Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Economics of the real world

Every year a bunch of City boys called Deloitte and Touche produce a report on the state of British agriculture – where the value comes from, who generates that value, and where the money goes.
Last year’s D&T report for producers in the dairy sector was truly dire – falling commodity prices, accelerating consolidation (farm mergers) and fewer farmers. The main drivers for this collapse in milk prices were a dramatic slowdown in demand from China and the impact of Russia banning imports of dairy products.
In 1939, Britain had almost half a million farms, the majority less than 40 hectares, and employed almost 15% of the population. Since then Britain has lost over a third of its farms and the agricultural workforce has been in serious long-term decline.
As farms get bigger, they get fewer in number; the number of people working on the land has been tumbling for decades. Another thought-provoking stand at last week’s show was the robotic milking system which offers to milk your herd for only £30 a day. I know that wages for contract milkers are low, but I don’t think anyone could afford to do it for less than £30 a day.
Many of the structural issues affecting dairy farmers are now spreading to the cereal and meat sectors. Food prices have fallen to their lowest level for five years. British beef prices fell by 15% last year, while the country remains a net importer of the meat.
Talk about the butterfly effect: some bureaucrat in China or Russia types at a computer keyboard, and my neighbour goes out of business. I find it hard to get my head round how far the agriculture sector has come from the days when milk from the farm seldom travelled beyond the nearest town.
I am not a farmer, I have only three acres of land and I essentially just mess about, scratching a long-held itch to learn more about agriculture and what it is that makes rural Cornwall what it is.
One thing seems clear. The divorce between consumer and producer has grown so wide that a natural product like milk is now simply a “commodity” which is traded on rollercoaster stock exchanges around the world.
Politicians have set up, and then abolished, milk marketing boards; they have set up, and then abolished, milk quotas; we have now arrived at a situation where supermarkets dictate what is to be produced and how much they want to pay for it.
This separation between town and country has profound implications for all of us.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

The last 10 seconds

As scholarly readers of the Cornish Guardian, and William Shakespeare, will know, Hamlet was not talking about chickens when he said “I must be cruel only to be kind.”

I must however confess to a degree of Hamlet-style melancholia whenever I have to cull any of my poultry.
It is a sad fact of any agricultural venture that livestock, from time to time, develop illnesses or injuries which cannot reasonably be put right. And in those circumstances, it is in my humble opinion a kindness to end the suffering.
Last month I had to observe one of my chickens which had developed a pronounced limp. There was no obvious reason, but this bird stopped using her perch and instead roosted in one of the nest boxes. She struggled to get out of the coup in the morning and hobbled painfully, and slowly, towards her food and drink.
There was no sign of any infection, but I nevertheless put her into a separate run and waited to see what happened. Luckily, after three weeks, she showed signs of improvement and is now restored to the company of her very healthy sisters.
Not every instance has such a happy ending. Although I do not cull birds simply because they get old and stop laying eggs, very rarely one of the chickens develops a virus-like illness which prompts a rapid decline. And in those circumstances, I wring the unfortunate animal’s neck.
Readers of a nervous disposition might want to stop here. Others might be interested to know that the final moments of these birds are protected by the 2015 WATOK regulations.
These are the Welfare of Animals at the Time Of Killing rules and govern such exotic details as the correct procedure to adopt when slaughter is carried out in accordance with specific religious requirements – which sometimes means an animal cannot be stunned before death.
The British Veterinary Association, the RSPCA, Compassion in World Farming and the National Secular Society all want to see an end to the religious slaughter of animals or to slaughter without pre-stunning.
But you can imagine the controversy this causes amongst British Muslims and Jews – some of whom warn that any such ban would drive those who observe religious dietary laws out of the UK. For many of the UK’s almost three million Muslims, halal slaughter is a strict religious requirement, as is eating kosher for many of the UK’s 300,000 Jews.
There are some animal welfare groups whose position on culling and slaughter leads them to promote vegetarianism.
I’m pleased to report that such controversies seldom cause any loss of sleep in St Mabyn. A primary consideration is how much time elapses between capture and death – the period during which an animal might be caused additional distress.
I know that some groups advocate the use of an electronic stun tool – which renders the bird unconscious after less than one second. A common method of despatch is to then cut the chicken’s throat, although it can then take up to 30 seconds for the bird to die. Should it fail to die in that time, there is a risk it might regain consciousness.
I think if any of my poultry was still flapping after more than 10 seconds I would need to re-examine my technique.
It’s a grim business, bringing a degree of distress to all concerned. It’s one of those areas which tends to puncture the myth of the rural idyll. But I have to say to anyone contemplating keeping a few chickens – the very first thing you need to know is that at some point, you will have to manage the last 10 seconds.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Skinning knuckles or drinking beer

