Tag Archives: organic

Don’t try this at home

Sri Lanka has been the victim of a government organised experiment. In April 2021, the government imposed a nationwide ban on the importation and use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and ordering the country’s 2 million farmers to go organic. It may well be that this wasn’t so much ideological as a desperate attempt to keep money in the country. It backfired.

Sri Lanka is normally self-sufficient in rice, but production fell by between forty and fifty percent, which meant the country had to import 300,000 metric tonnes of rice in the first three months of 2021. This can be compared with the 14,000 metric tonnes Sir Lanka imported in 2020.

Other crops have also suffered, tea exports fell by half, which cut off a major source of national income, and the increase in pests and diseases has meant that a lot of farmers are no longer even trying to farm commercially. They’re just trying to produce enough to get their own families through from one harvest to the next. Look, these people are the professionals. They know how to farm. They farm on a knife edge anyway, so they won’t spend money on stuff they don’t need.

So they have food price inflation running at over thirty percent. Aljazeera quoted Jeewika Weerahewa, professor of agriculture at the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka. “Food availability is at a crossroads and food accessibility is at a crossroads. Describing Sri Lanka’s food crisis as “a man-made disaster,” she said the country will have “serious problems with respect to childhood malnourishment and malnutrition among pregnant women and lactating mothers”.

One major problem is that whilst government has apparently removed the ban, the farmers they rely on are small farmers who don’t have any savings. After all they’ve just tried to farm through a disastrous year where yields collapsed. Given the way world fertiliser prices have risen, they cannot afford to buy fertilisers now anyway and they’re struggling to keep up loan repayments and to pay for their children’s education.

In the UK, 2.8% of the land area is farmed organically. Depending on how you measure it (value, volume or whatever) about 1% of food sold in the UK is organic. (The figure is difficult to quantify because some food may effectively be produced organically but nobody wants the expense of registering, for no financial gain) Some things, like lamb produced on the hills, is probably as organic as certified organic lamb. After all, the organic and conventional producers will often use the same wormers and medicines, but the organic producer will have more paperwork and has to pay whoever certifies their produce.

But in the west, the whole organic food business is endlessly fascinating.

The value of all food sold in the UK in 2020 was £205 billion  

The value of all organic food sold in the UK in 2020 was £2.6 billion.

This fits nicely with our figure of 1% of food sold in the UK being organic.

Look at this graph from https://www.statista.com/statistics/1085286/organic-food-purchase-in-uk/

More than 18% of the population claim that over 50% of the food in their shopping basket is organic.
Somebody, somewhere is not being honest with themselves.

Look, it doesn’t matter. We can afford it. People are allowed their little foibles, their little luxuries. When it matters is when somebody’s little foibles become government policy and reduce a country of poverty and collapse.

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There again, what do I know? Put it to the expert.

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.”

So where will we get the staff?

Whilst my time in agriculture has been a time of impressive change, I suspect that the industry has been moving so quickly, every generation born since 1900 will be able to say that. I started my life working alongside men who’d been in farm work in the 1920s and 1930s. They were horsemen but I just missed that.

But being born on a family farm I’ve done jobs that long disappeared. I’ve planted potatoes by hand. (Push one in by the toe of your boot. Then bring your heel of the other foot to that potato and push the next one in by your toe. But if you are a child it’s two feet.)
Like the folk in the photo I’ve also thinned turnips by hand. Basically using one of the old seed drills you’d plant the turnips with the seeds virtually touching. When the rows of seeds germinated and the seedlings were the right size you’d ‘thin’ them. The involves crawling on your hands and knees up the row, gently removing the surplus and then planting out the surplus at the right spacing in other rows. We always did it with sacks wrapped round your legs to kneel on. Ideally the sack would cover the top of your wellingtons as well it you were wearing them. This means the soil doesn’t go down your wellies as you crawl along. We also used to drag a sack with us. You’d lay the seedlings on the sack (not put them in it) and when it was ‘full’ you’d walk across to where you were planting them and get back down on your knees again.

