Monthly Archives: January 2022

Some jobs give you too much time to think

I think it was the water utility company who started the rot. They put a new water main through, could be thirty years ago now, and of course dug through the hedge. But they didn’t fix it properly, they merely put in a wooden post and rail fence. Which rotted.

Then sheep or cattle went through it and before you know where you are, you have this.

So I decided it was about time I fixed it. Whilst the two fields on either side of the hedge are largely run as one, the gap here, right next to the gate, is a pain in the proverbial. When you’re driving livestock out of the gate, the hedges are supposed to channel them onto the road. Having a gap here means that your average sheep or dairy heifer glances at the gap and decides it looks more fun than the road. So in the odd hour I’ve had, I’ve ‘copped it up’ again. At the moment it’s got a couple of old hurdles on the top to deter the adventurous, but over the next couple of years, when the lad comes round with the hedge cutter, I’ll mention to him not to cut either side of the hurdles. Then when there’s enough stuff grown I’ll just lay it across the gap and we’ll be back to where we were thirty odd years ago. At which point some muppet will probably decide to renew the water main.

‘Copping up’ is easy enough, you’ve just got to work methodically. The dike cop is two stone ‘walls’ separated by a centre packed with earth. So you lay your two parallel rows of stones and on top of them you lay turf. Then you fill the space between them with earth, stones, whatever. Then on top of the turf you lay another row of stones. But they’re set in slightly, the wall has a ‘batter’ or receding slope. It leans on the packed earth and stuff.
So you just continue the process, a layer of stone, a layer of turf, pack behind with soil and then the next layer of stones, followed by turf, and so on.

But a quiet methodical job like this can give you too much time to think. At the moment people are going on about our government doing trade deals with other countries which will lead to cheaper food coming into this country.

Let’s look at this with an eye to history. Since the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 this country has had a cheap food policy. We have a large industrial population, and to be competitive on the world market, it’s necessary for this population to have cheap food. This means that wages don’t have to be high, meaning your industry’s costs are low and you’re able to undercut competitors. Not only that, but as time goes on, even if wages do rise, your urban population has money to spend. They become consumers, driving the economy. If they’re spending money on food, they’re not spending it on phones, white goods, Netflix subscriptions, Amazon Prime or whatever.

But every so often you’ll have something that means you cannot import this cheap food. The First World War was one of these occasions. The U boat blockade meant that Government frantically threw money at farming, desperate to get yields up. After the First World War, government abandoned agriculture, farm prices fell and cheap food came back into the country. Farming almost collapsed. I remember talking to men whose parents were allowed to continue in the farm for an entirely nominal rent because the landlord wanted the house lived in and not abandoned.

Obviously the Second World War changed things, dramatically. And after the Second World War some sharp people sold farms, expecting to buy land cheap when government abandoned farming and it collapsed again. But this never happened because the Second World War didn’t really end. It morphed into the ‘Cold War’. There were still hostile submarines out there in the Atlantic, it’s just that they weren’t sinking our food supplies, yet.

So all the way through the 1950s to the 1980s, farm prices kept up with inflation. Well there or thereabouts. But then, in 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. The Cold War was over. President George H.W. Bush and Margaret Thatcher talked about the ‘Peace Dividend.’ In this town we paid it. The number of people working in our shipyard fell from about 16,000 to as low as 3,000 in a couple of years without even making the BBC News (because we’re not in London.)
Then slowly, steadily, food prices started falling. Sometimes they fell in real terms. Farmers in 2021 were getting less for milk than I got back in 1996. Milk is just a useful indicator, other prices fell in much the same way. This isn’t merely a UK government decision. We were part of the EU, the EU was following the same policy. It took money from tax payers to support farmers and allowed food prices to fall. To be fair there are arguments in favour of this, as food prices are regressive, falling most heavily on the poor. Taxation shouldn’t be regressive.

Still in 2008, out of nowhere, there was a shortage of wheat and prices rocketed. We may be modern and sophisticated but we’re two bad harvests from barbarism. For the Arab world there was an unfortunate increase in wheat prices at the same time as oil prices stagnated. Governments could no longer afford to subsidise their populations and hungry people rioted. We had ‘the Arab Spring.’

Here a Labour Government did briefly talk about self-sufficiency but a couple of years’ later self-sufficiency was being defined as ‘being able to afford to import food.’ So that was all right then.

But in reality we’re not doing anything unique here in the UK. Ancient Athens had the same policy. Faced with being unable to feed a growing population with home grown wheat, the city concentrated on exports (at the time Pottery was one of the main ones) and used the money to buy grain.

Foreign policy was often driven by the need to ensure grain. Any Egyptian leader looking for allies to help him lead his people in rebellion against their Persian overlords would find an ally in Athens, keen to secure a reliable grain supply from Egypt. Athens spent the blood of their citizens in a series of wars. Then when the Persian Empire had tightened its hold on Egypt, during the Peloponnesian War, the Athenians turned their eyes on Sicily, another major grain growing region. An expedition was sent and never returned. Indeed the Athenians lost the Peloponnesian War when they lost their fleet and faced being starved into submission. It was probably only Spartan foresightedness which stopped the other cities having Athens razed to the ground and her citizens sold into slavery.

