Category Archives: Uncategorized

Windfalls but no cider

The thing about farming is that yields fluctuate. You can plant the same acreage in two successive years. Sow the same variety, put on the same sprays and inputs, and see what happens. On one year, because the rain came at the wrong time and then the sun just scorched what was left. Next year everything fell just right. So one year you didn’t even cover your costs, the next year there was so much crop that you had to stack it higher just to get it home.

But the thing with agriculture is that if everybody has a poor crop, prices go up. People do genuinely want to eat. If everybody as a good crop, you can struggle to give the damned stuff away. It was a truism that farmers only made money in times of shortage.

We’re not the only people who face an uncertain market. You can tell I was in London, I picked up a copy of Cityam.com. A free newssheet.  But take Shell. Back in spring 2020, Shell lost about £22 billion, yet due to levies, excise duty and similar, paid £38 billion in tax. BP lost £16.5 billion and paid £29 billion in tax. This year, the price has gone up, they’re making money. People are demanding a windfall tax. Which is fair enough but there are two things that ought to be taken into account. If you pay windfall taxes in good years, surely you ought to be entitled to a bailout in bad years? After all, with agriculture it’s the good years that pay for the bad ones.
I remember somebody who grew a lot of potatoes talking about the margins. He reckoned that in a ten year period, he’d have five years when he lost money, four years where he at least broke even, and the tenth, helicopter year (because the profit was so big you could have bought a helicopter) was seriously profitable and he made a mint. But had the government stepped in and collected a windfall tax off him, he would have slowly gone bust. In that 10th year not only did he pay off the debt he’d slowly accumulated, he replaced the worn out machinery and other kit that he’d not been able to replace in previous years.

The other thing to remember is who pays a windfall tax. Look at the supermarkets who made a lot of money because the hospitality industry closed down over lockdown? Or all these delivery companies who suddenly sprang into existence. And what about Amazon and others who increased market share? Slam a tax on them.

But it goes further. What about all those people who switched to working from home, and got a full salary but no longer had the cost of the commute. What about taxing that windfall profit, so that government has the money to hand out to those on low pay who had to go out to work throughout the entire pandemic?
It would be awfully easy to pick on ‘profiteers’ and those ‘gouging’ the consumer. For example, MPs are going to get a £2,212 a year wage increase? Why, it’s not due to better trading practices or greater efficiency. Let’s slam a windfall take to that particular group of profiteers.

Actually, with damn all effort, you can soon find a reason to screw extra tax off groups you don’t like. In fact that seems to be the justification of a lot of the claims. Oil companies have few friends. But if I was a supermarket boss, frankly I’d be a little wary about drawing too much attention to the situation in case eyes wandered across to look at me.

I was chatting to people in one meeting and we were trying to puzzle out why there has been so little meaningful response to a coming food crisis from so many countries. Whilst the EU has taken different steps to the UK, neither response has been the response of someone who thought the issue was important or even real. The general feeling was that we have two factors working. The first was there is now a well-funded environmental lobby who doesn’t want to lose what they’ve gained over the past decade or so.

The second factor is that bureaucracies are inevitable slow to turn round, unless you have sharp political leadership which understands what is going on and acts with authority.

When the whole thing kicked off, the assumption was that the Russians would win in a week and then EU and other politicians would go back to sucking up to Putin again, so why change anything? You can understand the reluctance of a bureaucrat to do anything or change anything under the circumstances.

Then when it didn’t last a week but instead went on for three months, the assumption seems to have remained that it was soon going to be over. The problem our various lobbies and bureaucracies have now is that it could last for years. Even if the fighting stops, I cannot imagine any electorate within the UK or EU being happy to just go back to the old ‘let’s get cosy with Putin.’ Also the war crimes investigations have started. They’re a bit like the mills of God. They grind slow but they grind fine. No politician wants to be the one who flies to Russia to re-establish a trade deal only have social media to erupt with a horror story of yet another newly discovered massacre. It’s probable that the current Russian administration are very much beyond the Pale. We will do a deal, but we’ll do it with successors who have hung their predecessors out to dry and have handed them over to the courts.

But this still leaves the problem that bureaucracies, and lobby groups with a powerful personal vested interest, are not going to change course unless somebody grabs the helm with a firm hand.

