Monthly Archives: May 2020

Spilt milk and social distancing.

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The sun continues to beat down on us, things are distinctly dry, but there’s vague hopes of a drop of rain about Wednesday, so who knows, we might get some.

Because things were so wet over winter, the rain that we’ve had has just about been enough to keep us going, but I’ve noticed some of the sandy land is starting to burn off again. To be honest this is three months earlier than we could expect it. Still we’ve still time for torrential rain and flooding in July.

I saw a comment which sums the area up. Somebody was asking for advice on when to visit Cumbria, they had a choice of June or July and somebody else had answered, “Forget trying to predict the weather, either month could be hot and sunny or cold and wet.”

Yep, that’s Cumbria.

We’re starting to see hints of other changes on the horizon. Apparently, “Searches on Rightmove by Londoners for homes outside the capital were up to 51 per cent compared to 42 per cent this time last year.

The number of home searches by people in Edinburgh, Birmingham, Liverpool, Sheffield, Glasgow and Bristol looking at property outside their cities also rose, as people in lockdown reassessed their lives.”

 

Now we don’t know whether these urges to move will last any longer than the urges to declutter, learn Sanskrit, or stop eating junk food. But it does strike me that the lockdown largely negates the advantages of living in a major city. Also with so many people working from home, why not work from home somewhere worth living?

Why I’m so interested is that this isn’t a new phenomenon but part of a growing trend.

 

“According to the statistics, 73,000 people living in the capital chose to buy property elsewhere in 2019, which is up more than 10,000 from five years ago and around 32,000 from 10 years ago in 2009.

And they’re not just moving to commutable towns and cities around London any more. Last year saw the highest number of Londoners move to the north of the country at 13%, up from just 1% who did so a decade ago. A further 15% moved to the Midlands.

While the highest proportion (69%) did stick to the south when they said goodbye to the capital, this is a major fall from 92% back in 2009.”

 

https://www.buyassociation.co.uk/2020/01/16/record-number-of-londoners-leaving-the-capital-for-the-north-of-england/

 

So generally are we going to see more people moving into rural areas? Provided you’ve got decent broadband, then you can sell in London and buy elsewhere secure in the knowledge you can work adequately from home. Indeed I know a lot of people who have sold small properties in London and become cash buyers of far nicer and larger properties in the north. This has been true for decades, provided you never intended to move back into London, it was a shrewd move. I remember an auctioneer telling me that one couple had decided that this was going to be their last move, sold in London and ended up buying a farm off him as a cash buyer. The auctioneer arranged for a local farmer to rent the land off them. At that point the chap who’d bought the farm looked at the cheque he was being paid for the rent and pondered early retirement.

There are problems, do rural communities need an influx of new people with no real understanding of the community? Is it going to push rural house prices up even further?
But then, on the horizon, there are other indicators that the world is changing. “Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said Thursday that most Facebook employees can work from home wherever they want. But they should not expect to get Silicon Valley salary levels if they relocate to less-expensive areas.

Speaking at an internal employee town hall meeting livestreamed on Facebook, Zuckerberg said the company will take a “more measured approach to opening permanent remote work for existing employees.”  Currently, most Facebook workers can opt to work from home through the end of the year, thanks to the pandemic.

Now, Zuckerberg envisions that over the next decade or more, about half of Facebook’s workers could be remote. But there’s a lot of “ifs,” “ands” and “buts” attached – although not butts in the seats.

If you qualify for remote work and move to cheaper areas, you will have to tell Facebook, and pay will be adjusted accordingly, Zuckerberg said. There will be “severe ramifications” for those discovered to be falsifying addresses.

“We’ll adjust salary to your location at that point,” said Zuckerberg, who said the adjustment would be necessary for taxes and accounting. “There’ll be severe ramifications for people who are not honest about this.” He added the system will work on the “honor code,” but will “put in some basic precautions” to make sure that the honor system is being honest. Those methods were not detailed.”

 

https://deadline.com/2020/05/facebook-workers-can-work-remote-with-salary-cut-mark-zuckerberg-1202941243/

 

Now in this country, we already have ‘London weighting’. It’s accepted that some areas are more expensive to live in. So it’s entirely reasonable that some areas will be regarded as cheaper. And when you think about it, you can save a lot of money if you stop commuting (A friend saved £5,000 a year when they stopped commuting into London and got a job local to where they lived.) Also you’re probably paying a smaller mortgage.

So if this catches on, I wonder whether people will be quite so keen to move into rural areas. In the case of Cumbria, if you live in Ambleside will you expect to be paid more than if you live in Millom? Given the depth of data these online companies have, they might even be able to differentiate between quite small towns.

So whilst we might have people moving into rural areas intending to work at home, they might not be the wealthy incomers a previous generation witnessed.

 

But actually it’s worth taking this forward a bit. Let us assume you already work for one of these companies. When you decide to move to somewhere unfashionable to be nearer parents, so you’re handy as they grow older and more frail, then obviously your salary may drop. But what if your parents lived somewhere more expensive, how would Facebook react to paying you more because of your house move?

It actually gets even more interesting, what happens when you apply for a job. There you are, being interviewed over zoom, for the position. The interviewing panel might be on two or three different continents. But there again so might the people they’re interviewing.
So you get the job offer. “Yes, we’ll be happy to employ you, but you live in rather an expensive area. For somebody of your grade we are looking at you living in a different priced area. Have you considered New Delhi or Bogota rather than Manchester?