After the war Athens rebuilt their empire and came to rely on grain from the Crimea and the Ukraine. The rise of Macedonia threatened Athenian access to the Black Sea, leading to another war, another defeat and this time, permanent subservience. Still reliant on the outside world for grain, Athens trimmed its sails and supported whichever power that could deliver the grain ships.

People often mock our political and civil service elite because they were taught classics, but at least classics give you a basic understanding of history. The politicians facing the might of Nazi Germany were fully aware of the fate of Athens. Far better to teach politicians classics than have them sit degrees in fantasy subjects like politics and economics.

Still we’ve not yet fallen as far as Athens. But we share the Athenian Dilemma. We rely on imported food, can no longer afford a fleet to enforce our will on the world and now have to grovel to the major powers who supply our grain.

At least we’ve never yet awarded an American or Russian President divine honours. Just give us time.


There again, what do I know? Speak to the experts, available from Amazon in paperback or on Kindle

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As a reviewer wrote, “Another gentle and entertaining read about the pros and cons of Farming, ably assisted by Sal the collie dog and Billy the feral farm cat.
As always, I’m amazed Farmers make enough money to keep their farms and families going, given the ‘guidance’ given by the ‘experts’ in government and the Civil Service…”

Spending the money three times

The whole system of farm payments is up in the air. To be brutally frank, this isn’t surprising. On a general, first world level, governments have blown so much money on the pandemic they are scrabbling behind the sofa for loose change. I would be surprised if, in five years’ time, any country hasn’t cut its agricultural support, or moved the money from one heading to another so it can burnish green credentials whilst still claiming to support farming.

But here in the UK we’re perhaps further down the road than many others. The problem comes when you assess the money spent in agricultural support. Originally, when you delve back into the past, the initial purpose was to ensure that UK (and EU farmers) were able to compete against foreign producers who didn’t have the same costs, many of them imposed by EU and UK regulation. It has long been accepted that consumers are not willing to pay for the higher standards that those who lobby for them claim that consumers want. So if we want an agriculture in the UK (and the EU) farmers had to be compensated for the extra costs the state imposed.

As an aside I’ve been somewhat amused to hear civil servants and ministers say that farmers cannot be subsidised ‘just to obey the law.’ Funny really, the whole CAP was based on doing just that.

The problem came when all agricultural support was paid through one scheme, ‘single farm payment,’ or ‘basic payment scheme’. When the money went out in scores of different schemes it largely passed under the radar. But when it was paid out through one scheme, there was one damned big heap of money sitting there. Every lobby group, every other government department, cast eyes on that pile and tried to work out how they could get some.

One way was ‘Rural development’. After all it was the ‘second pillar of the CAP’ and the idea was that some money destined to go to farmers would be used to support the infrastructure that would help their businesses. In one case a particularly smart local authority got rural development money to pay for a bus shelter.

Then there was environmental spending. The idea now is to support farmers through environmental payments. In itself it isn’t a bad idea. The problem comes when government takes money from the SFP/BPS pot and puts it into the environmental pot. Remember, the regulations, the extra costs, imposed on the industry are still here, and frankly are not going to be removed. But doing the work necessary to get the environmental payments is not cost free either. So the farmer who moves across to environmental payments now has to pay the costs entailed in the schemes, and if there is a ‘profit’ the farmer still has to pay the cost of the extra regulation out of that. By definition there isn’t as much to put towards these regulations as there was.

Finally it’s been suggested that farmers might have to hire advisers. This is understandable. The House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts has produced its Environmental Land Management Scheme report this month. One comment was, “We are concerned that ELM [Environmental Land Management Schemes] will be too complex and bureaucratic, and will not cater for the full range of farm types and circumstances.”
So you have a scheme that is too complicated and bureaucratic and farmers will have to hire advisers to negotiate a way through it. Even if the money is paid for by the scheme, not by the individual farmer, the money is still being paid out of the same pot.

So now we are in a position where the scheme will pay expensive advisors to advise farmers what environmental schemes they should enter, but which they can no longer afford to join because they cannot make a living once they’re in them.

My advice to any farmer is to look at each scheme as if it were another crop. You have to ask yourself can you afford to grow it? What are the margins?

Now I’ve looked at the schemes and will apply for one on hedgerows, because, in reality, I’m doing that anyway. It is the only option of all the schemes that I can enter without it costing me more to earn the money (in a combination of new costs and lost production) than I’ll earn. It’s the only option that will not lead to me cutting production. As you’re the ones who eat that production, look forward to buying more from abroad.

Here’s the graph of world wheat prices for the last two decades. Still looking for cheap food?

Amusingly enough the government and the bureaucracy are also saying that farmers will have to become more efficient.

Let us look at the figures a moment Beef and Pork are both cheaper, allowing for inflation, than they were in the 1960s. The consumer can pay less, in cash terms, for milk than they did in the 1990s.We’ve had sixty years of driving prices down. Perhaps we should suggest that MPs and Civil Servants should prove their efficiency by going back to their 1995 salaries?


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

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As a reviewer commented, “

I love Jim’s autobiographical musings. They make me feel that I am following him and Sal, his dog and manager, around the farm as he encounters the vicissitudes of everyday life. I feel I’m wandering around after him, with his great narrative style.

This book, along with the others in this series, are an absolute treat and gives us the opportunity to explore life in someone else’s head.”