Farming Matters: Shelter From The Storm

Bad Moon Rising

“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows” (Bob Dylan)

Alec RossFor a number of years now, I have been supplying forage inoculant to a family owned agricultural contracting firm based in Dingwall. Earlier this year, on a rare sunny day, the firm took a trade stand at the North Sheep event in Strathpeffer. As a supplier to the firm, I spent the day on their stand supporting them and their customers. The stand was a hive of activity and conversation was lively, and my lasting memory of the day was a conversation I overheard between two farmers in the tent, which went something like this:

Farmer One: “Ach, there’ll nae doot be plenty o’ opportunities once this Brexit thing blaws ower”.

Farmer Two: “Oh aye? What opportunities are they?”

(Silence. Clearing of throats and shuffling of feet)

Farmer Two: “So, have you cut ony silage yet?”

The exchange neatly summed up the total lack of certainty about where we are going as an industry and as a country. But, some months on, it seems more likely than not that there will be no deal and that Brexit will be hard. It has gone from being unthinkable to the most likely outcome.

Storm Ophelia

Storm Ophelia at Drummore (A Ross)

Farming has always been a capricious industry, forever at the mercy of the weather and the markets. And now we face Brexit. The gathering storm is both meteorological and political.

I have just returned from an epic, ten day trip that began and ended in Lochans and took in Arran, Caithness, the Orkney Mainland, Westray, Burray and South Ronaldsay. I was up on business, but it wouldn’t be an Orkney road trip if there weren’t moments of riotous fun.

Those moments duly arrived on Saturday night when I had the privilege of speaking at the Harvest Home dinner at St Margaret’s Hope, a night full of good stories, laughter and camaraderie, and I reflected on the privilege of being afforded the opportunity to spend nearly a month of the year in Orkney, to do a little business and hear folk’s stories. I also reflected that it would be difficult to confuse a Harvest Home dinner in the Hope with a monthly meeting of the Temperance Society.

The running joke was that the night should be renamed “The Harvest Nearly Home Dinner”, which would have been more accurate. There’s still a number of uncut crops in the fields, a lot of bales are still to come in and in some cases straw hasn’t been baled at all. A few people managed to buy straw from south, but that supply ran out a month ago, and quality feeding straw is at a premium. Alternative bedding materials, like sand, are already being widely used.

So, already, we’re looking at another long and challenging winter and the knock-on effects like higher reseeding costs will be felt next year. Still, things could be worse. We could be leaving the European Union despite voting overwhelmingly to stay. No, wait…Jings, no wonder the good people of South Ronaldsay and Burray were ready for a big night out.

Weather and climate change always have consequences far beyond their own borders. The wet summer of 2015 seems on retrospect to have been something of a sea-change for Orkney. With many worrying about lack of silage, never mind barley and straw, a special sale was held at Hatston Mart at the beginning of June. Trade was good and prices firm, and it’s quite possible that lighter store cattle sold as yearlings leave more margin for the primary producer as they don’t have to be kept until the Autumn – and the money is in the bank. So there are now fewer intensive beef finishers in Orkney, largely because of the changing climate.

Not that there’s anything new in this. When I first started writing this column in March of this year, I told the story of Robert Burns and the Laki Volcano eruption of 1783, a fascinating example of how a natural event in a faraway place can have seismic and sometimes catastrophic consequences and can lead to occurrences that, only centuries later, do we see as connected. Some historians believe, for example, that Laki led indirectly to the Revolution in France.

Not long after the Icelandic eruption, deadly ash clouds covered a quarter of the world – including the fields of Lochlie near Tarbolton, Ayrshire, where Robert Burns was working the land. It is commonly thought that Burns was an indifferent farmer, but it is more likely that he was just unlucky. The Laki cloud was effectively Scotland’s nuclear winter, and successive crop failures meant a dearth of seed for the next year’s crop. The truth is that Burns had chosen, through no fault of his own, the worst two years in history to begin life as an independent farmer.

Aside from the impact on his health and his farming enterprises, what is remarkable about the aftermath of Laki was the revolution in Robert Burns’s creative output. Perhaps it was a combination of extremes, living life in a heightened state of intensity, enhanced radicalisation through hardship and poverty, but through this time of turmoil and tragedy Robert Burns emerged as Scotland’s most vital and important poet. It was, perhaps, the most Faustian of bargains.

There are many other examples. Some years ago, on a whim, I purchased a book called “Global Crisis”, which I thought would be an account of the financial meltdown of 2008. But it isn’t.

The author, Geoffrey Parker, argues that we can study our history from a number of perspectives: economic, social and political, for example. Yet he makes a compelling case that we have ignored the one perspective that shapes history more fundamentally that any of the others – the climate.

He makes the argument that the seventeenth century was the most troubled and violent in the world’s history, largely because of the bad weather. Several failed harvests in Japan, for example, led to the largest rural rebellion in that country’s history, and the famine that followed killed half a million.

There has always been climate change. History shows, variously, that it was temperate enough in Roman Times to make good wine out of Cheshire vineyards, but it also tells us that, not long ago, it was common for Jacobean and Elizabethan Londoners to be able to go to work by walking across the River Thames. It seems, then, that change is cyclical and the question is not whether it exists but how much we accelerate it.

History doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes, and there are echoes of Laki and the seventeenth century in the current malaise.

