TROUTBECK MART – THE END OF AN ERA

An abridged version of this piece was published in the Cumberland News last week. My recollections of Troutbeck Mart and the pressure on markets in the modern era.

 On a cold December afternoon in 1990, on a remote hillside a few miles to the West of Penrith, the final winter sale of store sheep was taking place at Troutbeck auction mart. It was around 3pm and the day was darkening fast. The little market stood next to Troutbeck Inn where farmers, buyers and auctioneers could refresh themselves before, during and after a sale. On sale days for well over 100 years, the Inn had been a hive of activity and laughter with the clink of farmer’s beer glasses and the heavy drop of domino on polished wooden tables. This was as much part of the auction day as the sale itself. The mart came alive in the early summer months when after long winters and hard springs, ewes with lambs at foot were brought for sale. Then later through the Autumn months, the breeding sheep and store sales brought ever more farmers and sheep to market.

On a clear day from the market pens you could look west to see the crag rats scaling Sharp Edge on Blencathra or Saddleback as the locals know it. Further down the valley past Keswick you could see the Grasmoor range with the long ridge path ascending Grisedale Pike. To the South immediately behind the auction was the distinctive dome of Little Melfell. Beyond that the northern fells of the Helvellyn range culminating in the smooth slope of Clough Head as it falls towards Threlkeld. Every hill farmer will claim he lives and works in “God’s Country”. The farmers of the Northern Lake District would be no different. Often sheep sold through Troutbeck were in view of their native breeding grounds.

Many thousands of sheep from local farms were walked to market over the generations. The farmers children were part of the droving team stationed along the route to turn the sheep or “send them on”. Sometimes as many as 16 flocks could converge at Troutbeck, all at the same time. Then it was a case of “catch as catch can” to see who got to the gate first.

Later the sold sheep left the market to be transported by wagon or steam train to new homes throughout the country for the market was built just above the railway line. One could imagine the old train puffing to a halt at the station to collect the sheep and deliver them to faraway places. In the modern era auctioneers would be calling out the names of local buyers as well those from much further afield, Jones. Edwards, Davies and more. Throughout the evening a hardy band of drovers and an odd young auctioneer would work by flashlight to gather sheep from the pens and drive them up to the loading docks, helping farmers and hauliers to get on their way as quickly as possible.

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     The young auctioneer opening the gate at Troutbeck alongside local buyer                                                                      Jared Faulder in 1988.

In years gone by at the end of a sale day, a curtain would be drawn around the ring and a band of fiddle players, accordionists and percussionists would strike up. One can imagine the laughter, whooping and clapping into the early hours, as the congregation of farmers and their families danced the night away, jigging and reeling on the smooth cobbled sale ring floor.

Perhaps they would be thankful that another season was over, the auction cheque could be banked, and this would tide them over the long winter. The farmers would go home to tend cattle, mend fences and gap their walls whilst the sheep were tupped and sent back to the fell. A lonely and remote existence in those days for sure.

Each family would look forward to the first sign of spring, the melting of the snow and the bleat of the lamb. The cycle of nature would begin again. More than a job, simply a way of life, a tradition encompassing skills and knowledge that is in- bred more than taught.

The Sale ring was nothing but an old tin hut of circular construction. The ring had a few rickety bench seats around the edges, but many buyers just stood in the ring where it was usually warmest, steam rising from the backs of sheep on frosty mornings. The ring floor was made of sandstone cobbles with some ineffective drainage channels. The Auctioneer sat in a tiny pulpit within the ring, just in front of the office. He folded a hinged piece of wood down in order to sit on it. From there the sale was conducted without microphones or computers for that matter. Just the auctioneer’s book in which all sales details were recorded in the event of a dispute.

The sales leger, all buyer’s bills and seller statements were hand- written in slick and time- honoured fashion. Columns of copper plate, legered figures could be added up in seconds by experienced clerks without the benefit or even need of a calculator. In all these tasks there was a pride borne of long apprenticeships and strict tutoring. I, as a young, trainee auctioneer had to learn the basics and if not opening the gate for hour on end, then I too had to do my stint on the clerking team, chastised should my writing be to scruffy.

It was said that in the old days some auctioneers would visit Troutbeck pub before the sale and imbibe a dram or two to get them warmed up. Many years ago one auctioneer allegedly got rather too warmed up and fell head- first out of the rostrum while leaning forward to encourage a final bid. Calmly and with some panache, he dusted himself down, climbed back into the box and with a flourish, brought the hammer down to complete the sale.

There was a strip light in the ring which fizzed when it rained. One year during an Autumn sale it rained so hard that the pens above the mart flooded and torrents of water flowed right through the ring and out the other side. The sale continued for nothing could stop a Troutbeck sale or so we thought!

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Peter Searjeant in the rostrum.

Now in December 1990, Peter Sarjeant was calling to me to the rostrum from which he had shouted forth for most of the afternoon. “Old Sarj” loved Troutbeck Auction. It was his market. He had sold there for most of his working life, learning the clerking jobs and then progressing finally to the rostrum. He knew every generation of farmer in that market, every buyer and probably their fathers before them. “Sarj” was Troutbeck Auction.

