18 December 2020

Faith and farming in Herefordshire

Local preacher, David Gwatkin, is a 7th generation farmer in Herefordshire. He is also an agricultural Chaplain for Borderlands Rural Chaplaincy.

Our small family farm is in north-west Herefordshire nestled against the English border. We’re a former dairy farm - although my father and I now contract rear dairy heifers for a larger neighbouring farmer. My sister and brother in law have a small free-range egg laying unit here too and live on site. We’ve been on this farm for four generations but have been farming in the area for seven.

David's children with their grandfather

In fact we’ve lived within a small 30 mile radius for the last nine generations occasionally skipping either side of Offa’s Dyke when it took our fancy. Our ‘Gwatkin’ name originates exclusively from this border region; and our oral tradition alludes to our ancestry stretching back as far as the pre-Roman Silures tribes that once inhabited these lands in ancient Britain… or at least that’s how the story goes!

God has blessed us with an extraordinary rootedness here in the Welsh marches. This deep sense of belonging and cultural identity is encompassed in our farming and our faith. Family are found both in our daily working partnerships here on the farm, our chapel fellowship and our farming neighbours and wider agricultural community.        

Roots of faith

I’m a member of our nearest Methodist chapel Bearwood - a Methodist local preacher - and for the last ten years I’ve worked as an Agricultural Chaplain. I’m in a full time ecumenically funded chaplaincy post, pastorally tending to the farming community as part of a small team of agricultural chaplains. We operate across The Shropshire and Marches Methodist Circuit (Herefordshire, Shropshire and Eastern Powys) and Hereford diocese. The ecumenical Chaplaincy is called ‘Borderlands’ and is an intentionally proactive pastoral mission - pioneering incarnationally on the borders of church and society in deeply rural communities.

Gwatkin senior with his son, David

I’ve was fortunate enough to have been brought up in a Christian family; my mother a Baptist and my father a Methodist - I enjoyed a very ecumenical flavoured up bringing! It was impossible not to see God in every corner of my rural surroundings growing up on a farm and immersed in His creation; discovering Him was inescapable. My parents planted the seed - but my faith was very much my own - we grew together. I don’t remember a time I didn’t know God - even through my wild teens (and believe me I was frighteningly feral!) He never left me. At 20 I finally gave up wrestling with God and went to train for the ministry.

Life as a farmer and a chaplain

I treasure the seasons each and every one- they hold me in a rhythm of life I find comforting and familiar. That being said the winter is always hard here - and this year has done it’s best to break even the most resilient farmer. Extreme weather patterns, Brexit, transatlantic trade deals, changing farm policy, Covid-19 and now bird flu! There’s a strength in the incarnational and participatory way my ministry works. Although the bi-vocational nature means I’m often under the cosh, simultaneously struggling with the same things the farming community I’m called to pastorally support are wrestling with too.

Work load is high this time of year - the phone calls start coming in around 5am and go most the day and in to the evening. These pastoral calls now mostly have to be dealt with over the phone (due to Covid) but I would normally do a lot out in the community and on farm. So I’ve spent much of this winter talking on my hands-free as I tend to the cows in my care.

There’s a fair bit to do feeding, bedding down, scraping feed yards. We can house anything up to 400 heifers over winter which is a seven day a week affair but something I really enjoy doing- that be said turning them out to pasture in the spring is always a welcome change!

Caring for the environment

Being immersed in creation and working in partnership with the creator is the greatest single pleasure of farming for me. When I’m out tending to stock or working the land I feel immersed in Him - this is part and parcel of worship for me - I feel tangibly close to my heavenly father when I’m out farming and I’m especially blessed that I get to enjoy this working along side my earthly father (who happens to also be my best mate!).

I’m happiest when I’m outside - covered in muck! The wider area of land that our farm is a small part of is called “God’s Acre” by the old farmers - because the rich red clay here is some of the best land around. There’s a reason the English and Welsh fought over this land for centuries. “God’s acre” is a reminder to me who this ground truly belongs to and who I’m taking care of it for.

God's Acre

We, like many farmers in this area, have always farmed in harmony with the environment. Small family farms like ours are common place across the Welsh Marches. Our ground is permanent pasture and has not seen a plough in generations. The grass is deeply rooted and established, meaning it can take more punishment by the weather extremes and cattle grazing and treading it in. It also means that it is aiding carbon sequestration and helping reduce global warming in a natural and productive way.

As well as this we have low levels fertiliser, fence off our natural water courses, and leave pockets and corners of ground fallow for natural habitat. We are in the process of tree planting to off-set the carbon foot print of the chaplaincy teams’ travel. We’re currently working on a water harvesting system to store and utilise rain water off the shed rooves. There is always more to be done but each generation works a lifetime to improve things that little bit more for creation.    

Christmas on the farm

Christmas on the farm is always a joyous occasion! Although we’re rarely able to make church these days - it’s business as usual with the stock still needing to be tended to. Everyone mucks in to get it done a little quicker in an attempt to try and steal a few hours to savour and enjoy the day together.

Mucking in!

But it’s precious- as I bed down the sheds with fresh straw in the early hours, I’m always reminded of the realities of a heavenly king born in a barn. And one that chose to meet with ‘us’ shepherds first! The dirty smelly misunderstood unclean farmers were first on the scene. No place and no body too dirty or too lowly to meet with and greet the king of kings. Halleluiah!

In the barn

I make phone calls to those farmers I know are alone or find it a difficult day as I work. And if all goes to plan (it doesn’t always but that’s farming!) I get to enjoy a few hours in the afternoon in front of the fire sipping a Welsh whisky (if Father Christmas thinks I’ve been a good boi!) having a cwtch with the wife whilst watching the kids play with the contents of their stockings! 

David Gwatkin.

Read our blog about faith and farming in Devon here.

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