It’s easy to walk into a supermarket with shelves groaning with exotic produce from all over the world and assume that Eden will always be replete with bountiful food. But that would be dangerously naive. Leaving for aside one second the reality of climate change and a gathering Brexit-shaped stormcloud, we face challenges of self-sufficiency and sustainability. Our sheep numbers are as low as they have been since 1948; cattle numbers were last this low in 1957, while pigs are back to 1951 levels.

Even more alarmingly, during the last century half the world’s topsoil has disappeared. Carbon has been depleted, and bee populations have plummeted. The average age of our farmers is fifty-eight, and our industry could well be a pawn in a trade deal with Donald Trump. We can expect lower welfare standards, chlorinated chicken and hormone treated beef.

In the 1980s, all the talk was about wine lakes, and grain and butter mountains. In truth, however, these surpluses only represented weeks, rather than months, of reserves. Today it’s more like days, and that becomes more alarming when we hear about tariffs and hard borders post-Brexit. In terms of food security, we couldn’t have picked a worst time to man the barricades. The teeming shelves are an illusion. The world is only a few missed meals away from the seventeenth century.

In the epilogue of Geoffrey Parker’s book about the seventeenth century, he vividly describes a scene from the aftermath of a devastating flood that led to a civilised people resorting to looting, rioting and even murder as they fought over the few scraps and resorted to atavistic self-preservation. It’s a harrowing read.

But here’s the thing. Parker’s book might have been set in the seventeenth century, but the epilogue was not. It happened not in the seventeenth century but in the twenty-first, in New Orleans, in the aftermath of Katrina. The arc of human progress is not always upwards. The veneer of civilisation is gossamer thin.

“The vanity of each generation”, writes the brilliant Andrew o’ Hagan in his essay ‘Scotland Your Scotland’, “is to believe that we are living in the greatest period of history. Each generation imagines it is germinating a brand new world, that the times are glorious, that their period is the most interesting ever to occur, that earthly progress would turn around now for a thousand years and their names would be written on water. The Romans believed it, and their civilisation is now a heap of lovely ruins and a dead language”.

In the end, we, all of us, need three things: food, water and energy. Everything – everything – follows from there.

The challenges we face today are both meteorological and political. I’d humbly suggest that we can do more about the second of these challenges than the first. It falls on all of us today to consider whether a hard Brexit makes our food security at least as secure, our water cleaner and our energy supplies affordable and reliable. If Brexit threatens any of these then Article 50 must be reversed immediately. The best way to deal with the consequences of leaving the European Union is to stay within the European Union.

But that is next week’s article. Until then, stay safe, keep healthy, and take shelter from the storms that are surely gathering.

Storm Ophelia

Storm Ophelia at Drummore (A Ross)


Alec Ross is a regular contributor to The Orkney News

Related articles:

Robert Burns and the Laki Volcano of 1783

The Laki Eruption of 1783 by Geoff Hellman

The Laki Eruption of 1783 by Geoff Hellman Part 2

The Laki Eruption of 1783 by Geoff Hellman Part 3

The Laki Eruption of 1783 by Geoff Hellman Part 4

The Laki Eruption of 1783 by Geoff Hellman Part 5

5 replies »

  1. Blimey, Alec – you have all this in your head, and then you get it down into words – blimey.
    I have a vague memory of reading about how ‘bad weather’, led to mouldery grain, being made into bread, possibly leading to some of the madness of the Middle Ages in Britain – religious fervour gone mad etc. Produced some strange yet wonderful artworks. Maybe. Maybe not.
    We do need to look at the bigger picture and at least try to join the dots.
    It’s not just ‘bad weather’ – it all connects. Why am I writing this? You’ve just written it, superlatively well.
    Remember I mentioned the field of oats just up from us? He’s not going to get anything from it, this year – it’s a sorry sight.
    We plod on.
    I hope you enjoyed the Harvest Home – ours is next Friday. “Be gone dull care.”

    This is a drop in the ocean, but….we have new neighbours, who keep pigs. Once a year, we get our meadow cut. The man who usually cuts it and takes the trimmings away, is not well, and so he put us onto someone he knows, who will cut it for us, but would have a problem disposing of the cuttings. We were talking with our neighbour about this, and he said he’d be delighted to have the meadow cuttings as bedding for his pigs!
    The point I’m making is – when normal supplies fail – have a look at what’s available. Also – good neighbours are a gift. And – in a world of Twitter and all that ****, just having a yarn with a neighbour, standing on the road-side, can produce something helpful to all concerned – as well as – just – neighbourliness. Which is A GOOD THING.
    Talk, people, talk – please, talk. Don’t just Twitter and whatever those other things are – smack chat or whatever it is – TALK!
    End of my ramblings for today – I ramble – you construct words into an edifice of sense, meaning and information.
    Good on you, Alec.

    • Cheers Bernie. You’re right about the bad grain and its effects. Not just in the Middle Ages either. There’s a theory that ergot in rye got into breadthat was eaten by the people of Salem, Massachusetts which caused them to go doolally, which was thought to be witchcraft, which led to trials which later led Arthur Miller to write The Crucible. Everything connects. Enjoy the Harvest Home!

    • Thanks Eamonn. I enjoyed studying the links between food security (or lack of) and world history. Connecting Laki to the French Revolution sounds like a stretch, but it all connects. Everything does.

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