A Year in the life of Jeremy Clarkson’s Cotswolds farm, which he takes on when his tenant farmer decides to retire.
Want to know how to become a millionaire? Start off a billionaire and buy a 1000-acre arable farm in England.
Or you could win Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, the very quiz show Jeremy Clarkson took over from original host Chris Tarrant. There’s an unexpected parallel in this farming eight-parter, when Jeremy researches the local spring water he wants to bottle and sell only to discover a 1970s TV report featuring the young Tarrant, then a cub reporter, investigating the qualities of the very same water.
Jeremy’s bottles have the sadly fate-tempting tagline “It’s got no shit in it”, with the man seen as the very definition of Marmite also producing his own honey, Bee Juice. His shop also sells Cow Juice, and the frankly lazily titled Apple Juice, though Jeremy clearly likes the naming process: his rams go by Wayne Rooney and Leonardo diCaprio.
UK Farming is in crisis — though such is the state of this country that like our schools and the NHS, it feels like it always has been — and Clarkson’s superbly entertaining show lays out just how hard it is to make even the most basic living from the land. It’s sobering, and hugely informative — for once no Google rabbit holes for me as the info is right there, from the men and women who live it — but it’s also reflective, moving, often tense and frequently hilarious.
I won’t lie, I was expecting eight episodes of really fast tractor racing from Clarkson and friends, so like Jeremy himself I was instantly blindsided by Wayne and Leo’s unfeasibly large testicles. (Why Jeremy, just the right age to have enjoyed vintage Viz Magazine and so keen on finding the right nomenclature, didn’t call at least one of them Buster Gonad is one of the mysteries that brought this programme’s star rating down from 5 stars to a mere 4.5.) The rams are bought to service his 78 ewes, a flock he purchases to keep the grass down — prettily, pastorally — so he doesn’t need to mow it once a year.
That adorable idea costs him literally thousands: the animals, a part-time shepherd, hay, pregnancy ultrasounds, shearing, at a time when COVID means any recouped costs will be tiny, just a few pence for a whole fleece. Along the way Jeremy has to deal with sending three ill sheep to slaughter; act as midwife through the long nights of lambing season; and hand-feed a lamb abandoned in the field by its uninterested mother.
There are many more bright ideas, costing Jeremy a fortune as he enthusiastically throws himself, his enormous Lamborghini tractor and his cash at various projects: a farm shop, a biodiverse wetland, owl boxes on stilts, exotic vegetables, and hens — whose cheerily-painted houses would, if transported to Notting Hill, probably fetch around £150k as a teeny London pièd-a-terre for the kind of person who moves from the capital to the Cotswolds and then has to commute back in order to afford to live in the Cotswolds.
Meanwhile Jeremy is continually tested by the weather, by local regulation, by government regulation, his own lack of planning, COVID, the weather, and the weather. Yes he’s picked a bad year to start farming, with continuous spring rain and a global epidemic, but one gets the impression that any year would have brought its own disasters. Series Two has already been filmed, and I think we can guess that this summer’s crazily high temperatures, cracked earth and crop fires will feature heavily. (Though this being Jeremy, regularly saved from self-inflicted disasters, I wouldn’t be surprised if one of his ponds dries up for the first time in three thousand years to reveal a lost Bronze Age settlement and a ready supply of arrowheads he can sell in his shop.)
On Diddly Squat Farm (so named because of what it’s likely to make him) the seasons are marked by sowing, growing, harvesting, lambing and shearing, but also by the ever-evolving hairstyles of Jeremy’s agricultural worker Kaleb Cooper: from flat fringed to Beckham-ish headbands to finally a much-heralded perm. Kaleb, only 21 but already a farming veteran, is a natural in every way: an ordinary TV star who can drive any tractor and fix any farming equipment, and hold Jeremy to account while continually saving his boss’s bacon, but who hasn’t been further than the nearby market town of Banbury — until he’s sent by truck into London to sell their produce to posh restaurants.
Actually Jeremy has surrounded himself with a coterie of supremely knowledgable, extremely funny locals who on more sneering shows — possibly presented by Jeremy — would have been the butt of the joke themselves. Now these people (Kaleb, posh farm agent / doomonger Cheerful Charlie, Ellen the shepherd, Gerald the incomprehensible dry stone wall expert, and Jeremy’s girlfriend Lisa) become chorus, oracle, teacher, and parent, informing, warning and mocking Mr Moneybags. In truth though, this series only works because Clarkson is loaded. Farming will only get worse as subsidies decrease post-Brexit; last year’s terrible rain was salt rubbed on an already weeping sore. Following an inexperienced farmer without Clarkson’s wealth and access would be too devastating: a seven-day week, a lifetime’s savings gone, for what turns out to be a few pence a day in profit.
