proposal and the farmer trying to renew his. I batted back his advances, inappropriate comments and questions while trying to refocus the conversation back to my main objective. The farmer batted back my talk of sales, purchases and life long care, and tried to refocus the conversation back to his. After more than a dozen of these conversations we nearly came to blows and I told him frankly that this was essentially treating me like a prostitute. In order to get the farm I want, my only option is to sell myself to him, I was shaking when I said it but after a few months of this dialogue, my diplomacy was shot to shit. The farmer was deeply hurt and offended by my words and he assured me that that wasn't what he was doing, it was all in jest, only having a laugh and he would definitely give me an answer by Christmas as originally promised. So he had been listening, he knew what he had been doing. Remembering all the times I had been made to feel bad for calling out someone else's bad behaviour, I didn't apologise. Instead, we again laughed it off and I allowed the jest to continue until Christmas.

Christmas came and went and the conversations continued, the tone did not change and an answer was not forthcoming. During the final conversation we had on the subject, the farmer declared how everything would be different this time next year once I had moved in and he was looking after me and my daughter and how I would probably be a widow within the next five years. "I thought you were going to have an answer for me by Christmas?" The farmer laughed. "Yes, I did say that, didn't I? But to tell you the truth I haven't even thought about it yet. I'll give you an answer by the spring, end of winter, spring."

"Right, that's fine. Thank you. I thoroughly, and happily withdraw my offer to buy your farm now and at any point in the future."

There was a silence.

"Are you serious? What do you want to go and do a thing like that for?"

"I am serious. Thank you for the opportunity for growth but I don't plan on buying your farm anymore."

I quickly moved on to another topic briefly and then rounded off the conversation entirely.

When I first set off to make the offer all those months ago, I never saw it becoming the battle of gender equality that it did. Early on, the fog over my own farm had started to lift and I saw how much I still loved the place, but I kept battling on for this new farm because I felt this was the only way to bring balance to the issue of sexism within agriculture in my own little way. To achieve buying this farm, outright, as a single woman, would be something a whole county of farmers would hear about, both men and women. To those who objected to such a thing, a message would have gone out that balance is coming, and to those who aspired to the same thing, it would prove that it could be done. It would have been a beautiful, beautiful place to live and work.

The more this man continued to pretend to not hear my proposals, or rather make promises about providing answers by deadlines he set, and the more he continued to try and manipulate me into compromising myself to get what he wanted but with no guarantee of providing me with the farm in return, the more I self righteously dug my heels in. This was sexism, coercion, manipulation. How many women have had to win promotions through these means over the years? A tragic unknowable number, I would imagine.

I had everything I needed to make this huge leap into a potential new future. I was able to hold my own as much as any man and had the goods to back it up, and yet I was still being asked, no expected, to trade sex and autonomy in order to achieve domestic and financial security, and be grateful for the opportunity. Money was no good here, well, not mine anyway. Once I had allowed myself to realise what had been happening, it wasn't even a decision I needed to make, the path forward was clear. I'd come too far to take this shit. Womankind is constantly taking it on the chin and getting back up again to continue to reduce this betrayal for all of us and our children.

I expect that this rhetoric will continue indefinitely, and I shall continue to light heartedly indulge the conversations. I won't try and change an attitude of old, I will respect the good bits and manage the bad. I will be the example my daughter can follow and be proud of. Everything I thought it would mean to sell Longwater, everything I thought I would gain, I saw, I already had, in abundance. The blessings, the love, the drive, the roots. It's already here, inside me, inside the laughter and excitement of the people who enjoy the farm, inside the peace and freedom of all that live there and who rely on what we do every day. Everything I had set out to achieve with this new farm, somehow, I'd failed to realise had been there all along.

Longwater Farm honours the old ways and the new; it is home to equality, respect and compassion. It is a model of how I believe agriculture should be, with the values I believe it should reflect.

It's still largely a mans world, farming, but it's changing, the sides are balancing, and rightly so. I may have lost the new farm, but it was a conscious loss, and what was gained is immeasurable.

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