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?
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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!”