Monthly Archives: August 2021

Lorry Drivers, a symptom?

I’ve worked a lot with lorry drivers over the years. Normally we get the good ones, as the other sort don’t make it down the lanes. But at the moment there’s a shortage. Yet I can remember Bob Bojduniak of Farm Brief mentioning to me over twenty years ago that the various agricultural supply companies were telling him then that they struggled to get drivers.
One problem is that apparently the average is 55 (so still younger than farmers) and more have retired recently. Indeed men of that age can be particularly vulnerable to heart and similar issues, and if you get put on medication, you lose your licence.
It has to be said that covid hit the number of drivers. The number passing their test fell from 40,000 to 15,000 a year. Hopefully that is something that can be easily remedied.
But what about the cost of the test? The problem is the cost of training. It’s probably going to cost between two and three thousand pounds, which is a lot of money to put out there for somebody who’s not on good money and already has a family to support.
But here we run into another issue. If you’ve just splashed out two grand (and meant your family doesn’t get a holiday this year) the pressure on you to pass increases. But even if you do pass, what’s the money like?
According to Tomasz Oryński, a truck driver and journalist based in Scotland, “In 2010, the median HGV driver in the UK earned 51% more per hour than the median supermarket cashier. By 2020, the premium was only 27%… Why would I want to be a truck driver, with all the responsibility, the long, unpredictable hours, if I can go to Aldi and earn £11.30 an hour stacking shelves?”

A number of years a lorry driver I know saw an advert to drive with Eddie Stobart. They had a good image, the drivers all got a uniform. But when this chap applied for the job and they told him the salary, somewhat to their surprise he turned them down. He was on better money just hauling stone in a quarry and delivering it to sites in the area.
The major retailers have negotiated tight contracts with their suppliers. Part of the cost the supplier has to meet is getting their product to the retailer. So obviously driver wages are among the things that have been driven steadily down as the retailers drive costs out of the system. It’s something we’ve seen in farming where some crops are now only viable if you can get gangs of cheap labour to harvest them. The retailers know what the public are willing to pay. (They’ve to the data thanks to loyalty cards and similar. Consumers can protest away as much as they want, the computer tells the retailer what consumers do, as opposed to what they say they do.)

This leads to two more issues. The first, the simple one, is how to get more drivers. The second is more difficult, how to get more money into the supply chain, for farmers, drivers and all the others being squeezed.
The driver issue is not as difficult as people seem to think. A lad I know joined the army. In the first six weeks he did his basic training and passed out as a soldier. Then he had six weeks driving and the army put him through a lot of tests. He ended up qualified for everything but petrol tankers.
Rather than trying to get young people into universities where they’ll end up paying through the nose for a qualification that just leaves them in debt, the government could put some of them through their HGV.
Whilst I recognise the additional advantages of a degree in character formation etc, I would humbly suggest that working as an HGV driver could probably match it with lived experience. It would certainly open the eyes of young people and give them an unparalleled insight into the way the world really works.
Indeed I’d suggest that for a budding poet or novelist it would be a far more useful training that a literature or creative writing qualification. It’s the sort of live where if you keep your eyes open, the stories just keep crawling out. Not only that, but the time spent on your own gives plenty of time for contemplating verse forms.

The other issue is getting money back into the supply chain. Here the problem is bigger. People are used to spending less on food and it means their disposable income goes further. Increase the cost of food then people will have less money to spend on other stuff. Other sectors of the economy will take a hit.
On top of that, we’re probably going into a more expensive time. It’s becoming obvious that achieving net zero isn’t going to be cheap and consumers (whether as consumers or tax payers) are the only people who can fund it. The need to pay more for transport, heating, clothing (as we lose the cheap stuff from the China) and similar is going to hit people in the pocket. Government isn’t going to want food prices going up at the same time.
Also diets are going to change. No surprise there, they’ve always changed. But now there are other drivers. Propaganda about Brazilian beef cattle isn’t going to be the main cause. Climate change and legislation are going to drive it. Take rape oil. Oil Seed Rape is now a far more difficult crop to grow because of the ban on various insecticides.
According to December 2020 Farming Statistics – final crop areas, yields, livestock populations and agricultural workforce at 1 June 2020 United Kingdom
“The oilseed rape harvest has shown a decrease of 41% to just over 1.0 million tonnes in 2020. This was caused by a decrease of 28% in the planted area and a decrease in total oilseed rape yield of 17%, from 3.3 tonnes per hectare in 2019 to 2.7 tonnes per hectare in 2020. This is below the five year average.”

