There are lessons to be learned for the agriculture sector from the popularity of the British reality show Clarkson’s Farm.
I was late to viewing the show on Amazon Prime, mostly because the history of mainstream media depiction of farming on television is suspect. It ranges from overly fawning, idealized, moralizing or unrealistic.
The depiction of British TV personality Jeremy Clarkson’s decision to farm and his first year in the business borders on all of those things, but it is also unflinchingly honest, transparent and funny. I haven’t laughed so loudly in a while as I did when I watched Clarkson try to get his tractor through a tight situation. And his sheep follow the flock in unpredicted directions, as they always do.
Clarkson is an almost 60-year-old TV star known for driving exotic and fast cars in locales around the world and who also hosted Britain’s version of the game show Who Wants to be a Millionaire.
He bought his farm in 2008. It’s a 1,000-acre property that grows mostly barley, wheat and rape for oilseeds.
When his farm manager quit, he decided to move there and run the farm himself.
A film crew followed him for the next year, through a drought and then serious rain and the usual unpredictable foibles of producing crops.
Clarkson lurched through buying equipment, ordering seed and fertilizer and realizing the techniques he assumed would work failed badly or made for many more hours of work than he expected.
Those of us in agriculture could see his pending mistakes coming a mile away. Comedy ensued as he blundered on, like a round bale of hay rolling down a hill, with disaster waiting at the bottom.
An example is when he had a delivery of fertilizer, which in Europe arrives in large totes on a truck. He was surprised to learn, after figuring out a telehandler to move a couple of totes, that he had a couple of trucks full of fertilizer more to unload.
Clarkson’s comedic moments of realization are important because they create learning points for the general public about the complexity and challenge of modern farming.
There’s the infuriating paperwork, which made me glad I’m not in Europe and certified under the Red Tractor brand.
There’s the moment he realized the responsibility he had to ship ewes who weren’t pregnant and had to go for slaughter.
There’s the moment he realized he made a whole £144 in a year of farming operations, although he still had more than £80,000 in subsidies coming to him.
There’s the moment he realized his tractor was too large for his shed.
Clarkson is also surrounded by a cast of rural characters, just like many of us who live in rural communities.
They are all of value to him – his sheep consultants and shearers, his accountant and farm management consultant, his young employee. He finds joy and appreciation in their expertise and knowledge. They are competent, not caricatures.
Clarkson also develops emotional attachment to his farm, being in nature, watching things grow and raising livestock.
He says that the year he ran the farm was the happiest of his life.
What does this mean for agriculture?
It shows that being real and transparent is OK and may be valuable. I’m sure the show got plenty of hate because of its use of sheep and the realities of breeding, birth and death, both from natural causes and for slaughter.
The show dealt with all of those issues with compassion and transparency. It showed manure and birthing fluids and the time when Clarkson got booted by a sheep he was trying to shear.
Other farmers in Ontario are finding success with a similar model.
Sheep farmer Sandi Brock has built a huge YouTube following of more than 360,000 people by showing what happens on her farm, including lambing season.
There are those who question the radical transparency model, but in a world looking for authenticity and experience during and post pandemic, this is a niche that farmers can fill.