Leaving school with A-levels in pure maths, applied maths and physics, and not really interested in any of the university courses on offer in those days, I stumbled into journalism – which as any fule do no, requires no talent or qualifications whatsoever.
It was one of those accidents which, happily, has generally served me well – but has left me ill-equipped for fixing a lawnmower.
Cutting the grass, or at least having a plan for getting the grass cut, is an absolute pre-requisite for anyone like me. This weekend’s weather seemed like a good opportunity to get the orchard back under control, now that the bluebells have finished.
Unfortunately, ten minutes into this venture, and needing to re-start the engine, I suddenly noticed that I had my left hand on the lawnmower and in my right hand I held, quite separately, the starter cord – no longer attached to the petrol engine. The cord had snapped, with the shorter end wound back onto its spring, inside the engine cowling.
You might well have been in this situation yourself – it’s 3pm, the sun is shining, and instead of making progress with an oft-postponed chore, your day suddenly seems scheduled for hours of messing about with spanners and assorted painful ways to remove the skin from your knuckles. I thought for a few moments, abandoned the grass-cutting, and came indoors to write this column instead.
Over the years I have tried all kinds of ways of keeping the grass down in the orchard, of which the worst was pushing the Allen scythe – a fantastically heavy, blunt and wildly dangerous instrument, which for every minute spent actually cutting grass, I had to spend 20 minutes trying to re-start the engine. I once had a ride-on mower, which was easy enough to ride but very vulnerable to accidentally running over large stones, or bricks, hidden in the long grass, and then requiring tricky (for me) replacement of broken drive belts.
I’ve also tried assorted strimmers, but in every case the nylon cutting cord has worn out long before I’ve made much of an impression. I really do need to find a permanent fix for this issue. Next week’s Royal Cornwall Show might suggest an answer.
It seems that as a nation, we have lost much of our appetite for DIY. In days gone by, even small agricultural holdings like this would have had some knowledge of carpentry, coopering, wheelwrighting and blacksmithing.
I remember, as a small child, my Dad had a workshop and would always mend things himself (but he really was an engineer); as a teenager I had no problem repairing and maintaining cars and motorbikes in the 1960s and 70s. These days I wouldn’t know where to start.

My latest wheeze requires me to persuade actor Aidan Turner, of Poldark fame, to bring his scythe and just get to it. I will sit in a deckchair, supervise, drink beer, and sell tickets.

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Show time

Only two weeks to go. There’s an eerie calm about Wadebridge right now, as if people know what’s coming and they know how to deal with it.
The show was not always held at Wadebridge.  This one was at Bude in 1939.

