Losing your bottle. How is farming going to cope with the public?

The bottle lies discarded at the side of our lane, tossed out of a car window. You have to admit it makes a change from crisp packets, Kentucky Fried Chicken buckets and McDonald’s wrappers and drinks cartons. But then there’s a lot of it about. I went up to Scotland to see my daughter. Junction 36 of the M6 was ‘experiencing difficulties’ so, forewarned, I decided I’d cut through the Lake District and join the M6 at Penrith. After all I left home at 9am, so traffic shouldn’t be so bad. It might not be bad but I got stuck behind a Porsche. It was one of the ones that looks a bit like a Range Rover from behind, and it did thirty miles an hour from Newby Bridge to beyond Bowness. The driver just dawdled. Finally when we got to the roundabout with the A591 and he turned north towards Ambleside (the way I had intended to go) I just went straight ahead and over Kirkstone Pass. Anything had to be faster than following him.

But there, at the top of Kirkstone Pass, a mile past the Inn, in the middle of wild and desolate beauty, a discarded face mask lay in the middle of the road.

People fascinate me. It’s as if they cannot cope with more than one big idea at a time. David Attenborough produces a TV programme about plastic in the sea and suddenly everybody is demanding we ban single-use plastics because they’re destroying the environment. Government puts a tax on plastic bags, there’s a stream of documentaries about recycling and the dangers of this plastic or that plastic, and everybody promises faithfully that they’re going to eliminate single-use plastics. Coffee shops stop using plastic straws or start encouraging customers to use metal, or even pasta straws.

Then we have a ‘pandemic’, government is attacked from all sides because it wasn’t producing and stockpiling massive amounts of single-issue plastic (but now it’s ‘good’ single-use plastic, it’s PPE and it’s going to save the universe and rescue us all from imminent death.) and people are cheerfully discarding facemasks all over the place. We’re going to have oceans full of them.

One problem is people seem to focus on one issue at a time. Farmers and landowners see it regularly as governments are swayed by yet another single-issue pressure group. We stand well back from the riverbank as the canoeists and the fishermen fight over access. It’s going to get even more interesting when the ones who want to release beavers get caught up in that fight.

Then we have those who want a pleasant countryside where they can take a short walk. At the same time they’d like to look at the ancient parish church, browse a few local handicrafts and have a brew in an agreeable local tea room. Try doing that if the enthusiasts for rewilding the Lake District get their way.

It’s much the same way with food production. Farmers are blamed for selling food that makes people unhealthy. (I mean, the way farmers stand over their customers with a whip making them drink another quart of raw milk is frankly shocking.)
Then we’re told people want cheap food, (and plenty of it with infinite choice) and at the same time other groups will encourage us to go Organic.

Now we have other pressures creeping up on us. With the current medical unpleasantness still raging in its full administrative glory, it’s pretty well guaranteed that a lot of people are going to end up unemployed. I don’t know whether we’ll get a second wave of virus, but we are going to see a lot of people kicked onto the scrapheap because their jobs no longer exist. For example, at what point are people going to stop pretending that the airlines and travel industries are just going to be like they were? Indeed in some cases the companies that employed people dumped on the dole may no longer exist either. At this point in the blog I’d like to ask you to remember to support your local foodbank. For an increasing number of people, it could well be ‘the shopping destination of choice’ this winter.
I suspect this will change the pressures on agriculture. When things are tight, people forget about luxuries such as organic or artisan produce and want something cheap and ideally wholesome. But with the emphasis on cheap.

The graph below shows the Organic food and drink sales revenue in the United Kingdom 1999-2018


As you can see, the crash of 2008 lead to a decline in organic sales. (I can remember organic milk producers abandoning organic production because they couldn’t get the premium they needed for it to be economically viable.) It took almost a decade for sales to get back to where they had been. My gut feeling is this time is going to be worse, and a lot of people are going to be far too stretched to fritter money away on luxuries when they have necessities to buy.

So what does the food producer do? Over the years I’ve sold beef, lamb and pork direct to the consumer and have undercut the supermarkets but still had a better margin than just selling it to the slaughter trade. Yes, my customers needed freezer space and had to be able to fit in a whole lamb, half a pig, or an eighth of a bullock (they weigh about the same). They also needed to be able to afford to pay over a lump sum, but they showed the savings over the next three months. It’s not a mass market, but it’s surprising who can be part of it. One of my customers asked me to deliver on the day she and her friends all got their benefit cheques. I delivered it to her and she paid me on the nail.

Somebody then phoned me to say my customer was making money by selling some of it to her friends, who were also on benefits but who didn’t have freezers. That’s why she’d chosen the day she had, everybody was briefly flush with cash. Much to the chagrin of my informant I refused to be shocked, pointing out that I’d got the price I asked, and if she had the initiative and drive to organise something like this, I’d happily sell her another one next month. Just because somebody is an unmarried mother with a fine selection of studs and tattoos doesn’t mean they lack acumen.

Over the last few years a lot of farmers have moved into more ‘artisan’ food, producing some really nice stuff. When the first lockdown was imposed, a lot of them were badly hit because their customers couldn’t drive out to visit their shop, and of course really good quality goods often end up in the restaurant sector because good chefs appreciate good food. Some of them saw their sales drop to pretty much nothing. There are a lot of stories emerging of how they frantically set up websites, facebook pages, home delivery boxes and similar.