“Reet Day you can finish off” he said in his deep, gruff, auction- worn voice. With that he stiffly climbed down and I jumped up. The lambs were the tail end of the crop. The smallest and plainest, left until the very last sale. Little Herdwick and Swaledale wether lambs worth little more than £10 each were gobbled up by willing buyers. For the smallest lambs can often make the best return. I was taught at an early age that in farming terms, pride does not always equal profit.

By a quarter to four my job was done, the sale was over, and I too climbed down from the rostrum with numb fingers and toes for the afternoon temperature had fallen considerably.

Later, we turned off the fizzing light, padlocked the doors and left the pitch- black interior of the sale ring for the final time that year. A few of us went to the pub and had a pint and a game of bar billiards. I was designated driver and drove Old Sarj home after a whisky or two for him. It was a role he had undertaken many times all those years ago as a “junior”, now I was apprentice to the master.

What none of us knew then was that this would be the last ever sale at Troutbeck. Due to increasing rules, regulations and fears over pollution from the sheep pens, the market could not carry on. In January 1991, the auction company announced that Troutbeck mart has closed its doors for the last time. The little tin hut would be silent for evermore, the farmers and the sheep gone for good. The Cumberland and Westmorland Herald called it “the end of an era”. The Troutbeck sales would continue but now in the modern confines of then new market at Penrith.

All that would be left were the memories of the auctioneers, Peter Sarjeant and his predecessors, Jack Thorburn and Jack Proctor who would beat his hazel stick against the auctioneer’s pulpit. Also, the Kidd family and the Thompson’s. Who could forget Mrs Mitchinson’s tea dinners in the austere war years when sugar was rationed? Woe betide the young farm boys who had more than a sniff at the sugar bowl.

Understandably local farmers were upset and disappointed. Local farmer Wilson Titterington spoke for many when he said “The biggest tragedy is that for generations buyers have come to Troutbeck to buy Troutbeck sheep but now the sales will no longer be just Troutbeck sheep. The local farming community felt like it was losing some if its identity.

Wils Titterington carried on saying, “I suppose you can’t stop what is supposed to be the march of time”. Prophetic words. Every time an auction closes and there have been many in recent years, farmers wring their hands and beat their chests. The reality is that in the last thirty years the pressure on livestock markets has ramped up, driven by regulation and an ever-decreasing pool of meat companies. The big buyers get bigger and with it, more powerful.

The little marts and the little abattoirs have slowly but surely been disappearing. It would be a great shame if the rise of bespoke collection centres and increasing deadweight sales forced more closures in future, or even Worse! This is not increasing competition in the industry it is dividing and conquering the farming community. How many farmers supporting a deadweight collection centre try and haggle? The competitive bidding within the mart system is under threat. Frankly it is a good job we have willing buyers for a growing and vibrant ethnic market for sheep meat, many of them thrive in the mart system.

Without the competition of marts, farmers will be nothing but price takers. Should the last hammer in the last market finally fall, it will be the end of another era and with it the last of the price makers but “I suppose you can’t stop what is supposed to be the march of time” ………

This would be such a shame as marts are so much more than sales centres in the modern age. Let’s look a few years down the line. Much as I would like to see it, sadly I don’t think we are going to persuade all farmers to use their local live market exclusively, but is there a way to combat an anti – competitive deadweight system?

What if all Cumbrian marts tried to work together selling a new brand, “Cumbria lamb”. A single farmer selling twenty prime lambs in any given week, has little or no bargaining power. But if they were part of a bigger group of farmers selling 2,000 lambs, all correctly drawn and graded! Now wouldn’t that give the farmer some elbow- power?

United Auctions of Cumbria anybody??????? No, I can’t see it happening either! However the reality is that primestock marketing through the auction ring has never been under so much pressure. It begs the question to all farmers, “How important is the auction mart you and your business”? 

Old Sarj was a good mentor. He gave me two great pieces of advice which I always stuck to: – “Remember you only work for the man selling in the ring”. Then one day up in the sheep pens at Troutbeck he said, “you must treat all farmers alike whether they have 5 sheep or 5,000”. Wise words that any young auctioneer should heed, for the success of any auction is based on many farmers selling small amounts of livestock on a regular basis.

Sadly, some years later it dawned on me that I was the last auctioneer to sell at that little tin hut called Troutbeck. Like most marts, Troutbeck was an auction, a meeting place and a collection centre for both people and livestock. I was privileged to have been one of a small band of auctioneers that graced the pulpit.

On that cold December day had Peter Sarjeant known that it was to be the last sale, I’m sure he would have continued to sell to the bitter end and still enjoyed a pint or two afterwards, probably with many local farmers who never got to properly say goodbye to Troutbeck. I for one cannot help but think that it would have been the most fitting finale.

derelict Troutbeck Auction ring.

      All that is left of Troutbeck Mart sale ring, almost thirty years after it closed.

THE SUMMER OF ’86……

This article featured in the Cumberland News during July 2019. Thirty years gone in the blink of any eye. But how will be farming and feeding the nation in another thirty years?

At the end of my second year at the Royal Agricultural College, I worked for a young arable farmer called Bob Burdon. His small family farm was located on the perimeter of Kemble Airfield, a few miles south of Cirencester. It was an alien world for a boy from Cumbria. Thin Cotswold brash, more rock than soil. Fields of swaying, ripening barley baked in the hot summer sun and a few moderate Heinz 57 bred sheep to eat the rotational grass. There were few fences and I often wandered the airfield in search of sheep. No one seemed to mind!

