Sally Urwin does not come from a farming background, but she is now a much-loved voice within the rural community. Emily Ashworth speaks to her to find out more.
There are two things that stand out about Sally Urwin: She is quick witted, and she is above all honest.
Both are attributes that have no doubt led to her acquiring a mass of followers, as well as her open account of farm life in her book, A Farmer’s Diary.
Her story, though, is quite unexpected.
More widely known as the ‘Pint Sized Farmer’ for being unapologetically 4 ft 10 inches, Sally, 47, grew up in Tynemouth, Northumberland, and it is safe to say her farming experience was practically zero as her youth saw her attend a convent school, followed by college and university.
She spent years working in corporate marketing, as an insolvency practitioner, a job which by her own admission she ‘hated.’
“It was so stressful,” says Sally.
“I spent a lot of time travelling down to London and always felt like a square peg in a round hole. But it’s what you did – you went to university; you got a job and you tried to break glass ceilings.
“I fell ill and was diagnosed with ME – causing severe fatigue among many other symptoms - and I had to quit my job and move in with my parents. At the same time, I met my husband, Steve, and after 12 months we got married and I became a farmer’s wife. So, it was a real change to what I thought my life would be.”
Now, Sally is undoubtedly a fully fledged member of the farming community, and since moving to High House Farm in Matfen 17 years ago, her story has been received with great interest.
The pressures and anxieties are still there, but, she says, ‘it feels more worthwhile, rather than creating profit for some faceless board of trustees.’
They run 150 Texel sheep across 61 hectares (150 acres), selling through Hexham market, and grow wheat, barley and oilseed rape. In 2004 they renovated one of the grade 2 listed building’s onsite into a microbrewery, award-winning tearoom and wedding venue, but sold this in 2009.
They have, however, just added a bed and breakfast pig enterprise with 1,000 British Quality pigs and rented out a paddock to a small family business, Dark Sky Glamping.
Coming into the industry was, however, a very steep learning curve for Sally.
She says: “If you have no background, everything has to be explained.
“It’s not just moving into a job; it’s moving into a farming family.
“They might have a way of doing things or be more traditional and for many years I’ve asked why do you do it this way? Why don’t you try and change things? But what I hadn’t realised is that they’d already tried it and it hadn’t worked, but Steve was very patient.”
She began to write blogs, mostly for the benefit of family members who did not understand farming, but her on-farm anecdotes quickly became popular – most will know of ‘fat pony’, her beloved white horse who famously plays dead whenever visitors frequent the farm, or wonky the lamb.
“A lot of funny things happen,” says Sally.
“I didn’t know any other farmers or wives, so it was a way of reaching out and asking, what do I do about this?
"There has been some fabulous support.
“I’m insatiably curious and I love learning about people in different parts of the world, so I follow lots of different characters.”
It was, though, a shock when a publisher then offered her a book contract after reading her account of daily farming life.
In 2019, her book, The Diary of a Pint-Sized Farmer was released and met with welcoming reviews from the likes of The Guardian and The Daily Mail.
And it would seem that her open approach to talking about her new life struck a chord with many.
She says: “It was honest – I talked about how poor we were. My husband kept saying, don’t tell them that but I thought sod it, I’m going to.
“There were also my mental health issues – it’s good to show people warts and all.
“Almost everybody I’ve talked to has issues with some kind of mental health.
“There’s a lot more info [about farming] out there but I think the pandemic has made people look at their own lifestyles and are saying, I’m really not enjoying this.
“It’s a bit of wish fulfilment.”
They are making the most of the farm by adding different revenue streams to the business, but for her own children, Lily, 14, and George, 11, Sally is keen for them to find their own calling rather than push them into farming.
She says: “Lily has an interest in the farm, but I hope that she can find a career alongside the it.
“It’s a struggle, living hand-to-mouth, and you can be quite isolated.
“I’d like her to go to agricultural college and not just down the road, I think she needs to go and experience life.
“On the other hand, George thinks the farm is muddy and boring and says there is nobody to play with. But he loves riding the quad bike and following his dad around the sheep.”
Sally is set to release her second book in the summer of 2022, and it is hard to picture her in any other role than that of farmer. It is, she believes, something she would have happily pursued had she been given the option earlier in life.
“I think at 16 what I should have done is work with horses, taken a year off and not exactly gone to agricultural college, but done something to do with the countryside,” she says.
“Because I was academic, I was pushed down a particular route even though my personality didn’t fit it.
“It wasn’t all bad – I got free coffee and had some nice clothes.
“I much prefer animals to people and making a real difference – it’s not just spreadsheets.
“The weddings compliment the farm quite well, as you get bridesmaids watching me as I’m lambing.
“I like meeting people and explaining what I’m doing.”
As she reflects on life so far, Sally has carved out a new story for herself and her way of living is part of a much larger legacy.
"Our farm is half a mile from Hadrian’s Wall and I feel like Steve and I are just one link in a massive long chain of farmers who have loved the land and made their life on this little patch of Northumberland. According to the records, they found that this stretch of the Wall was built on top of already worked land – and you can imagine how upset the farmer was when these Roman soldiers turned up and started plodging all over his freshly ploughed field so that they could build the wall.
"The previous generations have left lots of clues as to how they used to live and work, and I love the fact that our family is the latest in a long line of people making a living from High House Farm."