We are not the men our Grandfathers were

They say that behind every good software writer there is a man with a mallet to tell him when to stop.

Fixing fences is a bit like that. It’s normally comparatively easy to know where to start, but working out when you’ve got the fence ‘good enough’ as opposed to ‘good’ is a more subjective decision.

The problem is I remember what it was like in my Grandfather’s day. I was only a kid, but I saw, and worked, under the old regime. On a weekend when I wasn’t at school, I’ve thinned turnips by hand and planted potatoes by hand as well. By the time I was a senior school my Grandfather had retired and we’d given up on turnips and potatoes and gone over to livestock.

In the way that these things can happen, for a number of years I farmed exactly the same land as my Grandfather did. He had thirty-two dairy cows, plus ‘followers’. That probably means he had another forty or fifty younger cattle. He also had sixty sheep. Then he’d grow a few acres of barley for feed, a few acres of turnips or kale, and a couple of acres of potatoes.

He worked himself, employed two or three full time men and a ‘lad’. Financially he ‘did alright’, had holidays most years and a prosperous retirement.

On the same land, at one point I had seventy dairy cows plus thirty sucklers and over a hundred young stock. This I farmed with one full time man. We got to the stage that we realised the full time man was the only person getting a living out of the place and we re-jigged the business so I was working on my own rearing up to 240 young stock a year, buying them as calves and selling them at between a year and two years old.

But during this time I also had to work as a freelance journalist/writer to ensure we did have an income every year.

For the next generation, those who’re doing most of the work now, the job is even harder. On the same land there are over 400 ewes and an indeterminate number of cattle (their number depends on price and cash flow.)

But as well as this, you’ve got to work six or seven hours a day somewhere else to make a living.

So there’s me, fixing a fence. It was fine when I started, but eventually it started to drizzle. Not enough to be worth going back home for a coat, so I just kept going.

Now remember my idea of what a hedge and fence should look like was determined when this farm had four adult men and a lad working full time. That’s the sort of workforce that created and maintained the countryside people claim to love.

I finally decided that the fence was ‘good enough’ at about the same time that it stopped being drizzle and became torrential rain with added sleet for seasonal variety.

And what will happen to the countryside? Who knows? Government claims to put money into it with environmental payments. The amounts are derisory. Certainly they’re not enough to employ the three extra men that this farm used to have and it’s the labour of these men that kept everything maintained properly. Last time I checked, even if we could get the environmental payments, we’d get the princely sum of about £3,000 a year. I’d struggle to employ two men and a lad on that.

But money has been bled out of the industry. As a general rule of thumb you can reckon that each generation can live entirely on organic food and only spend the same proportion of their income on food as their parents did, buying conventional food.

So where’s the money gone? Think what you spend money on now that you didn’t spend it on before. I saw one comment that most families in the UK spend more a week on their Sky subscription than they do on meat. Similarly, the money for the mobile phone contract, thirty years ago there wasn’t even the concept of one of them, what has society stopped spending on to pay for that? Or TV boxed sets? Is money being spent on them rather than books, or beer in pubs or on buying decent food or what?

My guess is that we’ll get more and more posturing. People might even vote ‘Green’. But what has gone has gone. The countryside is changing and will continue to change; we’ll lose stuff because people don’t really want it as much as they want the other stuff.

And me, I’ll keep plodding on, remembering how it should be done because I’m old enough to have seen it done properly.

And I’ll do what I can and continue to write to try and ensure we have an income every year.

So buy the book and get all this thrown in free.




Still what do I know?

Available in paperback or as an ebook

As a reviewer commented, “This is the third collection of farmer Jim Webster’s anecdotes about his sheep, cattle and dogs. This one had added information on the Lake District’s World Heritage status. This largely depends upon the work of around 200 small family farms. Small may not always be beautiful but it can be jolly important. If you want to know the different skills needed by a sheep dog and a cow dog, or to hear tales of some of the old time travelling sales persons – read on! This is real life, Jim, but not as I know it.”