Looking over the next few years, I do wonder if there might be more options for farmers to do this sort of thing. Not for a ‘premium’ market, but just dealing with people who in happier times would try to buy premium produce but now are willing to settle for decent stuff that is about the same price as the supermarket. I think if people can keep their nerve, who knows what we could see.


There again, what do I know. I diversified into writing, fleeing one loss making industry for another.

In his own well chosen words, Tallis Steelyard reveals to us the life of Maljie, a lady of his acquaintance. In no particular order we hear about her bathing with clog dancers, her time as a usurer, pirate, and the difficulties encountered when one tries to sell on a kidnapped orchestra. We enter a world of fish, pet pigs, steam launches, theological disputation, and the use of water under pressure to dispose of foul smelling birds. Oh yes, and we learn how the donkey ended up on the roof.

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.

Five big shiny stars.”

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24 thoughts on “Losing your bottle. How is farming going to cope with the public?

  1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt September 24, 2020 at 5:27 am Reply

    We were taught in Scouts and Guides to leave things better than we found them, to pack out our own trash, and that the bears would get into things if you didn’t!

  2. Eddy Winko September 24, 2020 at 5:31 am Reply

    Whilst we never had the same strict lockdown as the UK, we found that the number of customers that came to the door increased two fold, people looking for healthier food, perhaps in an attempt to stave off the virus? And the other side of our livelihood, making natural soaps and cosmetics, sales have almost doubled, with a big chunk moving online, not a fancy shop, just people emailing or sending Facebook orders.
    Now that the kids have gone back to school I have noticed a slow down during the week, but we are slowly becoming a weekend distraction for families with young children.
    Strange how things work out.

    • jwebster2 September 24, 2020 at 5:49 am Reply

      Yes, people are wondering what the long term effects are going to be, (Other than massive job losses)
      We might well see more people doing more reasonably locally

  3. rootsandroutes2012 September 24, 2020 at 5:37 am Reply

    As for leaving a single-use mask at the top of Kirkstone, well perhaps it has to be removed to make it worthwhile putting on a different single use product?!

    • jwebster2 September 24, 2020 at 5:47 am Reply

      Some things are beyond speculation!

  4. jenanita01 September 24, 2020 at 8:01 am Reply

    I have pretty much given up on nearly everything, Jim… The Handcart Express leaves every hour on the hour!

    • jwebster2 September 24, 2020 at 8:18 am Reply

      If you miss this calamity, don’t worry, there’ll be another one along soon, you can catch that 😉

      • jenanita01 September 24, 2020 at 6:08 pm

        That’s a chilling thought!

      • jwebster2 September 24, 2020 at 6:33 pm

        Smaug was the ‘Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities’ 🙂

  5. The Story Reading Ape September 24, 2020 at 9:22 am Reply

    Reblogged this on Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog and commented:
    PLEASE – Take your rubbish home and dispose of it properly, NOT scatter it around beaches, countryside, or in the streets, roads, lanes…

  6. M T McGuire September 24, 2020 at 9:27 am Reply

    ‘Just because somebody is an unmarried mother with a fine selection of studs and tattoos doesn’t mean they lack acumen.’ – Gold.

    True, too.

    The other day I was talking to a friend the other day and we were discussing being students with reference to one of her lodgers. She taught this girl to cook while she was lodging with her and later, the girl went to university, she and her friends would collect their grant cheques and buy the ingredients to make an enormous stew/spag bol or similar. Then they’d cook it all up and freeze it. At the end of the month when their friends were eating a slice of bread each day, they were still stuffing their faces like queens. So much of this is about being savvy with what you have. That’s one of the main reasons I go for things like lentils, cans of tomatos, cans of beans and pasta for the foodbank. Which reminds me. Harvest Festival next week. I must go and get some stuff.



    • jwebster2 September 24, 2020 at 9:39 am Reply

      It’s very true, people with skills can do far more with less money than people without the skills

  7. V.M.Sang September 24, 2020 at 11:12 am Reply

    I have sympathy for farmers, having quite a few in my family. The trouble is that people want cheap food. (But many of us are eating too much, hence the obesity epidemic.) farmers aren’t getting the price it costs to produce the food, in many cases.
    My nephew has gone out of dairy. The price of milk in the supermarket is less than the price of a bottle of water! He is now working as a consultant to a large dairy enterprise, running a few beef cattle and letting some of his land.
    The litter problem is also concerning. For some time, well before Coronavirus, the roads here in East Sussex have been appalling, especially the A27 between Eastbourne and Brighton.
    I’ve travelled in large parts of Europe, but no country seems to have such a big litter problem. ( Germany is spotless.) Why can’t people here have pride in their country?

  8. Robert Matthew Goldstein September 24, 2020 at 10:55 pm Reply

    Whatever we do, we have to do it without destroying ourselves.:) I enjoyed your post.

    • jwebster2 September 25, 2020 at 4:16 am Reply

      Yes, we’ve got to stop shouting that the sky is falling on us long enough to work out what is going wrong and knock in a few props 🙂

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