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.”