Tag Archives: Ammonium nitrate

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?”

Apple Chutney and Refrigeration Engineers

2 diced

Way back, probably in the late 1960s, the Milk Marketing Board decided to try and move farmers away from putting their milk in churns for collection and shift over to bulk collection. It would save them a fortune in labour and suchlike. Also the MMB paid for the churns, farmers had to install their own refrigerated tanks.

But they offered a small premium if you shifted to bulk collection. I think it paid for the tank over three or so years, and so we made the leap and bought a 150 gallon bulk tank.
I can still remember it being delivered. The driver appeared in our yard with his articulated lorry. He’d got to where our lane met the main road; glanced at the map and realised he wasn’t sure whether he could turn round when he got to us. Not only that but there were no mobile phones so he couldn’t ask. So he’d backed his lorry about three-quarters of a mile, down a winding single-track road, between tall hedges, with at least one right-angled bend.

This was a seriously impressive feat of driving and my Dad commented on it. The old chap just smiled quietly and commented that after spending the war driving Scammell Tank Transporters, anything else was pretty much a doddle.



Time went on and in the late 1970s we ended up getting a bigger tank, 300 gallons this time. This was delivered by a chap who was an owner/driver who got all those complicated jobs employees don’t want. So he’d set out from home, load up with milk tanks and travel up one side of the country and down the other side, delivering them. He was normally home after three or four days. To pad his week out, on the other days he’d deliver ammonium nitrate fertiliser in hundredweight bags.

His next door neighbour was a fanatical gardener and asked if he could buy some ammonium nitrate. The driver said he’d have a word with a customer, and managed to buy a full bag of a farmer for him. He warned his neighbour to be careful with it, because it’s not the diluted stuff you buy in garden centres. Next morning, as he set off to collect a lorry load of milk tanks, he noticed that his neighbour had put the ammonium nitrate on his lawn. He’d put so much on it looked like there’d been heavy hail, the lawn was white. A bag, which would do a third of an acre perfectly happily, was largely used on a lawn not much bigger than a double bed.

When the driver arrived home three days later, the lawn was black. Anyway he advised his neighbour not to do anything; he probably hadn’t killed the lawn. He hadn’t, and the following summer he had to mow it every other evening or else it would have got totally out of hand on him.

But drivers aside, we were now left with pretty complex refrigeration equipment, compressors and suchlike. Of course it goes wrong. It’d been installed by a chap the MMB recommended at the time so we’d contact him for servicing and suchlike. He was based in the Lancaster/Morecambe area. Anyway you could never get hold of him and finally we got hold of a firm in Penrith. They send an engineer down and he sorted things out. We mentioned the other company and the engineer just laughed. Apparently if you wanted to get hold of them you had to phone the right pub. The chap was apparently a legend within the industry; he’d serviced the freezers in a cinema somewhere and ended up with melted ice-cream running through the foyer.

So we stuck with this chap from Penrith until he retired. He’d learned his trade in Glasgow and when he first started he’d get to various jobs around the city by climbing onto the tram or bus with his toolbox and letting public transport take the strain. Obviously that isn’t an approach that is ever going to work in Cumbria.

But the reason this chap came to mind is apple chutney. My mother used to make apple chutney occasionally, because in all candour we can have a lot of apples. But the problem with cooking apple chutney is the smell of it permeates the entire house, often for days. Anyway this chap was having a bit of supper with us after finishing working on our tank, and when the conversation turned by chance to chutney, he announced he had a method of making chutney without cooking.

My mother got the recipe off him and made some and frankly, it was a success. Anyway to scroll down through the years, I’m faced with a lot of apples. I like chutney. In fact I’ve always been partial to cold meat with a bit of pickle. So I decided to make some apple chutney.
Could I find my mother’s recipe? Not a hope. It was written on a piece of A4 lined paper over forty years ago. But anyway, we have google. So I had a look at various recipes and decided on this one.


450g    apples, peeled and cored

225g    onions, quartered

225g    stoned dates

225g    sultanas

225g    Demerara sugar

1 small teaspoon      ground ginger

1 small teaspoon      salt

cayenne pepper, to taste

225ml white wine vinegar


Chop the apples, onions and dates. Put the mixture into a large bowl and add the sultanas, sugar, ginger, salt, cayenne and white wine vinegar.

Leave for 36 hours, stirring occasionally, and then put into warm sterilised jars. It keeps for months, if not years.


I’m at the ‘stirring occasionally’ stage at the moment. It’s looking interesting. I used large crab apples and added a little more sugar. I’m quite looking forward to it.


And while you’re waiting you might need a good book?


