Monthly Archives: April 2020

A change in the weather.

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It has to be admitted that we were ready for this rain. As it was we’d neatly ricocheted from one extreme to another. This winter was ridiculously wet. We never had flooding as such, but there was standing water where the water table was now higher than ground level. So if we were ever going to get any spring work done, something had to change.

And it changed spectacularly. Not only has it been fine and dry, but we’ve also had a pretty constant easterly breeze. Looking back, in this part of the world, we normally need something to dry some of our land out after winter, and if we had to wait for sun and heat, we’d be waiting until August. So really we rely on a spell of easterly winds.
They can be a bit much of a good thing if we get them too early, because they can be cold as well as dry, which can delay things. Indeed one spring I remember all our grass on east facing slopes was short, crisp, and almost blue. The grass on the other side of the slopes was absolutely fine. Basically we took first cut silage earlier than usual because the grass facing east was disappearing.

This year the wind was warm, dried things up nicely but it was getting to be too much of a good thing. Looking round you can spot those crops sown at the start of the dry spell. They’ve had enough moisture to germinate. Grass seed sown in the last couple of weeks has just sat there.

The problem is that when it starts raining along the west side of the country it can forget when to stop. Whilst it seems as if we’re barely into spring, in another fortnight a lot of people will be silaging. Indeed further south some have undoubtedly started already. We’re getting next winter’s fodder in even as we’re still finishing off this winter’s.
Indeed looking around, a lot of people do have a lot of fodder left. I see round bales in tidy stacks on a lot of farms. In spite of some dry spells, last year wasn’t a bad year for growing forage round here and I think a lot of people took advantage of it.

Looking at weather patterns over the past few years, we’ve had some drier spells in summer, which are unusual for us although perhaps more normal for the south east. So I suspect this fodder could well come in if we have another drought. It’ll help carry stock through a few dry weeks and take the pressure of the grazing.

When you stop and think about if, for all the talk about climate change and its impact on farming, we’re used to climate changing. After all I’ve farmed through the droughts in the 1970s, and the bitter winters (for us) of the 1980s. So whilst the underlying drift in climate might be in one particular direction, actually the variation between individual years is actually greater than the difference between ‘average climate back then’ and ‘average climate now.’

I remember travelling down to see family in the SE one year. It was so dry the motorway verges were catching fire, and you could tell a ‘field of grass’ from a ‘field of stubble’ because stubble doesn’t have occasional stalks of ragwort sticking two feet into the air. Yet when I got home, some of our land was still green and lush. Indeed one field had dried out a bit, but it merely meant I could travel across the entire field, and I got to mow the rushes. We baled them and used them instead of straw for bedding. Well it probably saved me three or four hundred pounds.

And that’s the thing. Agriculture is pretty resilient. We have to be, we’ve faced a generation or more of falling prices. People are getting less per litre of milk today than I was getting in the early 1990s. I wonder how many other people could cope with trying to live on their 1990 hourly rate?
In simple terms, farmers are used to surviving by a stream of hand-to-mouth expedients. The idea is that they get you through the rough bits, and hopefully when you survive into the good times, you can catch up with investment and get things set up to run properly. In fact you might even over-engineer your solutions because you know damned well that at some point they’re going to have to run long past when they were supposed to, during the next bad spell.

The last time milk prices dropped spectacularly I was talking to one chap who worked for an agricultural supplier. Everybody was tightening their belts. Including his employers who were acting as an unofficial bank as customers got as much trade credit as they could. But one customer was looking seriously at putting up a new building and expanding. But obviously this expansion was on hold. Anyway prices picked up, and as a good rep should, in casual conversation he asked the customer whether he was still looking at putting up a new building. “Oh yes,” the customer answered, “But Father wants us to have a decent cash buffer ready for the next price crash. So we’ll probably put up the building next year.”

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There again, what do I know?
Available in paperback or ebook we have the real experts

 

As a reviewer commented, “Jim Webster’s stories make me nostalgic for a world I’ve never known – and probably am not sturdy enough to survive. His affection for his charges, the ewes and the lambs, is evident when he points out they are smarter than horses (horses have better PR). His warm tales about his sheep dogs make me want to own a dog (I’m not a dog person, and these are intelligent farm worker dogs, not pets). It’s the straightforward and down home way he writes about the daily life of someone who’s been a farmer since a child, through all the wavering government support and lack thereof, through the plagues of the farm life, in a way that shows the depth of his love for his home and profession. Think ‘James Herriot, Farmer.’

I’m stopping to write this review at the end of the 8th entry, labeled, ‘Occasionally you get it right,’ because he does – and I want to savor the rest of them slowly.

Jim Webster is a writer – I can give no higher praise. Read him, and you may be a little closer to what it really means to be a sheep farmer, as close as you can get. You get all the good stuff. It’ll warm your cockles.”

So who is key?

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When I looked across at this view this morning whilst I was feeding heifers, it did strike me that I’ve not got a bad place to be ‘self-isolated’ in. Looking east across Morecambe Bay towards the hills of the Pennines.

But on one of my rare forays onto social media today somebody had posted something along the lines of, “Give all key workers a pay increase because applauding them isn’t enough.” So I merely asked in the comment section, “So are people willing to pay the food price increase so the key workers in food retail and production can get a pay rise?”
Well that killed that conversation stone dead.

And of course when I looked at the article the person had shared, the ‘key workers’ were only the public servants anyway. I wonder if we’re starting to see first and second class ‘key workers’ appearing. Those who have good unions who can grab the limelight and those who haven’t?
Who are the ‘unsung’ key workers? Well if you can read this it’s because your broadband works and the various engineers, linesmen and the like are still out there working. If you’ve still got electricity and gas, then likewise.

