Pontifications along a road less travelled, delayed gratification.

Loading milk churns onto lorry


It’s a funny topic, delayed gratification, and it’s entirely possible to get deep and philosophical without answering the question. Or indeed without even acknowledging there is a question that needs to be answered with any sort of haste.

Back in 1965 when my parents started farming, what happened was that my father and his brother-in-law both rented a farm off my grandfather. He’d had 34 cows, 60 sheep and a handful of young-stock. Because my father had always quite liked working with sheep he bought the sixty sheep and then the two brothers-in-law split the 34 cows between them. The cows were still tied up for winter, so all that happened is that they let every other cow out, and these seventeen were walked next door to where we lived and were the start of our herd.

On his two farms, with that level of stocking, my grandfather had employed three men and a boy, and he’d also worked. Almost immediately, because both new farms were borrowing money to start off with, the amount of labour was cut. It dropped to two men and ‘family labour.’ At the time this meant the wife helped out when she wasn’t working. Still the aim was that when the businesses were properly established and the debt paid off, they’d employ people.

The economic situation back then was pretty positive, even in the early 1970s my father could work on increasing the herd to 30+ cows and that would keep two families, assuming that at some point I would get married etc.

But the world turns, that was a period of massive inflation, governments needed to keep food prices down to provide cheap food to ensure that they didn’t have an unhappy electorate. But by then we were behind the EU tariff wall which keeps food prices up by excluding cheap imports from the rest of the world. So the UK government couldn’t just drive down prices by encouraging cheap imports.

So instead they destroyed the Milk Marketing Board, and when farmers formed a co-op to market their milk, they destroyed that as well, forcing farmers to form multiple smaller trading bodies or sign directly with processors.

This nicely drove prices down. It fitted in well with supermarket plans. They used their market dominance to undercut those who were running milk rounds, and we’re now at the stage where rounds-men are a novelty and the major retailers have largely carved up the liquid market.

And of course they’ve kept the price of milk down. By the time I stopped producing milk in 1999 there was me, with 60+ cows, thirty sucklers and an awful lot of young stock across the same land my grandfather had farmed with himself, three men and a boy. Admittedly I still had family labour, but thanks to the EU my lady wife had a nearly full time job just coping with the paperwork.

But anyway, governments and consumers got what they wanted, cheap food. Consumers now had money they could spend, which largely seems to have gone into creating the online world with everybody having computers, laptops, netflix, smart phones etc and being ‘connected’. Admittedly there were issues. One man on his own hasn’t got the same amount of time as four men and a lad when it comes to doing things like walling and hedging and keeping the countryside looking like it should.

But supermarkets were making lots of money, (until of course the online retailers started eating their lunch. And ironically part of the reason there was money available for the growth of the online world is that people are spending far less of their income on food. The rule of thumb is that this generation can eat organically and spend a smaller proportion of their income on food than did their parent’s generation eating conventionally.)

But still, government and consumers and even supermarkets got what they wanted, almost immediately.

But to get it when they wanted they’ve been faced with a price that they’re still paying. Cheap food leads to a cheap countryside, maintained on the cheap

Oh yes, delayed gratification. I’ll have to get round to discussing it with you some time in the future.



More tales from a lifetime’s experience of peasant agriculture in the North of England, with sheep, Border Collies, cattle, and many other interesting individuals. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is just one of those things.



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15 thoughts on “Pontifications along a road less travelled, delayed gratification.

  1. jenanita01 June 27, 2018 at 9:35 am Reply

    Reblogged this on anita dawes and jaye marie.

  2. jenanita01 June 27, 2018 at 9:36 am Reply

    Better late than never, they say… but I’m not so sure…

  3. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt June 27, 2018 at 9:43 am Reply

    Governments, especially central ones, make decisions they do not get held accountable for until maybe the next elections. Often, never. They get to muck about with other people’s livelihood and not suffer for it. And them getting voted out never reverses their messes.

    And they can ‘sign legislation’ overnight which devastates millions of people.

    Delayed gratification: taking fifteen years to write a book, and, so far, three more to market it rather unsuccessfully, and to start working on the second one.

    • jwebster2 June 27, 2018 at 9:52 am Reply

      the damage caused can ripple through the system long after the government has left power

  4. rootsandroutes2012 June 27, 2018 at 10:05 am Reply

    You’re a farmer, Jim, not a greengrocer – so you know you don’t need the apostrophe in paragraph 2 line 1. Of course we all need to see cows’ nests around the place. I wonder how soon they’ll be back.

  5. Stevie Turner June 28, 2018 at 10:43 am Reply

    Thanks for explaining all this, Jim. How do arable farmers compare with dairy farmers? Is arable farming any more lucrative? I used to work for a lime/fertiliser company back in the 1990s. Farmers then complained mostly about the weather..

    • jwebster2 June 28, 2018 at 1:12 pm Reply

      looking back, in the Arable world that was still not a bad time
      But arable isn’t more lucrative, it’s just that to be arable and viable you’re a lot bigger business and the nature of the business means weekends off etc are possible.
      But if the price of wheat drops so you’re losing £10 a ton, being big and producing 10,000 tons just means you lose an awful lot of money.

      • Stevie Turner June 28, 2018 at 6:55 pm

        Thanks for the explanation.

      • jwebster2 June 28, 2018 at 7:13 pm

        some arable is very erratic. Potatoes was one crop where you had a lot of years where you barely made anything, a lot of years where you actually lost money, and every so often, perhaps one in ten, you had a good crop and nobody else did. They used to call them ‘helicopter years’ because you made so much money you bought a helicopter. But across a fifteen or twenty year cycle you didn’t do any better than anybody else

      • Stevie Turner June 28, 2018 at 9:14 pm

        The farmers who bought the lime / fertiliser all seemed to be ‘gentlemen’ farmers who were not short of a bob or two, which is why I wondered whether arable farming is more lucrative. You’ve certainly opened my eyes a bit more!

      • jwebster2 June 28, 2018 at 9:17 pm

        they’d be running bigger businesses, and in a good year could make a lot of money, and in a bad year, lose at lot.
        The wise ones would make investments outside agriculture in the good years, so that they had other income coming in to carry them through the bad years

  6. patriciaruthsusan June 28, 2018 at 2:49 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on Musings on Life & Experience and commented:
    Jim and the farming business over the years in the U.K.

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