Luckily in agriculture these are not live issues for us. If I phone a contractor to come and do something, I rather expect him to turn up in the yard with his digger. So far we’ve not found a use for somebody who ‘virtually’ mows our grass. I suspect that once more, agriculture is going to be stuck in the past as the future eddies and flows around us. We might social distance but that’s because he’s working from a different tractor cab, not a different continent.

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There again, don’t confuse me with somebody who knows what they’re talking about

 

Rather than his usual collection of anecdotes, this time Tallis presents us with one gripping story. A tale of adventure, duplicity and gentility. Why does an otherwise respectable lady have a pair of sedan chair bearers hidden in her spare bedroom? Why was the middle aged usurer brandishing an axe? Can a gangster’s moll be accepted into polite society? Answer these questions and more as Tallis Steelyard ventures unwillingly into the seedy world of respectable ladies who love of sedan chair racing.

 

As a reviewer commented, “I find there’s nothing better on a cold wet day, than to sit indoors, near a warm fire/radiator, with a hot coffee, some biscuits/cake and one of Jim Webster’s books. So that’s what I’ve done today, with this particular book.
I find the plots intriguing, the characters endearing (even the ‘bad/evil’ ones) and the storytelling style relaxing.
The various threads in the stories are always neatly tied up and the endings invariably satisfactory.”

How do you slice the chocolate box?

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It’s an interesting question, how soon should we open up the countryside and tourist hotspots to visitors. I thought I’d visit Towngill situated in the south of the beautiful Lake District and ask a selection of people.

First I was chatting to George and Mary. They retired more than twenty years ago when George was sixty. He was something in the city, Mary stayed at home and looked after the children. She also did a lot of charity work. They sold a nice house somewhere down south to buy their cottage. They threw themselves into the local community, and even though they’re both in their eighties they were stalwarts of church and village hall. Since the lockdown they’ve been very careful, not leaving their garden. They have had all their food delivered from Booths and when not gardening have been glued to the BBC to keep up with what is happening. Mary is perhaps heavier than she should be, but nobody would be so harsh as to call her obese. George had a bypass some years ago and his diabetes and high blood pressure is under control. Frankly they’re terrified of anybody coming into the village bringing the virus, and want the lockdown to last as long as possible.

Then I dropped round to see Christopher and Jacqueline. They were teachers and cleverly managed their careers so that in their forties they got jobs in Cumbria. They saw the way things were going and when Christopher was offered voluntary redundancy he jumped at it. He then took his pension a year later at 55 and Jacqueline followed suit a year later. They both frankly admit that this year has been amazing. The Easter Weekend was unbelievable, the weather was beautiful, the scenery stunning and they had the fells to themselves with absolutely no visitors. Not only that but they can drive into Kendal to do their shopping in half the time it normally takes and life is just so much more civilised. This, they feel, is what the area should be. It’s the best thing that ever happened to them.

Paul and Louise farm just above the village. Theirs is a small beef and sheep farm. Paul’s been busy with lambing and calving, and Louise normally helps out in the village shop three mornings a week. The shop job came to a dead stop, Louise suspects that with the drop in trade, her job is inevitably going to disappear permanently. Certainly she has been told that there’s no point her going in until the tourists come back. On the other hand that’s been something of a blessing. Once the silage season started down in Furness, Paul has been working with some mates on one of the silage teams. Now Louise looks after the farm. In this she’s helped by their son, Harry, who should be at school but obviously isn’t. He’ll be leaving next year and wants to farm. With the agricultural college closing at Newton Rigg, Louise is a bit uncertain about how they can organise an apprenticeship for him. Their daughter Sarah is also at home. She was working full time for the hotel up the road, it does pony trekking. She still works a couple of hours every morning helping clean out the stables. Apparently the hotel is deathly quiet, just the manager and his wife, the other staff are furloughed or still trapped in Spain.
To be honest Louise and Paul are in two minds about the tourists returning. Paul hopes that if they do come back, it’ll be after he’s got his silage so he’s not fighting his way against the traffic on narrow lanes clogged with traffic. Louise worries about the long term and what will happen to her job and Sarah’s if the tourists don’t return.

Towngill has some holiday cottages. I was asking George and Mary about them. Apparently a couple of cottages are still owned by the children of the last people to live there. The children live and work elsewhere (In one case Manchester, in the other, Sydney.) Two more were, he thinks, bought as an investment opportunity. They’re all managed by a company with an office in Windermere. I thought I’d talk to them and got put through to Terry who lives in Kendal. The company he works for manages sixty or seventy of these cottages. Obviously nothing’s happening and Terry has been furloughed. He does the overall management. His is the number tourists ring at midnight when they’re too drunk to read the instructions to the microwave. He also organises the cleaning. He has a bunch of ladies from Millom. He merely phones them and they turn up, three of them in a battered Ford Kia. The company pays a fixed sum to clean and prepare a house for the next guests and these ladies can do two cottages between children going to school and coming home again. He does worry a bit about them. Two of them at least are the family breadwinners, and of course they weren’t employed, or even had contracts. Millom isn’t a good area to look for new jobs. Obviously if he still has a job after the lockdown is over, he’ll be in touch with them immediately they start taking bookings.