When you ordered your stuff from Amazon or bought something off ebay, did it arrive? Lucky the postmen and other delivery drivers are working isn’t it. Talking to our postman (we’re rural, we do all sorts of weird things that would never happen amongst the urban elite) he commented that everything is manic. They’re delivering every other day on rural rounds because they’ve got more stuff to shift than at Christmas but with fewer people to do it because they have people off sick.
Then there are all those people in warehouses, sorting your stuff out so the stuff you ordered gets to you.

Then there’s the lass in Tesco, you know, the one everybody ignores as they fiddle with their phone as she works the till. To be honest she strikes me as pretty key as well.

And then there’s us down at the scruffy and disreputable end. I did comment to somebody that for most of my day I don’t notice the whole lockdown situation. It’s spring, we’re busy. But not just us. Pick up a phone and order feed and in in the feed mills people are still going in to work. Milk Tanker drivers are still driving milk tankers. In abattoirs and packing sheds people are starting the process through which what we produce ends up on your table.
Then there are the unsung ones, the care workers going from house to house to look after the elderly and most vulnerable. Our society might not collapse without them, but it would be a far poorer place, and without them and what they do, I think we’d struggle to call ourselves a decent people.
So to be honest, I rather agree with the comment the person made. The key workers should get a pay rise. It ought to be a good one so they can afford the increase in the cost of food which will actually pay for the rise a lot of them deserve.

But when you actually look at the key workers, the ones who are keeping the show on the road and are holding things together, the ones who really matter, two things strike me.

Firstly, even allowing for doctors etc., I bet their average salary is below the national average.

Secondly, I’d put serious money on far fewer of them having degrees.

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What do I know? Ask the expert, available in paperback or ebook

As a reviewer commented, “This is a delightful collection of gentle rants and witty reminiscences about life in a quiet corner of South Cumbria. Lots of sheep, cattle and collie dogs, but also wisdom, poetic insight, and humour. It was James Herriot who told us that ‘It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet’ but Jim Webster beautifully demonstrates that it usually happened to the farmer too, but far less money changed hands.

I, for one, am hoping that this short collection of blogs finds a wide and generous audience – not least because I’m sure there’s more where this came from. And at 99p you can’t go wrong!”

A ditch in time

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I can just about remember them digging out our beck. It was some time in the very early 1960s. My memories of what it was like before are hazy, I can remember sitting on a trailer being pulled by a tractor and going over one of the bridges. I can remember looking down through one of the holes in the trailer floor and seeing the water below me through one of the holes in the bridge.

I remember being told that there were beck boards, which may have been a version of the ‘internal drainage boards’. These used to look after the beck. Apparently they were the local landowners who were allowed to collect a rate from other landowners and they spent the money on maintenance. Being landowners and knowing how the universe worked, they didn’t spend all the money they collected but they put some into reserves because everybody needs reserves. Then the distant ancestor of the Environmental Agency stepped in. They took over all the functions, plus the cash stashed away, and in our case they made our beck deeper and wider. Looking at the cross section I always supposed it was dug by somebody who had a ‘good war’ digging anti-tank ditches and decided to revisit the glories of his earlier career.

When I was young, like about eight or nine, I can remember going down to the beck, sitting under one of the bridges and looking at the young plaice on the sandy/muddy bed. They were the size of half-a-crown. We even got eels.

Indeed I can remember being with my father as he cleaned some of the field drains out and we watched water running up the drain from the beck. My father commented that, “It’s high tide, stick your finger in the water and lick it.”
The water was salt.

Then for some reason those in authority decided to put a sluice on the seaward end of the beck. I haven’t a clue why, but then ‘The man from Whitehall knows best’ and since when was it the job of the bureaucracy to explain its decisions to the people the decisions would impact on?
Anyway that rather screwed things for the plaice and eels. Not only that but the beck then started getting choked up with vegetation because it didn’t have salt water washing up it regularly.

Somebody who farmed nearer the sea than us used to quietly prop the sluice gate open with a length of old fence post which helped a bit, but then the authorities went into major engineering and put a complicated double sluice on it.

But of course they now had to clean out the beck every year. To be fair in the days of the National Rivers Authority they did. But then the Environment Agency took over. The NRA was largely civil engineering led, the EA wasn’t and discovered that you could stop clearing out becks and rivers and say it was environmental and you were saving the earth as well as being able to spend your budget on more fashionable stuff.
So could they please be properly environmental and blow up the sluices so we go back to the nice self-cleaning beck we had for centuries, and of course we’d get the plaice and the eels back as well.

But one way or another I’ve spent too much time in the beck. We fence it. Cattle and sheep still find a way in, and probably most of them find a way out, but there’s always that one idiot.

If you ever have to get a cow out of a ditch there are basically three points of attachment. One is to put a halter on the animal and pull her head first, very very carefully. Personally this isn’t a technique I could use if I could use any other. But there are times when there is only you and the only thing you can get to is the head.

Then there is the cow lifting hoist frame which clamps to the hips. This is probably the safest for everybody but you really have to have a frame and not everybody does. You can clamp the frame to the animal’s hips and pull carefully. Indeed if you have a tractor with a loader you can fasten the frame to the loader and lift as well as pulling.