A job that won’t be missed was ‘cutting kale.’ This was a winter job, the kale would be cut daily and fed to milk cows. Because it was still green and fresh cows enjoyed it as a contrast to the hay that made up most of their winter diet. So when the weather is really cold and wet you’d take a cart and a bill hook. Then by hand you would cut a cart load of wet (and sometimes frozen kale.) For this job people preferred marrow stem kale.

Remember you’ve no real waterproofs, sometimes just a sacking apron to protect your trousers. The kale is tall, wet and cold. You end up with hands so cold and numb you can barely grasp the billhook.

As my father commented, once farmers no longer had cheap labour (lads like him) they stopped growing crops like this. Previously most would have had a few acres of turnips and kale. These crops virtually disappeared for a while.

On this side of the country, the lads who would previously have gone into farming could get other jobs. It wasn’t that mechanisation drove them out of the industry. They left and in some cases machines replaced them. In other cases we just stopped doing whatever it was they were paid to do.

So now turnips and fodder beet (the latter another root crop but generally considered a better option than turnips, perhaps because it can cope with mechanised harvesting better) are planted with a precision drill. They’re no longer harvested by hand either. Everything is mechanised. Indeed a lot of fodder beet is grown on the big arable farms as a break crop in their rotation. They have the heavy tackle needed. They will grow a fair area of it and it’s sold to livestock farmers in 20 ton tipper loads. Indeed even when feeding fodder beet, you scoop them up using the loader on the tractor and spread them along the feed fence. There aren’t the staff to faff about. (Here my grandfather worked and employed three men and a lad. I farmed the same area on my own. I know farms where the amount of labour shed is far higher.)

With kale we’ve had contractors sow it, but we make no attempt to carry it to cows. Instead they strip graze it behind an electric fence. So crops which fifty or sixty years ago took a lot of backbreaking labour are now totally mechanised.

Currently there’s a lot of talk about the shortage of labour for the vegetable growers and others. Who’s going to pick and pack the crop? To an extent they’re catching up with the rest of the farming sector. Now they’re losing their labour force. Let us be fair, they weren’t jobs greatly sought after by folk. Looking at the margins of these farms I doubt they could pay a lot more if they wanted to. Some of them are trapped in the world of gang masters supplying cheap and anonymous labour on one side, and supermarket buyers grinding the price down on the other.

My suspicion is that they’re now going to have to face up to what we have had to cope with. Even if we hadn’t left the EU, as the poorer EU member states became more prosperous, their citizens would have set their eyes on a better lifestyle that picking vegetables for not particularly good money. Indeed even within the EU a lot of work now is done by North Africans and similar who are still willing to work for a pittance.

If we see the vegetable side of our industry following along the same path that the rest of us followed I think we’ll see it splitting into two. There’ll be a small niche sector, organic and artisan, charging premium prices to discerning (prosperous) customers.

Then we’ll see the really big operations who are already looking at moving towards more mechanisation. How about this for a spinach harvester?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dLCRxTQ73FA

Or this for strawberries

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-43816207

It’s interesting to think that if consumers are serious about moving away from packaged food, just dropping spinach leaves into a wooden crate could be packaging enough. Put the crate out in the supermarket and let the customer pick their own leaves.

But it does look as if ‘big’ is the direction they will be going in. At the moment we have Thanet Earth on the Isle of Thanet in Kent. It has 220 acres of glass houses producing about 400 million tomatoes, 24 million peppers and 30 million cucumbers a year. According to the wiki this is equal to roughly 12%, 11% and 8% respectively of Britain’s entire annual production of those salad ingredients.

Indeed it may be that some crops disappear from the UK. They may no longer economic to grow. They could be imported from places with access to cheaper labour, or alternatively they may have a novelty value which means that the consumer is prepared to pay a price which makes growing them possible. But it strikes me that what we’re seeing now is the next big change in agriculture. Just as we changed the way we sowed and harvested root crops for cattle, so they’ll have to change the way some crops are grown so that robots can plant and harvest them.

Really it depends on what the supermarkets think customers are willing to pay. But if people are not willing to work for a pittance, then you either pay them more, do without, or alternatively accept the inevitable changes.