Finally there’s Dez and Tracy. I couldn’t meet them because they weren’t there. They have the second home. They bought it with the money they were left when Tracy’s mother died. Dez was born nearby but left the area thirty years ago to find work. He and Tracy spend their holidays here and hope to retire here. Dez still has family in the area. They’ve had a miserable few weeks. They live in a small flat overlooking a rundown industrial estate. The one bright spot has been the drug dealers haven’t shown their faces down there. Tracy has asthma and hasn’t dared go outside the flat since the end of March.

 

Now obviously I haven’t actually been to visit all these people. Indeed one thing I do regret is that I hadn’t got a legitimate excuse to go into the Southern Lakes over the Easter Weekend. You’d have thought somebody could have had an emotional of financial crisis and needed help. There again I was still getting over having the virus myself so whilst I was safe to be with, I didn’t really feel like a lot of travelling.

 

Also you’d struggle to find Towngill on the map. But there is no shortage of small communities like it scattered around the South of Cumbria. Then there are the people. No, they don’t live in the same village, but they all exist. I know them and they all live in the general area. All I’ve done is changed the names.

 

Then there’s the demography of the village. Well the map above shows the proportion of the population over 65 in various areas.

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So when will we open the tourist spots? Will opening them irrevocably split communities? Will tourists find a welcome or hostility from inhabitants who don’t want them?
Remember that Terry and his ladies from Millom won’t even be asked, one way or another.

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There again, what do I know? Check with the expert first.

 

Another collection of anecdotes drawn from a lifetime’s experience of peasant agriculture in the North of England. As usual Border Collies, Cattle and Sheep get fair coverage, but it’s mixed with family history and the joys of living along a single track road.

Lockdown and the foodchain

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When we start talking about the lockdown and when it should have started, we have a couple of fixed dates.

The first is the 16 March 2020. This is when the Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team produced ‘Impact of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) to reduce COVID19 mortality and healthcare demand.’

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

 

In the document itself it mentions that the picture they paint is based on experience in Italy. This is because prior to this they’d mainly had Chinese data to work on. So the 16th March makes a nice start date. This is the scientific evidence that we were probably going to need a lockdown.

If you had demanded a lockdown before then you’d just be another nutter shambling along wearing your sandwich boards, muttering about the end of the world being nigh.

If you look back from now and say we should have locked down before that date, you’re just another social media warrior with perfect hindsight.

 

A harsh lockdown wasn’t on the cards. To quote the Guardian of the 19th March, “Sadiq Khan said no one wanted to order sweeping and unprecedented measures such as closing schools. “But these are extraordinary times. It’s very important we understand the consequence of people’s liberties and human rights not being deprived or curtailed, suspended, is lives being lost.”

Khan, a former human rights lawyer, was critical of what he said was ambiguous information being released by the government, and said bans might be needed to stop people gathering in bars and restaurants. “We are not there yet,” he said. “The advice from the government is just advice. I think that provides a mixed message. It’s clearly not been clear enough. We may move to a situation where we move from advice to bans.”

 

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/19/zero-prospect-of-london-lockdown-involving-movement-limits-says-no-10

 

Then we come to our next date. On 20 March, the four governments (England, Scotland, Northern Island and Wales,) shut all schools, restaurants, pubs, indoor entertainment venues and leisure centres, with some minor exceptions.

Then there is our final date, to quote the wiki, “On 23 March, the UK government imposed a lockdown on the whole population, banning all “non-essential” travel and contact with people outside one’s home (including family and partners), and shutting almost all businesses, venues, facilities, amenities and places of worship. People were told to keep apart in public. Police were empowered to enforce the lockdown, and the Coronavirus Act 2020 gave the government emergency powers not used since the Second World War.”

 

So let’s look at the foodchain.
In the UK, depending on how you measure it, but about 30% of food eaten is sold to us in a finished form from catering outlets. So this is the pizza delivered to your home, or the sandwich and coffee you nip out of work to buy for your dinner, the nice restaurant meal you enjoy that evening.

So on the 16th March the food chain should have been ticking along nicely because nothing had changed. Except that it wasn’t ticking along nicely, for no entirely logical reason, we had a wave of panic buying. It was on the 20th March that Dawn Bilbrough filmed herself crying after finding supermarket shelves empty after spending two days working at an intensive care ward. Supermarkets started rationing people to no more than three or four of the same item.

Now into this situation government are forced to introduce the lock down on catering outlets. Suddenly people have to buy all their own food from retailers rather than caterers. Technically the food is there. The problem is that it isn’t in the place where it needs to be. The food was sitting in Pret warehouses, or in a partially prepared state in the Greggs supply chain. It wasn’t in supermarkets, and even if it had been, it wouldn’t have been saleable or useably by the ordinary consumer. Suddenly supermarkets had to frantically find that lost thirty percent. To make it worse, the form it was currently produced in might not have been suitable for the retail trade. It is fine for a factory to send out cartoons of fifty identical pizzas in a large plastic pack with a packing slip glued to it saying what they are. Your caterer can cope with that. But to be sold direct to the customer, they’ve got to be entirely repackaged. If only for public health reasons. Do you want somebody ahead of you in the queue rummaging through a pile of unpackaged pizzas to find the one she likes best?
On top of this, wild stockpiling by bizarrely panicking shoppers had left supermarket stocks run down. Obviously some of that food would come out of domestic stockpiles, as people ate their way through their own personal pasta mountain. But there were newspaper reports of a lot being thrown away because people had stockpiled fresh fruit and loaves of bread!

