A sense of humour can really help if you’re a farmer. With the never ceasing work load, physical labour, endless paperwork, Brexit looming and a myriad of other pressures, if you can’t laugh about it all you’d go mad.
And we all know plenty of people in this industry who are masters of leaving their peers in hysterics. But how many of them take it one step further? Rutland arable farmer Andrew Brown did just that.
Andrew is something of a Renaissance man. He runs a busy 620-acre farm at Caldecott, 60% of which is arable and 40% permanent pasture, in the Welland Valley – on the same piece of land his family has nurtured for 140 years - and appears to be on a mission to constantly improve himself.
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He had a bit of down time in the winter, so he took on, and completed, a law degree. He’s a former regional chairman of the NFU, an ex-High Sheriff of Rutland, an educator with 20 years of welcoming school pupils onto his farm and going into schools to teach people about farming under his belt as well as a plethora of other hats and roles.
And he makes people laugh. So what’s the next logical step? Well, for him, it was to take the plunge and get up on stage with microphone in hand and see if he could make a room full of strangers guffaw into their pint glasses.
“I became a trustee of the Leicester Comedy Festival after I saw they were looking for people to come forward to take on the role – it seemed like an interesting aside,” he said.
“They have a thing every year called the Stand Up Challenge which is for people who’ve never done stand up comedy before to do five minutes of original material. I rather bravely, or stupidly, put myself forward for it last year and then won the competition. That’s how I got into it. It was pretty terrifying.
“This year’s competition has six or seven victims performing and, as 2017’s winner, I’m the finale act.”
An admirer of comedy heroes Tony Hancock, Sean Lock and Tim Vine, as well as cult Radio 4 comedy shows, Andrew has an intimate knowledge of what makes most people laugh. But getting it down on paper is another thing altogether.
“It’s very difficult to write comedy, as I’ve found out,” he said.
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“You get quite tense before you go on stage in front of a lot of people and a lot of preparation goes into it.
“When I won the competition I did quite a few interviews with the local media afterwards. One of them asked me if I was ad-libbing. I was shocked. I told him it took me six weeks to learn my set! You can’t not learn it; that’s the biggest danger. You’re stood there, essentially naked on the stage, with all the lights on you and people staring at you and you don’t need to be thinking ‘what am I going to say next?’.
“And it doesn’t get any easier. But if it goes well you get the applause and the accolades which makes up for the anxiety beforehand.
“I can take a heckle – I was regional chairman for the NFU! It’s all the preparation you need.”
Andrew’s set is a heady mix of self-deprecation, pointed musings on farming and politics and pithy one-liners, all delivered in stereotypical farmer garb (flat cap, plaid shirt, wellies, red nose) after arriving on stage on a child’s toy tractor. Here’s a flavour:
“I was going to bring my girlfriend here tonight but I thought I’d leave her grazing.”
“I always listen to The Archers; then I know what to do the next day.”
“I was an undertaker in Leicester when the man who wrote The Hokey Cokey passed away. We laid him out next to the coffin and all was going well until we tried to put his left leg in…”
And the appetite to hear a funny farmer on stage is not restricted to the countryside. Andrew has performed shows in the heart of London too.
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“I’m a member of the Farmers’ Livery Company and they’d put me on their website. I got a call from the Cripplegate Ward Club in the City of London and it was a proper Cockney guy who said he was the master of the club and he wanted me to come and talk at their Christmas dinner. He asked where I was from and I said Rutland. ‘Never heard of it’, he said, ‘where’s it near?’ and I said Leicester. ‘Oh, I know Leicester’, he said, ‘I bought my Bentley from there!’ It was Del Boy personified. But they were great people who listened intently to my story.”
Whether on stage at a comedy club or in front of schoolchildren, engaging with his audience is hugely important to Andrew.
“When I go to schools and other places and do talks, I always say to them ‘you probably don’t know much about farming and food production – it’s not your fault, because no one’s told you’.
“There’s a massive issue with that because there’s such a disconnect and that’s why people treat food with basic contempt, firstly because it’s too cheap and secondly because they don’t understand what goes into producing it and treat it as a throw-away commodity.
“It’s similar to how people used to treat petrol years ago. Once the price got higher and higher, they began to be more careful with it.
“It’s going to take a massive amount of time and effort to change that. No one else is going to do it, so farmers need to be more prepared to go out and tell people about what we do and how vital it is to this country and beyond.”
Having interests outside of farming is also crucial to farmers’ wellbeing, according to Andrew.
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“There’s too much depression and suicide in farming and that’s because it’s all-consuming – many farmers’ worlds don’t extend beyond the farm gate,” he said.
“Being a farmer is really lonely; you could go all day every day without seeing anybody apart from your immediate family.
“Doing stuff that’s off-farm, without a doubt, is the best way to keep yourself sane. You don’t need to be the richest person in the graveyard.”