YOU’RE NEVER TOO OLD TO LEARN….

I went off to the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester in September 1984. To a boy from the hills of Cumbria, it was a world away from the sheltered life I had known. My parents were proud, my old farming grandfather even more so. In many ways it was a rude awakening to the harsh realities of life and people. I met some of the best and some of the worst. “Mountain Man” as i was christened by fellow students from the south, had an awful lot to learn about both. These experiences have continued through my whole career.

The qualification was everything. Rural Estate Management was the key to the door for a lifetime of working within the farming community.

Trent Lodge Hall of Residence, Cirencester – second floor right hand window – my room!

Three years later I returned to Cumbria in my battered old Mini 1000, with rather more life experiences under my belt, and a new job as a trainee land agent and auctioneer for Penrith Farmers Kidd’s. A 20 minute interview with the Managing Director, Harry Richardson secured my dream job. It was a no- brainer for me to return to my home county.

The learning was far from over. For on my very first day and less than five minutes into the job, I ran into the first of many bollicking’s off a farmer.

The brand new Penrith market on Junction 40 of the M6 was full to overflowing with trailers backed up the A66. It was pandemonium. I donned my shiny new auctioneer’s coat and headed for the calf ring to help auctioneer and now life- long pal, David Jackson. As I rounded the corner, I bumped straight into Geoff Faulder, Ewan Close Farm. A man in his late 60’s, he was clearly disgruntled, having to queue to unload calves. He looked me up and down.

 “I don’t know who the bloody hell you are – Boy” he said, “but get out there and sort the bloody mess out”! With that he turned tail and left me standing open- mouthed. Things did settle down and in time Geoff became a good pal, as did his brother Jared, a top county buyer of sheep in local auctions, including his favourite, Lazonby.

Today my own college life seems a world away. Those three years were important not only to learn about my chosen profession, and get the certificate, but more widely to learn to communicate, deal with people and to gain some much-needed self- confidence. I made some good choices in the knowledge that I desperately wanted to return to live and work in Cumbria, but I also made some bad choices in other areas of my life. I wouldn’t change it, but oh boy, would i do it differently! Hey, hindsight is a wonderful thing and I’m still learning, for you are never too old to learn!

Today my auctioneering duties are part- time and still very enjoyable. I’m classed as an old hand now. It is good to work with a young team and where needed impart a little advice or just offer support where i can. I am perfectly at home dropping down livestock trailer doors or opening ring gates as much as i am in the rostrum, although there is nothing beats the buzz of a good trade when you’ve got hold of the gavel.

Five years ago i became the Managing Director of The Farmer Network based at Newton Rigg College near Penrith. I get much pleasure seeing the myriad of ways our non- profit company finds to support farmers and their businesses. Our goal has not changed since the Network was formed 15 years ago. It is to support a viable and sustainable farming community.

I enjoy talking to students on campus and have even tried my hand at lecturing in farm business management. Many students are the offspring of farmers that I grew up with. It is the circle of farming life. Those students are going through the same learning experiences as I did back in the 1980’s when the girls had big hair and big shoulder pads!

College life for todays “Aggies” is more important than ever. They are the generation that will have to work within a rapidly changing industry. It is so important that we prepare them with the necessary skills both to farm smarter and manage the landscapes in evolving ways. In our industry we start them young, encouraging a strong worth ethic and great pride in the job. In the mart, young handlers sale days are just one of the learning experiences offered.

The future of Newton Rigg college is under threat. The parent organisation Askham Bryan which owns the Penrith campus has persuaded the further education commission that the college is not viable. They have been given permission to sell the site and if this happens the sale proceeds will taken out of the county, back to Yorkshire. Too many this a cruel and unjust end to a bastion of Cumbrian farming life.

Newton Rigg Farmhouse – present home of the Farmer Network – but for how long?

Even worse is the fact that we will lose a cherished and respected seat of learning in Cumbria, the second largest red meat and dairy producing county across the country. To the farming community and indeed the wider rural community, this is an appalling state of affairs. Closure is due July 2021.

An independent Newton Rigg Land- Based Education Taskforce was formed consisting mainly of representatives from the agricultural and educational sector in Cumbria. The taskforce has been trying to formulate a plan to save Newton Rigg as a seat of learning or at least to ensure that land- based learning can continue in Cumbria in some form. I am proud to be part of the group knowing full well the importance of not only further education, but life- long learning for members of the farming community. There are currently three consortia interested in talking over the campus, and a bidding process is underway. The Land Based Education Taskforce remains in place to offer support where it can. There is still hope!

Our young people starting their careers will be brilliant farmers, food producers and conservationists, in fact the best yet, all in one package. I am convinced of this. If i have one message for them it is: – “learn and keep learning because you are never too old”.

More than 30 years have passed since the day i walked into Penrith mart with my shiny new auctioneers coat. These days my white coats are rather larger than they used to be, but i still feel the same privilege working for the farming community . Difficult though these times of change may be, i have an unwavering belief that farmers are going to become more and more important to this country. We just haven’t quite woken up to the fact yet. Time will tell!