Finally there is putting the rope under the animal’s chest immediately behind its front legs. Personally I feel it is probably the easiest on the animal, but be seriously careful. The big danger is that the animal might panic and try and climb on you to get herself unstuck. Lying on the bank and pushing the rope under her, then lying on her to get the rope out the other side is probably best. But in these circumstances you might want somebody holding on to your feet. But then it’s the sort of job you end up doing on your own because your co-worker is a dog and frankly she’s not at her best in these circumstances.

We had a cow stuck in the beck. She didn’t come in for morning milking, I was about sixteen and wasn’t in school because it was exam season, so I went down to look for her whilst my father milked. I found her and we stopped milking and went to pull her out. Getting your tractor, ropes and everything sorted and actually pulling her out isn’t a minute’s job and about an hour later we had a wet muddy cow shivering in the field. So I fixed the fence where she’d gone in and walked her home as my Dad went back home on the tractor to get on with milking.

Next morning, she didn’t turn up again, and I found her about six feet from where I’d found her the previous day. Somebody or something had broken a fence post. This time I’d taken a halter and put it on her and pulled so she was tied to a fence post and couldn’t drown or do anything silly. Then the minute milking was finished we went to pull her out.
An hour later, as I walked her in, I was met by my mother. Apparently I was supposed to be sitting one of my O Level exams that morning and the deputy head master had turned up looking for me because the school hadn’t been able to get us on the phone.
So hastily changing into clothes that weren’t wet and muddy, I got into the teacher’s car and went and did the exam. From memory it might have been maths.

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OK so she might not have been at her best with rope work but still

 

As a reviewer commented “Once in a while a book really gets to you. Jim Webster’s book Sometimes I just Sits and Thinks has done just that to me. Jim is a farmer in the English county of Cumbria. His sense of humour shines throughout each episode. If you come from farming stock as I do, this is the book for you. In my mind’s eye I was out there with Jim and his faithful Border Collies Jess and Sal. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book…”

So what is the new normal?

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Everybody talks about getting back to normal but what is normal going to be? Already people are commenting that food prices are rising. I’ve been the one doing the shopping and I’ve noticed that there are no longer the ‘two for one’ offers and special discounts. A friend of mine who shopped at Booths because it was quieter decided that it was also a bit pricy. So she put the same order into Morrisons, click and collect, and discovered that she didn’t save a tenner on the family shop.

The supermarkets have issues. So whilst Tesco, for example, has seen a 30% increase in food sales, apparently they’ve seen a fall in clothing and fuel sales of 70%. Given that food is high turnover, low margins, that’s not a comforting statistic for them.

Add to that they have promised a 10% staff bonus for those working through the pandemic, have hired another 45,000 staff to fill gaps, whilst they are still paying full wages to 50,000 who are sick or forced to stay at home. They will be probably get money from the government to cover those staying at home, and they are getting at £585 million business rate saving. But they reckon that it will cost them somewhere between £650 million and £925 million extra to get them through the lockdown.
Now I admit that the tears are not running down my withered cheeks as I cry bitter tears for their plight. But I mention this because these are the people who will set the market we have to sell into.

So this price increase has nothing to do with increased farm production costs. At the moment farmers are trying to hire labour to pick crops for major retailers without a clue as to whether the retailer will increase the price to cover the farmer’s extra costs or not.

So I think we can assume in the new normal that people will have to pay a higher proportion of their income for food. This isn’t entirely unreasonable. You can see from the chart at the top of the page what proportion of family weekly income is spent on what.
But what else will the new normal entail. There appears to be an acceptance that a lot of jobs will be lost. Looking at the chart one area where a family can make big savings is ‘services’. People have already got out of the habit of just sending somebody in the office out to the local coffee shop for everybody.
Then again, I know a lady who never washes her hair. She visits the hairdresser every week and has it washed, cut, and delicately tinted. I suspect that there will be fewer people doing that in the next year or so.

 

Then there’s travel. I saw a piece in one of the papers saying that the price of flights would be very expensive when they started flying again because the planes would fly half empty because of social distancing. (Stop me if I’m wrong but don’t they work with recycled air anyway? So you’re still rebreathing it even if you sit six feet from somebody) But then the paper pointed out with a lot of people not earning a lot at the moment, there could be a lot fewer people wanting to fly anyway.

But then where are you going to fly to? Which countries will keep up travel restrictions? Also given there are going to be all sorts of versions of the current virus ricocheting around the world as we as a species struggle to get immune to them all, do you really want to fly to somewhere without a really good health service?
Also remember that whilst in this country, the government is forking out huge sums of money to keep things working, a lot of countries don’t have this sort of money. So I suspect we’ll see the tourist industries in a lot of countries just collapse this year and next. Indeed in a lot of these places the economies might survive only because they run at a very low level anyway.

Indeed what about those (often Western owned) companies in the third world who grow cash crops for the western market. Reliant on air-freight and cheap labour, how well will their business model cope?

World Bank report discusses the effect of the pandemic in Sub-Saharan Africa, and raises the spectre of “’a severe food security crisis’ as agricultural production and imports fall.”

 

And what about carbon emissions. It’s a bit early to tell, but I saw this comment,

 

“My expectation is this will drag on for a few years in terms of stunted economic growth,” says Glen Peters, the research director at the Centre for International Climate and Environment Research in Oslo, Norway.

Because economic growth remains tightly linked to carbon emissions on a global scale, Peters says that this could, potentially, lead to a worldwide emissions dip of one percent or more, comparable to what occurred during the 2009 financial crisis. However, if the economic downturn winds up being worse than is currently forecast, emissions could fall even further.”

 

https://www.nationalgeographic.co.uk/environment-and-conservation/2020/04/carbon-emissions-are-falling-sharply-due-coronavirus-not-long

 

However before you think this is a step along the right road, I also read this.

