Adam is the sort of farmer I both fear and admire. There aren’t that many of his type around so when I spotted him in a crowd of farmers recently at my local ploughing match, I immediately made a beeline for him.
Although Adam and I are both farmers we have entered the industry through very different routes. I am of the silver spoon variety having inherited a sizeable chunk of debt free owner occupied farmland from daddy at the tender age of 32. Adam, as far as I know, has never been given a brass farthing by anyone.
So there we stand, side by side, two farmers dressed in our mutual uniform of rough coats, threadbare trousers and scuffed shoes having our usual amiable chat. The conversation is always the same and has become something of a ritual. I start off by getting all gloomy and talk about how much everything on the farm costs to produce and how little it’s worth to sell. Adam contrasts this with his own farming experience. He points out that he owns no land, enjoys no subsidies but makes a very good living doing contract arable farming and running cattle on other people’s land.
All this, of course, is very comforting to me. The tough, no nonsense, hard working farming Adams of this world are very reassuring. He has little in the way of capital assets beyond some machinery and some sheep and cattle, and therefore not enough collateral to convince a bank to lend him any money. If a man labouring under so many disadvantages compared to me can be so upbeat about farming’s prospects, then how can I get into trouble?
So far so good except that my most recent conversation with Adam veered alarmingly off course. It started off as usual with me complaining about grain prices. “Wheat is barely more than £100 per tonne,” I thundered, which is “surely the lowest price ever if it were adjusted to inflation.” I paused and waited for Adam to point out that arable input costs were also falling so there were still good profits to be made if farmers were efficient and dynamic enough. But Adam just nodded in agreement with what I’d just said.
Unnerved but trying to keep my rhythm I continued grumbling that beef prices had been disastrous this summer. This always produces the response from Adam that he has just sold his suckler calves at a fantastic price straight off the cow and that he only wished he could find the ground to run more. But now he simply frowned and said: “You’re telling me, Stephen, why do any of us bother?”
And then off he went, out complaining even me. Apparently his machinery is “worn out” but “too expensive to replace” and he is “thinking of giving up beef production altogether because I can’t afford to make all the bales to take my cows through the winter.”
The ploughing match was only 20 miles from my farm but it seemed like a very long drive home.