“THERE’S A BRAVE NEW WORLD OUT THERE”

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”.

The Landscapes of Lakeland – what value?

I took this photo one afternoon from the summit of Hardknott Pass in Cumbria. In my role as a livestock auctioneer and land agent, I had spent the day visiting farms in Eskdale and other western valleys of the Lake District and i was on my way over the top, heading for Wrynose and then Kirkstone before driving home along Ullswater towards Penrith. It was a great day and i was feeling fortunate to live and work within the farming communities across Cumbria. What a commute home!

I spied her whilst i was driving. A lovely young Herdwick sheep, the indigenous breed of the Lake District. She stood there with her two front legs on a small rock and she was just watching the world go by. I could not help myself. I stopped my car and doubled bac to her. She saw me and carried on watching me intently. She seemed to be saying, “this is my world” and we stared at each other for a long time before she turned tail and ambled off down hill, in an instant lost from view. She was not frightened of me. She was at ease in her surroundings. I have sold many thousands of Herdwick sheep in my lifetime. it’s part of our culture and our heritage in these remote valleys and high, challenging fellscapes.

These sheep are heafed to the fells. They are bred to live here, attached to hills, acclimatised to them and very much part of them, as are the people that shepherd the flocks.

These green hills attract 40m visitors a year who love the landscapes as they are. Trees could not grow here but grass does. The sheep produce wool and meat and the soils store carbon. But the sheep are worth far more than that. They are a linchpin to communities, vital for so much more than just meat and wool.

Last night, to see them on a Channel 4 tv programme, plucked from a model landscape with such ease, betrays an ignorance and shows a lack of understanding and knowledge or worse still, regard for rural life, and the public benefits that sheep on the hills, cattle in the valleys and people working the land actually deliver.

That is not to say that managed landscape cannot be improved. We can make our soils better, we can improve the natural environment, create more habitats and plant many more trees in the right place but these sheep and our rural communities and what they deliver, cannot be over- valued and i hope, will never be destroyed.

Your local farmer is your friend, not your problem!