 

“Update 15 April 2020: This analysis was updated in light of new forecasts for global oil demand in 2020, which suggest a significantly larger drop this year. The original version had put the potential impact of coronavirus at 1,600MtCO2 in 2020, equivalent to 4% of 2019 emissions.

This updated tentative estimate is equivalent to around 5.5% of the global total in 2019. As a result, the coronavirus crisis could trigger the largest ever annual fall in CO2 emissions in 2020, more than during any previous economic crisis or period of war.

Even this would not come close to bringing the 1.5C global temperature limit within reach. Global emissions would need to fall by some 7.6% every year this decade – nearly 2,800MtCO2 in 2020 – in order to limit warming to less than 1.5C above pre-industrial temperatures.

To put it another way, atmospheric carbon levels are expected to increase again this year, even if CO2 emissions cuts are greater still. Rising CO2 concentrations – and related global warming – will only stabilise once annual emissions reach net-zero.”

 

https://www.carbonbrief.org/analysis-coronavirus-set-to-cause-largest-ever-annual-fall-in-co2-emissions

 

It strikes me that the various groups lobbying to cut CO2 really have to be careful here. If they applaud the success we’ve achieved, all be it by accident, and make positive suggestions as to how we can take things forward so be get back to people being able to live their lives again, and still keep carbon falling, they could do all right.
But if they adopt a sanctimonious tone and tell people they’ve achieved nothing and they’re going to have to get serious and really give up stuff, they could well find a hacked off population tells them to go forth and multiply.

 

From the farming point of view in the UK, some things are moving in a positive direction. There has been a distinct drop in the number of media articles attacking UK farming. Admittedly you do get people like Chris Packham saying that farmers could have to self-isolate and will not be able to go into the fields. But there again he is BBC and one cannot expect miracles overnight.

Certainly without the ability to fly into the country vegetables produced by grossly exploited third world labour, buying British does seem both the sensible and the moral choice.

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Now it occurs to me that you might really want something to get you out of all this mess. A good book perhaps. Well a friend of mine has just published a 36,500 word e-book ‘Two Novellas‘, which is just $0.99 / £0.99 and includes her new stories ‘A Long Sleep‘ which is a family drama, and ‘Scam!‘, which is of the crime genre.  IT WILL BE FREE ON SATURDAY 18TH APRIL ONLY:

Here’s her blog which gives you some more details about them, and of course, a link so you can buy the book.

https://steviet3.wordpress.com/2020/04/15/two-novellas-a-long-sleep-and-scam/

 

Also, if you just want a chuckle. Just available in paperback is https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B0875JSJVM

 

Once more Tallis Steelyard chronicles the life of Maljie, a lady of his acquaintance. Discover the wonders of the Hermeneutic Catherine Wheel, marvel at the use of eye-watering quantities of hot spices. We have bell ringers, pop-up book shops, exploding sedan chairs, jobbing builders, literary criticism, horse theft and a revolutionary mob.We also discover what happens when a maiden, riding a white palfrey led by a dwarf, appears on the scene.

What are the rules for social distancing when you’re dumping your rubbish in somebody’s gateway?

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As you can see we had visitors, and Sal, as the one in charge and the representative of the proper authorities, is inspecting the evidence. Yesterday, some responsible citizen mowed their lawn. Then they trimmed their hedge and put it through the shredder. Finally they loaded it all into their car and at some point after 5 pm, drove around looking for a place to tip it. Finally they alighted on our gateway.
I confess I struggle to understand mental processes of a person who takes a great deal of care to get their own place looking nice and then dumps their mess on somebody else? I mean, why don’t they just throw it over the hedge into next door and hack them off?

 

Just in case the rules have changed I went to the official page to see what you were allowed to do. There I read the following.

 

“You should only leave the house for very limited purposes:

 

shopping for basic necessities, for example food and medicine, which must be as infrequent as possible.

one form of exercise a day, for example a run, walk, or cycle – alone or with members of your household.

any medical need, including to donate blood, avoid or escape risk of injury or harm, or to provide care or to help a vulnerable person.

travelling for work purposes, but only where you cannot work from home.”

 

Perhaps ‘tipping your crap out of the car and into the hedge’ comes under the ‘one form of exercise a day?’ I suppose we should think ourselves lucky it didn’t include nappies and baby wipes.

 

Last Christmas some muppet drove out of town and dumped a car full of bottles, wrapping paper etc in a gateway of ours. (Is there a pattern here? Are they choosing religious festivals?) Several people saw the heap and posted photos of it all over facebook. Just to shame them into tidying up.
It obviously did have an effect, in a moment of revelation they realised that wrapping paper and envelopes would have their address on. So they came back, sorted through it, and took away everything with an address, leaving the rest.

Well almost everything with an address. Several people locally had already gone through the rubbish and had also extracted envelopes with addresses etc.

Now when I discovered the address I was tempted to drop round with a loader bucket of slurry and tip in on their drive for them. But I resisted the temptation. Instead several people reported it to our local authority, where the chap in charge was utterly hacked off by the way people were tipping rubbish. When he got the name and address he prosecuted and they were fined £600.

Which was rather more than I would have charged them for a loader bucket full of slurry.

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There again, what do I know?

 

As a reviewer commented, “This book charts a year in the life of a Cumbrian sheep farmer. It’s sprinkled with anecdotes and memories of other years. Some parts (especially when featuring Sal, the Border Collie) were so funny as to cause me to have to read them out loud to my husband. It’s very interesting to read these things from the pen of the man who is actually out there doing it – usually in the rain! A very good read.”

