Life is settling into the ‘new normal’

Writers Posted 20/07/20
We only run six ewes, an enterprise that does little more than provide education and entertainment for the children and fills the freezer.

As the longest day of the year has passed, we switch our thoughts to harvest time and the inevitable winter that is slowly headed our way. Dark evenings and rain would appear to be our ‘normal’ winters now. Silaging is now behind us and the combine has been serviced and had a spring clean ready to leap into action as soon as the crops are ready.

Schools/universities are allegedly starting as normal in September. Pubs have reopened, initially giving rise to potential influxes of drunkenness, but it will no doubt settle down and hopefully work well. Long may it continue. The food shortage that ensued post-lockdown seems to be under control and life is settling into the ‘new normal’. The children have even been able to see their grandparents (socially distanced of course). I am so over home-schooling now. I have had immense pleasure from having the children home, but a teacher I am not. Tractors seem to have been the topic of conversation over the dinner table lately. Which brand is the most reliable? Which is the most cost effective? Which reps return your call? We seem to go round in circles. Ted would just like a slurry tanker.

Agriculture has seen many changes through the years, whether it was the domestication of animals and plants a few thousand years ago, the use of crop rotations and other farming improvements a few hundred years ago or the ‘modern revolution’ with systematic breeding and the use of man-made fertilizers and pesticides a number of decades ago. Is agriculture undergoing a fourth revolution with the increased use of technology in agriculture? Robotic vehicles used in farming are becoming more numerous than in previous years. Drones or satellites that fly above the crops taking photos that can be used to calculate the biomass development for use in fertilisation of crops. The advances in agricultural technology have far reaching advantages as well as consequences.

Virtual fences are beginning to play a role in livestock farming today; underground currents/cables that keep livestock in a certain area. Our local common land is now using this technology. Similar technology can now be incorporated into a cattle tag that can relay management information. At an affordable cost, it becomes an essential e.g. resting time, temperature of the cow, cudding time, eating time etc. You can access the information at any time via an app on your phone. It sends you alerts if a cow needs attention. The technology is quite impressive and can open many areas of opportunity for analysis. Such changes in technology not only come with opportunities but also big challenges. The cost of such items could prove to be a prohibitive factor to many. At a minimum cost of £25,000+ for a medium herd, it is a hard cost to swallow, especially when the milk price is almost exactly the same as it was 30 years ago.

I don’t want to gripe about dairy margins. We are not alone in being squeezed; many areas of farming are feeling under pressure I am sure. There was a time when the wool clip would pay the rent on many farms, but now we see images of wool being put on muck heaps or being burnt because its value won’t even cover the cost of the packing and the diesel to deliver it. I know times change, but even with my rudimentary grasp of history you don’t have to look far to identify towns and cities having been built on the back of wool.

We only run six ewes, an enterprise that does little more than provide education and entertainment for the children and fills the freezer. When we sheared our sheep this summer the wool went straight on the bonfire, more for convenience than anything else. Even then I may have run the risk of contravening some waste regulation. I can only imagine what it must be like if we had hundreds or even thousands of ewes; that’s before we even get to the work/cost involved for no return. Strange times, eh? Strange times indeed; we hear it a lot, don’t we? Unprecedented times they say. The word unprecedented has become a fixture in modern day language, but Covid-19 aside, is the situation our country finds itself in unprecedented?

In 1966 the then recently elected prime minister Harold Wilson was facing impending economic difficulty (ring any bells?). At that time we were also, as a nation, outside Europe – known then as the Common Market (sound familiar?), having been blocked from entering by the French President General de Gaulle. Wilson was keen on developing a strong relationship with the then US president Lyndon Johnson, similar to the one that had been enjoyed by their predecessors, Prime Minister Macmillan and President Kennedy up to 1963, as these two leaders had established a political friendship of great cordiality and respect.

Wilson was also under pressure from the Commonwealth (not dissimilar to now), with many at that time unhappy with the way he was dealing with Ian Smith and the (Rhodesia) Zimbabwe question. Wilson was concerned that the UK could become isolated and lose its political influence.

As a consequence Wilson discussed the possibility of the UK becoming the 51st State of America. This was claimed by Sir Trevor Lloyd Hughes, a press secretary for Number 10, and backed up by lady Falkender, at that time Wilson’s political secretary. Ultimately the discussions failed, partly because the US was keen for Britain to join Europe to restrain, as they saw it, De Gaulle’s erratic behaviour, but also because Johnson, under increasing pressure due to the failings occurring in Vietnam, became irritated by Wilson’s refusal of America’s request to send British troops there.

It may not happen, but if, as seems likely, we fail to secure what was once termed the easiest trade deal in history with the EU, and the Commonwealth plays a much harder game in future deals because they view us as weak, how do we react? Do we become a little Switzerland? Where does our ex-American citizen Prime Minister turn, having done his trade deal with the US?

A different set of world circumstances possibly, but unprecedented? You decide. The choice that Wilson had, one of two paths, was ultimately decided not by him but his successor Edward Heath in 1970. This time, however, one of those paths is blocked.
Let us hope we have an uneventful, fruitful harvest to see us forward to next year.

Tweets from @southeastfarmer