Tag Archives: food production

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.

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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.”

Hunting for a way to make a living

Cheetah With Two Indian Servants And A Deer By George Stubbs, 1765

I never felt I had all that much in common with the Arab nobility who used to hunt with a hawk on their arm and a cheetah sitting in front of them on the saddle. But I too have moved into the big league. Admittedly I haven’t got a hawk or even the horse, but Billy is a suitable alternative to a cheetah. Having seen a rat running backwards and forwards between two locations, but only when I didn’t have an air rifle to hand, I summoned Billy.

So be fair, I picked him up and carried him to the first location. He sniffed disdainfully and then froze into a hunting pose and disappeared off into the second location. Based on his previous record I don’t really expect to see that particular rat again.

But Billy is sorted. A steady job in agriculture. Cannot beat it. But what about everybody else. A few days ago seventy seasonal workers out of two hundred working on a Herefordshire vegetable farm tested positive for the virus. All across social media was a storm of people asking, “Why are we bringing in Rumanians when there are people in this country looking for work.”

The problem is that whilst people in this country may be looking for work, they don’t want that sort of work. Apparently only 0.2% of those who expressed an interest ending up taking the jobs.

 

https://ukandeu.ac.uk/seasonal-harvest-workers-during-covid-19/

 

There are serious problems.

 

First, farms tend, strangely enough, to be rural. This means that those who want jobs often have to move to them because they cannot commute. Accommodation is often provided, but it tends to be the sort of accommodation you’d expect to be provided by a low margin industry. Working away from home isn’t necessarily an issue, the off shore industry is staffed by people who do it. But they’re that is a lot more profitable industry paying far higher wages.

 

The second problem is that it looks as if the retention of farm workers from the UK is low. So you pay them, spend time training them, and then they just leave. Amongst East Europeans retention runs at over 90%. Amongst workers from the UK there aren’t really comparable figures but it might be about 40%.

 

The third problem is that it is hard and skilled work. Firstly it’s physical, you’re on your feet all day lifting, bending, carrying etc. But also the hours can be long. If a supermarket demands fresh produce delivered to their depot at 7am, then those doing the picking could be working for as long as there is daylight enough to see. Just to make sure the produce is there when the customer wants it. Also it’s the old problem with harvesting agricultural crops. When the weather is fine, you work. As any farmer will tell you, eighteen hour days during harvest are not unusual. The problem is that the British workforce, even if they wanted to do the work, often aren’t physically capable, and even where they are, don’t have the skills needed. Obviously you can train people who are willing, and end up with a good workforce, but they have to be willing.

 

And the fourth issue is the fact that very few workers in the UK have experience in agriculture so they do need a lot of additional training. On the other hand, migrants often return to the similar work year after year lowering the time necessary for, and costs of recruitment, training and induction. Potential British recruits don’t know the job, they aren’t used to the industry culture, and the migrant worker who comes each year is already trained and knows how things work. Indeed some people have imported East Europeans to act as foremen and team leaders to help train the UK workers who do turn up. But when out of 36,000 applications, only 112 people actually take up a job offer, I suspect a lot of businesses have just given up on UK applicants.

 

Obviously things might improve. With growing genuine unemployment more people might look seriously at agriculture, but it’s obvious that there is no real enthusiasm for this and we will have to continue bringing in migrant workers for the foreseeable future.

 

Underlying all this is the problem of low margins. If you have Brussels sprouts sold to the customer for £1.12 per kilo leaving the farm at 29p a kilo, (figures from a couple of Christmases ago) there isn’t a lot of wiggle room for the agricultural industry. In this case, have consumers demanding cheap food shot themselves in the foot? Food has got so cheap the industry cannot afford to pay what the same customers would consider an adequate wage? Is food production caught in the same hypocritical trap that clothing is? People say how shocked they are at the wages paid by sweatshops, but then spend a couple of pounds on a garment they’ll wear once and throw away.