Self-sufficiency and just feeding people

Self-sufficiency

It has to be admitted that this virus has turned the world upside down. The late, great, Douglas Adams wrote, “The History of every major Galactic Civilization tends to pass through three distinct and recognizable phases, those of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why, and Where phases. For instance, the first phase is characterized by the question ‘How can we eat?’ the second by the question ‘Why do we eat?’ and the third by the question ‘Where shall we have lunch?”

Thanks to Corvid 19 we have dropped precipitously from the third phase all the way down to the first. “How can we eat?” We’re in survival mode.

When you look at the table which covers various foodstuffs, some of which we’re self-sufficient in, you can see there is some good news.

First seed potatoes. Well we don’t actually eat them, but if we have enough seed potatoes we can grow enough potatoes.

Wheat looks less good. Not only are we not quite self-sufficient, but the wheat we do have could end up producing some pretty sorry looking bread. In simple terms, bread-making wheat is better the more sunshine it gets. This is why, as a rule of thumb, the French grow better bread-making wheat than we do. What we normally do is buy some very high quality American or Canadian milling wheat and use that to bring our average up.

When it comes to meat, there’s plenty of lamb, we’re not bad for beef but pork and poultry are a bit scarce. There again, we’ve plenty of barley so we can keep up beer production and potentially feed more livestock. (So lamb chops, chips and beer are still on the menu.)

Rapeseed oil may not be your cooking oil of choice, so at least we’ve got it.

The problem comes with vegetables and fruit. We import the vast majority of them. (So just don’t expect peas with your chop and chips.)

 

There are various reasons for this. Firstly we don’t have the climate for a lot of fruit. Yes we can grow a damned good apple, but let’s be honest, oranges and bananas are not really our forte.

Secondly a lot of veg is now too cheap to grow in the UK. The major retailers have driven the price down until it’s reached a point where it’s not worth growing in this country. Other countries with cheaper labour and better climate grow it for us.

And finally, unless the crop can be mechanised it needs hand-picking and you struggle to find anybody in this country that is willing to do it. Especially given the fact that it’s hard work, the conditions are often unpleasant (given our climate, this is inevitable) and the money isn’t good. Indeed given the way the major retailers have driven prices down, it’s no wonder the money isn’t good.

So does this actually matter? Whilst we aren’t in the happy situation of our grandparents, where the Great White Queen had millions of happy subjects living under hotter foreign suns who were delighted to send cheap food to us, a lot of people in this country still have that attitude. Food production is something to be done as cheaply as possible, exploiting people they’ll never be forced to apologise to.

Now the problem we have is that, because of the virus, we will struggle to get people to harvest some of our crops. Now I’ve been told by some people that they have no sympathy, because it’s all to do with Brexit and farmers were a bunch of thicko racists who voted for it so can suffer the consequences of their stupidity.

Except it’s nothing to do with Brexit. Arrangements were being put in place to allow for seasonable workers. We imported seasonal workers long before we went into the EU.

The reason people are not coming is, first they are locked down in their home country, and then they struggle to get flights even if they could travel. And finally, do you really want to run the potential risk of riding out a pandemic in a country where you struggle to understand the ICU nurse, and the Priest who gives you the final unction cannot bless you in your own tongue? Or would you rather spend it with your family?
It’s not just us who are suffering. Germany relies on 300,000 seasonal workers, the French have to find fewer, but depending on how you measure it, they still need about 200,000. The Italians need 370,000 seasonal workers and whilst some Italians are not too proud to do the work, they import them from all over the world.

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But it’s not just a European issue. In India farmers are feeding strawberries and lettuce to their cattle because the tourists who would otherwise have eaten them aren’t there anymore. Neither are the street vendors who would have sold them to the local population. Not only that but the lockdown imposed by the Indian government left 120 million migrant labourers struggling to get home and with no money for rent, food or transport. In India harvest is far less mechanised in many areas. Grain sacks are filled manually, manually loaded onto vehicles and manually unloaded again.

Even countries like Brazil are experiencing problems because they’re struggling to get lorry drivers to haul stuff off farm, and there are apparently shortages of spares to keep equipment working.

Because of the uncertainty, some countries are limiting exports. Russian and Kazakhstan have set a limit to grain exports, whilst Vietnam, Cambodia, and India have limited rice exports. Some countries which are major net importers of basic foodstuffs are frantically stockpiling. But in Sub-Saharan Africa, which is a major importer of grain and rice, the governments haven’t the money to stockpile.

Also production of other products has been hit. So Kenya, a major supplier of green beans and peas to Europe, just cannot ship orders because of a lack of flights. So about half of the workers have been sent home.

 

So what is going to happen? Are British people (and Germans and Italians etc.) going to go back to doing field work?

To be honest, if they do I can see positive benefits for society. At the very least it’ll put people back in touch with the realities of food production. So when Mum goes into Tesco or Asda and sees a cabbage she knows exactly what her daughter was paid for picking it, and what the farm got paid for it.
If British people do go back for farm work, what sort of pay are they going to get? Are the supermarkets going to be willing to pay a higher price for the food at the farm gate? After all, even if we do get a lot of new field workers, they won’t be skilled. They won’t have the dexterity and stamina of the people they’re replacing. Obviously some will drop out, but some will stick with it and will eventually reach what you might call a ‘professional’ level. But the wage bill is going to have to rise to cover the extra people needed, even if they aren’t paid more per head.

And then looking ahead, are we going to continue with the obscenity of importing vegetables by air from Kenya when that part of Africa struggles to produce enough basic foodstuffs to feed itself?