It’s noticeable that Boris has been very quick to take major foreign policy decisions, promising military support to Sweden and Finland for example. Given he was Foreign Secretary it’s possible he knows people (especially within the civil service) and knows who to go to for the right briefing. Also he has nothing to lose really. Politically he will not survive as PM just following a policy of ‘steady as she goes.’
Unfortunately, when it comes to agriculture, nobody in politics seems to have a clue. Whether you look at government or opposition, none of them seem to have made any sensible radical suggestions. Probably because between them, they haven’t a clue.

My gut feeling is that things will have to get very bad before the UK and EU governments do anything meaningful which will push up production. A lot of people still haven’t realised that when the Tanks rolled into the Ukraine, we switched the lights off on an old world and stepped through into a new one. You want another world wide UN Climate Change Conference? Sure you can have one, provided of course you recognise Putin’s puppet government of the Ukraine. We have the German Green Party (initially pacifist) supporting sending German heavy weapons to the Ukraine and being willing to stomach a short term increase in coal burning if it becomes necessary. People are going to get hungry, (and in this coming winter, cold). Take Turkey, the world’s largest exporter of flour, making up some 85% of Egypt’s imports of flour. However, domestic Turkish wheat production cannot meet flour production demand and as such, Turkey imported some 5m tonnes of wheat from Russia in 2019. People will get hungry.

You can impose all the windfall taxes you like, but until you have a political class that takes food seriously, they won’t make a bit of difference to the situation of the poor in this or any other country.

♥♥♥♥

There again, what do I know? Ask an expert.

 

 

As a reviewer commented, “Amusing, sometimes touching and always witty. An absolute treasure of a book, guaranteed to put a smile on any readers face. Jim records country living in short ,sharp stories. Great for a ten minute read whenever convenient but one tale leads to the next and soon half an hour will pass. Top work”

Strengthening the food chain with hypocrisy?

During first lockdown, behind the scenes, major retailers performed logistical miracles. I’m not somebody who is prone to praise them, but in spite of ridiculous levels of panic buying (There are people out there who won’t need to buy toilet paper for another couple of years) the retailers managed to keep the show on the road. During lockdown I got the job of doing the shopping and so experienced it at ‘the sharp end’. I knew a chap who worked in our local small supermarket (one of a major chain) and I asked him how things were going. Apparently the store manager was on the edge of meltdown. Every day his job is to send to the depot a list of stuff they’ve sold so will need replacements for. Every day the depot fulfils the list and sends him stuff.

During that first lockdown, the stuff they sent him was sometimes on his list. He was told to, basically, just sell what he got. But this manic period didn’t last long and I wouldn’t know how many people noticed (other than when the vultures descended on toilet paper or whatever today’s scare was.)

But the food chain is more than just the supermarkets. What else is happening? Well frankly, not as much as I would hope. I (like most other farmers) got a letter from George Eustice, secretary of state for the environment, food and rural affairs. He lays out what his department has done. To be fair they’ve delayed the introduction in the regulations on the change of use of urea fertiliser. (Whether anybody who hasn’t already bought it can afford it is a moot point.) Also they have issued ‘Statutory guidance to the Environment Agency so that autumn spreading of slurry and other farm yard manures will be permitted under the farming rules for water. Let us not beat about the bush, the farming rules for water were badly drawn up and pen pushers in the department were adopting a remarkably silly interpretation of them which ignored totally the real world. But that is par for the course with bureaucracies. So we have two measures here where government has stepped back from making things gratuitously worse.

The rest of the letter, the vast majority of it, is about environmental schemes. I’ve looked at the schemes, I couldn’t take part in them without reducing food production. It seems that for the environmental lobby industry it’s still full steam ahead with regard making us a major food importer.

On a general note, the steps taken with regard to energy look more positive, so government policy seems to boil down to you having the energy to cook the food you can no longer buy.