Similarly the AHDB published this comment.

“What are the prospects for European new crop oilseed rape?

Harvest 2020 was not a good year for oilseed rape in the UK and across Europe. Unfavourable weather, the increasing bans of plant protection products and the flea beetle all contributed to a crop that struggled across the continent.

The plant is now becoming a risky and expensive option for many farmers to grow and for this reason, many growers are choosing to move away from growing OSR.

Domestically, according to AHDB’s Early Bird Survey, we are facing the third consecutive year of decline in OSR area. Area planted for harvest 2021 is forecast to be a further 18% lower than the harvest 2020.”

Yet whilst our vegetable oil production falls, people are still using vegetable oil. But it’s not as if there is a world surplus they can tap into. Again, from the AHDB.

“Malaysian palm oil stocks have been forecast lower again due to strong Chinese demand. The La Niña weather event has caused heavy rains in key palm oil producing regions which is likely to keep global supplies tight.

Given that the environmentally conscious aren’t going to use soya oil (damage to rainforest) palm oil (again damage to rainforest), have to cope with reducing quantities of rape oil, it could well be that people will have to switch to cooking with beef dripping produced from grass fed British Cattle.


There again, what do I know? Talk to an expert

Available in paperback or kindle from Amazon

And from everybody else as an ebook at

As a reviewer commented, “A collection of anecdotes and observations about farming in England in the 21st century. Written by an actual farmer, this book is based on real experience and touches on a variety of subjects in a witty and engaging style. Cats, cattle, bureaucrats, workers, and the working dog all make an appearance, as do reminiscences about the old days and speculation on a possible future. This book is both entertaining and informative, a perfect diversion for the busy reader.”

Just dropped in for the crack.

In farming, there are times when you see nobody. I suspect that if I collapse and have a heart attack in a field it’ll be some hours before anybody thinks to come and see where I am. I wonder if the H&SE will put this down as another agricultural accident and demand we do more on-line training?
But farming is becoming a more solitary industry. Even in my time it’s got worse. I can remember my father commenting on it. When he’d first gone into farm service, a not particularly large farm could have family plus three or four lads working outside and a lass to help in the house. Farm work was a pretty communal activity. Then there were threshings and similar where lads would be swapped from farm to farm to help out.

For me, haytime was a novelty, you’d be working with three or four other people. Silaging less so. OK you worked as part of a team but you’re each in your own tractor and might not speak to anybody for some time.

I remember talking to one chap, his wife went out to work. Because she left home to take the children to school before he’d finished milking, and whilst she and the children got back at 5pm, he was milking again. So he’d see his family between about 6pm and 9pm. And he didn’t see much of the children because they had homework etc. As he said, it was only on weekends he had a family.

At one time auction marts were places with a lot of social contact. When I was milking cows I’d perhaps go every other week on average. With calves or cull cows to sell. When I swapped to calf rearing, I’d be there most weeks with calves to buy or store cattle to sell. It was one day a week but it got me out and it kept me up with the news and what was going on.

But then in 2001 we had the FMD outbreak. Obviously the auction marts were closed, but when they eventually reopened they were a shadow of what they had been. As economic entities, getting farmers good prices, creating a market, they still worked and they’re still doing a good job. But a lot of the social dimension seemed to fade. In our area a lot of small farms went out, people retired, sold up, or rented their land out and got a job which actually paid a living. The situation seemed to slowly get worse. Fewer people on fewer farms, less time in which to fit more work. Certainly not the time available to spend half a day around an auction ring.

I wandered back into the mart two or three times but frankly there were times when I felt it was full of miserable old men, most of whom were younger than me. I remember going to the Christmas beef show and a young farmer commented to me how packed it was. The Christmas shows were always busy, but what he thought of as packed was what I regarded as a normal Thursday auction day.