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There again, what do I know? Ask an expert

 

As a reviewer commented, “This is a selection of anecdotes about life as a farmer in Cumbria. The writer grew up on his farm, and generations of his family before him farmed the land. You develop a real feeling for the land you are hefted to and this comes across in these stories. We hear of the cattle, the sheep, his succession of working dogs, the weather and the neighbours, in an amusing and chatty style as the snippets of Jim Webster’s countryman’s wisdom fall gently. I love this collection.”

Dog and cat

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Here the ground is drying nicely (so much so that a few pleasant showers during the night would be welcome) but we can now see which ground has taken the worst hammer from the wet of winter. Looking round there’s a lot of field work going on. People spreading hull muck as if their lives depended on it, getting ready for some late ploughing.

Otherwise the world seems to have split. There are those working frantically to keep the show on the road and those who’re trapped and going slowly out of their minds. There can only be so many mindless Facebook games you can play before you start losing the will to live. I must admit I tend to smile and just say ‘Hi’ to people I see walking round our lanes. Anybody who has to cope with what they’re coping with has my entire sympathy.

It has occurred to me that one thing Boris has achieved by not using the law to lock people down and impose social isolation is that he has got people to buy into it. Those who don’t do what is expected are idiots to be pilloried on social media, not revolutionary heroes defying an over mighty state.

Yesterday was something of an event, in that our fortnight’s isolation came to an end and I got to go out and visit Tesco! My lady wife is slowly recovering from the virus, and if anybody does get it, be warned, the recovery is slow. If you get it, do not try to soldier on, and don’t whatever you do try to get back to work the moment you are feeling better. If you do that, experience indicates you’ll just get bad again.
I confess that I’m not an enthusiast for supermarket shopping but it has to be admitted that I was quite impressed. Outside the supermarket we all stood in a queue a fair distance apart. Then when we went in, it was one out, one in. In our local Tesco they’d not made it one way but customer numbers were kept so low nobody felt it a problem to pass people in an aisle. Also people were genuinely friendly and it was all pretty good humoured.

As we stood outside I was between a couple who might have been older than me and a gentleman who most definitely was. Also given there were no queues at the tills it took no longer than normal.

The lady in front of me turned round to me and commented, “I don’t think much of their pensioner’s hour for the elderly and infirm.”

Trying to be helpful I commented that it had been between 9am and 10am. To this she replied, “Yes but they wouldn’t let me in.”

The elderly gentleman behind me, with the courage of advancing years said, “Well you have to be a pensioner you know.”

To which she replied, “I am, I’m sixty-six.”

Now to be fair to the lady (and to the Tesco staff who refused her) she didn’t look it.

The old gentleman commented that if she wanted to pass as elderly in future she’d have to make an effort and try to look old.

She thought about this and suggested that she wear her Nora Batty stockings next time she went shopping.
But some people have had more surreal experiences than me. Talking to one chap, he had to take some sheep through to Kirkby Stephen. This involved him travelling on an entirely empty M6 motorway. Literally nobody else in sight.

Looking at comments made by various people, the sheep trade is very up and down (which is an improvement on just down.) It seems that the old problem of people in the abattoir sector struggling to cope with retailers who haven’t a clue what they want but want it yesterday but under no circumstances tomorrow.

Mind you, on the positive side I was talking to one butcher and he, although his shop had to shut to the public, is keeping going on deliveries and orders telephoned in. He’s seeing a lot of new faces among his customers. It hasn’t necessarily filled the gap left by the various pie shops and cake shops who used to buy off him, but he is hoping he’ll keep some of these customers when things blow over.

 

Finally on the home front, Billy the cat and Sal, The Border Collie in residence, continue to try and work on their relationship. Both seem to have come to the conclusion that the other isn’t essentially a problem and both are entirely happy in their roles. After all, Billy shows no inclination to chase cattle, whilst Sal did kill a token rat to prove it could be done, but seems happy to leave that side of things to Billy.

When it comes to causing trouble, Billy seems to have worked out that Sal is probably bigger and faster, so he sees no margin in upsetting her. Similarly Sal is not the sort of dog to provoke trouble. So as the world around them goes to Hell on a handcart with bored people reading too much Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction and searching for somebody to blame, these two entirely reasonable individuals seem to be happy enough to just sort of rub along.

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If you’re just looking for a chance to get away from it all

Now available in paperback and as an ebook

As a reviewer commented, “Where to start with this review? First of all a health warning. Do not read this book when drinking coffee/beer/WHY. Neither is it a great notion to read somewhere sudden bursts of laughter could be seen as inappropriate.
I must confess upfront to being a fan of Jim Webster’s writing as he has a talent for making the most wildly inconsequential of observations seem matter of fact and perfectly believable. Any of the tales he weaves around the imaginary but utterly believable city of a port Nain are going to be chuckle worthy at the very least.
Therefore I approached the chronicles of Maljie’s varied and exotic life with great expectation.
I wasn’t disappointed.
In fact there were places where I actually howled with laughter.
Our heroine veers from situation to situation – rarely finishing without a profit. And some of her jobs are so silly and improbable. But you still keep reading and chuckling.
The ease with which Jim, in the guise of Tallis Steelyard (poet, visionary and unreliable witness) pilots this rickety craft through the shoals of Maljie’s life is exemplary.
But don’t just take my word for it. Read for yourself. But don’t forget the health warning.”

‘The beck is blocked.’

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Now things are starting to unravel at speed. Looking at livestock, which is what I know best, sheep prices have tanked. In simple terms because like us the French and the rest of our customers are locked down, they’re not dining out and the amount of lamb they’re eating has dropped.

