Country columnist John Sheard writes in a spirit of deep mourning for a farming family he has known for thirty years, forced off their land by the demands of big business.
WELL, it didn't last long. This time last week, I was writing about the good news from the countryside. This Tuesday, I went to one of my favourite agricultural shows, the Lunesdale, and left with my spirits in my boots.
On the way to the show, we drove past a big, once lush, farm owned by a family we have known for 30 years. We went to their weddings, their funerals, and their son's 21st birthday party. As we passed, I remarked to my wife that their big meadows seemed to be empty of stock.
Inevitably, at the show I met the grandfather and his son, now running the farm. Only the grandson was missing - he's travelling the world on his "gap year" after finishing his education at agricultural college. I wish I hadn't asked but I did: why were the fields so empty?
For sale. With vacant possession
"It's quite simple," said the present incumbent. "Within the next few weeks, they'll all be gone. Sold. I'm quitting - it is impossible to make a living as a dairy farmer these days."
Now in the past, I have written with great concern about the plight of our hill farmers. But this is a big farm, a once highly profitable farm on good bottom land which, back in the early 1970s - when you could buy a very nice house for £10,000 - it would have fetched between £250 and £300 an acre, making the family comfortable millionaires in assets.
But, as we reported this week, the dairies and the supermarkets are squeezing British dairy farmers so hard that they are losing 4p on every litre of milk they produce. They receive the lowest price in Europe - Italian farmers get 6p a litre more - and figures show in the six years to June 2000, the number of dairy herds in the UK shrank by a staggering 21% - a reduction of 378,000 animals.
In 2000 alone, an estimated 8% of UK dairy farmers quit the industry to escape plummeting returns. And now my friends, who could have sold up thirty years ago and gone to live in luxury in the South of France, have joined them.
What will my farmer friend do? Well, he doesn't know. Worst of all, what will his son do, after 18 years of education all leading up, he thought, to helping run the farm? He doesn't know, either.
Apart from feeling a personal sense of loss on behalf of my friends, I am also furious. For this is happening when tens of thousands of politicians and their civil servant baggage carriers are descending on South Africa, ostensibly to save the Third World but, in the eyes of many observers less cynical than me, to enjoy the biggest five-star junket the First World has ever seen.
Now I want to save the Third World. I want to save the environment. But it would also like to save people like my farmer friends, who are NOT being driven out of business by climate change but by the sinister market manipulations of the big dairy chains and the supermarkets they supply.
In trying to ditch Environment Minister Michael Meacher from the UK delegation to the so-called Earth Summit, Tony Blair presumably wanted to present himself as a saviour of the world's farmers.
What chance has he when it is patently obvious that he can't even save hard-working, experienced men and women working superb land in his own country?
Someone, someday, will have to tackle the immensely powerful food processing industry before Britain's farmland becomes an unoccupied wilderness. But, of course, most farmers don't vote Labour - so do they matter?