Another Cumbrian Harvest

BY JIM WEBSTER

Looking round last week everybody was busy. Combining, baling and carting straw, baling and carting round bale silage, each one was working flat out. I suspect the average age of drivers was a lot lower than this week when so many of them are back to school.

It’s been an interesting harvest round here. We tend to be later than further south, and as August gets blown into September the whole thing can be pretty much catch as catch can. I noticed one field where the combine was leaving muddy wheel marks behind it. This is not a good sign.

I saw another field being scaled out for silage. The chap does try and make a bit of hay, because we’ve a decent trade locally selling it for horses. But whilst he’s managed to make some beautiful stuff this year on other fields, the weather was never right long enough to mow this one. Now he’s got a field of elderly grass that he’s mown. I felt some of it by the gate. Late August sunshine is never going to kill it, and indeed he rowed it up not long afterwards and it’s baled and wrapped. It’s just one of the gambles of farming. If he’d had a fine week in the last month and a half, he’d have produced something which would have been sought after, as a lot of horse people don’t want ‘seeds hay’ but prefer something older because they worry about the horse having digestion problems. Now he’s got some moderate round bale silage. A lot of horse people turn their noses up at it because of the danger of mould. So he’s probably hoping for a long winter then somebody will buy it off him for feeding big rough store cattle who will eat anything and thrive. The problem with agriculture is that the Bank will ask us to do a business plan, but to produce one that has even the most tenuous connection to reality, you really have to sit down with God for a while and pray that he’ll do his side of the job.

This set me off thinking about a lot of the tractor drivers working at the moment. I know lads who’ve not been at school since March and have been working seven days a week since then. One lad has effectively been half of a contracting business. Dad would drop him off at the farm with tractor and slurry tanker and leave him to it. My guess is that the tractor had ten horsepower for every year of the driver’s age. But having watched him at work, he’s perfectly competent. What intrigues me is how he’ll cope when he has to go back to being a schoolboy having been treated as a proper adult for the last five or so months. Looking at the forecast, I can see a lot of Dads asking their lady wife to phone the school to express doubts about the safety of their son going to school, what with the virus and everything. Or perhaps they might suggest she explain to the head that they’ve just come back from a heifer sale in France and have to quarantine for a fortnight? Otherwise they won’t get the straw cleared before the weather breaks.

Mind you, schools appear to be suffering from epidemiologists at the moment. We’ve seen them when they inflict farming. In the middle of a disease outbreak they’ll appear and put in place systems which they assure everybody will halt the disease in its tracks. If you try to explain that the suggestions are impractical, impossible to implement, or just counterproductive, the normal response you get is that ‘farming ought to become a modern industry’ and ‘if you cannot keep up, perhaps it’s time you left the industry.’

And now teachers have got them.

I extend my genuine sympathy to every teacher and head who is trying to work out how on earth you follow the advice. To be fair, you’re lucky it’s only advice. In agriculture, we just get regulation. But then they know we just ignore advice that is so bad that it’s just silly.

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.