As what is the rest of parliament done. Well it’s marinating itself in sanctimonious hypocrisy. The rest of the world may have heard of the scandal called party gate? Boris probably broke lockdown rules. I was talking to another chap in the agricultural engineers. Given we just worked through the entire period, we gave up even trying to work out what the rules were because they changed so regularly and were remarkably convoluted and at times silly. (At one point in one village you could drink in one pub on one side of the street but the pub on the other side of the street had to stay shut because it was in Wales and the first was in England. Because covid knows!) Yes, our bureaucracy is that inept.
Apparently the whole party gate thing is shocking, because Boris mislead parliament. Yet his main attacker, Keir Starmer, campaigned to make Jeremy Corbyn prime minister, telling us what an excellent choice he was. Then when the election was lost, kicked him out of the party for anti-Semitism and various other things. And he has the gall to call anybody else a liar.

But the problem is, with world food prices rising steadily and energy prices about to go through the roof; the grown-ups are pointing out this winter is going to be very difficult in the UK and disastrous for many parts of the world. Yet the muppets in parliament are wasting everybody’s time trying to be more sanctimonious than thou. It would be nice if they grew up and smelled the coffee.

Talking about coffee, interestingly, the two Costa coffee shops in this town both ran out of coffee yesterday. The day before, one of the national sandwich chains couldn’t send their shops in this area the sandwich fillings they normally would so they didn’t have sandwiches. The day before that our supermarket had only one sort of orange. (I know, first world problems here.)
But as I said at the start, our food chain employs excellent logistics people. Is ‘just in time’ becoming ‘just too late?’ Have we had three days of random chance or are we starting to see cracks appearing? There are other signs that things are under stress, More than 1,500,000 UK subscribers cancelled their Netflix, Disney+ and Now TV subscriptions in the last three months. This at least has been on the cards for some time. Back in January, KPMG did a survey of consumers. Back then, before things got really sticky, 32% of consumers plan to cut back on their household spending this year. The main savings appear to be,

“Spending less on eating out was the most common answer (55%) amongst those consumers looking to reduce their 2022 household spending and half aim to spend less on clothing, rising to 59% amongst women polled. This was followed by 49% who said they would cut down on takeaway orders.”

Apparently, according to the BBC, makeup sales have taken a hit as well. Obviously the pandemic had an impact but there hasn’t been much sign of improvement. Kantar analysed the market and their research shows a 19% fall in make-up sales since 2019.

Yes, we’re very much into First World Problems. On the BBC webpage which had the makeup story there was a picture of hungry Afghan children, where there’s no money and the world is too busy with the Ukraine to remember them. This winter will probably see serious hunger in many parts of the world. Pray for good Northern and Southern Hemisphere harvests this year. Because looking at what governments are doing, it’s the only thing that will save people.

♥♥♥♥

There again, never confuse me with somebody who knows what they’re talking about. As an expert.

Available as an ebook from almost everybody

https://books2read.com/u/bwooxP

Available on Kindle or as a paperback from Amazon

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.”

Just how screwed are we?

We’ve been short of good news recently. The world has been looking distinctly grim. Not only that but we’re going into unknown territory. I think that there was a general feeling that when Putin invaded the Ukraine, the war might last a week, and then after making a few token gestures of disapproval, we’d go back to business as usual.

The problem is that the Ukrainians didn’t roll conveniently over. They fought back and the dead civilians in Bucha, bodies lying in the street, in shallow graves, or in cellars, have explained exactly why the Ukrainians were so keen to fight. I saw it pointed out in a paper recently that a lot of Ukrainians, some still in the armed forces, served in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. They know what happens when it’s felt that a civilian population needs to be taught a sharp lesson. They were determined that it wasn’t going to happen to their people, their families.

So now what? A month ago, I could have imagined that the gas taps would be fully on and trade links would be resumed. Politicians with insincere smiles would have kissed and made up. But now things are different. Even if the politicians want to kiss and make up (and too be fair to most of them, they realise that that time has long past) there are already war crimes investigations starting. Already evidence is being gathered, witnesses are being interviewed. Will this just be brushed away with a wave of the hand? It will be difficult to have the investigation under UN auspices because the Russians can just veto it, but there are other bodies who can ensure that cases come to trial.

Even if the Russians pulled out completely, tomorrow, Bucha and so many other places have left their scars on the psyche, on prime time TV. The electorate is not going to unsee this even if our political masters wanted to ignore it. The gas doesn’t burn properly, contaminated with innocent blood.

