Milking It


A lot of years ago, when I was probably about seven or eight, I was with my grandfather, father and others when they were “leading” hay. The trailer was loaded, and a small Fergie 135 pulled it out of the gate and into the lane.

Now the gateway itself slopes steeply because the lane is about four feet lower than the field, so as you can imagine, with the old 135 not being the world’s most powerful tractor, even in its day, this was something you took carefully. All was going well until somebody in a car came hurtling up the lane, screeched to a halt and gestured for the tractor to back out of his way.

This wasn’t going to happen.

Even if we’d wanted to do it, it was probably beyond the capabilities of the tractor. So, we had an impasse. My grandfather was in charge, and he wasn’t entirely impressed by the car driver. I suspect the lack of good will was entirely mutual because the debate grew heated. I learned a lot of interesting phrases that I was later to try out in conversation at school, with mixed results.

But one part of the exchange has stuck in mind. The car driver, frothing slightly, shouted, “You wait until we nationalise you.” Remember this was the early 1960s, so it was probably still Labour party policy in some diffuse way.

My grandfather just looked at him. Remember he’d lived through two world wars and arrested German pilots at pitchfork point. Working on his own one day, he’d once gone into the beck to unblock it to stop flooding. In pulling out various flotsam that was blocking it, a nail in a fence post had been driven deep into his arm. So, he climbed out of the beck, with the fence post still

fastened to his arm, and walked a good four hundred yards, climbing over two hedges, to reach a neighbour who would give him a lift to hospital. That’s where they removed the post and nail under proper medical supervision.

So that’s the sort of person who, in his early sixties, is confronted with some overexcited and raving car driver out of town. When the bloke shouted, “You wait until we nationalise you,” my grandfather just looked at him and said, “Forty-hour week, every weekend off, guaranteed wage, I’m looking forward to it.”

At some point the car driver realised that physics was against his plan and backed away and we carried on working. This was about 7pm and I was the only person who hadn’t been working since 5am, and they probably finished about 10pm because later than that it gets too dark to stack hay inside.

I stopped milking cows in 1999. The milk price, which had got up to 30p a litre, had dropped to 14p a litre. I decided milking cows was a more expensive hobby than Ocean yachting, wetter and with less sex appeal. It was about then I divided my annual profit by the number of hours worked, to discover that in the previous year, I’d worked for nine pence an hour.

Currently Sainsbury’s are offering farmers what is probably one of the best UK milk contracts. It’s done on a “cost plus” basis, with the idea that a farmer who has some economies of scale, who is doing the job properly and to a high standard of animal welfare, will be able to make a living, contribute to a pension and invest in his business.

At time of writing, the Sainsbury’s price is about 31p a litre. A lot of other suppliers are paying between 16p and 23p a litre. So just remember, if you’re buying cheap milk, don’t go lecturing farmers about “sustainability”.

Anyway, I was at a meeting a while ago when the speaker, from one of the quangos, said that dairy farmers had to get more efficient. Somebody in the audience then suggested that if the speaker was willing to go back to being paid his 1999 salary, then he could lecture them on efficiency. It was then that I remembered the words of my grandfather.

Jim Webster farms at the bottom end of South Cumbria. Jim was encouraged to collect together into a book some blog posts he’d written because of their insight into Cumbrian farming and rural life (rain, sheep, quadbikes and dogs) It’s available here. It was so popular that he wrote a second one available here.