Jean and I usually arrived home at odd times and regular evening meals were out of the question. But, with Jean needing to work the same hours as his clients, us farmers, we invariably were up at the same hour and had breakfast together. I used to have tea with my breakfast, but Jean hated it, so I got in the habit of making strong coffee to kick off the day. Sometimes, we’d talk through the day ahead and sometimes there wasn’t much to discuss.

One morning in mid-February, I was once more looking over my finances and muttering to myself about the cost of the local fields and how hard it was to get together the cash I needed to buy one. Talking to myself helps rationalise my thoughts. The thought-train was interrupted when Jean coughed to attract my attention. “You’ve been playing with those figures for the past week…” “I’m just wondering how I can expand the farm – doesn’t feel like I’m getting anywhere at the moment.” “Have you thought of looking at the fields along the road just down from my shop?” Jean asked, “There are several near Xavier’s field that might be available for less money than the fields up this side of the valley.” I must admit that the idea of having another field so far from the farm hadn’t occurred to me and I knew that in Mark’s time hands would have been raised in horror at the idea. I did raise mild concerns but, as Jean reminded me, all the farmers had plots of land dotted all over the area – no one had all their fields in one place!

I took up Jean’s idea, having not much work on that morning. I drove down to Xavier’s field and was pleased to find him at work. When he’d finished a row of cultivating, he shut down the tractor and I went over to have a quick chat. He told me about the fields either side of his – “That one belongs to Maurice – he’s not likely to sell. The one on the left… That belongs to Alexis – she might be willing to sell… I don’t see a lot of her.” I looked at Maurice’s field anyway – it was well kept and looked like a crop had been sown. I would check on its estimated value. Then I looked at the other field. It had been dusted with lime, though whether the amount was enough for the soil I couldn’t tell. What struck me was the boulders scattered all over the ground. It was a mess and that got me thinking – maybe Alexis doesn’t really need this field and would be willing to sell? I set off to hunt down Claude to find out more.

Things happened pretty quickly – the field was available to buy, and the price was within my available budget after some vigorous negotiation. With a bank payment agreed, I was given permission to access the field and begin working it on 18th Feb with the deeds to follow soon after. The first job was to get rid of the rocks – Jean hired me a stone-picker…

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…It was a pain to use but I cleared all the boulders. I finished February by applying more lime to get the field’s ph right. Then, in the first week of March, it was time to set about sowing a crop – I decided on Oats for a quick return. Jean bent our rules slightly by bringing down the Massey with the roller attached on his way to work – I promised to drop past with his van later when the sowing was done. It was unusual to see both of my tractors out and about at the same time…

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That was the end of winter on the farm. Spring brought some good times – several fertilizing jobs earned me the money to buy a trailer and to repay the extra €15k that I had loaned 🙂

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…That’ll reduce the outgoings. But I still don’t have my own harvester and I think I may have to continue hiring for the foreseeable future 😦

By the beginning of April, the Oats in the new field were ready for a dash of fertilizer…

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…And by the middle of May, the Canola on my home field was in bloom…

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…Things are looking up and, with luck, both fields will be ready to harvest at the same time – That will save on the Harvester hire costs! It’s been a busy Spring on Ferme du Vieux Chêne 🙂

…We showered together in Jean’s workshop washroom accompanied by the smell of industrial soap. Then, after saying our goodbyes, I climbed into the tractor to drive back to the farm. It was already very late but I decided to take the long route home. I drove slowly but my mind was racing. What was I going to tell Mark? Was I going to tell Mark anything at all? It wasn’t the first fling in our relationship – we’d both had the occasional indiscretion in the early days but not recently and not since deciding to move to France. It was worse than that, I realised as the full consequences dawned on me – This time it had been with someone that we both knew and with a person that I had dealings with every week.

I arrived back at the farm and parked the tractor in the yard. I was glad to see the house lights were off – Mark must have gone to bed. I headed straight to the shower – an effort to wash away the guilt maybe? When I came out I found Mark in the kitchen in his dressing gown. “That tractor’s loud – It woke me up!” He reached into the fridge and brought out a salad that he had prepared for me. “It’s an older machine.” I said, “But it should be able to handle the heavier jobs better than the Massey.” “Well, you’ll be using it in the morning – Water at the greenhouses is getting low.” said Mark. “I’m going back to bed.” he added.