So the foodchain had a problem. It had to source thirty percent more, almost literally overnight, with damn all warning and preparation time. Amazingly there wasn’t chaos. In the milk industry a couple of dairies who had focussed on the catering market came unstuck and their farmer suppliers were forced to pour milk down the drain. But a lot of sharp people got to work and at one point a UK based dairy was exporting concentrated milk (This is ordinary milk with some of the water taken out to save space on transport. The milk is used for manufacturing at the other end.).

It’s the same with the rest of the foodchain. Buyers were scouring the world for stuff that they could ship. But at the same time there’s no point in, for example, Tesco, sourcing a lot of cheese or fruit in Spain if they cannot bring it into the country. An awful lot of stuff comes into the country in wagons, and even under the current quarantine arrangements, these drivers are still coming in. You either have them or we bring in food rationing.

There were obviously problems, beef and lamb prices have been hit. But the show has somehow stayed on the road.

That short gap between when the 20th when government shut the catering trade, and the 23rd when they just shut a lot more, was very useful. It gave the retail trade a chance to re-jig things. It gave manufacturers time to get packing materials suitable for the new outlet. It gave people a chance to take on extra employers. Because the lockdown had been flagged it gave these companies (along with many others) a chance to work out who could work from home, and who had to come in. In our case it meant that my lady wife could nip out and pick up a handful of things which meant that three days later, when we got coronavirus and had to self-isolate anyway for a fortnight, the only thing we ran out of was clementines.

A fortnight later I went out to do our first shopping and noticed immediately that our local Tesco had gaps. To be honest I rather expected them. The next time I went a week later the gaps were still there but different products were missing. I was chatting to a mate of mine who works there. I asked him what it was like from his side of the counter. The answer was interesting.

“It’s madness. They’re just sending us stuff, and we cannot sell it.”
“So what would you want me to buy today?”
“Could you just take a whole shelf of yoghurt, Jim? I could replace it twice with stuff in the back.”

Given the intricacy of the supermarket’s ‘just in time’ ordering system, I don’t think there is any reason for surprise that it wasn’t working too well. Instead of the depot sending the manager what he asked for, they were just sending him what they’d got.

But to be honest, what strikes me is that the really amazing thing is that our foodchain might have flexed a bit, there might have been screams when some bits were put under a lot of pressure, but it didn’t break.

That to me is the real miracle. To be honest I’ve no patience for the arguments that ‘It could have been done better.’ Could we have saved ten or twenty thousand deaths? Or if we’d locked down so fast the food chain broke, could we have lost an extra twenty thousand because desperate people took panic buying to another level and swamped retailers, ignoring totally social distancing and hand washing?

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There again, what to I know?
Ask the expert

 

A collection of anecdotes, it’s the distillation of a lifetime’s experience of peasant agriculture in the North of England. I’d like to say ‘All human life is here,’ but frankly there’s more about Border Collies, Cattle and Sheep.

Round here we use telegraph poles as draining rods

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It has to be said that if I ran a scrupulously tidy place this could never happened. It’s just that some years ago, the utility company was replacing the poles carrying the electric wires. Initially the three phase was carried across two fields by three poles, one in the hedge and two more, one in the middle of each field. To be honest it was a bit of a pain but you live with it because at least that way we get electricity.

Anyway the cunning plan, to bring things up to the new specifications, was to replace all three by a taller and heavier post in the central hedge. That was fine. Obviously to do it they’d have to cut the power. So all this was booked and we were told a few weeks ahead, on this day the electric will go off at 9am and come back on at 4pm. Admittedly it’s January, but you can work round things.

On the great day a gang arrived and started work, they were almost all Portuguese, who obviously didn’t mind working on diggers and suchlike in the pouring rain. I was talking to one and he commented he’d just spoken to his mother back in Portugal. She was stuck in their village because of the snow.

They did what preparation they could and took out the fuses. Then because they were sensible people, they checked the wire and discovered it was still live. So they went to the farm at the other end of the wire and asked, “Are you perchance generating electricity.”

Even as they said it, everybody’s eyes turned to the wind turbine on the hill next to them. Whilst they knew it was there (they could see it) because it wasn’t marked on their map, they assumed it wasn’t going to have an impact on the job. After all the electricity it generated didn’t have to join the grid at this farm. It struck me at the time that most precautions we have to take at work are to protect us from the consequences of bureaucrats not getting the paperwork right, sending people out with obsolete maps, forgetting to mention things etc.

So there was a hasty conference into which I and the other farmer were invited. The engineer running the show and his lads decided that they’d switch the electricity back on. If they pressed on, cutting power from the other end as well, it could take an extra three or four hours and the feeling was that was too long to leave people without electricity in January. So they just did everything they could without touching the wire.

Then they left. We then got a letter saying that they’d been back on a new date to do the job. When they arrived the engineer said they weren’t switching the electric off unless it was urgent. He now had in his team people qualified to handle live cables and they would do the cable work with the electricity still running. (I think he called it hot wiring or live wiring) This they did, briskly and efficiently.

And of course it meant that whilst they put one pole in, they took some out and one of them the left lying tidily against a fence that kept livestock out of a gutter.