 

I suppose we could hope for a price increase, passed on to the producer so they could afford to pay higher wages. As somebody who has been in farming all my life I’m used to years when I make little or nothing, but I can quite understand those employed in the industry having a somewhat harsher attitude.

But without a price increase, what else is available? Now traditionally when the Government wants young men (and latterly young women) to serve it for low wages in poor conditions, it conscripts them. Frankly I cannot imagine this happening. I can see a lot of middle class and metropolitan commentators speaking favourably of the idea of conscripting the ‘gammons’, but should it be extended (as it always is) to the nice offspring of decent middle class families, there would be hell on.

Also, let’s be honest, what farm wants a bunch of conscripts who haven’t got a clue?

 

Still there is room for the state to move people into rural jobs that don’t exist yet. The government could create jobs picking litter and cleaning up after tourists. But seriously, if a young person asked me for job advice, I’d advise them to get into the civil service. I cannot imagine it getting smaller. Similarly those furloughed civil servants are unlikely to pass straight into redundancy. Guaranteed wage, guaranteed pension, and virtually no chance of losing your job, it could be the way to go.

Otherwise you might be stuck in agriculture, competing with Billy who is happy to work for all the vermin he can eat and having his ears tickled occasionally. But then it is the industry the consumer created.

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There again, what do I know?

The fourth of these collections of anecdotes, rants, pious maunderings and general observations on life. Yes we have dogs, quads, sheep and cattle, but in this one we follow the ‘lambing year.’ It starts with ewes being put to the tup in late autumn and finishes in summer with the last of the laggards lambing.
But as well as this we have endless rain, as well as sleeping in a manger. Be brave and you’ll meet young ladies in high heeled cowboy boots, Sir John Moore of Corunna, brassieres for cows, and, incidentally, David Essex.

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.”

Retail therapy

farm-gate-stall

One question I’ve been asked from time to time is sensible enough, “How on earth can anybody make a living from food production?”

I suppose the answer is simple, “Send the wife out to work.”

But looking ahead, the world is changing. Whatever you think of Brexit and the EU, we’re leaving. Nobody has a clue what sort of deal we’ll get; nobody really knows how important government considers agriculture. Will farming get traded away to ensure a good deal for our car exporters? Will we be sold down the river to ensure financial services get the deal they want? Certainly UK governments over the last forty years haven’t got a good record of taking a long term view of agriculture.

But I want to look at the scruffy end, what you might call the ‘peasant farmer’ end of the business. The bigger operations have more options, they have economies of scale. If the worst comes to the worst and the whole job goes belly up, then so long as they’re not over-borrowed they can get rid of staff and just ranch it.

But what about the bottom end? Here where you get the small farmers, the smallholders and the family operations; we’ve always had the situation where, to put it bluntly, the farm has made a contribution to the family income but was never the whole story. The show was kept on the road by sons and daughters working off-farm for at least part of the time, the spouse going out to work and everybody pitching in and working far too many hours when they were at home. That was how many got by.

Now these smaller operations may have an advantage that the bigger operations don’t have. They’ve got that web of connections, friends, neighbours, workmates etc.

Whatever happens in 2020, I think one thing we’ll see is volatility. This is because, in reality, we’re seeing it already. The EU has pulled back from trying to provide stability anyway so there is not going to be as big a change as people think. The EU isn’t big enough to dampen down the swings in world grain prices, and over the last couple of years they’ve abandoned attempts to provide stability for dairy producers. I know people who were getting 27p a litre for their milk a couple of years ago, 17p a litre for their milk last year, and hopefully will be back up at 27p a litre at some point this year. To put this in perspective, we got 30p a litre back in 1996 and we got 17p a litre back in the 1970s.

I was once at a meeting where somebody from Defra was saying that Farmers had to be more resilient. I suggested that he spend a year on his 1970 salary and then came back and lecture us on resilience.