So the problem is that from now on, whilst the current regime is in power in Russia, the sanctions will continue. Already various people are biting the bullet. The Germans are obviously assuming the situation is not going to improve, they’re already planning the rationing of gas for next winter. The opposition in this country suggest that we ought to be doing the same. It’s a valid position to take up.

So where does that leave farmers and consumers in the UK. There is talk that milk will have to increase by 50% in the shops. It will, either it’ll increase because nobody can afford to produce it, and you have scarcity; or it’ll increase in an attempt to ensure production stays up. It’s the same with the Glass House industry.

As early as last September, the price of gas was hitting the Dutch industry
https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-09-30/your-tomatoes-may-cost-more-as-gas-prices-hit-dutch-greenhouses

In the UK a few days ago it was reported that in “Southeast England, vast glasshouses stand empty, the soaring cost of energy preventing their owner from using heat to grow cucumbers for the British market.

Elsewhere in the country growers have also failed to plant peppers, aubergines and tomatoes.”

https://www.euronews.com/green/2022/03/31/cucumber-crisis-surging-energy-prices-leave-british-greenhouses-empty

“While last year it cost about 25 pence to produce a cucumber in Britain, that has now doubled and is set to hit 70 pence when higher energy prices fully kick in, trade body British Growers says. Regular sized cucumbers were selling for as little as 43 pence at Britain’s biggest supermarket chains on Tuesday.”

Remember industrial users have not had their gas price capped, last year producers paid 40-50 pence a therm for natural gas. Last week it was £2.25 a therm, having briefly hit a record £8 in the immediate aftermath of the Russian invasion of the Ukraine.

Obviously some of these greenhouses will probably plant something when the warmer weather comes, but forget out of season vegetables. They’re going to be expensive.

With regard to the staples it’s estimated that the price of bread could go up by 20%, pasta by 50%, potatoes by 30% and beer by 15%.

The problem is that this comes on top of an increase in the price of domestic gas and fuels such as petrol and diesel. People are inevitably feel the pinch as summer turns into winter. There again we’re not as badly off as those in North Africa and the Middle East who depended on Ukrainian grain and similar. As the price goes up we will see a lot of genuine hunger around the world. Not just a few less unseasonal veg on the supermarket shelves.

But how bad could it get here? If we have fuel rationing, if factories have to close because they cannot use gas on three days and cannot afford to use the gas on the other four, what is going to happen to jobs. People will already have been laid off from the glass house industry.

We have a lot of people in this country on the edge of hunger as it is. When I googled for a picture of men queuing for a soup kitchen, I wanted the one at the top of the page. But all the pictures I initially got were from the UK. We already have a ‘flourishing’ soup kitchen sector.

In one way we’re lucky. The churches and other voluntary groups have built up a pretty solid foodbank and soup kitchen sector. We’re well provided. We’ve got a good solid foundation on which to build.

But in another way we’re unlucky. Government, with our agreement, poured an unimaginable amount of money into dealing with covid. They weren’t alone, a lot of other governments did it. But it does mean that the government is going into the crisis pretty much on its uppers. Also if unemployment grows and interest rates increase, governments will get less tax income, and have to pay back more on the money it borrowed.

What is going to happen? God alone knows. Personally I suspect it’s going to be a good and bad time to be an environmental campaigner. Good in that there is a very major push to renewables and nuclear. Bad, it that if you start lecturing people about cutting back, you’d be wise to do it from a safe distance, that way they’ll only laugh in your face.

One big issue could be social unrest. If we have a bureaucratic class who are still ‘working from home’ and agitating for inflation linked salaries, I can see people losing patience with them. There is only so long people are willing to sit on hold with a repeated message telling you that ‘because staff are working from home you might hear unaccustomed noises in the background.’
But at least, working from home in a nice suburb, you’ll not have to pass the queue for the soup kitchens.

The World Turned Upside Down

It’s not often you can point to a week in history and say with confidence that ‘today the world changed utterly.’ Unfortunately for us we’ve just had such a week.

Look at the agricultural front, so far nothing has really been said in the west, although I’ve noticed a couple of the papers starting to run stories about possible food shortages. Apparently the Chinese government, which seems to think about these things rather more than our governments do, has stockpiled 70% of world Maize stocks, 51% of world wheat stocks and “Enormous quantities of US Soya.” World food prices are rising as countries scrabble about looking for supplies to carry their own populations through to the next harvest. Given that there isn’t a lot of hope of much planting in the Ukraine this spring, and that Russian farmers have been locked out of the domestic credit market just when a lot of them would be looking to buy seed, Russia might be joining in the desperate scramble for grain.