 

Now back in the 1980s I’d decided that I had to do something with ‘that gutter.’ So with a ‘back actor’ on the tractor, I took the useable bits of several days (the time when I wasn’t milking, feeding round or whatever) and dug the gutter out. It was quite a serious piece of work. And in the gate way, I’d acquired a length of second hand rubber/plastic pipe that had an internal diameter of a couple of feet. So I dug the gutter across the gateway and then put in the length of pipe and covered it up again. To be fair, this worked really well for thirty years but the last two wet winters etc meant that the damned thing needed digging out again.

The tractor was broken for spares perhaps ten years ago and the back actor went scrap the last time we had a clean out.
But anyway I got hold of a young chap who has a handy tracked digger and his quote for digging it all out was reasonable. So he set to work. He did the length up to the gateway with the water following him and showing him his level. Then he did a length on the other side of the gateway. His idea was that this way he’d find the pipe. He wasn’t sure what we’d have to do with it. We suspected we’d have the hassle of digging it out, and the suggestion was that perhaps we could then hold it up by one end and bang it up and down a time or two so the stuff blocking it dropped out.
But after cleaning out both ends of the pipe, water started trickling through. Not with any great enthusiasm but it was obvious the pipe wasn’t irredeemably blocked. At that point he noticed the pole lying there. So that was dropped into the gutter and with the digger bucket behind it, it was pushed through the pipe. If the pole had been a foot shorter we’d have had to improvise further, but as it was, it worked perfectly.

Mind you it does leave me with a bit of a quandary. I’m left with a somewhat grubby telegraph pole. Now admittedly if I leave it there it’ll soon wash clean in the rain. But the underlying issue is, ‘Do I put it away.’ Here it has to be admitted that storing telegraph poles does take a fair bit of room. Or, ‘do I leave it here, handy for next time?’

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Whilst you’re waiting for me to make my mind up, you might fancy a good book to read?

The fourth of these collections of anecdotes, rants, pious maunderings and general observations on life. Yes we have dogs, quads, sheep and cattle, but in this one we follow the ‘lambing year.’ It starts with ewes being put to the tup in late autumn and finishes in summer with the last of the laggards lambing.
But as well as this we have endless rain, as well as sleeping in a manger. Be brave and you’ll meet young ladies in high heeled cowboy boots, Sir John Moore of Corunna, brassieres for cows, and, incidentally, David Essex.

So who is still working?

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There has been a lot of talk about going back to work. But personally I think this is standing things on their head. Obviously in agriculture a lot of us work from home and self-isolate compulsively because we’re a miserable lot of beggars. Indeed the only people who cannot manage social distancing instinctively are Sal and Billy.

It’s not just us. Not only has agriculture been working pretty normally, but so have the ‘support industries.’ Whenever we’ve picked up a phone to order feed, parts or whatever, it’s been answered and the stuff has been delivered into our yard just as it normally would.
When it comes to selling, apart from a ‘hiccup’ when all the catering venues shut, things have rumbled along. Some dairies took a hit, especially those who had a lot of the catering market. But whilst things aren’t ‘right’, milk is being picked up and apart from the usual suspects, most milk buyers seem to be trying hard to keep the show on the road.
When I talk about ‘usual suspects’, there was a comment in the farming press that Starbucks had said they would no longer deal with one dairy company after things settle down. Apparently they were shocked at how the company had treated their farmer suppliers. The cynic might ask why they were dealing with them in the first place, but there again, you know what they also say. “I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine respectable people who do not need to repent.”

Beef and lamb are back in price. Beef has been pretty poor for a year or so, and was just picking up when coronavirus came and sent it back down again. (Again, the closing of catering did most of the damage.) With lamb, to be honest, it had been doing well. Leaving the EU and the fall in the value of the pound was really good for sheep farmers. When the virus hit, the price has dropped a bit but it’s still at a level that two or three years ago people would have thought was pretty good. At the moment it’s being held up by Ramadan, so hopefully we can organise another festival to follow.

 

But as I said, agriculture has been working flat out. In a two day period we had in our yard the Postman, the Vet, a six man silage team, a chap who came to empty the slurry pit, a contractor with a fertiliser spreader, the chap who helps control vermin and somebody who was spraying the potatoes.

Now most of them were in their own tractors so were probably socially distanced enough for even the most fanatical, although nobody wears masks. But are we alone in this?

 

And at the ‘downstream’ end, abattoirs, packing plants, warehouses, delivery drivers and check-out staff have all kept working. So I might just say ‘Thanks’ at this point because we’d have been screwed without them.

 

In the UK, in crude terms our workforce is about 32 million.

According to figures I’ve found, on the 11 May there were 7.5million people furloughed

On the 14 May there were 1.1m people on the self-employed income support scheme. Mind you some of them will still be working, just not making enough to live on. (They’re self-employed, they should be used to it.)

Then there are those on Universal Credit. In April there were at least an extra million people claiming universal credit. Let’s call it an extra two million and that might allow for people who cannot work and cannot claim.
Lord alone knows how many people are home working. Some of us always do it. But I’ve seen figures saying ‘40% of the population’ which has to be nonsense, and somebody else said there were 8 million. Who knows but at least they’re working.

 

What brought this on was when I went to collect the newspaper. The chap behind the counter was obviously having a bad day. He commented, “I’m getting sick of them coming in here and complaining that they’re having to go back to work.”

