Colostrum and mastitis are things I thought I had stopped worrying about well over a year ago now, but somehow this weekend I found myself reacquainted with these terms, in, of all unlikely places, an ice cream parlour near Stocksfield. We first visited Wheelbirks Parlour a few months ago and it earned a place in our hearts as it was where our son mastered his first ever animal noise, a confident and emphatic “Moooooo” inspired by the Sue Moffitt cow portraits which adorn its walls. Since then his repertoire has expanded to include the snake, the walrus and the lobster, but Wheelbirks remains a favourite destination for a Sunday drive out and ice cream treat. When we heard that the farm was opening its doors to urbanites like us for Open Farm Sunday, which also happened to be Father’s Day, my husband was more than a little excited, envisaging a rural utopia of sunny fields, milkmaids, and very big tractors.
Sadly for him, there wasn’t much sun and any milkmaids have been replaced by sophisticated, high tech milking apparatus which can cleverly pick up on signs of aforementioned mastitis in the cows. There was however, a very big tractor. Bedecked with bunting and towing a trailer with seats made out of straw bales, the tractor took us on a bumpy tour of the farm’s extremities. A walking tour of the farm buildings allowed us to meet Buster the Bull and super cute calves, the youngest members of the oldest pedigree Jersey herd in Northumberland. Back in the parlour we ate delicious beef stew while our son played in the dedicated pre school area, browsed the pretty things in the gift shop, and made our very own cow-shaped wall hanging in the craft corner. Outside in the beautiful Victorian orchard, we played on the basket swing, the slide and the old tractor, ran through the handcrafted willow tunnels, chatted to the chickens and admired the views across the Northumberland countryside, spotting the occasional hare. And best of all, we sampled the delicious ice cream, made on site.
So, good times were had at Wheelbirks. But it wasn’t all fun and games. The tours of the farm, by its owners, brothers Hugh and Tom Richardson, were enlightening and educational, but also a little depressing. It’s a hard life being a dairy cow, and even harder being a dairy farmer. Certainly it’s much less jolly than those Yeo Valley adverts, or my husband’s imagination, would have you believe. Farmer Tom painted a bleak picture of life in agriculture at a time when the supermarkets make more money from milk than the farmers, when increasingly prohibitive restrictions and red tape make life harder and harder for small producers and when the unethical tactics of the dairy industry have led to the increasing popularity of (he practically spits the word) skimmed milk. Diversification, it seems, is key to survival for small farms, and at Wheelbirks this has come in the form of the parlour which opened in 2010. But when the parlour can offer as much fun as it did on Sunday, it will, hopefully, allow the farm not only to survive, but to flourish. We left, spattered in mud and carrying a few pints of that morning’s milk (unpasteurised and certainly not skimmed), and headed back to the city, having been refreshed and revived by a day on the farm.