Glorious Rain

BY JIM WEBSTER

It must be admitted that we were ready for this rain. As it was we’d neatly ricocheted from one extreme to another. This winter was ridiculously wet. We never had flooding as such up here in Cumbria, but there was standing water where the water table was now higher than ground level. So if we were ever going to get any spring work done, something had to change.

And it changed spectacularly.

Not only has it been fine and dry, but we’ve also had a pretty constant easterly breeze. Looking back, in this part of the world, we normally need something to dry some of our land out after winter, and if we had to wait for sun and heat, we’d be waiting until August. So really we rely on a spell of easterly winds. They can be a bit much of a good thing if we get them too early, because they can be cold as well as dry, which can delay things. Indeed one spring I remember all our grass on east facing slopes was short, crisp, and almost blue. The grass on the other side of the slopes was absolutely fine. Basically we took first cut silage earlier than usual because the grass facing east was disappearing.

This year the wind was warm, dried things up nicely, but it was getting to be too much of a good thing. Looking round you can spot those crops sown at the start of the dry spell. They’ve had enough moisture to germinate. Grass seed sown in the last couple of weeks has just sat there.

The problem is that when it starts raining along the west side of the country it can forget when to stop. Whilst it seems as if we’re barely into spring, in another fortnight a lot of people will be silaging. Further south some have undoubtedly started already. We’re getting next winter’s fodder in even as we’re still finishing off this winter’s. Looking around, a lot of people do have a lot of fodder left. I see round bales in tidy stacks on a lot of farms. In spite of some dry spells, last year wasn’t a bad year for growing forage round here and I think a lot of people took advantage of it.

Looking at weather patterns over the past few years, we’ve had some drier spells in summer, which are unusual for us although perhaps more normal for the south east. So I suspect this fodder could well come in if we have another drought. It’ll help carry stock through a few dry weeks and take the pressure off grazing.

When you stop and think about it, for all the talk about climate change and its impact on farming, we’re used to the climate changing. After all I’ve farmed through the droughts in the 1970s, and the bitter winters (for us) of the 1980s. So whilst the underlying drift in climate might be in one particular direction, actually the variation between individual years is actually greater than the difference between ‘average climate back then’ and ‘average climate now.’

I remember travelling down to see family in the south east one year. It was so dry the motorway verges were catching fire, and you could tell a ‘field of grass’ from a ‘field of stubble’ because stubble doesn’t have occasional stalks of ragwort sticking two feet into the air. Yet when I got home, some of our land was still green and lush. One field had dried out a bit, but it merely meant I could travel across the entire field, and I got to mow the rushes. We baled them and used them instead of straw for bedding. Well it probably saved me three or four hundred pounds.

Farming is pretty resilient. We have to be, we’ve faced a generation or more of falling prices. People are getting less per litre of milk today than I was getting in the early 1990s. I wonder how many other people could cope with trying to live on their 1990 hourly rate?

In simple terms, farmers are used to surviving by a stream of hand-to-mouth expedients. The idea is that they get you through the rough bits, and hopefully when you survive into the good times, you can catch up with investment and get things set up to run properly. In fact you might even over-engineer your solutions because you know damned well that at some point they’re going to have to run long past when they were supposed to, during the next bad spell.

The last time milk prices dropped spectacularly I was talking to one chap who worked for an agricultural supplier. Everybody was tightening their belts. Including his employers who were acting as an unofficial bank as customers got as much trade credit as they could. But one customer was looking seriously at putting up a new building and expanding. But obviously this expansion was on hold. Anyway prices picked up, and as a good rep should, in casual conversation he asked the customer whether he was still looking at putting up a new building. “Oh yes,” the customer answered, “But Father wants us to have a decent cash buffer ready for the next price crash. So we’ll probably put up the building next year.”

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, quad-bikes and dogs) It’s available here.

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