I made a vague sympathetic comment and he said, “I told them, ‘I’d love to have had seven weeks off, soaking up the sun and getting drunk every night (the thing about corner shop owners is that they know who comes in just before closing time because they’ve already drunk the stuff they bought from Tesco that morning).

So when people moan about the dangers of having to start working again, all that is actually happening is that they’re coming out to join the half to two thirds of us who’ve been working all the time.

So I’d also like to thank those who’ve kept our electricity working, those who I saw out fixing the broadband. Those who deal with gas leaks and unblock sewers, those who make our society work. Remember, if it wasn’t for these and the people in the foodchain, we wouldn’t have an NHS, we’d have a lot of hungry and frightened people huddled round the transistor radio, desperately hoping to conserve the batteries as they try and find out what is going on.

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What do I know? Speak to the expert, now available in paperback or ebook

As a reviewer commented, “Excellent follow up to his first collection of bloggage – Sometimes I Sits and Thinks – this is another collection of gentle reflections on life on a small sheep farm in Cumbria. This could so easily be a rant about inconsiderate drivers on country lanes and an incessant moaning about the financial uncertainties of life on a farm. Instead, despite the rain, this is full of wise asides on modern living that will leave you feeling better about the world. Think Zen and the Art of Sheep Management (except he’s clearly CofE…) Highly recommended, and worth several times the asking price!”

Ladies of my acquaintance

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As you might imagine, I’ve been musing recently on the impact of arbitrary government diktats. Admittedly they’ve been part of my life for longer than I care to remember, but then agriculture has always been a field where Westminster felt it unwise to rely upon the ignorant and unlettered peasantry, and preferred to organise things themselves. From a safe distance. And during office hours.

But if we scroll back through the years, back on 2 April 1984 the government (at EEC behest) introduced milk quotas. This is the equivalent of the government telling you than instead of working 35 hours a week, you could now only work 28 hours, but at the same hourly rate. The expedients that you have to resort to so that you can keep paying your mortgage are your problem, not theirs.

So we have to do something and we tried various things. One was to expand the ‘suckler cow’ enterprise. That sounds grander than it has any right to. Basically if you have sixty milk cows, you need to calve at least a dozen heifers a year to replace those cows who come to the end of their working life (whether through age, health, mental instability or low yields). So in simple terms you needed to serve thirty cows with a dairy bull (assuming 50% bull calves, 50% heifers) and the other thirty cows would be served by a beef bull (because you get a superior animal to go into the food chain at some point down the line.)
Now by definition, of the thirty beef calves you get, half will be female. So what I took to doing was to keep at home the nicest beef heifers. Basically they’d be those out of the biggest, most thickset cows, because they had the highest beef potential which they would hopefully pass on to their daughters. They in turn would hopefully pass it on to their offspring.

 

As an aside I remember one old farmer telling be that you could tell the quality of a beef animal. “If it’s got a backside like your mother and shoulders like your father, it’s a good one.”
Admittedly his comment as more scatological but I think I’ve captured the drift.

Oh and as an aside, the photo above I borrowed. I might have an old photo or two somewhere, but nothing digital.

Anyway my thinking about keeping these five or six beef heifers was simple. I was rearing up to fifteen dairy heifers anyway, an extra half dozen wasn’t going to add significantly to my workload or cash flow. Then when they calved (I was sort of supervising somewhere around seventy calvings a year so an extra half dozen didn’t make much odds), they’d keep the calf, suckle it, and I would then sell them with calf at foot. The cunning bit is to calve them in February/March, so that in April/May when the grass started growing, they were at the perfect stage for sale. The calf would look well, and mother would be fully recovered from calving and would be ready to join a suckler herd and be introduced to their bull.

 

Anyway, this we did for a lot of years. It worked well for us. Some people asked me why we didn’t keep bull calves and sell them fat. My response was that the heifer left me a better margin. Not only would they often sell at a higher price than the bullock, they cost less to rear, as they ate far more grass and far less concentrate. Indeed in the last nine months of their lives I had to be very careful with their nutrition. Their father’s beef-breed genetics had a tendency to take over and they could end up putting too much weight on. Given that I wanted them to calve without too much trouble, the last thing I wanted was them carry too much extra flesh. Calving a cow has been described as ‘trying to pass a jelly-baby through the hole in a polo mint without damaging either the jelly-baby, or the mint. So as you can imagine, anything that led to a deposition of fat on the inside of the polo mint was distinctly contra-indicated.

The other advantage of selling them through the mart in May was that not only was it the prime time for purchasers buying them, but from a dairy farmer’s point of view, it can be a bad month for cash flow. The milk price is often lower, and you’re still paying winter feed bills as well as paying for fertiliser, contractor costs for silaging and similar. I came to regard selling my batch of heifers as getting a thirteenth milk cheque.

From the point of view of the purchasers, what were the advantages for them? Well for one thing, our heifers were domesticated. As calves they had been bucket reared, so they started life regarding people in a positive light. Then being reared with dairy heifers means that they were used to daily human contact. We used to let our dairy heifers run with the milk cows in the month or so before they calved. This meant they were used to going through the parlour and getting and handful of feed. So when they calved and were perhaps feeling a bit fragile, the milking parlour was actually a familiar and friendly place where food happened. Our beef heifers got the same treatment. I remember one chap telling me his children used to play with the heifer he bought from me, she was so friendly.