But over the same period I’ve been volunteering to help with FCN (Farming Community Network)

We walk with people through all sorts of problems. A common one can be summed up as, ‘The government promised me £x thousand pounds under a scheme to do something they wanted doing. They haven’t paid me the money and I have creditors who want paying and nobody in government will talk to me.”
Then you get tenancy issues, inheritance issues, all sorts of things. But also you get the people who just need to talk. I remember one woman who just talked for a long time. Various problems, a mixture of farming and life. Boyfriend who wouldn’t commit and other issues. But letting her talk she mentioned that she’d used to go regularly to the mart. But after the mart there was a coffee morning she went to at her local church. She’d drop in for half an hour on her way home. Effectively it was her midday lunch break and she’d just go straight into her afternoon work when she got home. The ladies there were all at least half a generation older than her, but she’d got on really well with them. She’d not been going to the mart so she’d missed the coffee morning as well. I pointed out to her that whilst I could help with farming stuff, those ladies were the perfect group to advise on boyfriends. In fact they probably knew a person who could give him the necessary kick in the seat of the pants. My advice was to go to the coffee morning even if she didn’t go to the mart.

Again I had a young chap on the phone who started with one problem and just talked. As he talked he worked out the answer to his problem, and two or three other problems he’d not realised he had. But his real problem was he never saw anybody to just talk to.

And of course, covid has made it worse. Yes we’ve kept working normally. As somebody commented, covid is a very Protestant virus. You’re allowed to work as much as you want, but you mustn’t enjoy yourself.

And all the bridges we built have been dismantled through regulation. But people still need to talk. Indeed somebody suggested that after lockdown, normal people will understand what farmers go through all the time. OK we’re locked down in a nicer area and have plenty of room, but you so rarely see anybody.

So what to do? Well FCN is still there. In this county and diocese, the churches had organised a system where there was a chaplain (often a retired member of the clergy, or one who was based in the area) would just go into the auction mart every week. It’s a strange ministry. Somebody with this role had to miss a week to lead a funeral. The following week all sorts of people asked them where they’d got to and why weren’t they at the mart. People who had never otherwise spoken to them had missed them.

The chaplain came to the conclusion that even people who never spoke to them liked the reassurance of knowing there was somebody there in case they needed them.

The other problem is that in a lot of areas the traditional rural community has long broken down. The comment I read once was somebody had done a survey and discovered their village had more bank managers or hair dressers than it had farmers and farm workers. Farmers are often strangers in what was once their own community, surrounded by people who they no longer have anything in common with and are generally regarded as a nuisance because of ‘noise’ or ‘smell.’ Given that more people are either moving out of the cities, or at least buying second homes, that’s a problem that isn’t going to improve in a hurry either.

Oh yes, and ‘the crack.’ In this area, probably because of Irish influence, we use their word, Craic, for chat, but of course, anglicise the spelling. It may be an Irish word but it’s now part of English. 


There again, what do I know?
Speak to the experts

Available from Amazon as paperback or on kindle

And from everywhere else as an ebook at

As a reviewer commented, “Should be mandatory reading for anyone moving to the countryside for the first time. Charmingly accurate and educational. Utterly first class.”

So what’s it got to do with farming?

On the 23 March 2021, the Ever Given, one of the largest container ships in the world, got stuck in the Suez Canal. It took six days to refloat it. This made the media everywhere. What wasn’t reported in quite as many newspapers was that the ship was then impounded by the Egyptian government on 13 April 2021. This is because the company refused to pay a reported $916 million in fees demanded by the government. This compensation is claimed to have included $300 million in “loss of reputation.” Personally I suspect that at that point the temptation of the owners would be to walk away, telling the Egyptians to just keep the boat. But apparently the Egyptians reduced their claim to $600. Finally, in early July 2021 the ship was allowed to sale, an agreement having been reached.

Obviously it caused chaos, there was a traffic jam of over two hundred vessels, and some boats decided to come home the long way, taking the 15,000 mile detour round the Cape, rather than wait until the canal was unblocked. Apparently “Suez to Amsterdam at 12 knots is just over 13 days via the canal, or 41 days via the Cape.” Not only have you the costs of the extra time, you’ve got extra fuel, and also the worry about how your customers will react to the fact that the stuff you’ve promised to deliver is still at sea.

But there was an interesting article in the paper this morning. The Ever Given has docked in Felixstowe, about four months late. Initially it had 18,300 containers on it, many were offloaded in Rotterdam, but two thousand will be unloaded in Felixstowe. The cargo includes two giant dinosaurs for a Cambridgeshire golf centre, and an awful lot of fruit and vegetables that have gone rotten.  