If looking for agricultural support payments, then I think you might have to look hard. As an example, Germany spent 47 billion euros on defence in 2021. This is 1.5% of GDP. It has announced that it will increase this to at least 2% of GDP which means 62 billion euros a year, but with an extra investment of 100 billion euros as an extra top up.

https://www.reuters.com/business/aerospace-defense/germany-hike-defense-spending-scholz-says-further-policy-shift-2022-02-27/

All this is on top of paying for covid and desperately trying to arrange energy policy. So whilst nations want more food, I will be interested to see what happens to various schemes. At the moment it looks that all government would have to do is point out how food prices are rising, take off the brakes and let us farm.

On the energy front things are mixed. If you want to have another international conference to discuss getting to carbon zero, you could doubtless have one, but obviously to get the Russians you’d have to accept their puppet Ukrainian government as entitled to negotiate for the Ukraine. On the other hand, even the most blinkered politician has realised that relying entirely on Russian gas was never a good idea. So in the long term it looks as if European countries (including the UK) will be going over to renewables, with nuclear to balance out the supply when renewables fall short. (Which was something gas did fairly well for us in the UK)
Unfortunately in the short term, we are probably in for a couple of years of pain and backsliding. Not only are the Germans pondering keeping their nuclear plants going, they are also pondering burning more coal. Apparently the International Energy Agency has pointed out that dropping your thermostat by one degree would save Europe 10 billion cubic meters of gas a year. We may have to see a culture shift, wear more in the home, burn less fuel. There again this has been the message for two or more decades from UK governments of all parties, and indeed Labour, the Coalition and the current Conservative government have all jacked up energy prices to both deter use and to use money raised to subsidise renewables. Now it’s being jacked up even more. As somebody who has never lived in a house with central heating I find people’s homes too warm anyway but I don’t want to trespass on private grief.

Then there are going to be deeper effects that are unquantifiable. I’m sure we can all remember pictures of shattered German cities taken in 1945. But by the time a previous generation saw those pictures the war was largely over and the German death camps had been liberated. Yes they saw Dresden but they also saw British forces liberate Bergen-Belsen. I make no moral equivalents, I point no fingers at our own day, but it is likely you are going to watch European cities destroyed on prime time TV as smart phone footage reaches our broadcasters. This could go on for month after month.

Then we could have millions of Ukrainians settled in European countries. People who can never go home and who may eventually become citizens. What impact will a quarter of a million Ukrainian widows and fatherless children have on British Politics? I suspect those who support Putin’s ‘denazification’ of the Ukraine could struggle to gain electoral acceptance.

Also if we go back to a full cold war, UK defence spending will increase and the armed forces will grow. Will we have to reintroduce conscription? Will it just be for those who self-identify as men, or is it going to be an equal opportunities experience?

♥♥♥♥

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

As a reviewer commented, “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…”

Is now the time to halt all environmental schemes?

At the moment we are not in a good position. The west has said to Putin, ‘You’re not the Messiah, you’re a very naughty boy. We’re not going to let you play with our football.” It’s then added, “Oh but you’ll still sell us wheat won’t you?”
Perhaps Putin is going to just say, “Obesity is a major problem in the west, it’ll do you all good to eat less.”

The trouble is that Russia and the Ukraine have been vying for the position of the world’s largest grain exporters for some time. From 2019

https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2019/07/02/ukraine-takes-worlds-largest-grain-exporter-title-from-russia-a66250

To quote, “Russia has been the global grain exporter top dog for the last three years, but as the agricultural marketing year ended on June 30, it looks like Ukraine has snatched the title back from its rival.”

