A pivotal character in his community, Reverend Simon Bowkett hopes to spread some positivity and be a pillar of support to those who need it most. Gaina Morgan meets him to find out more.
The image does not quite fit with what most would recognise as a typical Reverend.
But Reverend Simon Bowkett is clearly a popular and familiar figure at the market in Llandeilo, west Wales. His bright yellow Landrover is parked next to the catering unit and his mobile phone rings incessantly.
He rarely wears the conventional ‘dog collar’ or traditional garb of a religious figure and his green fleece and wellies are not quite those of a regular farmer. His cap is also emblazoned with caplan, Welsh for chaplain.
At the market, lamb and culled ewe prices have slumped and triggered yet more concern and the strain is evident on people’s faces, despite the jokes and banter in an easy mix of the English and Welsh languages.
The area is known as ‘God’s Country’ and the irony, given the perceived looming economic, social and cultural uncertainty, is not lost on the Christian minister. A beef and sheep farmer too, the ‘Welsh Rev’ takes his ministry to the people.
Simon and his wife Helen left a growing and thriving church in the south east of England to return to the ‘much harder challenge’ of farming and ministry in rural Wales. They started in a wooden cabin before securing planning to convert a barn and farming is in Simon’s blood, so it was a great way to bring up their four children.
He is heavily invested in to both aspects of his life, as each infiltrate the other.
Their 36-hectare (89-acre) hill farm comprises less favoured and severely disadvantaged land and rises from 182 metres (600 feet) above sea level to 304m (1,000 feet). The family also rent extra ground as necessary, running a traditional suckler herd and hill hardy pedigree Charmoise sheep with the keen help and fresh ideas of youngest son Caleb, who is studying a degree in agriculture at Gelli Aur, Llandeilo.
The cows are generally out-wintered in naturally sheltered paddocks and kept on a grass-based system as far as possible. The Hereford Friesian cows are put to a pedigree Hereford bull and stores are sold through Carmarthen mart.
The sheep enterprise runs a flock of 30 Charmoise ewes, using natural service for the most part but with all rams from French genetics. Ram lambs are sold to commercial sheep farmers who use them to get an extra crop of easily lambed, quick to rise first lambs with lighter lambing weights, finishing well with good conformation aiming at E and U grades.
Simon’s day begins early, feeding, calving or sorting sheep before setting out for the ‘day job’.
There are, though, no clear boundaries and he is likely to be dealing with an intense personal crisis on his mobile as he moves among his stock.
Simon, who is originally from the South Wales Valleys, says: “By the time I was married and working in Kent as a minister I made some friends at the South of England Rare Breeds Centre.
“I volunteered there one day a week and within no time I had pigs on rented land and we were selling meat around the farms in north Kent. We are effectively first-generation farmers.
“Farming is natural. It’s in touch with the land and it’s fulfilling. There’s something deep within human beings to produce and to create. And I love farming people. It’s a great culture and they’re great people; sometimes hilarious, sometimes annoying, but superb people to be with and work with.
“But farming is a tough business and it is not an easy way to make a living. We raise cattle and sheep, but we’ve also raised kids. The whole integrated package is really great for breeding confident, able, capable and flexible young people.”
The ‘package’ is seemingly under threat, though. The relentless pressure on the small family farm is forcing people out. Brexit is the latest threat, with fear of the unknown stoking anxiety and depression.
Simon says rural Wales is among the least densely populated areas of Europe and it can be hard to keep in touch.
The result is it takes very little to trigger a ‘full-blown crisis’. Domestic violence is, he claims, very much an issue too, and he is ‘starting to see in rural Wales the sort of things I used to see when I started out in Ministry in inner urban London, but at a higher level of intensity’.
His role as a Free Church Minister means he does not run a traditional parish church. He concentrates on drawing people together, taking the scripture out to the community as the Grace Rural Wales Partnership. And he works closely with Government and other support agencies.
Simon’s message is spread by social media too, using these platforms to inform and reach much wider audiences.
He says the idea of reaching out originates from the Bible and, in particular St Paul, who went where people gathered. It is also a practical solution for those living in remote rural areas – the ministry can come to them in the mart, at the show or in the small country town.
He says: “Most people in farming are now dealing with pressure that’s happening all the time, whether it’s banks, bureaucracy, bovine TB or worries about Brexit. We’re being asked to do things we’re not equipped to do and we’re being asked to operate with skills which are not part of our natural skillset.
“In terms of the number of rules and the different sorts of rules we are policed for all the time, this is something unique.
“There is also the issue that farming is criticised and blamed for so much in the media these days and, with no obvious right of reply, you’re constantly put on the back foot and assumed to be a villain and a baddie. That is causing serious levels of stress among the people who actually feed the nation.”
The marts Simon operates in are run by BJP, Clee Tomkinson and J.J. Morris and range across a wide swathe of South West Wales. And BJP director Jonathan Morgan values the service.
He says the unknown implications of Brexit are worrying and desperately troubling for those who go home to lonely lives in increasingly remote areas.
Jonathan says: “I’ve just been talking to two people who live on their own, 12 or 15 miles from town. They’ll go back and mull over things and they won’t see anyone till they next venture out and that’s tough going, so this social contact is important.”
Jonathan says that, as a company, they are aware of the need to spot mental health problems, both in the organisation and the rural community. And he says things are definitely getting worse, with much of the rural camaraderie lost, the rural aspect of village life diminishing and the farming community scattered.
Isolation, paired with change and the struggle to cope with the Government and other bureaucratic bodies which demand an online presence from communities in areas with poor or almost non-existent broadband are all factors.
Some can cope, some cannot.
Those on a relatively sure financial footing at the mart recognise the value of Simon’s ministry but prefer to stick to the more conventional Sunday church or chapel service.
There was the comment that there ‘wasn’t time to look for God at the mart’.
They are the ones who feel today’s challenges are no worse than they have been in the past, with farmers able to face and overcome the current difficulties along with other sectors of the population. But others were clearly angry over the low lamb prices. They were unhappy over the lack of control over their incomes and frightened about future prospects, given the political and economic uncertainties.
And as for Simon, his presence is felt and is clearly a positive addition for most, understanding the intricacies of the rural way of life.
Asking those in the mart how they feel about the reverend, there is a resounding nod to the fact that all people want sometimes is someone to talk to, and that is what the ‘Welsh rev’ is all about.
Simon says: “Farming requires an awful lot of varied gifts. There is no question about that. It’s a 24-seven, 365-days-a-year responsibility and a way of life.”