In January 1981, the House of Lords debated The Sheep Variable Premium Order. This was a deficiencies payment designed to protect and support UK prime sheep producers by giving a guarantee price for lambs sold at the right grade.
Lord Peart of Workington said, “I take the view that this is a good bargain… It will give tremendous help to the farming community, who deserve it… some of our townspeople forget that the production of food on the hills and uplands is really a very hard job”. Earl Ferrers was in complete agreement replying, “life on the hills is a very difficult life, particularly for sheep farmers”.
The Bill passed and for many years farmers could rely on a weekly “make- up” payment. On a rising market, this was a winner. In practice at grassroots level, the young auctioneer at Lazonby, diligently chalked up the guaranteed top up payments on a blackboard, each Thursday morning so that vendors could work out the bottom line.
If he was lucky the young auctioneer got a turn in the rostrum, which was actually a tiny little wooden hut adjacent to the main office. A narrow ledge separated the auctioneer from the sale ring. it was just wide enough on which to balance the auctioneer’s book, recording vendor, number, weight, price and buyer, any of which might be referred to in case of dispute.
Decades of gavel abuse had left the surface of the ledge battered and worn. If the young auctioneer was not so lucky to sell, then the morning was spent weighing sheep on the old dialled scale, then writing the weights on a chalkboard for the boss, Norman Little, to read out to buyers.
Woe- betide the young auctioneer should he not get the blackboard washed off and turned around by the time the next lot of sheep had left the weighbridge and moved in to the ring. After selling their sheep, vendors could be seen staring at the variable premium rates, working out what the sheep would come to with the make- up payment added. Sometimes a scowl, sometimes a nod, rarely a smile, for that would never do!
Mid- winter would see frozen breath and frozen fingers, but the sale could not stop. A huge gas heater stood at the side of the ring, to enable the buyers to warm their cold wet fingers in between, touching the lambs backs. The heat did not percolate to either the auctioneer or the weigher! Lazonby Auction could be a bitterly cold place in mid- winter!
At the back of the weighbridge, worked the Meat and Livestock Commission grader. Their job was to assess the condition of the lambs individually, to ensure that they were of the right quality and level of finish, not too fat and not too thin. Graded lambs received a yellow mark meaning entitled to premium payment. Reject lambs were marked differently and were not entitled to the extra payment.
The system was further complicated by the fact that the grader also had to assess the final kill out percentage of the lamb, in other words, the amount of meat as a ratio of the total carcase weight. For the purposes of premium payment the grader would instruct the person weighing sheep to deduct an amount from the full lamb weight. Best quality lambs might only have half a kilo deducted, or less on rare occasions. Plainer quality lambs although eligible for premium, might have 2kg or even more removed. This obviously affected the bottom line for the farmer
A good grader would work well with the sheep weigher and series of finger signals would indicate the amount of weight to knock off. Farmers would try all ways to influence the grader if they disagreed with the grade or the weight deduction. Graders would never ever change their mind! Some farmers shouted, others pleaded,
“Nay nay, Jacko, hev another touch, tha’s missed it”. Or; “Haway Cloggy man, yer’ve been far ower harsh wid us”
Generally the graders were known and respected by farmers but some like old Roy Cannon from Cockermouth rather enjoyed the banter with farmers who argued with him: –
“Two off these Adam Lad” “Hell Roy, you’re bloody joking! my lambs aren’t that bad” “Adam, make that two and half kilo’s off”
The young auctioneer at the start of his career had a little card at his side on the rostrum, with Penrith Auction prices written down for different breeds and weights – as a guide. Lazonby and Penrith were run by the same company; Penrith Farmers & Kidds, but there was always competition! Norman Little would always insist that Lazonby prices should at least match and probably better Penrith prices on the monday. In those days, long before mobile phones, prices rarely moved much throughout the week, never mind the day.
Just about every one of those Lazonby buyers are now retired or have passed away, to be replaced by others for that is the circle of life, and the circle of auctions.
Now less than 40 years on from that House of Lords debate, few politicians talk of farmers in the same revered tones. Life for hill farmers has not got any easier in many respects. It can still be lonely and perhaps even more stressful than all those years ago. For many farmers, a trip to market was the only chance to get away from the farm. Nowadays few farmers have time to stop, chat, network and relax.
Also, In real terms the lambs are cheaper, the cost of production far higher and the profit, often far less. Although 98% of households still eat red meat, and 99% purchase dairy products, we’ve lost our connect with the public and dare I say with government.
In future our industry is going to change. Public goods may be the order of the day, but we must still fight to promote the value of food production. There will be challenges but also opportunities. There won’t be any “makeup” schemes, but there will be public money to spend on the farm. The trick will be to maximise payments whilst retaining the viability and profitability of the farm business. I am pleased to say that the Farmer Network is well placed to support its members during the transition.
I am also convinced that over the years the demand for home grown food will rise, as will the public’s desire for a greener world, cleaner air, water and more wildlife. On the back of that, farmers will be able to invest more in healthier soils, greenhouse gas mitigation, innovative production methods and more.
Much as the young auctioneer (now rather older!) looks back on those Lazonby sale days with fondness, we’ve moved on. At least there are still many young auctioneers now learning the ropes in the modern era and deserving support. They may still have a strong role to play in the future.
We can’t change the rules, but we can make them work for us. One day soon, our customers will wake up and realise, just how important farmers are both to food production and to the environment. There is a brave new world out there to be had. We just have to embrace it and dare i say fight our corner. Lord Peart was right. Supporting the farming community in future, will still be “a good bargain”.