Beef is the same. Butchers are struggling to shift the better hindquarter cuts, the steaks and roasts. This is because a lot of people eat them, but they eat them in carveries and other catering outlets.

Milk is in deep trouble. The big hit comes from Costa and the other cafes closing. In this town, one not especially large coffee shop used 50 litres of (cows’) milk a day. I know some of their customers and contacted some of them. They’re drinking the same amount of coffee but they’re not having the number of lattes they used to.

Obviously there are other factors causing the dislocation, people with stockpiles of milk in their freezer, people who cannot get out to buy milk, and all these things are bouncing off each other making things worse.

The spot price for milk was running at 30p a litre before places like Costa were closed. It then dropped sharply to 15ppl. I heard today prices at 5ppl and 10ppl. Apparently skimmed milk powder and skimmed milk are being poured into anaerobic digesters.

To quote Ian Potter, who knows a fair bit more about this side of things than I do,

 

“Processors cash flow budgets have been blown up and whilst some are clearly very worried over long term farm supply base, they either take mitigation steps in conjunction with their farmers or risk shutting up shop. Most liquid processors Ian has spoken to are having to ditch the code one-month price movement notice period and review the situation almost on a daily basis with several stating “I am working to avoid the Freshways approach”. For sure, sadly some businesses will be casualties.”

 

” This will have very serious long-term consequences and it is starting to feel very painful and time to buckle up and sadly for some it won’t be a case of can I find a new milk purchaser, more can I find a buyer for my cows.”

 

Another issue is that apparently a lot of companies are talking about ‘delaying payment’.

Now I know I’ve got a lot of non-farmers reading this. But ‘milk cheque day’ is sacrosanct. Dairy farmers get paid for their milk a month in arrears. So you’ll get you cheque for March about the 18th of April. (Depends on weekends etc.)All companies seem to stick with the same day they inherited from the Milk Marketing Board. This is one of the underpinnings of the industry. A lot of supply companies try to send the bill out, not at the month end, but so it lands on the kitchen table the day before the milk cheque. Also a large proportion of dairy farmers will have a lot of standing orders/payments which go out two or three days after ‘milk cheque day’. This can take anywhere from 25% upwards of the milk cheque. So if the company delays payment the farmer has to contact finance companies and others to frantically delay payments or get an unapproved extra overdraft. But for a lot of tenants, the overdraft is fixed at twice the milk cheque. So if the price of milk falls, so does the overdraft the bank is willing to lend. This is known as lending you an umbrella but taking it away when it starts to rain. A lot of dairy farmers could be in trouble very rapidly. For some the midden could hit the windmill about the middle of this month.

 

Now what’s the issue? In reality the problem isn’t the virus as such. I’ve probably had it, my lady wife certainly has. The problem is the necessary steps taken to cope with the virus. I’m not knocking the shutdown. We have to keep the number of cases down to a level that the NHS can cope with. If you read the modelling, to cope with this virus without the sort of shutdown we’re experiencing we’d need to run with about 275 critical care beds per 100,000 population. Europe averages about 11.

And remember that you are advised to have 7 critical care nurses per ICU bed. So the Europe (in its geographical not political sense,) has about 600,000 appropriately trained nurses. To match the number of critical care beds we’d need to go through this illness without lockdown, we’d need something over 14 million intensive care nurses, properly trained. To put this in proportion, that’s pretty much like saying every man, woman and child in Norway and Sweden have to be intensive care nurses.

The problem is that our usual routes to market are blocked. It’s like the picture above where a stream was blocked. Food is building up at one side of the blockage, and eventually it’ll get short at the other side. But just as when the beck gets blocked, water does eventually find a way around. In a while the water finds its way round the obstacle and largely goes back into its old course.

Our problem is that the workarounds are going to be less good than the old route to market. If the price of hindquarter beef falls, are more consumers going to be tempted to cook it at home? Will they turn to lamb, or drink more milk in their tea?

The obvious solution is actually to get the beck unblocked as soon as possible, or we’re going to be left with a nasty muddy mess as everybody paddles about in the muck trying to sort things out.

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There again what do I know?
Wisdom now 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.”

 

Should we close footpaths because of Coronavirus?

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I think there are a couple of sides to this. There are those footpaths which run up along the side of the house. Now might be a good time to get them diverted. But that is from a general privacy point of view. It has very little to do with the virus, although the authorities might be more sympathetic if you get your appeal in now.  But for most footpaths I think the answer is strictly no.
First let’s look at the reality of the situation. At the moment my lady wife and I are locked down because we’re recovering from what was probably coronavirus. The embarrassing thing about this virus is that that majority of us will end up being a bit vague as to whether we’ve had it or not.

Even if you get it, how serious is it. There’s an interesting article in the Lancet

 

https://www.thelancet.com/journals/laninf/article/PIIS1473-3099(20)30244-9/fulltext

 

“A unique situation has arisen for quite an accurate estimate of the CFR of COVID-19. Among individuals on-board the Diamond Princess Cruise ship, data on the denominator are fairly robust. The outbreak of COVID-19 led passengers to be quarantined between Jan 20, and Feb 29, 2020. This scenario provided a population living in a defined territory without most other confounders, such as imported cases, defaulters of screening, or lack of testing capability. 3711 passengers and crew were on-board, of whom 705 became sick and tested positive for COVID-19 and seven died, giving a CFR of 0·99%. If the passengers on-board were generally of an older age, the CFR in a healthy, younger population could be lower.”