Bob and I dipped the sheep with Chris De Berg blasting out “Lady in Red” over the radio. Then a battle damaged USAAF A10 “Warthog” aeroplane flew low over the farm trying to get back to the airfield where they were stationed. It might have been returning from a raid on Libya, for that and Chernobyl were the two crises of the summer.

“See that plane” I said to Bob, “it is built to withstand 70% damage and keep flying”.

“You’ll be withstanding 70% damage if you don’t dip those heads” he replied with a thick west- country burr. It was so hot the Ministry man who had come to inspect us downed tools. He went home promising to come back at 6 o clock as the evening cooled. By the time he did, we had finished the sheep and moved on to the Combine. We didn’t get in to trouble. These were more pragmatic times. Life seemed somehow easier.

Day after day I carted corn, operated an unfathomable grain dryer and after harvest bounced around on a tractor pulling a plough or harrows. I set fire to fields of stubble including a hairy moment when in a field next to the ancient Fosse Way, the wind changed and I had to get my tractor off the field rather sharpish. Wouldn’t that have been a moment? “Sorry Bob, I torched the tractor”……

I worked throughout the summer with only two wet days off and made enough money to make my final year at college more comfortable. It was a long monotonous summer and it made me realise my heart and my future remained up North, where the grass was greener, the weather rather wetter and the sheep far better!

The hot summer of 86 is now thirty three years distant. Gone in the blink of an eye. The total UK population was 56M people. Today it is 66M. In another 33 years- time the UK population is forecast to be the largest population in Europe at over 75M. Whichever way you look at it, we are going to need more fields of golden barley, more sheep, in fact more of everything. This is one half of the coin. On the flip side, we have to look after our planet far better than we have in the past. Unlike the A10 Warthog, Planet Earth cannot withstand 70% damage and keep flying.

Now more than ever we need a Rural Grand Plan. Farming, food and conservation must work side by side in one sustainable and viable business. Without this, we will be, to quote another 1986 classic, “living on a prayer”…….

 

FROM CAMBRIDGE TO CUMBRIA.

A Cumbrian farm visit for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

Amid the clatter of stone on stone, I took a deep breath and surveyed the scene across the upper reaches of the Ullswater Valley in Cumbria. 150 years ago my forefathers were engaged in hewering iron ore from the deep depths of the Helvellyn range. My maternal Grandfather X4, William Jackson, owned the contract or “bargain” which from the 1860’s allowed him, followed by four sons, to spend several years breaking through from Glencoynedale to Greenside Lead Mine in pursuit of the grey gold. You simply cannot imagine their working life in those conditions as they trudged up the miners trod from their home at Seldom Scene six days a week.

I was pondering my local family heritage as I watched William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge   gap- up a dry stone wall above Deepdale Hall, Patterdale. It was a rather surreal situation. I offered His Royal Highness a pair of work gloves but he politely declined. That being the case and not to be outdone, the Duchess also declined the offer of gloves.

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As they set about their task, the farmer, Jimmy Brown was telling them that the walls on his farm were over 250 years old. This was part of his heritage and they weren’t going to be allowed to fall down on his watch. He does this work with pride to enclose and protect his sheep. However the general public, walking the many miles of footpaths that cross the farm, gets the benefit of this landscape free of charge.

It is truly a working landscape and it is is free for everyone to enjoy. For Jimmy, this work is unpaid and an on-cost to the farm business. It is simply part of his life and the traditional way in which farms are maintained. Jimmy and many more farmers get little recognition for the work they do. As we talk of placing a value on the natural capital of beautiful areas like the Lake District, what value do we place on our people and our communities? What is our cultural worth and how do we define it?

Heritage is a current buzzword in Cumbria. Whilst few families can compete with the documented history of the royal family, those of us accompanying the royal couple were struck by their knowledge and understanding of rural life, farming issues and the importance of farmers to local communities.

Taking part in a Royal Visit was a huge honour that I shared with a number of farmers from all over Cumbria. Inside Deepdale Hall farmhouse kitchen,  we were struck by their easy- going nature as we took tea and cake whilst having a chat. They genuinely appeared to be having fun with us on the day. The huge media presence and a blur of whirring cameras and TV lights did not detract. In fact it gave many of us the chance to give a positive spin on Cumbrian farming and also raise some of the many concerns.

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Jim Cockbain talked of how he engages with tourists on a daily basis, explaining what he does to build understanding about sheep farming in the hills above Keswick. Many visitors to Rakefoot have little or no understanding of sheep production or the life of a working shepherd. Jim can often dispel many of the falsehoods perpetuated by certain anti- farming groups or others who would seek to reduce sheep from the hills yet further. 

Young couple, Jack and Rachel Cartmel discussed their difficulties in securing a viable tenancy in Martindale, to enable them to farm together and simply make a living. These days it is so difficult for young people to get a foot on the farming ladder. Despite coming from strong farming backgrounds, in order to simply make ends meet and pay the rent, both Jack and Rachel have other jobs as well. Rachel is a sheep dog trainer and runs the farm bed and breakfast business. Jack is a professional sheep shearer, clipping thousands of sheep for many farmers, throughout the summer season. His expert guidance ensured that the William and Kate did not put a foot wrong when clipping some Deepdale Hall Herdwicks. The Duchess stuck to her task with much determination when the young sheep which had not previously been shorn, started to kick. This caused some merriment for William and clearly they are a quietly competitive couple!

