Monthly Archives: December 2021

The crumbs under the table

What will 2022 bring for farming?

I never forget seeing the ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos of Tony Blair. The first when he became Prime Minister and the latter as he finally left the job. That being said, I’m willing to put money on Boris aging even faster. The problem for him is that next year doesn’t look like it’s going to be particularly good.

One problem is that Europe (by which I don’t mean the EU, but the continent) isn’t particularly wealthy any more. The writing is now on the wall for everybody to read. Energy is at the bottom of it.

Gas imports into the EU are seriously political, after all much gas came through the Ukraine. So the Russians built Nord Stream 2 to bypass the Ukraine (which depends on the money it makes from the pipeline) and to land the gas directly into Germany. Last year 49% of German gas came from Russia.

Perhaps due to pressure from the US, perhaps due to pressure from the Baltic States, Poland, and the Ukraine, the Germans have put off when Nord Stream 2 can deliver. If this was supposed to be a shot across Putin’s bows, it didn’t work too well because Russia is having a colder winter than usual and can happily use all the gas it can get.

The problem is that for much of the year, wealthy countries like China, Japan and South Korea have outbid Europe when it came to buying gas.

Luckily the rich have filled their tanks, they’ve got plenty of stocks to last them through to spring when prices fall, so they’re not all that bothered any more. At the moment, if you’re based on the U.S. Gulf Coast, you can reckon on getting 43.205/MMBtu in Europe but Asia is only willing to spend $38.975. So a lot of really big gas tankers have turned round in mid ocean and are now sailing to Europe. We’ll have gas, but we’ll have to pay for it.

Obviously looking at the graph you can see the price is dropping from its peak. Looking ahead the futures market thinks gas will continue to drop in price.

The BBC is estimating that the reasonably average domestic customer is going to have to find £1,277 a year. Then there are the industries that aren’t going to be able to keep going at these prices. We’re going to get other problems. Cannot see there being much fertiliser produced in the UK at these prices. In fact we might reach the stage where government helps subsidise CO2 production and companies make fertiliser as a by-product.

But either way we are almost certainly going to see redundancies, newspaper headlines about families who cannot afford to stay warm and still eat, and it’s going to be genuinely tough for some people. On top of that we’ll continue to see the steady increase in costs we face as we move over to a green economy. Talking to people working in them, the foodbanks have had a busy couple of years, but they’re gearing up for this coming year being worse.

And then we have farming. Obviously fertilisers are going to look expensive. I wonder if the supermarkets will get their arms twisted by government to allow the use of more sewage sludge in agriculture?

But on top of this, across the whole of Europe, not only are populations facing increasing energy prices, but governments are trapped between reduced incomes and vastly increased spending due to the pandemic.

Certainly in the UK, I cannot imagine government willingly doing anything that will increase food prices. In fact I think that they can be relied upon to do their best to keep prices down.

It will be interesting to see whether the EU, with a population of 447 million people, of whom 9.7 million are engaged in agriculture, (Just over 2%) has the nerve to tell the 98% that they have to dig deeper to help the 2%.

From the point of view of the UK farmer, what’s the best way forward?
Certainly if you can earn environmental money without damaging the earning power of your business, it is probably worth considering.

Then there’s always diversification to consider.

But finally, remember that the UK is hardly the prime market to sell food into. I suspect our competitors will be eying up the rich world, China, Japan, and South Korea. Even if, as a business, it isn’t our produce that is exported, we could still do reasonably well on import substitution.

But people do at least have to eat. The BBC had some nice figures as to how you could save money on energy. Reducing the setting on your thermostat by one degree could save you £55 a year. Put like that, cancelling your Netflix subscription could save you three degrees. It’s the sort of calculation people will be faced with whether they want to or not. A large part of the job of a foodbank isn’t just feeding people, it’s signposting them to those who can give them the help they need. For some, it’s help in budgeting.

Now of course, it’s entirely likely that none of the above will come true. Look at the prophecies we’ve seen in the past. Boris put a figure for the NHS on the side of a bus and it looks like chicken feed compared to what he’s had to spend. Whether he wanted to or not. We were told that Kent would end up a lorry park and funnily enough it hasn’t. We were promised a shortage of turkeys for Christmas, and my lady wife returned from a brief tour of the shops on Christmas Eve to announce that fresh turkeys were being discounted because shops had too many. With any prediction, it’s pretty much guaranteed that the ‘unknown unknowns’ will kick everything up in the air.

Anyway, have a good New Year, stay well and stay busy.



There again, you could always talk to an expert!

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.”

Going Native

The thing about farming and agriculture is that it isn’t just an industry, it isn’t just a way of life, it’s a world. All sorts of people come into this world and they might pass through, going about their lawful occasions. They might enter it and flee gibbering unable to cope with the proclivities of the natives. Some will arrive, breathe deeply and realise that they’ve finally come home. They go native.