We kept this up for quite a lot of years. Then in early March 1996, my father wasn’t well and I was swamped with work. So when somebody asked me about beef heifers, because he was thinking of building a suckler herd, I just sold him all nine. None of them had calved at the time but because they were all in calf to an easy calving bull that didn’t bother him. (From memory I got £960 each for them)

A fortnight later we had Stephen Dorrell’s announcement about BSE, the price collapsed totally and if I’d tried to sell them that May with calf at foot, I might have averaged £300 a piece (if I’d even found a bidder.) Every so often you get the timing right by accident.

Then in 2001 we had the Foot and Mouth epidemic and another nightmare. (People wonder why I’m so blasé about coronavirus. Sorry but I’ve known more people who committed suicide during the BSE and FMD outbreaks than I’ve known die of Corvid 19.) In crude terms, on average, every five years the government tries to make me bankrupt and homeless. When I hear people talk about the government being responsible for looking after its citizens I’m afraid my comment tends to be, ‘You must be new here.’

Still, in 2002 I met a chap at the mart and we were talking. He mentioned that he’d bought one of our heifers. She’d have been born sometime in 1985/86 and he’d been impressed when he’d seen her in the auction mart. Indeed he’d bid rather more than he’d intended and I think his father had muttered a bit when he’d got her home. In 2002 she’d just had her latest calf. All these years she’d run happily as one of his herd, had a calf every year and had matured into the matriarch who came to get her head scratched when he went to look at them every morning.

I thought about her the other day. It strikes me that she had the right idea. Keep your head down, get on with your job, and ignore the shrieking of the political pygmies and pundits. Because next time you bother to look round, they’ll have been swept away by the passage of time, only to be replaced by another lot, equally vocal, equally strident, and equally ephemeral.

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There again, what do I know? Now in paperback or ebook.

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.”

The view from here

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Well I apologise in advance for the photograph. I keep intending to get a better camera but at the moment the one I’ve got is on a phone that cost me £25 which included £10 credit on a pay as you go contract. I’ve had it nearly a year and there’s still £3.54 left of the credit. Any company selling a phone which can match that and has a better camera will find me a potential purchaser.
But we’re busy. In the photograph, the brown field sort of in the foreground is grass seed that might one day get enough rain to germinate. Then there’s the forage harvester in the distance, we’ve just taken first cut. To be honest it’s not a heavy crop. By no means a disaster, and by getting it off now, it gives the grass time to grow again. Then in the far distance, somebody (a neighbour) ploughing a field of his for maize. What we really need is a wettish week and looking at the forecast weren’t not really going to get meaningful rain for at least a week. Just looking at the Atlantic charts the fronts coming in from the Caribbean all seem to break up long before they get to us.

But actually this does drive home a point. Whilst people are trapped by the virus, agriculture continues to march to the beat of a different drum. Admittedly, almost certainly having had the virus means that here we’re mentally in a different place to a lot of people but I went into town yesterday and had to go into one establishment to deal with a couple of issues. Remember I’m somebody who hasn’t seen alcohol gel hand sanitiser for about six weeks. The whole thing comes as a shock to the system.
Yet frankly at the moment I’m more concerned about the weather and grass growth. Obviously there’s still plenty of time for us to have droughts, floods or the perfect English summer. So I’m not at the worrying stage yet.

Certainly within Agriculture, contractors are still working. I was talking to one lad just before, he’s still emptying septic tanks, and is going to give me a quote for some work with a digger.

But I was reading an interesting article yesterday, when the writer pondered what was going to happen to London. They pointed out that if people continue working from home after the lockdown, this could decimate the businesses set up to support those commuting into the city. Now I can remember going to meetings in London in 2008 during the crash. All along the London Wall and the streets off there were all sorts of shops putting up the shutters for the last time. Not just coffee shops but tailors, newsagents, gyms and similar. It might be that in the medium term, cities like London take longer to come out of this. Indeed the writer suggested that our economy might even diversify away from them. Given how much of London is dedicated to tourism as well, the next few years could be a nightmare for the city.

Obviously other areas depend on tourism. But I’ve noticed in some areas the inhabitants are very nuanced in their support for the industry. Indeed in one part of the Cumbria they did this to ensure that visitors didn’t get into their village.

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I do wonder how the return of tourists into the Lake District will be welcomed. A lot of people who live in the National Park (From memory about 40,000 people) don’t earn anything from tourists. In fact given the nightmare that is travelling through the Park, you do get people talking about doing something to control the numbers. Certainly I cannot see the National Park getting twenty million visitors next year.

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There again, what do I know?
Now in paperback or ebook. talk to the expert

As a reviewer commented, “Excellent follow up to his first collection of bloggage – Sometimes I Sits and Thinks – this is another collection of gentle reflections on life on a small sheep farm in Cumbria. This could so easily be a rant about inconsiderate drivers on country lanes and an incessant moaning about the financial uncertainties of life on a farm. Instead, despite the rain, this is full of wise asides on modern living that will leave you feeling better about the world. Think Zen and the Art of Sheep Management (except he’s clearly CofE…) Highly recommended, and worth several times the asking price!”

Well at least it’s rained

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As it is, we’ve had a couple of wet days and frankly things are looking better for it. At the moment I might be surrounded by spring blossom and the trees coming out into leaf, but the important thing is grass. In another fortnight at the most we hope to be silaging. So this morning when I walked across the corner of a mowing field so see what it was like, the fact that my wellingtons were soaked by serious dew was a good sign. My gut feeling is that we’ve probably got enough moisture for now.