The ups and downs, the quiet stillness and the furious activity, the battles and truces between nature and farming’s increasingly extraordinary machines, are both devastating and inspiring. It’s breathtaking for us — a quarter of a million pounds’ worth of high tech combine harvester rumbling inexorably across a vast field, a smaller tractor to catch the grain bouncing alongside in perfect harmony, looking like the UK’s answer to a family of elephants in stately procession across a plain. But it’s also joyous for the farmers too. Kaleb waxes lyrical about working alone on his tractor late on summer evenings, looking over the fields and seeing all the other farmers he knows doing the same. While 70-something Gerald, isolating during COVID, leaves his home to take his turn on the combine, having harvested the same farm for half a century and unwilling to miss a year now.
If I have a complaint (apart from my new obsession with sheep, and the lingering shots of product-placed company names) it’s that we don’t see enough behind the scenes. Yes Jeremy has so much money he can go out and blow thousands on a flock, or some fancy machinery, apparently in an instant; but while he probably doesn’t know to plan for some eventualities, many aren’t explained. Crops can only be harvested at a particular moisture level, so when Jeremy’s hit the sweet spot it’s a near-fruitless race to rent a combine harvester, with all the local ones already promised to other farmers. How do experienced farmers manage the uncertainty of not knowing when they can harvest though? Do they jointly book one for a month then share it round depending on whose crops reach the magic moisture number first? And when Kaleb is about to set off for London for the first time, Jeremy confuses him with congestion charge and ULEZ (ultra low emission zone) babble, despite it being perfectly legal to pay them once you get home within the allotted hours. There’s enough real drama on a farm — really, there’s enough real drama on top of Kaleb’s head — that making anything up is redundant.
Of course the irony is that this honest exploration of UK farming today — its physical dangers, its precariousness — is going to make people want to take it up, because it also shows how completely the rhythm of farming’s seasons gets under one’s skin. I can’t be the only person daydreaming of flocks of sheep keeping the grass down on a pretty meadow, even while watching Jeremy admit it was a bad business decision. Though I suspect most of us would want the cute add-ons only: the colourful wildflowers bobbing gently in a summer breeze; the owl boxes Jeremy erects after spotting a baby owl, losing its fluff, in a tumbledown barn; warm hens’ eggs; his buttock-stinging honey bees (okay maybe not them) — rather than the farm’s backbone, those acres and acres of wheat, barley and oil seed rape that absolutely must be harvested within a short, sharp window.
To be fair, Jeremy too considers it all worth it, declaring parts of this tumultuous and very expensive year the happiest times of his life. And we get to see behind the curtain: not just the realities of agriculture and animal husbandry but perhaps the real Jeremy, outside of the bombast and woke-goading. Having to accept the slaughter of his three unwell ewes, flock animals who now cannot live with the flock (he tells the abattoir employee that he has resolutely not named his sheep — “not out loud anyway”) brought a tear to my eye and Jeremy’s, even if his sadness was soon sated by a delicious shepherd’s pie (yes, he really did).
Clarkson’s Farm is available on Amazon Prime, and is currently free for Prime subscribers. A second series is due early in 2023.
Check out episode-by-episode re-caps here, or scroll down for some brief, main spoilers from Jeremy’s year…
Some Clarkson’s Farm spoilers!
The big question: how much does Clarkson actually make from his farm, after working 7 days a week for a year? After the harvest, Jeremy sits down with Cheerful Charlie English to be told he’s made £144 profit, which is under 40p a day. That’s after paying for everything, including his employees, without whom he wouldn’t have been able to do any of it, thanks to his inexperience; but as we’re told during the series, the majority of farms around the world are farmed by one person or one family.
Overall, the sheep venture costs thousands and brings in very little. At shearing time, Ellen and her friend are paid £1.71 per sheep sheared, and Jeremy will then only get around 30p per fleece. Wayne Rooney the ram dies from a twisted intestine.
Sent to London to sell the farm’s wasabi to posh restaurants, Kaleb sells one root for £10, which he has to spend on parking. He also gets an expensive parking ticket.
The Diddly Squat Farm Shop’s issues with the council rumble on, from its inauthentic roof to Lisa’s habit of stocking it with products from other counties. Still, eventually they’re selling a wide variety of their own produce including honey, beeswax candles, rape oil, vegetables, eggs, lamb, and of course their millions of potatoes. There is a final drama when their previously-approved bottled spring water is re-tested and found to contain bacteria; Jeremy has to rush over to remove it from the shelves.
Jeremy, Gerald, Kaleb and neighbouring farmer Simon (owner of the combine harvester) harvest Diddly Squat’s barley, oil seed rape and wheat. The local miller buys all the wheat, telling Jeremy it is excellent quality thanks to its high protein content.
In September, Jeremy hosts a harvest festival picnic for Charlie, Gerald, Lisa and Kaleb. Jeremy decides that despite the ups and downs he’s going to stay on the farm rather than relocate to London — as he’s had some of his happiest times over the past year.