The problem is, it’s awfully difficult to plant grain when somebody is fighting a major war over the field you intended to be working in. Putin hasn’t parked his tanks on your lawn, he’s driving them over lunch. So now the quandary, do you want a quick war, over in a month so that the Ukrainians, watched over by their Russian siblings, can plant those fields, then later in the year we can grovel to Putin asking him to sell us the grain? Or do you want the Ukrainians to hang on, even give Putin a bloody nose and make him think again about crushing democracies, but then find bread is going to be awfully expensive come this winter (but look on the bright side, you won’t be able to afford the gas or electric to make toast). Luckily in the UK we don’t buy much grain from the Ukraine or Russia, but then we don’t buy much gas from Russia but the market was disrupted and our gas supplies got a lot more expensive. The same will probably happen with grain. To quote CNN Business

https://edition.cnn.com/2022/02/14/business/russia-ukraine-wheat-corn/index.html

Concerns about an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine are roiling the market for agricultural products like wheat at a time when global food prices are already near 10-year highs.

Russia is the world’s top exporter of wheat. Ukraine is also a significant exporter of both wheat and corn. That’s sending prices for grains on a bumpy ride as investors assess the potential for conflict.

“There’s certainly volatility based on what is going on,” said Peter Meyer, head of grain analytics at S&P Global Platts.

Interference in shipments of wheat or corn from Russia and Ukraine could exacerbate food inflation, most notably in parts of the world that depend on them for supplies.

Global food prices rose as much as 28% in 2021, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and are expected to continue to climb this year due to persistent supply chain issues.

“Ukraine is a major exporter of wheat and corn and any disruption to its exports would lead to a spike in global prices,” said Ophelia Coutts, a Russia analyst at the global risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft. “A combination of high food and energy prices will accentuate a cost-of-living crisis and increase the potential for civil unrest in many places, particularly in Africa and the Middle East.”

Let’s be brutally honest about it, given the massive hike in the price of fertilisers and fuel, the price of grain needed to go up, even if Putin wasn’t playing silly beggars on the Dnieper.

But what do we do about it?
Well in the west there is a window. Boris could, probably without parliamentary permission, suspend all environmental schemes that took land out of production. He’d probably have to do it for a fixed period (say two or three years) and he could encourage grain production.

Ideally the Americans and the EU would copy us. Yes it would probably be bad for the environment, ploughing releases CO2 back into the atmosphere, but look at the bright side, you’d be able to afford to eat next year and we might not see chaos rip through Africa and the Middle East when they couldn’t afford bread.

With regard to energy Boris has got severe problems, not of his own making. A large proportion of a previous generation of our political leaders were gutless nonentities who didn’t have the courage to give us a rational energy policy.
Personally I think he should lay a bill before parliament allowing fracking for a fixed term of years. It should also lay down strict regulations, to be strictly enforced, as to what you can put down the sewers, then we can use sewage sludge as fertiliser. That way we can still afford to grow the food we need.

Also Rolls Royce are doing work on small nuclear reactors that will serve a town. (They’re effectively nuclear sub reactors). This programme should be expedited! Those towns that don’t want one can buy ridiculously expensive gas instead.

The advantage of putting it before parliament is that it will make MPs make a stand. If they vote against it, when constituents come crying to them because they cannot afford to heat their homes or buy food, then the MP who voted against this can tell them that they can keep warm by basking in the smug moral glow the MP got voting against it.

We’re imposing sanctions that will stop the Russians having access to financial service. Putin can impose sanctions which will mean a lot of the world will have less access to food.

I don’t know about you but I can go a lot longer without dealing with the bank than I can without lunch.

♥♥♥♥

There again, what do I know, ask an expert

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.”

Rural and wanting a courier.

I was left asking, is Hermes out of condition?

Now we live at the actual point within our postcode area that the postcode refers to. This can happen with you in a rural area. Rural postcodes here in the UK can be quite big. So from any given point in the post code you cannot see all the houses in it. But in our case, the point your satnav will bring you to is the top of our drive.

Like all these things it has advantages and disadvantages. It’s easy enough to tell people how to find us, even if they haven’t a satnav they can still look at google maps before they set off and mark us on a proper map.

It does have disadvantages, we’re where couriers arrive, almost always looking for somebody else. So I just direct them to their proper destination. Indeed over the years I’ve got to sort of know some of them. One of them from DHL is an excellent driver, he can casually back down any lane to let others through, and does. Another driver got out of his van, saw me walking towards him and said with a big grin, “At last, I’ve got one for you.”

