BY JIM WEBSTER
It’s a lot of years ago now. My father and I went on this farm walk organised by the Country Landowners Association. In some parts of England and Wales, the CLA seems to have a preponderance of major estates and landowners, and in other parts of England and Wales most of its members are small farmers.
I think I was about sixteen at the time. What happened was that one of the big local estates (Holker) had had a tenant retire and were wondering what to do with the farm they’d now got to worry about.
So they had the walk, split us into groups and asked each group what they’d do with the farm. Which is as good a way to go about this sort of thing as any I suppose. But at sixteen what fascinated me was how the groups could be sorted by eye. The farmers wore flat caps, nylon anoraks sold by ACT, a ‘co-op’ selling to farmers, and wore plain black Nora wellingtons.
The ‘landowners’ wore a wider variety of hats – trilbies and deerstalkers were both in evidence. They wore waxed jackets and their wellingtons were green and had side buckles.
Now this was fifty years ago so the world was different then.
Anyway the two groups wandered around, and discussed plans. Finally after Holker had provided us with lunch, the two groups were allowed to report. The farmers had looked at the job and had come up with what they thought was a good plan. They’d run 300 dairy cows on the farm. The landlord would have to put in some investment, but actually not all that much. The farmers were confident that in three or four years they’d have the business up, running, and making serious money.
Then the chap who was spokesman for the Landowners group stood up. He’d obviously been listening. I can still remember his words.
“Rent it to that lot. They know what they’re doing and will not just make themselves money, they’ll put the farm back into good heart and it will be an asset to your estate.” Then he paused, and added, “But there’s a small patch of woodland at the edge of the farm down near the beach. Keep that in hand and sprinkle caravans on it. The margins are good, the demand is there, and there isn’t a lot of competition.”
I think he knew one of the basic truths – farmers farm. It’s what they do and they do it well. If you ever want to experience sickening hypocrisy listen to politicians (who cannot see beyond the next election) or the chief executives of NGOs (engaged in endless trimming of their political stance to ensure optimum funding to fill this year’s budget) lecture farmers (who look ahead to how their children and grandchildren are going to get by) on the need for ‘long term planning’.
Another incident I remember from that walk was being ‘hijacked.’
The Holker Estate land agent who was showing us all about led the convoy of cars, and it was going to go down a gated road. He had with him in the passenger seat an elderly gentleman who could have been eighty. So neither of them were going to bounce in and out of the car opening and shutting gates. So he looked round and found the youngest and most expendable. Much to my father’s amusement this was me.
As I climbed into the car, in the crush an elderly farmer said, “Just touch the hem of his jacket.”
Of course I asked, “Why.”
“So you catch whatever he’s got.”
In the way these things happen, perhaps ten years later I was on various bodies and was working with the land agent in question. He was straight, reasonably respected by farmers and his peers alike, a nice enough chap and very sharp. Bright enough to retire and spend some years sailing his boat in the Med anyway.
But as the old chap at the meeting knew. Farmers, farm. It’s what we do. We feed people. But now they want us to produce trees? Sorry but what are you all going to eat?
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.