Decades ago, my Cumbrian farming grandmother would prepare for long winters by filling her ample chest freezer with home produced lamb, half a pig, and a few large beef joints. The freezer was like the Tardis in that it seemed much bigger on the inside! It also contained racks of frozen vegetables from the allotment and pies with fruit picked from the hedgerows. The blackberry pies were the best, especially on Easter Sunday! Anything bought fresh from the shops was only what was in season at the time. 
In the modern world, we now expect by right to have cheap food delivered fresh from across the world. We care little about the people producing the food and even less about the provenance, the traceability and true cost of production.
We don’t actually perceive food to be cheap, because we know nothing else. We have forgotten the true age of austerity, ration books and queuing for food, in an age when no food could be wasted. Grandmother would have baulked at the idea of throwing out perfectly good consumables. Sell by dates meant nothing to our forefathers.
Today 4 pints of whole milk can be bought in most supermarkets today for about 1.10p. Many dairy farmers will be paid less than  half of that. The product is sold for a pittance and farmers are paid a pittance. Bottles of water are sold at higher prices! How can this be? And how would we manage today if more than 30% of our weekly wage had to be spent on basic food items? This is how it was in the 1950’s.
Because food is so cheap today,  very few people outside the agriculture industry have any inkling of the systems, processes, regulations and hard work that goes into producing a pint of milk or a prime lamb. As a population, we have lost knowledge and respect for the farming industry. We don’t understand and we don’t appreciate where our food comes from, and how it is produced. The constant supply of globally  produced cheap food means that UK farmers are any easy target on climate change issues, pollution, animal welfare and just about the ills of the world. This is a  seriously misguided blame game.
In the 1950’s UK farmers were truly the housewives friend. Government policies encouraged production at all costs. The nation was hungry and in post- war crisis. These days the government will not support home food production. In fact they barely recognise it. It’s a curious thing but many members of the public believe farmers get free handouts in the form of production subsidies. The reality is that those days are long gone.  Current support payments are based on environment and conservation outputs only. The UK farmer is always at the mercy of a painfully thin market. There are no fall back measures. If the beef price drops even lower, the beef farmer has to take it on the chin. It’s the same in every sector.
So where will the food to feed the British people come from in future? The answer if we continue as we are, is an even greater reliance on imports. Frankly it is the road to disaster. Worse still it is morally and ethically challengeable. 
My heartfelt belief is that we need to grow our own food and look after our environment at the same time. These are not separate portfolio’s. This work goes together. Too many people with vested interests seek to promulgate the polarisation of farming, food production and conservation. As a nation we are now less than 60% self sufficient in food and it continues to fall by more than 1% per annum. This troubles me greatly. Sure, we are ok now. Lots of food to bring in from all over the world! But where will we be in 20 years time if this trend continues? only 40% self sufficient? desperate to secure even more food from around the world for a growing population? it is madness. We have a 25 year environment plan, but no food and farming plan. This should be one and the same.
Instead we shove it under the carpet as we focus on “saving the planet”. Of course we need to do this urgently but we also need to focus on sustainable food production to feed the human race. We cannot continue a growing trend of importing out of season, cheap food products. If we do and this is more important than supporting UK food production, then we are simply exporting our problem, sweeping it under the carpet in the name of environment and conservation. Many of us will have seen the BBC programme on global meat production this week. I believe many of the findings in that programme actually back up much of what i have discussed earlier. This is a global issue but cannot be blamed on the UK farming community. We’ve been hung out to dry by those who support and promote cheap imported food and we know fine well who they are!
Take a look at the photo above. This is how fruit and vegetables are grown in parts of Spain, much of it destined for the UK market. It is grown this way using the cheapest labour that can be found, people often working in shocking conditions. There have been tv programmes about this recently. Think of the carbon footprint and the use of plastics yet we choose to ignore it. Sweep it under the carpet- again. Cheap food for the masses, stocking the supermarket shelves! “cheap food is our right. We are entitled to it”!
Cheap food is ours by right! That’s one hell of statement, but it must be true because clearly supermarkets support this policy (just as long as their margins are maintained). Clearly the UK government supports this policy wholeheartedly. Cheap food means we have more disposable income to spend on other consumer goods and this keeps the public happy. It’s a measure of economic success to have a tv in every room and be able to eat out several times a week in fast food restaurants or via the take- away. The grim reality is that food is too cheap and we don’t deserve it by right. The grim reality is that global food systems are ensuring the planet is paying a high price, to keep food prices low. The system is broken and most of us don’t even know it. Or if we do, we lift that carpet yet again. We readily accept these global food systems whilst ignoring our own UK sustainable farming systems. We’re even allowing some sections of society to blame UK farmers for the global food production mess!
I steadfastly believe that we have to change our ways. We desperately need to invest more in home- grown food production. As a result and as a condition of this, we need to achieve better environmental goals in offering the public benefits in clean air, clean water and conservation in the natural environment. To do this our farm businesses need to viable and sustainable. The farm business is the key to all this. The government does not recognise food as a public good. Absolute madness and they are missing a huge trick.
Our mentality has to change. Food needs to be priced fairly to respect the producer and the way in which in which our food is grown. We need to return to seasonal purchasing instead of importing goods from across the world. What is the true cost of this in terms of food miles and carbon footprint? no one is saying and we’re sweeping under the carpet yet again in order to protect a 52 week food supply season. It’s easier to criticise our own farmers rather than admit the true cost of food importation.
We must invest in local markets, in other words locally produced food purchased by local people. We must reduce food waste, Millions of tonnes of the stuff, binned each year. Why does this happen? Again because its cheap and not respected and therefore neither is the producer. In fact almost 2 million tonnes of food is wasted in the UK annually of which 240,000 tonnes is binned by supermarkets alone. Ask yourself why this is allowed to happen?
With education and investment we can do much better. Feed our nation more sensibly than we do now. Make the best of our natural assets to grow more food, not less! and at the same time be proud to improve our natural environment.
it’s time to big up the UK farmer, one of the best assets we have. Once again in the future the farmer will become our best friend. Start the planning now and let’s do this on our terms rather than in desperation some years down the line when we run out food and run out of ideas.
This will mean huge changes to the farming industry, new skills to learn, new technology to embrace as we seek to grow more food using less inputs. Our future farmers will be skilled food producers but they will also be upskilled conservationists. And if they are, then they must be rewarded for it. Farmers already offer a huge range of benefits to their communities and the wider public, but we’ve lost the knowledge and understanding of this, again through cheap food and a lack of education about food and farming.
We can get it back but we have to act now to protect our home- production and in doing so our natural environment. Food, farming and conservation go together side by side and it is so easy. We need a Rural Grand Plan to encompass all of this.
But don’t just take my word for it. In 2017 the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) issued a stark warning in a report entitled “The Future of Food and Agriculture: Trends and Challenges.” The message was this: –
Because of a growing global population (7.3b today rising to 10b by 2050), agricultural output will need to increase by 50 percent. This needs to happen alongside the necessary steps to mitigate climate change.
This is perhaps more evidence that farming, food and conservation go together. People are now understanding the significance of climate change. Why the hell aren’t we talking about sustainable food production? All of the good conservation work will be destroyed if we start to go hungry. The bad conservation work needs to be called out for what it is. Time to end the polarisation! Bring it together….. “A Rural Grand Plan”.
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Grandmothers roast lamb dinners followed by homemade blackberry pie will never be surpassed. it’s time to re-discover her old fashioned values from a time when food was so much more important than it is now. My grandparents in their own little way were proud farmers, feeding the nation. That pride remains today within the farming industry especially among young people who are desperately keen to farm. We’re in danger of losing this in the next generation unless we start respecting, appreciating and supporting them. We’re in danger of losing far more if we continue to import cheap food from abroad, without any consideration of those production systems. You have been warned!
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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.

Image result for forking hay

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.”

 

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.