Then there are the various fast food delivery companies. Unlike couriers who tend to arrive during the day, the fast food companies turn up in the evening. It has been pointed out that I could live forever of pizza that other people have paid for. But there are problems. Like the night we had a knock on the door about midnight to discover two Bulgarians standing there proffering a takeaway. They spoke virtually no English and our Bulgarian is distinctly rusty. One held out his phone. This means a swift retreat to find reading glasses. The poor beggars had been given the wrong post code. The right one was in the order but whoever had sent them had put the wrong one on the bottom of the bit they would look at.

I challenge you to explain that in Bulgarian!
Anyway eventually the information was conveyed and off they went, they were only six miles away from where they should have been.

But every so often I do get stuff on line. I was wanting a kneeling chair. (I’m ‘sitting on it’ now) and what with one thing and another I wasn’t going to get into town for a while. I didn’t have time to make a special trip, and a friend of mine showed me his chair which was both comfortable and could be adjusted to fit me. So he emailed me the link and I bought it off Amazon.

I ordered it on the Saturday. I decided not to pay extra for speedy delivery and it was fine with me if it came on Tuesday.

It arrived on Sunday morning. But still, I’d not paid extra.

So I assembled it. But one part (part e) is a pin which should have two threaded ends so that you can put the nuts on them to hold it in place. As you can see from the photo, somebody in the factory hadn’t threaded it.

Muttering to myself, I put the whole damned lot back in the box to return. All I needed was somebody to send me part e, but that isn’t apparently possible. So I ‘told Amazon’ and their web site said that Hermes would collect our parcel “on next business day (Mon-Fri: 8 AM – 8 PM, excluding Bank Holidays), as long as the collection is booked before 11 PM local time.”

We sort of made sure somebody was about all day on Monday but nothing happened. So I contacted Amazon and in the chat I was told that I had to give them three working days.

I pointed out some of us have to work for a living, and I had livestock to feed etc. I hadn’t time to sit with my brain in neutral waiting for the winged messenger of the gods to remember me.
Anyway after three working days, nothing happened. Indeed the Hermes page showed (and still shows) that they’re about to collect it. I mean, it’s barely been a fortnight since they were asked.

When they named the company, Hermes, did they know that “Hermes is the winged herald and messenger of the Olympian gods. In addition, he is also a divine trickster, and the god of roads, flocks, commerce, and thieves.”

Source: https://www.greekmythology.com/Olympians/Hermes/hermes.html

Apparently I could take it into the one shop in our local town which deals with Hermes. (I’m not entirely sure whether the others won’t or whether Hermes cherishes some sort of air of exclusivity.)
The problem here, and a lot of rural people will doubtless back me up on this, I buy on line when I haven’t got time to keep going into town. I use couriers to ship stuff I don’t have the time to ship myself. Then there is the fact that Hermes think that we’ve nothing better to do that to sit for twelve hours a day keeping an eye out for them, on the assumption that they will, one day, turn up. Well it’s thirteen days and counting as I write this. Perhaps the winged messenger of the Gods is a touch out of condition?

But as a business model, is it anywhere near sustainable? Something is shipped from the People’s Republic of China, put in a warehouse, shipped out to a destination somewhere in England. One small part is faulty, so it’s stuck back in the box, eventually shipped back to the warehouse. Then what happens? Somehow I cannot imagine that the warehouse manager gets on the phone to a colleague in China and says, “Can you have a word with Old Wang Mang on the lathe, he’s letting part e slip through without threading it again. Oh and drop us another part e in the post will you please.”

So what happens to all these kneeling chairs and other things which are faulty? Do they get sent back to China in disgrace? (I have a mental picture of the battered tramp steamer of shame making its slow way back, avoiding busy shipping lanes and only entering harbours late at night)

Are they sold off dirt cheap to some bright lad or lass who goes through them, salvages what they can and sells them from a market stall in Barnsley?

Enquiring minds want to know.

But anyway, whilst I was getting irritated with Hermes it suddenly occurred to me that it might make more sense to just fix it myself.

I took offending part e out to the workshop and luckily the smallest die in my tap and die set fitted it. So I threaded it, took it back in the house, assembled the chair and I’m now kneeling/sitting on it. It takes getting used to but I’m happy enough with it.
Hermes on the other hand…….