All sorts of people go native. I remember one morning our postman pushing a small calf down the drive towards me. It was probably a couple of days old and had somehow managed to get out onto the road. As he drove along to deliver letters it stood there in the middle of the road bawling at him. So he just got out and walked it home, then walked back to collect his van and the post.

Then our dairy and milking parlour were next to the calving boxes. This was handy, not only could I keep an eye on a calving cow during milking, but as cows about to calve walked down through to the collecting yard with the rest of the herd, I’ve known them stand by a calving pen gate, waiting to be let in. It also meant that more than one milk tanker driver ended up giving me a hand with a difficult calving when all he’d really intended to do is to collect the milk. But it’s the world we live in and they were just part of it.

There again, others can be part of our world if they want to be. I remember one lady who worked for the RPA (she might still do for all I know). Back when they were keen on doing ear tag inspections she came to check our cattle ear tags. We had over two hundred young stirks and similar on the farm at the time, as I was out of dairy and was buying calves and selling stores. Two hundred head of cattle take some looking at, and we put a lot though the crush. But she took a look at one of the buildings, and commented that rather than put that batch of cattle through the crush, if I fed them at the trough, she would be able to walk down the length of the trough and just read the tags as she went along. That could well have saved us an hour.

But at the end of the day we had the right number of cattle but one ear number was missing. We could not find the missing one anywhere, and she just left us her mobile number with the comment, “Have a think over the weekend and I bet you’ll find it.” She was right, the extra one had been wrongly tagged. When you looked at the big tag from the front it read 600123, and when you read it from the back it read 700124. When they’d tagged calves they had put the wrong male part in the wrong female part of the tag. Nobody had noticed at auction because whoever was jotting it down was ‘behind’ the animal. It was the same with us, as the animal had gone through the crush, I’d looked at the back of the tag because, working the crush, I was behind him.

So I phoned our RPA lady that night and told her. Her comment? “I’ll mark it down as a passed inspection and you get the little beggar retagged.”

As an aside, you might remember that we used to have a lot higher level of inspection for ear tags. These inspections could be a nightmare. Checking a bull beef unit could lead to people and animals getting seriously hurt. The problem was that the EU regulations were explicit. If, nationally, you had more than a certain percentage failure rate, you had to increase the percentage of farms tested. Because the RPA had defined failure very strictly. From memory, a herd with more than a couple of missing tags had failed, even if the animals, being double tagged, were still fully identified. This meant that an awful lot of herds failed even through there was no problem with animal ID. The big, high visibility tags that the EU insisted that we use tear out a lot more easily than the little metal ketchum tags we’d always stuck with. Of course the more herds failed, the more inspections you had to do, and as more herds failed, then the level of inspection increased further meaning more herds were inspected and more failed…….. but I’m sure you get the picture.

The problem for government was they had to pay for all the inspections because under EU regulations they couldn’t pass the cost onto farmers. Anyway the cost to farmers of the inspections was high enough anyway. Finally, after a lot of lobbying the RPA saw sense, and redefined failure, so suddenly the failure rate plummeted and we no longer had anything like the number of inspections.

But as it was, our inspection was a few months before foot and mouth broke out. Anyway as some might remember, in the first few weeks there was a lot of confusion as to what was really going on. It broke out on the 19 February 2001. The Blair government at the time wanted to hold a general election and was accused in some quarters of playing down the outbreak rather than having to delay the general election as they eventually did.

So who could I ask who might tell me what was really going on? So I rang the lady from the RPA. After all, I still had her number. She answered the phone, she was in the middle of a field with a vet. (Who I knew and who said ‘Hi’) They were inspecting a flock of sheep, and in her words, “They are rotten with it.” At that point I knew that the outbreak was totally out of control. She, lord love her, was part of our world, and was doing her best to make sure our world continued. She was absolutely straight with the farmers she dealt with.

And of course, the other group who are prone to going native are the vets. Many of them will marry into the farming community where their practice is. Indeed one lady vet I knew commented that the only disapproval she met was from farmers’ daughters who felt that having a female vet removed a potentially eligible male from the market. Many large animal vets also have a farming background to start off with. 

Some vets fit right in immediately but others take a little while to adjust. In some cases they even have to learn a foreign language, as the English the vet might have learned at his mother’s knee in the Home Counties is very much not the English he’ll hear spoken on a farm in Cumbria.
I remember one who did rather seem to struggle with it, until one morning he was examining a stirk with a sore eye. He would have to inject antibiotic under the eye lid, with is a tricky enough procedure. The stirk wasn’t helping and I was desperately trying to hold the head still whilst somebody else was trying to keep the rest of the stirk in place. In exasperation the vet shouted, “For God’s sake, hod the bluidy thing still.”

At the point we knew he was home.


Of course when it comes to going native, you really need to speak to them as know

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!”