One problem is that shipping is cyclical, there’s a shortage. So people build more ships and scrap fewer, and then suddenly, ten or so years later, there’s a surplus.

And at the moment, we’re in shortage. There’s a demand for scrap, so you can cash your ship in for $500 a ton (a high price when banks were recommending people budget of $50.) Covid played a part, replacement crews were in the wrong place. Companies had to charter planes to fly them out and fly the others back, but the replacement crew might still have to quarantine for a fortnight. Schedules weren’t as much pushed back as scrapped.

But spot container rates for goods leaving Asia (which is the big exporter) rarely ran more than $2000 for a standard 40ft container. This jumped during the course of this year to $7000 and last week prices for the China to USA route broke the $20,000 barrier. Some of this is prices getting back to where they should be. At the start of 2020 it was notoriously cheaper in some places to stick the cargo on a freighter and send it round the world than it was to pay for warehousing.

So what does it mean for farming? Well we’re lucky in that most of the stuff we purchase, feedstuffs and fertiliser, come into the UK as bulk cargos. These haven’t seen the same cost hike as containers. But there again, some major shipping lines are now convincing their clients to abandon containers and just to ship things in bulk for the saving. So we’ll probably see prices rise. But for once there are advantages to being part of the obsolete and unfashionable end of the market.

But then there’s our competitors. It’s highly likely that some of the gaps in supermarket shelves are due to produce rotting on ships that were delayed, one way or another. Also a forty foot container can carry about 22 tons of fruit. The increase in cost from $2000 to $7000 would mean an increase of $250 per ton or about 18p per kilo. I cannot see the supermarkets deciding to just absorb that cost.

The exporters who’ll suffer most are those who sell cheap, bulk, commodities, such as food. A lot of African exporters are being badly hit, first by the lack of flights that would provide hold space for some cargo, but also by the fact that pretty much any cargo you want to ship is probably worth more per ton than food means that they’re going to be at the back of the queue when it comes to hiring shipping.

It’s going to be interesting to see what does either disappear from the shops and shoots up in price.


There again what do I know? Speak to the experts

Available from Amazon in paperback or on kindle


and from everybody else as an ebook at

As one 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”

How many trees can you eat?

It’s a lot of years ago now. My father and I went on this farm walk organised by the Country Landowners Association. In some parts of the England and Wales, the CLA seems to have a preponderance of major estates and landowners, and in other parts of England and Wales most of its members are small farmers.

I think I was about sixteen at the time. What happened was that one of the big local estates (Holker) had had a tenant retire and were wondering what to do with the farm they’d now got to worry about.

So they had the walk, split us into groups and asked each group what they’d do with the farm. Which is as good a way to go about this sort of thing as any I suppose. But at sixteen what fascinated me was how the groups could be sorted by eye. The farmers wore flat caps, nylon anoraks sold by ACT, a ‘co-op’ selling to farmers, and wore plain black Nora wellingtons.

The ‘landowners’ wore a wider variety of hats, trilbies and deerstalkers were both in evidence. They wore waxed jackets and their wellingtons were green and had side buckles.

Now this was fifty years ago so the world was different then.

Anyway the two groups wandered around, and discussed plans. Finally after Holker had provided us with lunch, the two groups were allowed to report. The farmers had looked at the job and had come up with what they thought was a good plan. They’d run 300 dairy cows on the farm. The landlord would have to put in some investment, but actually not all that much. The farmers were confident that in three or four years they’d have the business up, running, and making serious money.

Then the chap who was spokesman for the Landowners group stood up. He’d obviously been listening. I can still remember his words.

“Rent it to that lot. They know what they’re doing and will not just make themselves money, they’ll put the farm back into good heart and it will be an asset to your estate.”
Then he paused, and added, “But there’s a small patch of woodland at the edge of the farm down near the beach. Keep that in hand and sprinkle caravans in it. The margins are good, the demand is there, and there isn’t a lot of competition.”
I think he knew one of the basic truths, farmer’s farm. It’s what they do and they do it well. If you ever want to experience sickening hypocrisy listen to politicians (who cannot see beyond the next election) or the chief executives of NGOs (engaged in endless trimming their political stance to ensure optimum funding to fill this year’s budget) lecture farmers, (who look ahead to how their children and grandchildren are going to get by) on the need for long term planning.