I sat down and ate the salad, then I grabbed a beer from the fridge and sat there thinking. There was no way I could stop using Armand Moteurs for our farming needs – If I did it would immediately have the local’s wondering what had gone on. That was a no-no. I was going to have to be resolute and resist any further approaches. Put the mistake behind me and hope nothing comes to light over the next few weeks, A final thought occurred to me – perhaps Jean was a straight guy who’d just taken the opportunity to try out gay sex as an experiment? We would see. But, for now I was resolved to be very well behaved in his presence. The trouble was the devil on my shoulder kept saying “It was good wasn’t it? We should do it again…”

Two days later Jean rang the farm while I was out in the fields – Mark answered the call and told me when I came home. I waited for the anger. But Mark said “He’s found us a second-hand building we can keep some of our equipment in.” I’d forgotten that we’d put out several feelers to try and find something. I rang back and agreed with Jean that I’d come and look in the morning.

“It’s half a shed from a factory.” he said, “All the frame, two walls and a roof. I think it’ll take most of your grass machinery.” There were no nods or winks, it was normal Jean and not a hint of what had transpired. I went with the flow and set about measuring it up to see if it would fulfil our needs. It looked good so I asked “How much?” “It cost me €4500, factor in transporting and a profit… Let’s say €6500?” The price seemed good so I agreed on the basis that I could get Jacques to prepare the land and erect it for us. We shook hands and I wandered back out to the runabout. It was surreal – like I’d dreamed that evening of sex…

Jacques turned up on the following Thursday with two labourers who he introduced as Alphonse and Pedro – “Come over from Spain to work.” he said. “Where’s your Son?” I asked. “He’s gone to University – thinks he’s too good for building and carpentry.” said Jacques, although I could tell by the gleam in his eye that he was secretly proud. We discussed the levelling of the land and the erecting of the shed. I knew from the previous warning that it wouldn’t be cheap and I wasn’t surprised when Jacques said €7000 with the proviso that it might be slightly more if they had any problems. I agreed the price. In the end it came out at €7500 but we had a place to store the equipment and Mark was happy because he definitely thinks along the old ‘place for everything’ line…

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In the meantime autumn went ahead, the leaves turned brown and we helped out with as much harvesting as we could. In late October the Cotton harvest kicked in and it was like a gold rush for us helpers! The money we made went to buying a sprayer with the latest detection technology to deal with the weeds in our field…

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…I was sceptical at first but it really did only spray when over a real weed – we used so little herbicide, it was like I’d walked around the field and sprayed them by hand!

November brought more harvest jobs and the bank balance started to look healthy as I trundled around fields in the special machines used to harvest Cotton…

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..If the work held up through the winter, we might actually be able to think of getting our own Harvester and a bigger trailer. Possibly even another field! But some of my thoughts were still elsewhere… Somewhere back on a hot day in mid-September…

In that first week of May, it felt like we were being pushed into a corner. There was very little work for other farms and on our own farm the busiest little bee was the Kubota Sidekick. We were making some money though and our funds had crept up to over €30k again. We took the difficult decision to spend some of that cash on a second large greenhouse to sit beside the first. Once more we contacted Jacques and he agreed to come and prepare the ground and install it for us. I visited him on site as the work neared completion to see what he thought. “This will be the last one here.” he said, “The rest of the ground isn’t really flat enough – You can see I’ve had to leave quite a lumpy bit to the side there…” He indicated a mound of earth. “Putting more up on the east side would need a lot of earth moved and the same is true to the west.” He shook his head and put on a sad expression. I was sure that if we asked he would probably agree but the cost of the works would be a lot more. “I’ve made you a small parking area for your water tank though.” he showed me the area to the west of the greenhouses.

With the second greenhouse installed, it was time to do some more trips to the river to fill the storage system. On the third trip I decided to pop into Armand Moteurs to get the tractor and water tank maintained. It proved to be a opportune visit. Sitting among the second hand implements was an Anderson RBM2000 bale loader! They normally cost over €50k new – Jean wanted just under €23k for it. I rang Mark, “What do you think?” “Get it!” was his response. I hadn’t realised how much he’d grown into the idea of grass, hay and silage since our original decision to buy the field up by the Cooperative Grain Store. So I agreed the purchase with Jean and he moved it out front ready for me to collect later…

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The last week of May was mainly small errands for the farm – taking produce to the farmers market or the bakery and another water run to top up the greenhouses. We picked up a weeding job too – one of the worst paying jobs but when you’re living hand to mouth, you take what you can get.