Life in a world with Schrodinger’s Virus (You don’t know if you’ve got it and when you’ve had it you don’t know if you’ve had it) is at the same time, strange, and yet strangely familiar.

Take the last fortnight. I’ve been doing pretty much the same jobs as I did last year. I’m seeing pretty much the same people, milk tanker drivers, feed wagon drivers, electricians and agricultural engineers. They’re all getting on with their jobs, helping keep the show on the road.

At one level the big difference is that I’m the one in the household who has to do the shopping at the moment, but given the way we tend to buy reasonable commodities when we’re there, I’m just going weekly mainly to keep up with fresh fruit.

What has changed is what happens when I do react with the outside world. I’ve done two zoom meetings. One would have involved a trip to Penrith, the other to London. Now to be fair the meetings ‘worked’, but they worked because we knew each other pretty well. We’ve broken bread together over the years and so the bonds have been made. I’m not sure how well things would work if we didn’t have that level of trust. Of course being at the end of rural broadband, the idea of buying a camera to fit onto my desktop computer never even occurred to me. Given our upload speed it was never going to be viable. So at these meetings I’ve been the man behind the curtain. If I knew how to do it, I’d be tempted to upload a simple photo, perhaps of the view, so people weren’t just looking at the black screen.

But it’s when you hit social media you really come across the trapped and bored. I’ve backed away from somebody who wanted to lecture me on how 5G is going to kill us all. Then there’s the science. The epidemic is so new, the virus so recently discovered, that scientists are still trying to get a grip on it. So people are struggling to cope with the fact that the ‘experts’ don’t agree. In agriculture we’re used to that.

 

So, for example, we’ve had people claiming that the South Koreans have shown they have people being reinfected.

But actually the problem was caused not by the virus, but by the sensitivity of the tests we have now.

https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/1266758/tests-in-recovered-patients-in-s-korea-found-false-positives-not-reinfections-experts-say
“SEOUL — South Korea’s infectious disease experts said Thursday that dead virus fragments were the likely cause of over 260 people here testing positive again for the novel coronavirus days and even weeks after marking full recoveries.”
“The tests detected the ribonucleic acid of the dead virus,” said Oh, a Seoul National University hospital doctor, at a press conference Thursday held at the National Medical Center.”

We’re really good at collecting data and measuring things. We’re just not so good at analysing the data yet because we don’t have the experience of this virus.

 

Then when did we get the virus? I saw this interesting article

 

https://news.sky.com/story/coronavirus-was-widespread-in-uk-at-very-start-of-pandemic-says-genetics-expert-11979580

 

Basically the Icelanders have been sequencing the virus samples they’ve taken from their population. Because of the way viruses mutate you can trace families back and you can even say what part of the world a particular virus strain comes from.

 

“Prof Stefansson said that in the beginning, almost all of the cases came into Iceland from the Alps, from people who had been skiing in Austria and Italy.

The authorities responded by trying to contain the spread of infection from those high risk countries.

He added: “But as they were doing this, the virus was actually sneaking into the country with people from all kinds of other countries.

“And the most notable there is Great Britain. So it looks like the virus had a fairly wide spread in Great Britain very, very early in this epidemic.”

 

I’ve seen one virus strain map plotted against time where the researchers seem to indicate we had our strain in the UK before the Chinese one reached us. They might be right, they might not, but I think the important thing to remember is the depth of our ignorance in these matters.

 

The Icelanders, with a small population, managed to test a significant proportion of it and think they caught everybody who had the virus. If they did, then they know the number of cases, and they know the number who died. So they have come up with the figure of 0.05% of people who catch the virus die from it.
Given that any error in the figure comes from missing people who have had the virus without being tested rather than not noticing people who died from it, it’s possible that the 0.05% could in theory be a bit high.
What this means in the UK is that as of today we have 28,131 fatalities from the virus. So using the Icelandic figures, we have at least 562,620 people in this country who are immune to Corvid 19.

 

I always feel that Donald Rumsfeld had a point when he said, “Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.”

We’re very much in the world of unknown unknowns at the moment. But actually there are a lot of important things that we can hang on to. Looking at the picture, with a bit of luck we could have a good crop of crab apples later this year. Thanks to the rain we could have a decent crop of grass. When I walked through the heifers this morning everything was looking well.

Not only that but Sal, official Border Collie on this holding, and Billy, the Cat in residence, continue to work towards some sort of rapprochement. This morning Sal was snoozing in the sun as Billy walked across the line of sight. Her eyes opened as she noticed him. Then when he noticed her he stopped, sat, and stared at her. She just snorted quietly, closed her eyes again, and Billy walked off to do whatever he was intent on doing.

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And here’s Sal with her eyes open!

Available in paperback or ebook format

As a reviewer commented, “Excellent follow up to his first collection of bloggage – Sometimes I Sits and Thinks – this is another collection of gentle reflections on life on a small sheep farm in Cumbria. This could so easily be a rant about inconsiderate drivers on country lanes and an incessant moaning about the financial uncertainties of life on a farm. Instead, despite the rain, this is full of wise asides on modern living that will leave you feeling better about the world. Think Zen and the Art of Sheep Management (except he’s clearly CofE…) Highly recommended, and worth several times the asking price!”