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Sam Rawling raised fears of future agricultural policies and the pressure of not wanting to be the first to fail in a 500 year old family farming tree in Ennerdale. He is forceful in his belief that Farmers who voted for Brexit may have committed a huge mistake. No one knows for sure and therein is the uncertainty for all farmers at this time. 

Mary Bell talked about her 40 year career in Patterdale, producing and promoting wool based products, to add value to what is now a loss- leading commodity to many farmers. Mary wants more commitment in trying to raise the profile of wool and thereby the price. In times gone by an annual wool cheque could pay the farm rent or even buy a tractor. Nowadays, sheep shearing is a huge cost to the farmer, the excercise only performed for the health and wellbeing of the sheep. There will be little payment for the wool from Deepdale Hall, being dense and thick fleeces from one of the hardiest of hill breeds.

Danny Teasdale spoke with passion about embracing farming with conservation, side by side in the Ullswater catchment, rather than the polarised views which too often grab the headlines. These hills and valleys are not for blanket re- wilding but can be farmed and conserved in equal measure with the right support and policies. With all the talk of climate change and greenhouse gases, perhaps extensively managed farms like Deepdale Hall actually store much more carbon than they produce. If this is true then it will fly in the face of those who constantly seek to do down the farming industry. This must also have a value and gain some recognition. 

All the while the Duke and Duchess, listened, questioned and commented. At the end of the visit when the goodbyes were said and the royal procession took off down the dusty track (it didn’t rain all day!), we were left in no doubt that our future king understands who we are and what we do. Farmers are one of the greatest public goods of all and we need to shout louder. What a great afternoon!

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BEST DOG I EVER HAD!

Sometimes it is hard to get the general public to understand the relationships that farmers have with their animals.

I was 8 years old. It was mid-summer and I was doing what I loved best, working with Grandad amongst his sheep.  We went to gather his furthest field, next to a main road.  Accompanying us was Grandad’s pride and joy, his sheep dog Laddie.

On command away went Laddie tearing down the field on a wide outrun.  The sheep were ewes with strong lambs at foot, ready for weaning.  As Laddie gathered them, a lamb broke away running full tilt into the hedge at the bottom of the field.  In an instant Laddie was through the hedge and on to the road to turn the lamb back.  A car was approaching at speed and the inevitable happened.

I didn’t see Laddie get hit by the car but remember vividly the screech of brakes and the bump.  I also remember Grandad’s words, “oh no, me dog’s dead”.  Then he was shouting at me to stop where I was, but I was over the field gate in a flash, running down the road to where Laddie lay.  Grandad came scuttling along as fast as his old bowed legs would carry him.

“He’s alright Grandad, look his tails still wagging”!  It was nothing but the last vestiges of nervous energy leaving his body.  Grandad had to explain that he really was dead.  Then he told me to run back home and tell grandmother what had happened.  Away I went half running, half walking as I choked back tears.  Later that day we drove down the road where poor Laddie had been killed.  All I could see was a pile of sand.

Sometimes it is hard to get the general public to understand the relationships that farmers have with their animals.  The perception is often that farm businesses are like factory units.  Joe Public doesn’t get that despite the fact that farm animals are working animals, very often there are relationships and bonds.  I came across some stark examples of this in the dark days of 2001 when foot and mouth disease tore farmers from their flocks and herds. From the pulsating throb of a vibrant dairy parlour to empty silence in a few hours. A field full of sheep one minute, to an empty field of nothing but grass. For many farmers this was so hard, as bad or even worse than a family bereavement.

Many times in my career as an auctioneer I have unloaded trailers as farmers bring cast cows to market.  If I’d had a £1 for every time a farmer has said “this is a sad day”, I could probably do a better job of keeping the Mrs in the manner to which she is accustomed!

Programmes like “This Farming Life” do sometimes show the bond between the farmer and his stock as well as the skill and total commitment of so many in our farming community.  Frankly we could do far more of this to educate the public.  The government may not recognise food production as a public benefit, but through the media and meeting the public face to face, this is a message we absolutely must get across in future.

Grandad bought a new sheep dog, but it was never the same.  Laddie was irreplaceable.  Long in to his dotage, grandad would sit in his chair by the fire.  There would be a little gulping cough and a sigh, followed by, “Best dog I ever had”……

IS IT TIME TO MEND SOME FENCES?

During the summer of 1984, part of my pre- college year was spent working for Dick Clark at Mosser Mains farm, near Cockermouth. One sunny afternoon Dick and I went to his land in the village of Pardshaw Hall. On this very site in 1650, George Fox the founder of the Quaker movement preached the word to thousands of onlookers. Now Dick was going to preach the word to me on how to “brae” posts in!

The old post and wire fence had been removed and in its place, Dick and I were going to hammer in brand new fence posts. Dick told me that I was to learn the proper way. He carefully positioned the post and instructed me to hold it firmly. Then he spat on both hands and took the mell hammer in a wide arc above his head bringing it firmly down on the top of the post. He repeated the movement a number of times, each one expertly hitting the post flush on the top. His swing was as attuned and rhythmic as a professional golfer!