As a reviewer commented, “Tallis Steelyard: A Guide for Writers, and Other Stories by Jim Webster is as advertised, a collection of stories with different themes. I will look at only a few of the twenty-six tales. The School for Assassins under the title Tidying Up Loose Ends is remarkable in its tone. In some areas of Tallis Steelyard World, purposeful and planned killing is accepted; it is the casual acceptance portrayed in the story that I find worthy of attention. There are several sections on writing (per the title). Tallis will comment on the associated functions of publishing and promotion. If you are a writer, an avid reader, a reviewer, a publisher, or a person who attends events for the free food and drink, these sections are not to be missed. Readers may find themselves portrayed in one of the groups. The section on writers who write about writing for fun, profit, and financial independence will stick in my mind for a long time. Webster uses humor rather than a direct assault on the commission of scams by charlatans. I believe the author is holding back on “saying what he really thinks.”

The unsurpassed beauty of Tallis Steelyard creations is the elegant language used with precision to separate the occasional absurd from the daily mundane then remixing to produce entertaining stories. I like to select favorite quotes because there is no better way to illustrate what I find to be a unique writing style. This five-star collection reminds me of a quote from a film (possibly paraphrased). “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never quite know what you are going to get.” (Attributed to F. Gump). Readers will find literary candy of many varieties in this “guide.”

The importance of getting home under your own steam ***** Readers might guess by this story’s title that there is alcohol involved. True, but it was Bongo’s birthday. The passing of years brought Bongo to maudlin reflection on a boring life. Tallis and company decided that if Bongo could be transported home on a palanquin carried by a score of naked harlots, at least the birthday party would be a point of interest in Bongo’s otherwise humdrum life.

I will point out one feature of why Tallis Steelyard stories are great. Look at the word “naked;” it is OK to free associate. Then “By the time the wine was finished I was somehow surrounded by nearly three dozen young women dressed much as nature had intended.” (Kindle location 53). Further interesting imagery comes to mind. The narrator is not vulgar or offensive and does not employ “shock” terminology to describe weird situations. Bongo’s wife was not offended; readers should follow her example.

Not perhaps the best location ***** Sneal, a wandering merchant spent a day traveling on his way home through the unfamiliar countryside in the hope of discovering new markets for his goods. He ended the first day by spending the night at an inn located in a tree. After traveling the next day, the same thing happened. Same inn, same customers, same barmaid. The third day was a repeat of the earlier two. Finally, he arrived home. How did this happen? Cue the scary music. What happened when he recounted his adventure to Tallis?

The frantic scribblings of a novelist ***** This chapter is the first of several observations related to the lives of a novelist or a poet. Tallis offers contrasts as he pities the unfortunate novelist. Poets are superior in their social lives and sufficiency of income. Tallis said so. This section and the following five sections explore the world of writing. Quotes that stick in my mind follow.

There in Black and White ***** One of my pet peeves is discovering that after I download a Kindle book, 20% of it is devoted to promotion. Tallis points this out with “There is a feeling amongst publishers that the reader doesn’t really want the book they’ve purchased, but instead in point of fact wishes to peruse an assortment of other books that the publisher has available. Pictures of these and even sample chapters can in extreme cases double the size of the book.” (Kindle location 181).

Learning from others ***** Writing books from the comfort of home while in any state of dress and personal hygiene imaginable can bring instant and immense wealth. All one must do is follow the advice of proven authors. Tallis looks at the advisors as “a community of writers writing books about how to sell books that were bought largely by people who were interested in writing books about selling books.” (Kindle location 244).

Nobody does it like that anymore ***** Tallis does not dismiss time tested good advice. Departing from tongue-in-cheek humor, Tallis notes, “Writing is just another craft like joinery or metalwork, the more you do it, the better you get.” (Kindle location 271).

The uncompromising principles of the successful writer ***** Tallis consults a printer to find out the kind of literature that sells best. “This is what feeds the press Tallis my boy, cheap stories of forbidden vampire love, or demon love, or love with a score of fantastical, imaginary, or hopefully extinct creatures. (Kindle location 331).

A distinct shortage of assets ***** Many authors assure readers that reviews are vital to an author’s success. How can an author get reviews quickly? Tallis would “ instruct (the printer’s) domestic staff and secretary to write glowing reviews of his work under false names” (Kindle location 401).

Subsequent stories address other topics as Tallis leaves the subject of writing out of fear of appearing maudlin. Any would-be writers should continue reading the rest of this collection to pull themselves out of any depression caused by an examination of prospects for fame and riches in their chosen profession.

At the end of this Tallis Steelyard set of musings, I am left with only one question not addressed in this examination of the world of writers. Why does an author choose to sell a novel for USD 1.26?”