 

Indeed if you assume that cruise passengers tend to be in the 60+ or even the 70+ age groups, looking at this chart you’d expect the morality to be a lot higher. So perhaps it isn’t quite as lethal as the initial fears?

 

Capture

 

 

The problem is we’re living in a 24 hour news cycle. In our village an older lady had to be taken into hospital. After two days being treated from pneumonia as a complication of the virus infection, she was brought home to recover there. But ‘elderly lady not very ill’ isn’t the sort of story the media is seeking.

The problem is that the ‘There’ll be a million dead and Boris has their blood on his hands,’ school of social media warrior is actually causing even more grief. A lady I know works for a medical centre. She wrote in her blog, “It appears that most of the middle aged or elderly patients are not turning up for their clinic appointments, thereby not undergoing Lucentis, Eylea or Avastin injections to save their eyesight from the ravages of wet age-related macular degeneration.“

Let’s not beat about the bush, they have a very slight chance of dying if they go for treatment and a very very high chance of going blind if they don’t. Terrifying people for a bad news story or political capital isn’t going to end well for a lot of people.

 

Not only that, but others are kicking against the full lockdown. The Swedes for example. This article is interesting.

 

https://unherd.com/2020/03/all-eyes-on-the-swedish-coronavirus-experiment/

 

One part of the article really did interest me.
“Tegnell doesn’t like to describe his strategy as ‘herd immunity’ but he talks openly about the inevitability of the disease passing through a large chunk of the population, and even says that containing the disease like South Korea is doing would not even be desirable, since it will surely only come back. His stated goal is to slow the spread of the infection to a manageable pace, and he doesn’t believe a mandated lockdown is necessary to achieve that.

 

So far, so technical. But look more closely and the difference between the UK and Swedish approaches is as much about politics as science.

 

I spent much of the weekend on the telephone to friends, family and journalists from both Left and Right in Sweden and it felt like I’d fallen through the looking glass into an upside-down world. It almost could be the UK, just with a few political factors flipped over.

 

First, the fact that they are standing apart is a point of pride as much as concern. There is a note of Swedish exceptionalism, particularly when contrasted with longstanding competitors Denmark and Norway (both of whom have opted for a very thorough lockdown). I heard multiple theories as to why their Scandinavian neighbours were different, ranging from Denmark and Norway’s occupation during the Second World War having given them have a residual mistrust of authority, to the Danish government’s political desire to look strong. It couldn’t be further from the UK instinct, which is to take any differences with other countries as proof of our own sluggishness and inadequacy.

 

Second, the Government is a centre-Left coalition, which changes everything. Alongside a deep-seated Swedish respect for technical experts, this means that support for the more moderate strategy is considered the enlightened left-liberal position; unlike the UK or the US, the knowledge class are fully on-side. Anders Tegnell himself has a left-of-centre feel about him, making regular reference to the importance of equality in the government’s chosen course. This means, although he continues to meet with criticism, there are no online hordes of political activists demanding a lockdown.”

 

Even with the lockdown, we have to accept that in the next couple of years pretty much everybody in the UK is going to get the virus anyway.

If you want to see the modelling that the current lock down is based on it’s written in simple terms so that politicians and political activists can understand it.

 

https://www.imperial.ac.uk/media/imperial-college/medicine/sph/ide/gida-fellowships/Imperial-College-COVID19-NPI-modelling-16-03-2020.pdf

 

Again, in simple terms, the lockdown is to reduce the strain on our intensive care system. A proportion of those who do get the virus need treatment in intensive care (pretty much like flu really). If the intensive care system isn’t overloaded, then the recovery rate is pretty good. If the intensive care system is overloaded and a lot of people cannot get the treatment, then a lot more people die.

So the plan put forward for getting out of this situation is to lift restrictions when the number of people in icu with the virus drops to 50 a week and clamp down again when the number of people in icu with it rises to 100 a week. We seesaw into the next year as more and more people get the virus and become immune. Also at that point there might even be a vaccine.

 

But there’s another reason for not shutting the footpaths (other than it’s not necessary.)
At the moment I’m locked down. I’m self-isolating on a hundred acres and anyway I’m busy. Can you imagine the poor sod who’s stuck in a small three bedroom terraced house with spouse and two children! Or somebody in a flat? Even if you’ve got a semi, it’s hardly spacious.

And a lot of people are being tightly banged up. I know one chap who does have an autoimmune condition. He’d planned to self-isolate at home, then drive down here with his air rifle and self-isolate miles from anybody just shooting rats for us. His employer sent him home and he was informed that if he was even seen outside the house that would be reason for immediate dismissal.

But on the positive side, where are all those vegan activists? When the supermarket shelves emptied, about the only thing left was the vegan options. At the moment we’re the ‘good guys.’ Indeed it may well be that the major chemical companies are going to have better things to do, what with branching into medicines and vaccine manufacture, than trying to make ‘vegan meat substitutes.’
So when normality resumes and the assorted single issue pressure groups raise their head again (They will, they’ve got to justify their salaries and pay their mortgages like everybody else) they’ll be all over the media.
Do you what our customers to listen to the various fringe groups and mutter, “Yeah, the farmers, they’re the bastards that shut down the countryside.”

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There again what do I know? Wisdom available from the expert in paperback and ebook format

As a reviewer commented, “Another excellent compendium of observations from the back of Mr. Webster’s quad bike in which we learn a lot more about sheep, border collies and people. On the whole, I think the collies come out of it best. If you fancy being educated on the ways of the world, with a gentle humour and a nice line in well observed philosophy, you could do a lot worse than this.”