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There again, what do I know? On the other hand, I’ve just produced another collection.

 

Yet more observations on rural life. We have cattle, environmentalists, a plethora of new thinking as Defra plunges into the new world but more importantly we still have our Loyal Border Collie, Sal. She is joined in a starring role by Billy, the newly arrived farm cat. As well as this we have diversification opportunities for those wishing to serve niche markets, living in the past, and the secret of perfect hair.

Available as an ebook from anybody but Amazon at

https://books2read.com/u/md7XEX

We are not the men our Grandfathers were

They say that behind every good software writer there is a man with a mallet to tell him when to stop.

Fixing fences is a bit like that. It’s normally comparatively easy to know where to start, but working out when you’ve got the fence ‘good enough’ as opposed to ‘good’ is a more subjective decision.

The problem is I remember what it was like in my Grandfather’s day. I was only a kid, but I saw, and worked, under the old regime. On a weekend when I wasn’t at school, I’ve thinned turnips by hand and planted potatoes by hand as well. By the time I was a senior school my Grandfather had retired and we’d given up on turnips and potatoes and gone over to livestock.

In the way that these things can happen, for a number of years I farmed exactly the same land as my Grandfather did. He had thirty-two dairy cows, plus ‘followers’. That probably means he had another forty or fifty younger cattle. He also had sixty sheep. Then he’d grow a few acres of barley for feed, a few acres of turnips or kale, and a couple of acres of potatoes.

He worked himself, employed two or three full time men and a ‘lad’. Financially he ‘did alright’, had holidays most years and a prosperous retirement.

On the same land, at one point I had seventy dairy cows plus thirty sucklers and over a hundred young stock. This I farmed with one full time man. We got to the stage that we realised the full time man was the only person getting a living out of the place and we re-jigged the business so I was working on my own rearing up to 240 young stock a year, buying them as calves and selling them at between a year and two years old.

But during this time I also had to work as a freelance journalist/writer to ensure we did have an income every year.

For the next generation, those who’re doing most of the work now, the job is even harder. On the same land there are over 400 ewes and an indeterminate number of cattle (their number depends on price and cash flow.)

But as well as this, you’ve got to work six or seven hours a day somewhere else to make a living.

So there’s me, fixing a fence. It was fine when I started, but eventually it started to drizzle. Not enough to be worth going back home for a coat, so I just kept going.

Now remember my idea of what a hedge and fence should look like was determined when this farm had four adult men and a lad working full time. That’s the sort of workforce that created and maintained the countryside people claim to love.

I finally decided that the fence was ‘good enough’ at about the same time that it stopped being drizzle and became torrential rain with added sleet for seasonal variety.

And what will happen to the countryside? Who knows? Government claims to put money into it with environmental payments. The amounts are derisory. Certainly they’re not enough to employ the three extra men that this farm used to have and it’s the labour of these men that kept everything maintained properly. Last time I checked, even if we could get the environmental payments, we’d get the princely sum of about £3,000 a year. I’d struggle to employ two men and a lad on that.

But money has been bled out of the industry. As a general rule of thumb you can reckon that each generation can live entirely on organic food and only spend the same proportion of their income on food as their parents did, buying conventional food.

So where’s the money gone? Think what you spend money on now that you didn’t spend it on before. I saw one comment that most families in the UK spend more a week on their Sky subscription than they do on meat. Similarly, the money for the mobile phone contract, thirty years ago there wasn’t even the concept of one of them, what has society stopped spending on to pay for that? Or TV boxed sets? Is money being spent on them rather than books, or beer in pubs or on buying decent food or what?

My guess is that we’ll get more and more posturing. People might even vote ‘Green’. But what has gone has gone. The countryside is changing and will continue to change; we’ll lose stuff because people don’t really want it as much as they want the other stuff.

And me, I’ll keep plodding on, remembering how it should be done because I’m old enough to have seen it done properly.

And I’ll do what I can and continue to write to try and ensure we have an income every year.

So buy the book and get all this thrown in free.

LINDALE-01A--Aerial-view-of-Lindale

 

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Still what do I know?

Available in paperback or as an ebook

As a 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.”