The beginning of June – bright and sunny. I checked the weather…

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…Dry for the first 10 days with rain moving in for the rest of the month. Our Barley crop was ready to harvest and that should be our priority but there was also a harvesting job for Caroline Rodine in the next valley and, knowing that we’d have to hire a combine to harvest our own crop, I opted to take that job first to boost our funds. I was loaned the necessary equipment and got on with the job post-haste…

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…Then it was time to harvest our own crop. On dropping the loaned equipment back to Jean, I enquired about hire rates and opted for borrowing a Rostselmash harvester and its associated cutter head. “What about trailers?” he asked. “I won’t need one – our silo’s right next to the field.” “Header trailer?” “It’s only a narrow head – I’ll take it fitted.” He looked dubious so I explained, “If I take the back road up to the Grain Store, then come down to our farm from there, I can pull onto the grass to let traffic past and there aren’t many street lamps to hit on the way!” Still shaking his head, he waved me on my way.

The Rostselmash proved to be quite an agile machine after driving the Deutz-Fahr earlier in the week and I made it to our farm without incident. It was very easy to manoeuvre around our field too…

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…Its one downside was the small capacity of the internal tank, requiring me to take a trip to the silo to empty it 4 times!..

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We now had a problem – a field of straw to gather and sell, but no tools to do that with. Hiring would cost more than the straw was worth. It was a compelling case for buying a baler but we didn’t have the cash. We discussed it over dinner that evening. The cheapest I could see us getting a baler for was €25k – I’d seen an older basic Claas one in Jean’s catalogues. We’d need to take a loan which would increase our debt to the bank and push up our interest payments. As luck would have it, we were able to pick up another harvesting job. This time on a larger field belonging to Hugo Boutroux. The money earned from that job, combined with the sale of our first Lettuce crop…

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…along with some Tomatoes helped. I took the trailer down to Jean to get the sides refitted – something I need to get the tools for so that I can do it at our farm! Got some odd looks from the locals as I passed through town…

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…Yes, the Sidekick can pull an empty trailer! With the sides refitted, the tractor took over to haul 3 loads of Barley up to the Coop Grain Store…

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With all that work done, we’d managed to reduce the amount of additional loan needed to €15k. I called Jean and asked about the baler – “Ah! – Old man Roche had one of those in stock. I’ll call him and check if he still has it.” There was a nervous wait then Jean called back. “I’ll collect it from him tomorrow and you can come and get it on Wednesday.” Come Wednesday and by the time I’d been able to collect the baler it was late evening. I quickly set about baling the straw…

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…it was dark by the time I finished and put the baler away…

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…The trouble was – rain was forecast for the next day and wet straw bales are no good for man nor beast. I hooked up the Anderson – it was going to do its first work in the dark!..

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…I collected 12 bales of straw. Fortunately, the biomass plant is open 24/7 and is just a short trip along farm track from ‘du Vieux Chêne. That put some good money back in our account – more than I expected to be honest and with a baler added to our machinery, we’ve moved a bit closer to being able to produce grass, hay and silage 🙂 I put the bale loader to bed next to the shed and parked the tractor beside the house…

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…after the hectic last 10 days, I could happily have fallen asleep in the cab!

I hope I have conveyed the pressure to get a job completed at harvest time. The threat of rain is a great motivator! Whether the rains will come in the morning is, of course, a moot point – weather forecasting is not an exact science and local areas can have their own micro-climate.

The decision to take out an additional loan to buy the baler was probably the right one – hiring would have cost as much money as the straw was going bring in and the baler is part and parcel for the longer term activities on the farm. Now all we need is a mower and we can do grass bales.

The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed that the trailer taking Barley to the grain store is only half-full. There is a setting in the game that limits the amount of grain you can load on a trailer to its max weight. if you turn it off, then you can fill the trailer to the brim. I personally prefer to have real life limits where possible. That weight limit setting doesn’t seem to affect your limit when carrying big bags or pallets though – based on the amount grain I was allowed to load, the trailer was overloaded when I had 4 bags of chicken feed on board 😉