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Mixed blessings: a confusing week for country life

Friday 27 August 2004

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, having suffered a disastrous summer in his veg plot, asks townies to realise that the archetypical "moaning farmer" really is being driven to his wits' end

I KNEW things had gone seriously awry last Sunday when I began digging my main crop potatoes. The first came out, spiked by the fork as usual, and then dropped off. As it hit the soil, it burst into a soggy white splodge, more like porridge than spud.

My first dread was that potato blight had struck, the curse that caused the great Irish famine and lead almost directly to the recent Troubles. But no, this was not disease, but a simple law of nature: the potato is not an aquatic plant, and mine had been growing virtually under water.

The soil, which is normally quite well drained, was swimming just six inches down. Out of a whole row of spuds, I got just five which were edible – and they will have to be eaten soon for it is unlikely that they will store. And this was just my allotment. Imagine the plight of farmers struggling to get their harvests in now.

Sure enough, on Monday morning the national newspapers were alive with stories of massive harvest failures – and not just potatoes. Millions of acres of wheat is germinating on the stalk, vast areas of hay and silage cannot be mown, thousands of acres of cash crops like beans, peas and oilseed rape are being ploughed in.

That night on television, the news bulletins featured fruit growers and others who have lost crops worth £50,000 and much more. Not only has all their profit gone but they will also be left with huge bills for seed, fertilisers, fuel and power for it has been a tradition for centuries for farmers to meet their running costs after they have sold their produce.

Now for many years now – in fact to the halcyon, subsidy-rich days of the 1950s, the average city dweller has accepted the myth of the "ever moaning farmer" – and, half a century ago, they were probably right.

I saw my first ever E-type Jaguar being driven across a field in Lincolnshire by a farmer's son who still moaned about the weather. I can still taste of jealousy in my throat as I wished that I could be that unlucky.

But those days are long gone. The Common Agricultural Policy ruined that for small but efficient British farmers and now that is being revised they are in the thrall of an administrative nightmare.

One Dales farmer I spoke to a couple of week ago gets up at dawn, gets home for supper at around 7pm and, after that, sits down at the kitchen table to do two or three hours of form-filling demanded by the pen-pushers at Defra.

In the past, this column has received many a comment that the moaning farmer doesn't know what real life is like in the city. He doesn't face the stress, the pressure to compete, the hateful traffic jams or jammed trains, the possibility of redundancy.

Oh no? I can't think of anything more stressful than opening that letter from the bank saying they are foreclosing and you must quit the land that your father, grandfather and others before them worked, and quit the home where the children of the family – including yourself – grew up.

Make no mistake: that will be happening again, hundreds, perhaps thousands of times before Christmas. After a bleak summer, thousands of country folk are now facing an even bleaker winter.

Please think on that, any townie reader, as you stop at the wine bar for a quick one on the way home from the office. Or this weekend, as you take the kids for a spin in the countryside. That countryside you want to see is tended by working farmers. Who will look after it when they are gone?

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