After several more blows Dick handed the mell to me. From a height of about six inches I began to tap away on the top of the post. It didn’t take long before Dick shouted up. “Were you not watching? Get that bloody hammer back over your head and hit it properly”. So I did just as told. My first blow hit the post perfectly and it sank 3 inches on to the ground. The second wobbled a bit on the top, and my third mighty smote ran Dick’s fingers right down the post.

He went purple and I expected him to blow. But all he said through gritted teeth was “You…….” Then with hardly a grimace he placed his hands back on the post. The message was clear. He wasn’t giving in and neither was I. Soon the post was solid in the ground and we moved on to the next. By the end of the afternoon I was exhausted but there were several posts in place, all straight and true and I had mastered the required technique. Another lesson was learned that day, you don’t give in. You just keep trying until you get it right.

The fencing analogy may be appropriate with regard to farm business. In the near future, many farmers will be wondering whether to mend the fence and make do, replace it or move it to a different place altogether. There will be choices but these presently remain unclear. We are effectively waiting to brae in our new posts with no idea if we are in the right place, or even the right field!

Resilience is the current buzzword. What are the opportunities and the threats to current farming practices? What support measures are out there? How can we tap in to funding? Are we supplying what the market wants? Are there new income streams to look at? The million pound question: “do we need to do something different”? So many questions to consider. One thing is clear. This is a time for heads up, not heads down.

There are also the thorny issues that for some families continue to lurk in the background, like succession planning, retirement and bringing younger people in to the business. There has never been a more important time to reappraise the business and be in a position to react to whatever changes may hit our industry.

Time then to lay the thorny hedge, get the fence posts in position, and keep a firm hold until they are properly “braed” in. Like my old mentor Dick Clark found out with me, the ground might be rocky, there will be a few scrapes and some pain along the way, but get it right and the new fence will stand strong for years to come.

WHAT ARE CUMBRIAN FARMERS WORTH TO CUMBRIA?

What value do we place on farmers and their role in society when looking at the capital assets of beautiful areas like Cumbria?

Old grandfather Jackson farmed close to a small village on the Furness Peninsula in South Cumbria. It was always his dream job and a successful coal merchant business allowed him to invest in land and stock. He was a dog and stick farmer relying on his friends, Alan and Harry Wood, to “bale” him out (literally). Many happy hours I spent as a young child sitting on someone’s knee on a Fergie tractor as Grandfathers meadow was baled by a farming neighbour.

Grandad always insisted on turning a few swaths by hand. As a young boy in the early 1920’s he spent many hours working on local farms. These were truly austere days following the First World War. Everyone worked together, everyone helped. They had to! Turning his own hay with a huge hay fork reminded him of his own heritage and the culture of that time.

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Today we are trying to embrace the concept of Natural Capital as part of the 25 year Environment Plan. In 2015, attempts to value the UK’s Natural Capital estimated this at £761 billion. Bearing in mind Cumbria’s exceptional environment and abounding natural assets, it is fair to say that our County contributes considerably to that estimate.

Within Cumbria’s 6,800 square kilometres we have 2 national parks, 3 AONB’s and 2 World Heritage Sites – the Lake District – and a Roman wall. We also have something equally important, a human population of around 500,000. For all the natural capital we are so fortunate to have, our geography, location and infrastructure ensures that we have the lowest population density in the country and one of the poorest performing economies when measured as Gross Value Added (GVA).

These are challenges to the future economic viability of Cumbria and there are other challenges. As we seek to embrace natural capital as an asset, there is another piece to the land management jigsaw that needs to be slotted into place. The common denominator in the countryside and natural environment of Cumbria are the people that farm the land, manage the environment and do so much to create the landscapes that attract over 47 million visitors every year to our county.

What value do we place on our people? How do we begin to value our Social and Cultural Capital and how do we slot this into the jigsaw to form the perfect picture alongside Natural Capital? Perhaps it comes down appreciating that farmers matter more than we realise. The bedrock of many rural communities? Is that too strong?

What of the heritage and culture that our forefathers have created? My old grandfather, even in his own small way, was a proud farmer. Happy as he was turning hay by hand on a sweltering summer’s day in July, his great joy was visiting Ulverston auction to sell his lambs, just one man in the farming community, supplying and supporting many more communities country wide. What value should we place on that?

The Lake District World Heritage Site inscription delivers the perfect summation: – “Both the long duration of our farming culture and the survival to the present day of its distinctive character is considered to be of outstanding universal value.”

 

CUMBRIAN PRODUCE – FOOD AND DRINK FOR THE FUTURE.

An abridged version of this article was published two weeks ago in the Cumberland News.

I left school in 1983 and immediately went to work at Mitchell’s Auction Company Ltd, Cockermouth. The idea was to gain pre- college experience in an industry in which I one day hoped to find employment. Gap years to “find oneself” didn’t exist in those days.

The Auction owned an abattoir on Lorton Street adjacent to the mart. In those days several men in whitecoats (butchers not psychiatrists) stood at ringside buying stock which were then slaughtered “over the road” before being transported back to butchers shops all over West Cumbria. There were beef cattle, lambs and pigs, all brought to market by farmers every monday and then walked across the road to the abattoir. This was a perfectly normal activity, local food produced, purchased and processed by local businesses for local people. It was accepted althoughthe good tonwsfolk of Cockermouth did draw the line if the waste skips weren’t removed in timely fashion, especially in summer.

