Truelove Farm lies in a gentle hollow on the lower slopes of Dartmoor, but it could be anywhere in the country, for everywhere the story is the same. The days of the family farm are numbered.
The house was built in granite in a traditional sturdy style sometime in the 16th century. Mullion windows, huge chimney breasts and a scattering of useful stone barns all add to its charm. The Dennis family had farmed here for five generations. This summer all that was to change.
Until recently the farm was worked by Betty Dennis's sons, Clifton, 62, and Edward, 54. Both brothers are bachelors, and have always lived at Truelove. When Betty's husband died in 1994 the brothers lost their kingpin. They could just about manage the work, but there were added strains - among them Clifton's high blood pressure, Betty's age (90), and mountains of confusing paperwork - that forced their decision to put the farm, with its 138 acres, up for sale.
I heard about it through a neighbour, and wrote to the Dennises to ask whether I could visit and take photographs. I have been photographing rural life for 25 years, and I knew this story could speak volumes about the current crisis in farming. We got on famously, so I offered to spend a number of days working on the farm, helping where I could in the preparations for the sale.
To begin with, the Dennises' daily life continued as if nothing would change. Sheep were moved from one field to the next, cows were milked, vegetables dug and chickens fed. For hours at a time the brothers would go their separate ways. Clifton was boss and each day gave Edward his orders. ''Mother thinks he's up to farmwork, but he's not.''
Edward had been poorly as a baby and was not strong. Some days he could be found docking weeds in the fields, or tending the vegetable garden, while Clifton mended hedge banks or wandered among the cows checking all was well. By late afternoon the family came together. High tea was a delicious affair with a predominance of clotted cream, scalded every day by Edward, and there was a noticeable flavour to the tea itself, produced by the farm spring water. "I shall miss the water," said Betty.
Religiously each day, at five to six, Betty would bring the wireless into the kitchen, and we listened intently to the weather forecast. Nobody spoke until the end. The kitchen Aga was riddled and filled with coal and Edward wound the clock. Later, Clifton would watch television, though Edward and Betty never did. Instead they read, or listened to the wireless.
Then one day the pressure was on. A buyer from Cornwall, a farmer they said, had offered nearly the full asking price but wanted them out by the beginning of August. Frantic, they found a bungalow in the nearby village and contracts were signed. "It's strange," said Clifton, "he's never been to see how the generator works or where the spring comes in, but I expect he will in time."
We spent a day catching the sheep, drenching them for worms, dagging their rumps and checking feet. On another day we moved the farm woodpile to the bungalow. When the auctioneer came to sort the stock into lots the brothers were well organised. Sheep are easy to sort, you look at their teeth and eye their demeanour. A fine herd of pure South Devon cattle should have been straightforward, but the paperwork was a nightmare, and Clifton was driven indoors on the point of tears. "The government's got it all wrong. This place will be the death of me."
As each day passed every saleable item on the farm was catalogued. Odd posts, rolls of barbed wire, hinges and corrugated iron, each lot was given a number. A farm is no scrapyard and everything has a use. On the day of the sale the sheep, tractors, along with beautiful granite troughs and vintage machinery, were moved to a field well away from the house. The cows were sold separately at market. Edward stood like a sentry at the top of the lane, making sure nobody went down and disturbed mother. The day was sunny and things sold well. People waste money on the most peculiar things, but when you are selling you don't intervene. The biggest surprise was the David Brown tractor. It fetched a staggering pounds 2,700. They had bought it new for under pounds 1,000 in 1968. Its mint condition said a lot about the way the Dennises ran the farm.
At dawn on the final day the farmyard took on a ghostly air. At 8am an army of removal men entered the house and with swift efficiency stripped each room of its contents. The family congregated in the kitchen, drinking tea, until it too was emptied. There was a strange sense of theatre and it all felt rather sad. My hopes were that they would soon settle in their new home. They had at least sold the farm as a whole and felt they could take comfort that it would continue as a working farm. "We couldn't go on as we were," said Betty. "We're well out of it."
No doubt if we could talk to our ancestors, they would tell us that the current crisis in farming is nothing new. Prices have slipped before, recessions have brought lean times. When farming is your way of life, the spirit is resourceful. But this time the crisis appears insurmountable: BSE, and subsequent food scares, have pushed many farms close to the wall, and now CAP reforms, an apathetic government and overproduction in the industry have led many to feel that the future of farming lies in the hands of the few. Big business survives, but, in Clifton's words, "The small are crushed."
There is a final twist to the Dennises' story. The day after Clifton handed over the keys Truelove Farm was back on the market, its barns advertised as ripe for conversion subject to planning permission, and with just 12 acres. It seemed the farm was going to be stripped of its land. On 8 September the property sold again at public auction for pounds 16,500. Truelove's long history as a working farm had come to an abrupt end. The Dennises were upset but could do nothing.
When I visited the Dennis family at their bungalow a few weeks later there were a number of surprises. Betty had been very ill - "The doctor said it was the shock of the move," she told me - but had now bounced back. She had not been able to keep warm, so the brothers had bought an Aga for the kitchen. They still had the farmhouse table, and if you let your eyes blur you would think you were back at Truelove. Betty enthused about the high ceilings in the new house and the wonderful views. With a modern bungalow, there is no need to tuck in out of the weather. Edward was positively beaming; it seemed a great weight had been taken off his shoulders. He has started reading his father's collection of books. Outside the kitchen window, the chickens roamed half the garden, fenced in now in their new suburban setting. Clifton seemed the least settled. He has taken a paper round in the village and spends his days going for long walks. !
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