Another incident I remember from that walk was being ‘hijacked.’ The Holker Estate land agent who was showing us all about led the convoy of cars, and it was going to go down a gated road. He had with him in the passenger seat an elderly gentleman who could have been eighty. So neither of them were going to bounce in and out of the car opening and shutting gates. So he looked round and found the youngest and most expendable. Much to my father’s amusement this was me.

As I climbed into the car, in the crush an elderly farmer said, “Just touch the hem of his jacket.”
Of course I asked, “Why.”
“So you catch whatever he’s got.”

In the way these things happen, perhaps ten years later I was on various bodies and was working with the land agent in question. He was sharp. Straight, reasonably respected by farmers and his peers alike, a nice enough chap and very sharp. Bright enough to retire and spend some years sailing his boat in the Med anyway.

But as the old chap at the meeting knew. Farmers, farm. It’s what we do. We feed people. But now they want us to produce trees. I have some experience with trees. I remember my father pondering a couple of trees, they needed to come down, they were getting a bit old and would soon be dangerous. Their fellows had come down prior to the General Strike back in 1925/26 because there was no fuel for that winter.

So we’d contacted somebody from one of the companies that did bits of forestry. He looked at two good big sycamores and basically we’d have had to pay him to take them away. So we felled them ourselves which was fun and even exciting at times.

But the thing is, the reason I don’t grow trees (except over the years I’ve allowed hedgerow trees to come up to replace those we lost during the General Strike because the next generation or the one after that might need the fuel) is because I cannot afford to. I cannot afford to plant a crop which might produce a meaningful income in sixty or seventy years’ time. Any crop which takes twelve general elections to get to harvest is a dubious proposition.
But why do they want all these trees?
Simple, sequestrating carbon. Except that this con has also been laid bare. Oxfam has calculated that the total amount of land required for planned carbon removal (That is the carbon removal already ‘locked into’ the plans) could potentially be five times the size of India, or the equivalent of all the farmland on the planet.

Sorry but what are you all going to eat?
To quote Oxfam again, (to be fair to them, they’ve had the courage to tot up the numbers) “Oxfam’s analysis shows that several countries and companies are banking on land and natural sinks to meet net zero targets. The EU’s plans rely on forests and nature to remove 225 Mt CO2e of emissions, which could require a maximum of 90m ha of land if EU countries were to rely solely on afforestation to meet this target.

Oxfam has further looked at the net zero targets of just four of the big oil and gas producers (Shell, BP, Total Energies and ENI). Their plans alone could require an area of land twice the size of the UK. If the oil and gas sector as a whole adopted similar net zero targets, it could end up requiring land that is nearly half the size of the United States, or one-third of the world’s farmland.”

The problem with forestry and trees as a carbon sink is that they are living creatures. They grow, they take up carbon. As they reach maturity they take up less carbon because they’re not growing much, then they die and release all that carbon again. It’s not an infinite sink.
In sixty years’ time when Shell, BP, Total Energies and ENI want to ‘offset’ their carbon, they’ll have to acquire another area of land twice the size of the UK because the land they’ve already acquired won’t take up any more, the new trees growing on it are just about keeping up with reabsorbing the carbon being released by the trees that are dying.

Carbon sequestration by planting woodland has a place. You could use it to mop up the carbon produced by essential industries, such as agriculture and steel. It’s not there so people can fly off to yet another foreign holiday destination. At the moment, the question I’d ask isn’t, “When will the UK tourism industry be allowed to reopen,” but, “Why on earth are we reopening it? Who wants to fly abroad to watch the world burn?”


What do I know?
In paperback and kindle from Amazon

And from everybody else as an ebook

As a reviewer commented, “Jim Webster’s recollections, reflections and comments, about life as a Farmer, are always worth reading, not only for information, but also for entertainment and shrewd comments about UK government agencies (and politicians).
One of the many observations that demonstrate his wryness, is as follows:
There was a comment in the paper the other day. Here in the UK, clowns are starting to complain that politicians are being called clowns. The clowns point out that being a clown is damned hard work, demands considerable fitness, great timing and the ability to work closely with others as part of a well drilled team!”