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11 thoughts on “We are not the men our Grandfathers were

  1. The state we are in… | Will Once March 11, 2015 at 1:52 pm Reply

    […] friend Jim wrote an interesting blog today about the farming industry and how we are not the men our grandfathers were. An excellent and thought provoking blog from Jim, as […]

  2. Will Once March 11, 2015 at 1:53 pm Reply
    • jwebster2 March 11, 2015 at 2:11 pm Reply

      It’s interesting, is the ‘better product’ the one that sells or is there some canonical standard of better? Is Jeffery Archer a ‘better’ writer than Richard Flanagan (Who won the 2014 Man Booker prize).
      As an aside, as someone who doesn’t own a single Apple product, I’ll not be buying the watch because I have no room for that sort of stuff in my life.

      • Will Once March 11, 2015 at 3:51 pm

        The free marketeers would argue that “better” is whatever gives the customer what they want, whether this is cheaper, more powerful, better written, whatever.

        But this is so highly skewed by marketing tricks that it isn’t working as it was supposed to. For example two neighbouring houses can pay very different amounts for utilities because one switches supplier frequently and the other doesn’t. That throws the free market out of the window – instead of competing to make a better product or cheaper electricity, the providers are competing to see who can con the public most effectively.

      • jwebster2 March 11, 2015 at 10:12 pm

        Once you take the con into account, you can add politics and general elections to the free market. Effectively democracy becomes a free-market process, where the electorate ‘buy’ what they think of as the ‘best offer’. In fact given that they know they’re being conned, perhaps we can then assume this knowledge in the commercial world as well?

      • Will Once March 14, 2015 at 9:33 am

        Yup – it also applies to politics. The problem is that the public know they are being conned in both politics and retail, but they can’t spot the genuine article from the con.

        The difference seems to be that politics is now largely negative. The political parties thrive on attacking each other. That has given the impression that all of politics is corrupt and broken. It isn’t – it’s just hard to separate the wheat from the chaff.

        Consumerism tends to work the other way around. Because the marketing is mostly positive, we tend to think that all consumption is good. And again we can’t see the good from the bad.

      • jwebster2 March 14, 2015 at 9:52 am

        I suspect it’s a generational thing. I saw an interesting article a week or so back which reckoned that with politics the spin of the previous decade no longer works in this decade. I suspect that with advertising there is probably a similar process. People will ‘evolve’ to cope.
        I must confess that I seem to have evolved to largely screen out adverts. I took part in a survey and discovered I didn’t recognise adverts that I had ‘seen’ in the newspaper earlier that day.
        Another factor is probably the degradation of ‘good’. When everything’s good, the good has to be stupendous. When everything is stupendous, the advertisers have to invent new words or borrow it from the kids (Wicked, for example)
        I’m perhaps a little more optimistic, I suppose the people who always got conned will still get conned, but I don’t think the proportion of the population being conned will rise significantly.
        The cynic might comment that the biggest risk is that the proportion of the population being conned will believe the politicians who say that they can stop this happening, thus conning them all over again.

      • Will Once March 14, 2015 at 10:26 am

        I’m not so sure. People stay more or less the same from generation to generation but the marketing techniques are getting increasingly more sophisticated. You may be the exception if you don’t notice the adverts!

      • jwebster2 March 14, 2015 at 10:51 am

        The reason marketing techniques have to get more sophisticated is that the old ones no longer work. That to me is a hopeful sign 🙂

  3. Andreas Johansson April 25, 2015 at 9:59 am Reply

    “People might even vote ‘Green’.”

    Are the English greens considered good for farmers? The local variety is widely detested by rural folk for being hellbent on strangling local agriculture by rising diesel taxes and prohbitively expensive environmental rules.

    • jwebster2 April 25, 2015 at 10:14 am Reply

      As far as I can tell, with regards to agriculture, Green policy appears to be let the British people starve in the dark 😦

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