♥♥♥♥

I recommend dealing with the eternally reliable.

Or from

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As a reviewer commented, “This book charts a year in the life of a Cumbrian sheep farmer. It’s sprinkled with anecdotes and memories of other years. Some parts (especially when featuring Sal, the Border Collie) were so funny as to cause me to have to read them out loud to my husband. It’s very interesting to read these things from the pen of the man who is actually out there doing it – usually in the rain! A very good read.”

Preparing for war?

One job I have, every year, is cutting next year’s firewood. This winter I’ve been tidying up corners of the yard from time to time, mainly with an axe and chainsaw. Out here (a mile from a gas terminal) we don’t have gas, and one of our main sources of heat is the open fire.

One side effect is that I’ve been able to watch gas prices with some dispassion. After all, the oil we need for our cooker hasn’t been capped or anything, it’s just gone up and the media hasn’t particularly bewailed our fate. Still, whilst cutting next year’s firewood (hopefully some will be for the year after as well) I do wonder what the world will be like when we come to use it.

I’ve been watching the Ukraine with rather more interest than I’ve been watching gas prices. Some of the commentators have said things along the lines of, ‘The Russians are waiting for a cold spell, as January has been too warm and they want a sharp frost for the tanks.’ If so, they could be disappointed, because the forecast for February in Kiev (or Kyiv) is to be milder than usual. If the Russians don’t invade, the weather might be the reason.

Frankly I can think of no other reasons. We’ve had a lot of posturing but I think it’s becoming obvious that the Ukrainians are being hung out to dry. People are threatening economic sanctions, but with the Germans depending on Russian Gas, and the EU seeming to be equivocal on the level of sanctions they would impose, I can see Putin assuming that people are going to posture but now do anything.

From his point of view, he could do with a cold snap, the ground hard enough for his tanks, and the wind biting enough to get Germans turning up their central heating.

But from a farming point of view, what does it all mean? Well the EU imported 13.6 million tons of grain from the Ukraine. Most maize, but to put it in proportion, the UK produced about that amount of wheat in 2018, so it’s a lot. Given the broad grain fields of the Ukraine are classic tank country, either they’ll be under Russian control or nobody will be ploughing them.

But at the time when we suddenly need more grain, the price of gas has gone through the roof, pushing up the price of fertilisers. In December 2020, imported Ammonium Nitrate fertiliser was £217 a ton. In December 2021 the same fertiliser went up to £632 a ton. I’ve talked to a lot of farmers and a surprising number of them are assuming their yields will drop because they cannot afford to buy the usual inputs.

On top of that, the pressure on agriculture from all the environmental lobby groups, the general public and even the government, is to ‘go green’ and do more environmental things. I’ve looked carefully at the new Sustainable Farming Incentive. Like the cry to ‘plant for trees to save the world,’ it is impossible to see how we can keep up output and join these schemes.

There’s a general feeling that government will have to step in this summer and do something to hold gas prices down, perhaps by a subsidy to the suppliers who’ll pay it back when the price comes down. If the price comes down. But I think the situation is going to get far more difficult than that. If there is a war in the Ukraine, it’ll be more than gas prices that go up.

I wonder if next year, when I’m burning that wood, I’ll be reading up on a Defra scheme to increase food production, perhaps by encouraging farmers to use more sewage sludge as fertiliser, and to farm more intensively? Perhaps a Russian invasion will be turned back by Extinction Rebellion protestors gluing themselves to the roads in front of the tanks; on the grounds that the tanks have diesel engines and they’re polluting the environment. I suspect one scenario is about as likely as the other.

♥♥♥♥

 

There again, what do I know, ask an expert

As a reviewer commented, “Dipping in and out of this book, as ever with Jim Webster’s farming anecdotes, is a great way to relax – although thought provoking at times, despairing at others, the humour is ever present, and how welcome is that in these times?”

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

From Amazon in paperback or on Kindle

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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.”

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.

https://www.statista.com/statistics/1201743/russian-gas-dependence-in-europe-by-country/

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.

https://www.ft.com/content/4885b7f5-97a2-4e66-af91-a9211956b0f5

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.
https://www.naturalgasintel.com/lng-tankers-diverting-mid-voyage-for-premiums-in-europe-where-prices-keep-setting-records/

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.”