I found myself delivering the slaughtermen’s wages every Friday morning. Entering the building for the first time I was immediately met by a bovine body part, coming sliding across the red- tiled floor towards me. I’m no footballer but I was able to trap it and return it with a swift side foot. After that I was accepted in to the team but stopped short of joining the Friday morning fry- up’s with the lads. The kitchen area and self cleaning 50  year old frying pan, would certainly raise an eyebrow or two in the modern age!

Sadly like so many more, Cockermouth abattoir is long- gone. In fact during the last fifty years we have seen the closure of almost 97% of all abattoirs. There are now only about 60 left country- wide.

Stifling EU regulation was always gold- plated in the UK whilst perhaps only tolerated in some member states. Small and medium sized abattoirs were unable to compete, suffocated by high costs and reducing profit- margins. Add to that significant grant- aid and tax breaks for larger abattoirs and it is clear why the trend continued.

The resultant economies of scale have resulted in huge numbers of Cumbrian lambs, cattle and also milk transported out of the county for slaughter or processing as far afield as Wales and the South West. Some products might then be returned to Cumbria for retail. We cannot do without the national slaughter- framework as it supplies both the home and export market. However, we do mourn the passing of small abattoirs and with it much of the local supply chain. It has become much harder for independent shops and restaurants to stock local food.

The Sustainable Food Trust, backed by many industry bodies has recently pleaded for small abattoirs to be recognised as a public good and continues to campaign for future policies to re- localise farm animal slaughter.

If government is serious about achieving targets to reduce environmental impact, improve on already first- class animal welfare regulation, increase traceability and support local supply chains, then short-term solutions won’t cut the mustard. What is needed is a long term vision to reverse the trend, reduce the food chain and re- join the links at both ends.

Recently Cumbria Local Enterprise Partnership commissioned local company Thomas Jardine and Co to examine the food and drink sector in Cumbria. The resultant report “Developing support for Cumbrian food and drink manufacturers” sets the scene very well having engaged with businesses the length of the Cumbrian supply chain from farmers to retailers including hoteliers and other food businesses. The Farmer Network attended a stakeholder event and witnessed real desire from within Cumbria to both buy and sell more locally produced food, given the opportunity.

As always with such ambition, it will come down to money be it public or private investment. With 85m people to feed within the next 20 years of which more than 30% may visit Cumbria each year, there is a real opportunity here to create a sustainable and ethical local food supply chain. Investment is only one aspect of the plan. To succeed properly, we need much more in the way of education. Food is a cheap commodity and as such, not respected and therefore by definition neither are farmers. The general public as a rule, has little appreciation of food production, provenance or welfare standards. This must change in the future.

A further personal hope would be that auction marts seize an opportunity to become stronger central hubs continuing to supply the national market but also to a greater degree at local level again. In doing so one would hope that a greater share of the end price might land in to the farmer’s pocket. Food for thought?

GET YOUR HEAD TO THE LEFT!

Rugby was a different game in the 90’s. There were no video referrals or radio mics. If a problem on the pitch needed sorted, it got sorted. Here is an example of how the game was played by Aspatria RUFC.

It is 1993. Aspatria RUFC have a mid- winter national league fixture at Sudbury way down south in Suffolk. As usual we leave Penrith at 3pm on Friday afternoon heading over the A66 and down the A1. The Redcrest luxury double decker coach is full, the atmosphere convivial. The playing squad sits on the top deck around numerous tables. Committee men and supporters are downstairs.

Immediately a Forwards V Backs game of Trivial Pursuits gets under way. George Doggart is over from Sweden and wants to bet on the pie questions. The Backs are full of educated, learned men like Jimmy “Jinky” Miller, Tom Borthwick, Dave Murray and Colin Campbell. The forwards however, have a secret weapon, a genuine mastermind within their ranks. Neil Wedgwood from Maryport who only just made the bus straight from the early shift at British Steel, is an unbelievable font of knowledge. His consistency in answering even the difficult “art and literature” questions is breath-taking. Single handedly he wipes the floor with the backs. They sit open mouthed as the last piece of pie is slotted in by Wedgie with a shrug of his shoulders. He is a classy open- side wing forward, always in the right place at the right time, quietly going about his work. And he is brilliant at “Triv”.

It is a great team building exercise and we are proud to represent our Club and County as we head South. We are dressed in our club shell suits and we are men on a mission. We feel like professional rugby players even though in this era there is no such thing in the union code.

Eventually we make it to The Stansted Hilton Hotel. Aspatria Rugby Club has a deal with the hotel chain and we always stay at a Hilton if there is one close to our opponent’s location. We have a team meal and then the squad retires to the bar. I am fairly new so I am rooming with a seasoned professional. It is Tony Clemetson one of our second row forwards. I am in awe of Clemmo. He has a certain reputation on and off the rugby field. He can mix it whenever he wants to. He also has a large number of caps for Cumbria. Not many Cumbrian teams like playing against Clemmo. He is heavy- handed and he can do real damage.

The squad is encouraged to stay loose, and have a drink if required, but not overdo it. Clemmo and me stick together and find ourselves having a couple of pints of Guinness. We are both selected on the bench for tomorrow’s game by rotation. Substitutes are only allowed to come on as an injury replacement. It is unlikely that we will get much of a game.