But what it means is that when we leave the EU, retail food prices will go up. They’ll have to, the cost of transport, processing, the effect of minimum wage on supermarket employees, the increasing costs incurred when running major advertising campaigns, all will conspire to drive prices up. The farm-gate price of food will be largely irrelevant. When it goes up, it’ll be seized upon as a reason why ‘hard pressed retailers’ have to increase prices. When farm-gate prices fall, retailers will just hold prices and bank the extra margin. I suppose there might be more promotions, but as these are often paid for by the supplier, it’ll not have an impact on the retailer’s annual profits.

But looking at the small producer, how can they cope? If we assume that the price you’ll get for your product is going to be volatile and could well drop a lot, then you really want to stop being just a producer and start being a retailer as well. After all, all you have to compete with is the supermarkets and they’re aiming at keeping their margin.

This is where the small producer’s network of friends, workmates, and neighbours comes in. Start thinking of them as potential customers or potential sales staff and contemplate what you’re growing. The plethora of veg-box schemes shows what is possible, the growth of farmers’ markets shows that there is a demand. Even for livestock producers, there are still enough abattoirs left who’ll slaughter animals for you, and a lot of them will even cut the animal up for you as well. With livestock I’d go down the route of selling the whole lamb, or half a pig, rather than selling individual joints. It does limit your customers to people with freezers, but on the other hand it means you do not have to worry about unpopular cuts.

Not only will you be able to undercut the major retailers, (without having to go to the lengths of mixing horsemeat into the burgers or pumping the chicken full of water to get the weight up,) but you’ll be ‘local.’ People know you.

And what about the consumer, how can they take advantage of it? Here it depends where you live. If you’re in the city centre, or even in the heart of the suburbs you’re going to struggle to find anything locally. But there again I’ve got friends in London who make it their business to drive out every few months to collect meat for the freezer, a few chickens or whatever.

Farmers markets in cities tend to be expensive, if only because of the costs associated with them. Rents are high, there’s a lot of time and travelling involved and all this has to be covered somehow.

If food matters to you and you’re willing to do some research, you’ll probably be surprised at what you find. A friend of mine went into a butcher’s shop in the suburb where he lives and discovered to his shock that the butcher was cheaper than the supermarket my friend normally shopped at, (it’s surprising how often butchers are,) and what is more had better meat. In this case the butcher was buying very carefully from producers he had built up a relationship with over the years.

It’s surprising what can be done.

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There again what do I know, for a real expert, ask the dog.

and for Nook, Kobo, Apple and everybody else

https://books2read.com/b/bxee0D

As one reviewer commented “This is the third collection of farmer Jim Webster’s anecdotes about his sheep, cattle and dogs. This one had added information on the Lake District’s World Heritage status. This largely depends upon the work of around 200 small family farms. Small may not always be beautiful but it can be jolly important. If you want to know the different skills needed by a sheep dog and a cow dog, or to hear tales of some of the old time travelling sales persons – read on! This is real life, Jim, but not as I know it.”

Mind you, another said, “Like the other two books in this series, Jim Webster gives us a perspective of farm life we may not have appreciated. Some of the facts given will come as a shock to non-farming readers, but they do need to be read. Having said that, there are plenty of humorous anecdotes to make the book an enjoyable read.”

A living wage?

It was JFK who said “The farmer is the only man in our economy who has to buy everything he buys at retail – sell everything he sells at wholesale – and pay the freight both ways.”
I cannot remember what I was doing when JFK died, but I remember this comment. It came to mind when someone sent me the link to this article. http://modernfarmer.com/2013/11/farmworker-confessional/
‘Farmer Confessional, I’m an undocumented farm worker.’

In the UK we do things differently. In food production our cheap labour is largely home bred. In the late 1990s I can remember sitting down and working out that I’d worked the previous year for 9p an hour. But agriculture is like that, I’ve had years when I’ve actually paid so much an hour for the privilege of working. But then I’m sure that a lot of self employed small business owners will tell you the same. But Tesco who sells what we produce insists on a 6% profit margin.

