” The lot has fallen unto me in a fair ground: Yea – I have a goodly heritage. ” Psalm 16There follow the random reflections of one retired farmer from the southwest region of the Parish. Facts are facts but interpretation is opinion. Please feel free to disagree.
During World War II everything was sacrificed: money, men and materials. At the end the country was bankrupt and exhausted. The euphoria following the General Election of 1945 faded into five years of austerity. Bread, unrationed during the war, became rationed. As late as 1951 coupons were still required for animal feed.
The need for home grown food had resurrected British agriculture, but money had not been invested in the workers cottages. I inherited six cottages without indoor sanitation, hot water or electricity. They had not been painted for twelve years or more. The only electricity on the farm until 1954 was an ancient generator for the house. Labour was cheap and plentiful but of my nine employees only one had a car.
God made the country,
Man made the town. ” Cowper
This is only a half truth. Our Iron Age forebears would not recognise our landscape. Man has transformed it to meet his own needs for food and livelihood.
In living memory West Woods have been felled and replanted. Boreham Wood is half its earlier size. The area west of Glass’s Wood, below the communications tower, was downland and thorn scrub where pigs were kept. It is now under cultivation, although part of it has recently been planted with trees. Landscape evolves in response to economic pressures.
” Change and decay in all around I see.” Cardinal Newman
During the war food production was much needed and well rewarded. A ploughing up campaign converted acres of permanent grass meadows and downland to arable production.
In the 1950/1960 era, ley farming was the approved method of rotation. Land that had been in crops was sown with grass seed mixtures for cutting or grazing. Grants encouraged farmers to plough up these short-term leys after three years. The balance of payment deficit meant that arable farming was favoured.
In the fifties spring barley would have been the dominant grain crop. Winter wheat followed ploughed-up grass, and winter oats were a useful break crop because they have a different disease pattern. However farmers respond to economic pressures just like other businesses. The EEC decided to subsidise oil seed rape, and soon the countryside was awash with livid yellow, sickly-smelling rape fields. A change of tack at Brussels and the delicate blue of linseed appeared, only to disappear when the subsidy was cut.
Yields of all cereal crops have greatly increased. Even in the sixties 30 hundredweight per acre would have been a decent crop of wheat. Nowadays farmers are disappointed if they don’t get over 60 hundredweight per acre. The same percentage increase would be true of other crops. This is largely due to improved varieties of seed and to better weed and disease control.
Larger, more expensive and ever more powerful machinery has resulted in fewer farm workers. Farming units have become larger and contractors have filled the gap left by the shrinking labour force.
The most dramatic change has been the decline in dairying. In 1952 there were dairy herds at Hillside Farm and Dene Farm in Lockeridge and at South Farm and Shaw in West Overton. All these have disappeared and Peter Smith at Fyfield is the sole milk producer in the parish. There are many causes for this decline, mostly economic. EEC quotas were imposed that made it difficult for farmers to increase production, then Brussels, aided by our government, abolished the milk marketing board. As a result, supermarkets used milk as a loss leader to kill the doorstep trade, and then squeezed the producers and the dairies that supplied them. The producer price of milk today is lower than it was ten years ago and cheaper than bottled water.
On top of this, BSE closed the profitable markets in bull calf and cull cow exports which have not been recovered. Mercifully Foot and Mouth disease has not hit the parish seriously since 1957.
Breedwise, the British and Holstein Friesians have almost totally eclipsed the other dairy herds. Of the beef breeds Herefords and Aberdeen Angus have given way to polyglot herds with Charolais and Limousin amongst their ancestors.
The Future: Hopes or wishful thinking.
” Old men and comets have been reverenced for the same reason: their long beards and pretences to foretell events. ” Swift
As from 2005 the Common Agricultural Policy will take a new turn. Production subsidies are out – acreage payments are in, so guesswork is even more difficult than usual. I can only hazard a few tentative predictions.
Arable producers will come under pressure from the regenerated farms of Prussia, Hungary and Poland, new members of the EU, whose cost structure will enable them to undercut British farmers. We have the advantage that our wetter climate leads to higher yields but our costs are also higher because we have to dry our grain before storage. The world wheat surplus means that cost of production rather than volume of crop is what matters. I would predict that arable farming will be limited to more fertile soils than we have in our parish, and that much of our existing acreage will revert to grass.
I sincerely hope that dairying will improve. Liquid milk, as opposed to milk products is not easily imported and sooner or later the supermarkets may have to raise their prices above the cost of production.
I have always been encouraged to go for quality and not quantity, but the price differential was never enough to compensate for the loss of yield. I fear this will continue to be the case despite the assistance given to organic farming. Most consumers are forced to buy on price.
Genetic Modification is the current great debate. If America, Asia and Australia all adopt GM food and thereby undercut Europe, sooner or later Europe will cave in, unless health worries are verified.
Global warming could mean that maize becomes a cash as well as a forage crop. If there were more tax concessions vinyards could reappear, particularly on less fertile and hilly farms.
Finally farm size will continue to increase, diversification likewise, and farm labour continue to decline. With ever increasing costs and decreasing reserves of fossil fuels, our government should perhaps consider more seriously such alternatives as fuel from oil seed rape and wheat. Experiments are already advanced on the Continent and would need little in the way of capital investment compared with the unsightly, inefficient, bird-chewing wind machines to which it is at present addicted. Why no help for Short Rotation Coppice?
The future will be determined by politics and economics.
We still have a balance of payments deficit.
We still have not totally repaid the American post-war loan which bailed us out.
The Third world still has millions starving and an increasing population, yet farmers are paid to ‘set-aside’ their arable fields
Politicians have a long way to go before this Alice-in Wonderland situation is resolved.