I don’t intend to keep drinking, but we find ourselves on a table with two very camp flight stewards and a couple of air hostess’s one of whom is perhaps coming towards the end of her career, with a few air miles on the clock. The air stewards seem to love having a drink with two 17 stone rugby players but the old hostess has had one too many and she is telling me her life story. She is slowly sinking in to “could have been’s” and “should have been’s”. Most of the players have retired to bed. Clemmo and me are left with Justin, Larry and a lady who is now in tears and looking for comfort. Then Robbo arrives. Forwards Coach.

“Adam what have you done to upset this lovely lady”? “Get yourself off to bed. You too Clemmo and that’s an order” We make our goodbyes and as I look back across the bar, Robbo has one arm around Justin and the other arm around the hostess. We have a chat with a couple of supporters who are on the beer. By this time Robbo has come back and joined us. “Saved you there boy” he says with a wink as we head for the lift.

Next morning we are down at breakfast with slightly thick heads. The Guinness has not gone down too well. We then go to a team meeting. It has poured down heavily all night. Tommy Borthwick, player- coach, announces that there is a change of plan. The pitch is expected to be heavy and it may well be a battle of attrition between the forwards. Clemmo is promoted from the bench to starting second row. I will have to stay warm because Steve Irving, our County Loose Head Prop is carrying a shoulder injury and may not last the trip. Clemmo and I both supress groans. I am more worried about the fact that I have never actually played in the Loose Head position in my life, never mind a national league 3 game. In fact i’ve only had a handful of games at tight- head. Not for the first time am i left wondering what the hell i’m even doing there!

We go out to the car park and do some warm up jogging and line out drills. Then we are on the coach to the game. Tommy Borthwick hands out banana’s. Everyone has to eat them. He’s read in Muscle and Fitness that NFL stars in America chew bananas constantly. My banana is more green than yellow. I force it down. It is sour and almost crunchy. I feel decidedly unwell.

The game kicks off in pouring rain but the pitch isn’t too bad. I’m taped up, greased up and sitting on the bench in my padded subs suit. It’s toasty warm and I am hoping that Aspatria will rule the game comfortably as they generally do in most forward battles. It is a style for which we are noted and even top class teams like Wasps and Moseley have struggled to take the Black Reds on up front. I rather hope that I get a nice 20 minute run at the end with no pressure.

The first couple of scrums are a real mess. I can see that the opposition tight head is collapsing in on Steve Irving. It is deliberate and designed to stop Steve doing what he is very good at. It happens again at the third scrum. This time Steve doesn’t get up. His bad shoulder has been damaged. He will have to leave the field. “Right Adam, you are on” says Robbo. “Oh Shit” I nearly blurt out.

So I am stripped for action, sleeves rolled up, and a wad of Vaseline covering my neck to allow my head to slide easily in to the alien world of the left hand side of the scrum. I haven’t even played in this position on the scrummage machine, never mind a national league match. I am straight in to the game at the reset scrum. I bind as tight as I can on my hooker Nigel Brown. He will guide me through this and I have Clemmo in the second row behind me. “Get your right leg back” says Clemmo “and get your head under his chin”

We thump in and I immediately see stars. It’s nothing to worry about. This always happens to me in the first scrum until the nerves in my neck warm up. I get a good bind with my free left arm and my back is straight. I actually feel quite comfortable. It is a Sudbury put- in to the scrum. The advantage is with us. Nigel may choose to contest the strike but he is experienced and he knows I am not. So he gets his legs back in to a pushing position. He is also exerting immense pressure with his head and shoulders on the back of his opposition hooker and my tight- head prop.

The ball is presented by the Sudbury scrum half and I feel a surge of power from behind me. Clemmo is pushing as is Malcolm Brown on the flank. They love this. I can feel my opposition begin to creak with pressure. Then he does exactly what he did with Steve Irving. He releases his bind on my left arm and nose dives into the scrum. I don’t have the technique or strength to stop it. The referee is getting edgy and he doesn’t understand what is happening. He urges us to keep up. He is rambling on about heads above hips.  I shrug my shoulders to say “not my fault” but i’m not one for pointing and gesticulating.

We reset. Immediately my prop sinks in again. He knows he’s going backwards and he is trying to win a penalty. As we stand up I look at Clemmo for guidance. “When he goes down again, get your head as far to the left as you can” he whispers. “And remember, to the left”…

We crash in again and I hold my prop up as long as I can before he dives for the deck. As we collapse I get my head out of the scrum as far to the left as I can. It hurts. Everyone gets up. Well everyone except my prop who is lying on the ground clutching his head which is bleeding profusely. He has to leave the field for treatment. It dawns on me what has just happened. As the scrum went down, Clemmo stood up and followed through with his right boot between me and Nigel, exactly where my head should have been, had I not moved to the left. Clemmo has imprinted a perfect set of stud marks on the props head. It is quite illegal of course but is the law of the jungle at scrum time. If a referee cannot sort out a problem, or does not know how to, the team’s enforcer, and every good team has one, will sort the problem for the team. Aspatria always had more than one! Clemmo shows absolutely no emotion.

A few minutes later my opposition prop is back on the field, bandaged up. We scrummage again and he doesn’t look me in the eye. As we engage he stays straight and true. I have no trouble for the rest of the game. It is an arm- chair ride and that suits me just fine (don’t tell Steve Irving). As a result I am able to run about and carry the ball regularly. Late in the game I peel from the front of the line right around the back with ball in hand. Charging past their fly half i almost get to the opposition posts before being hauled down. We score from the re- cycled ball.