In recent years I’ve helped with ‘Farming Community Network’, it used to be Farm Crisis Network’ and it’s meant that I’ve gone onto farms to see what could be done to help people who’re in a serious mess. Whether it’s their physical and mental health, financial problems, animal health or government induced nightmare, we try to walk beside them and help.
A few weeks ago I had to read a report; it was ‘Walking the breadline, the scandal of food poverty in 21st century Britain.’ It’s produced by Oxfam and Church action on Poverty. I gave up half way through; I found I couldn’t see past those blighted lives, families scarred by illness, deprivation and poverty. These two august organisations were getting really wound up about the effects of food price increases on the urban poor but how many people gave a damn about the effects of poverty on the lives of those who produced the food?
Now to be fair to both Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty, whilst it was their report that wound me up, that was my problem, not theirs, both organisations have done good work in rural areas in this country as well.

More many years we’ve had a situation where our economy depended on falling food prices as a proportion of income. As a rule of thumb, for much of the 20th century the current generation could eat organic food and pay a smaller proportion of their income for food than their parents generation would do eating conventional food. This was based on technological advances and the use of cheap labour. Unfortunately for some; the technological advances have slowed (because who in their right mind makes major investment in a sector where the income is falling every year) and the labour isn’t so cheap any more. Odilia Chavez, the undocumented farm worker in the article, is hard working, skilled and flexible. As our economy stagnates, as our population becomes relatively less well educated compared to the rest of the world, less hard working, skilled and flexible, then we’re going to have to pay more to get Odilia Chavez and her like to come and do these jobs for us.

But in this country we’re seeing an apartheid slowly forming. We’re getting two classes of people. I saw this in today’s paper.

“Private-sector workers could see their final salary pensions “eaten away” by the rising of cost of living after ministers proposed removing legal protections against inflation from “gold-plated” retirement funds.
Almost two million employees who are still part of final salary schemes could lose the legal right to have their retirement income rise in line with inflation under the proposals.
The change, which would not apply to public sector workers, could cut the spending power of a pension by almost a third over a 15-year retirement.
Workers could also be forced to wait longer before drawing their pension because companies would be allowed to delay workers’ retirement in an effort to save money.
Additional benefits such as survivors’ rights, which pay an income to widows and widowers, could also be lost.”

Now this doesn’t impact on me too much, I’ve never put a lot of money into pension funds, when you don’t pay much tax it isn’t a good investment. I’m not really expecting to retire.

But then the paper went on to comment.

“The changes could also widen the gap between public and private sector workers. That divide has led some critics to talk of a “pensions apartheid” between the two groups.
Protections such as inflation-proofing will continue to apply to the 5.1 million state employees who are in line to receive final salary retirement incomes. That is because ministers promised that recent changes to public sector pension terms would be the last for 25 years, giving state employees “a settlement for a generation”.
By contrast, private sector workers have endured repeated changes to pension rules and tax raids on their retirement funds.”

We’re getting two groups, the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ and it isn’t healthy in any society.

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Then what do I know? Ask an expert

A collection of anecdotes, it’s the distillation of a lifetime’s experience of peasant agriculture in the North of England. I’d like to say ‘All human life is here,’ but frankly there’s more about Border Collies, Cattle and Sheep.

As a reviewer commented, “

This is a delightful collection of gentle rants and witty reminiscences about life in a quiet corner of South Cumbria. Lots of sheep, cattle and collie dogs, but also wisdom, poetic insight, and humour. It was James Herriot who told us that ‘It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet’ but Jim Webster beautifully demonstrates that it usually happened to the farmer too, but far less money changed hands.

I, for one, am hoping that this short collection of blogs finds a wide and generous audience – not least because I’m sure there’s more where this came from. And at 99p you can’t go wrong!”