It’s been very different since the by-pass was built, 23 years ago, but the energy that flows from the Royal Cornwall Show still brings a buzz to the town and surrounding villages.
Those days before the by-pass, when southbound traffic would queue for hours to reach the old bridge, and then crawl up Molesworth Street, are hard to recall with much fondness. Perhaps the pace of life really was slower then, but it never seemed that way to me – the back-end of a tractor, and a lung full of diesel fumes, were always just very frustrating.
Now the traffic management is, frankly, superb. There are still delays, but they are measured in minutes, rather than hours. And even if the weather is poor, there is enough going on under canvass to guarantee a splendid time for all.
The event has moved so smoothly into the digital age of the 21st century that my first encounters with the show, nearly 40 years ago, almost seem like they must have happened to someone else. Nowadays if you can’t make it for all three days, the show’s website gives you plenty of information about what’s happening.
I’ve always enjoyed the animal exhibitions, particularly the rare breeds’ section. Perhaps it’s a subconscious nostalgic yearning for those early agricultural experiences of my childhood, when the beasts of the farmyard seemed naturally to come in all shapes and sizes – before modern farming became the expertly engineered precise science that so conveniently fills supermarket shelves today.
It’s interesting that children’s toy farm animals nearly always celebrate breeds which you are less likely to see on the majority of farms now: Gloucester Old Spot pigs, Cream Legbar chickens, Highland cows – none is actually threatened with extinction, but neither are they particularly well-suited to the kind of hyper-productivity needed to keep food prices low.
I was pleased to see that the RCS sheep entry this year has already set a new record, continuing the trend of recent years. This year’s entry of 1,294 represents a healthy increase of 44 over the previous high, set in 2012, when 1,250 entries were received.
I’m currently wrestling with my conscience, and bank account, over whether to add a goat (or two?) to my smallholding, and the Royal Cornwall Show is the ideal place for me to find out more. There will be more goats than ever at Wadebridge this year.
If I remember correctly, goat’s milk is whiter than the more creamy cow’s milk – which at some future date would allow me to suggest the headline “A Whiter Shade Of Pail” – but really I’m just looking for a low-tech way to keep the grass down in the orchard.
Do I have the time to ensure that everything would be right in the animal welfare department? Sadly, the answer is probably not. I’m a reporter, not a farmer, and my small-scale dabblings are only that: dabblings, not driven by economic necessity.
But for a few days, at least, I will soon be able to once more stroll around the Royal Cornwall Show and soak up the atmosphere, talk to lots of people who know more than I do, and dream on.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing

You can’t walk very far along a country lane in North Cornwall at this time of year without noticing the riot of wild flowers in the hedgerows. The smell of wild garlic leads the charge: there seems to be a rule that the darker the lane, the stronger the scent.

Bluebells, primroses and cicely help complete the picture, slowly giving way to the blues and reds of alkanet and campion as April surrenders to May.  My own love-hate relationship with gardening (I love the sights and smells, but hate the hard work) means that over the decades the wild flowers in my back yard have been given a relatively free hand to seed themselves wherever they like.  This approach has the added advantage of sometimes giving me an extra reason to postpone even cutting the grass.

In a local greengrocer’s shop the other day, I was nearly tempted to buy some cut flowers to brighten a room or two indoors. But then I thought better of it, and decided to borrow some wild flowers from the garden instead.
In Cornwall,the cultivated flower market is an important part of our agriculture. Perhaps not so much in North Cornwall, but as you head west the acres of daffodil fields remind us of horticulture’s contribution to our economy.
A recent report from the National Cut Flower Centre, funded by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, told us that this sector has more than trebled in value over the past 20 years. The UK’s annual spend on imports increased from £125million to £550 million between the 1980s and early 2000s. Yet at the same time, the value of the domestic “farm gate” cut flower sector remained largely static, at around £50 million a year.
While welcoming the increased consumer interest, the report points out that the relative ease with which flowers can be transported around the globe acts as a disincentive to the home-grown industry.
The good news – particularly good for Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly – is that when it comes to the daffodil, the UK is a net exporter. Daffodils account for nearly 80% of the domestic flower-growing land in Britain. We have a vibrant and successful industry.
Yet while the statistics which underpin the AHDB report make for a fascinating, if rather dry, read – they are really put into context by a study of Afghanistan’s poppy crop. The most recent estimate puts its value at £4 billion a year. I very much doubt that there are any reliable statistics for the annual value of the Planet Earth cannabis crop – but a recently-opened, and completely lawful, cannabis farm in Chile now aims to produce its crop for medicinal purposes.
I read all this stuff – it’s my job, sort of – and wonder how wealthy I might be if there was a therapeutic, yet slightly edgy use for bluebells. I suppose I might be able to start a factory making evening primrose oil, but that seems like rather a lot of hard work.
Instead I pluck a small handful of the most colourful wild flowers within easy reach, put them in a vase, and they just take my breath away. Priceless.