I don’t remember the final result but and I am elated to have finished the game in on piece and head held high. Minutes later I am in the big team bath sitting next to Clemmo. He soaps himself and explains the instructions he gave me on the field.

“You see Adam Lad, the same thing happened in a game last year, so I told Steve Irving to get his head to the left. The problem is he doesn’t know his left from his right”. He had to come off and get six stitches when I caught him in the lug. I didn’t want that to happen to you!

Penrith Farmers suggest Lancet Report is “Hot Air”…..

This is an article i published in the Cumberland and Westmorland Herald Newspaper in January 2019. I had been auctioning cattle at Penrith Auction Mart and several farmers were conversing on the following topic. Sometimes old -fashioned “common sense” can beat “science” hands down….

The EAT Lancet Commission Report advocating a “planetary health diet” was a hot topic around the ringside at Penrith Auction Mart recently. Farmers were indignant that this is just the latest in a series of negative farmer- bashing stories. Many farmers questioned why there appears to be so little appreciation for their work in producing food either from government or members of the public. This at a time when confidence is generally running low in the industry with such an uncertain future and scant mention of food production in the Agriculture Bill.

Our conversations centred around two themes: firstly, an incredulity that anyone could suggest reducing red- meat consumption to the equivalent of one large steak per month, replacing protein  requirements with imported nuts, legumes and exotic fruit and vegetables, most of which cannot be produced in the United Kingdom. Secondly that the science promoted within the report is not clear cut.

There appears to be strong merit in both these discussions. As one Eden Valley farmer said to me pointing at his cattle “we can grow grass very well on an extensive system. It is sustainable cattle and sheep production and we can keep on doing this as long as we get a fair market price to help us invest back in to the business”. He has a point as over 60% of UK farmland is grassland. It is also the case that grassland is an excellent store of carbon which in turn helps to mitigate the effects of climate change.

This brings us nicely to the science. As seems to be the case with all environmental arguments, you can find apparently plausible “science” at both ends of the climate- change spectrum, some arguing for a significant reduction in livestock farming others opining that at current production levels, no changes are needed. The issue of the carbon cycle is far from straight- forward. Furthermore the Lancet report fails to address the sustainability of countries like the UK having to substantially increase imports of products that cannot be produced on a commercial scale at home.

Another farmer shrugged his shoulders and asked “where is the common sense in this”? Thinking further about the debate I realised that there are areas of agreement. We all accept that the world population is set to rise to over 10b in the next thirty years. Forecasts also show that UK population will increase by 20m to over 85m people. We need to feed people properly and sustainably while better protecting our environment. These are areas of common consent.

With all the challenges of climate change and rising populations that the next thirty years will bring, would a sensible common sense approach be to increase investment in sustainable food production? Also to make best use of local resources (and people), reducing food miles, increasing production from less inputs and giving the public what they really want: a sensible, healthy balanced diet including plenty of red meat for those who like it and a sustainable alternative for those who don’t.

COMMUNICATION WITH THE CUSTOMER IS EVERYTHING!

 

I was given my first company mobile phone in 1996. I’d spent months trying to persuade the auction mart directors to let me have one. Their answer was; “there is a phone box in most villages if you need to phone the office”. Then we lost a buyer’s order because I was out and uncontactable. A phone was duly purchased.  I used it late one Saturday evening to ring my fiancée from the rugby club bus to come and pick me up. My fellow players thought it rather amazing.

Farmers of today could not live without a mobile. They are in use everywhere from the milking parlour to the tractor cab. Our younger farmers are tech- savvy and rather brilliant at marketing. The back- end normally starts in late summer with social media posts showing “the top pen for next Wednesday’s sale” or “our run of heifers for next Friday”.

Some farmers post working shots throughout the year. Who can forget the photos of buried sheep being rescued from snowdrifts or stock huddled together in flooded fields as farmers battled on to rescue them.

My point is that farmers are brilliant at preaching to the converted. They are doing a great job of pre- marketing their wares to farmer- customers but now is the time to try and go a stage further. Yes, selling to best advantage is of premium importance but with the rise of social media, we should make a concerted effort to engage with the public, lift the profile of farming and persuade the world why farming, food and looking after the environment matters.

“Public payment for public goods”. If the Agriculture Bill receives royal assent by the end of March 2019, this will be our future funding regime. Now is the time to engage much more closely with the public. Food doesn’t grow in supermarkets. Our farmers need to use those newly learned marketing skills to reach their end- user, the last link in the food chain. I for one would be delighted to see a farming good- news story to counter every negative piece of anti- farming propaganda we read or watch.

So let’s get the message out there and go one step further than social media. More on- line video’s, more TV and radio interviews, more books. Whilst we are at it, what about a more concerted effort to engage our public on the farm with open days and meet and greet events. The Farmer Network and other organisations have been doing this for years on a small- scale. The photo above shows Herdwick Sheep Breeders Chairman working with volunteer farmers to talk to visitors at Grasmere Sports. Don’t leave it to someone else. Get involved

So when we promote the “top pen” or the “run of cattle” on social media, maybe explain why this is important not just to farmers, but to the public. We must lift our profile. Public payment for public goods…… like it or not, it will be the future.THE LAKE DISTRICT – OUR LAND, OUR LIVES, OUR HERITAGE.