“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…” Charles Dickens, “A Tale of Two Cities”.
Most of the time, working in the farming industry is a privilege. Last week reminded me that, just sometimes, it’s an utter joy. Boarding a bus with a few dozen Orkney farmers, I enjoyed three days of camaraderie, debate, laughter and no little whisky as we visited farms and heard from farmers who reminded us that potential for the industry is without limit, if only the political leaders – the ones we voted for, and the ones that we didn’t – had the vision and the will and the determination.
We visited The Leens farm in Herefordshire, home of the redoubtable Tony Norman, whose firm handshake, razor-sharp intellect and keen humour remained undimmed approaching his ninth decade. Viewing his family’s Hereford cattle herd (founded in 1780, it is the oldest in the world) reminded me that farming is evolution, not revolution, and that the successful farm businesses are testament to the wisdom of long-term strategies. The farm was a microcosm of what a changing and uncertain world needs – total sustainability. Slurry from the dairy and litter from the chicken unit fed an anaerobic digester that powered the farm and created a surplus for seven hundred homes, and liquid fertiliser for the crops – one of which (maize) was undersown with grass to prevent loss of topsoil. They bought no fertiliser or chemicals. There’d been over two thousand trees planted in the past four decades. It was (as our group leader Steven said) a reminder that we don’t have to choose between farming and protecting the environment. It’s perfectly possible and desirable to be both. It was also, to me, a sobering reminder of the gap in vision between those who would lead us and those who would feed us.
Having left the farm, and now in a cafe enjoying our lunch, I noticed the pre-eminence of Eastern European accents amongst the staff. And then I realised that they were the wives, girlfriends, boyfriends, sons and daughters of the people who’d worked on the farms we were visiting. I wondered how they must feel when they see they serve cappuccinos to people reading the Daily Express and glimpse front page headlines about Britain at breaking point and of immigrants stealing jobs. I wanted to say to them: I’m from Scotland. It wasnae me. Not in my name. It feels like we’re in limbo, in a phoney war, in the twilight zone between being a European nation and an insular, closed-wall, pariah state. Neither alive nor dead. A zombie country.
Buey, it was hot though. We were pleeping on the bus about the lack of rain in Orkney – and Wigtownshire. But there’s aye somebody worse off than yourself. We’ve had some welcome rain these last few days, but elsewhere it’s unbelievably dry. A distributor in Cork told me yesterday that this was now, officially, South-East Ireland’s driest July ever. He sent a guy to France to procure forage, and the guy came back with nothing – because the French have nothing to sell. They need all of it, and then some. And nothing happens in a vacuum. Even in my area, where things are less acute, a dairy farmer pal tells me he is already forty feet into a first cut pit he wouldn’t normally have looked at until October, as he desperately tries to supplement disappearing grass swards. “It’s like begging Peter to pay Paul”, he says. “But Paul needs paid”.
Our man in Cork tells me he’s sold more winter feeding in July than he did in March. Barley earmarked for harvest has already been wholecropped – and you can’t cut it twice. It means a shortage of barley, a shortage of straw, a cashflow exacerbated by a purchased feed increase of at least £40 / tonne. It’s quite possible that drought could be the reality for the next forty years. Still, things could be worse. Much worse. We could be leaving the European Union and our most important trading market without a deal.
We have always been at the mercy of the weather. It influences not just our farming practices but global patterns. Climate change, for example, has seen the rise of vineyards in England’s Home Counties, which presents a lovely vision of Brexit voting cereal farmers choosing to diversify into producing something quintessentially French. Quelle ironie, n’est pas? And as I’ve written in these pages before, it’s probable that the Laki Volcano that plunged much of the world into darkness led to wars in the Far East, and then subsequent crop failures caused the food shortages that led indirectly to the revolution in France.
Nothing exists in a vacuum. No man is an island. And everything – everything – connects.
In his wonderful and prescient book “Global Crisis”, Geoffrey Parker describes a seventeenth century world much more violent and terrifying than the one we currently inhabit. He makes a compelling case for the causal link between the horror and the crop failures that led to the food shortages that caused it. The book ends with a description of the aftermath of a flood – looting, civil unrest, panic, violence. But here’s the spoiler. He isn’t describing the seventeenth century. He’s describing the events of Hurricane Katrina. This isn’t ancient history. This was the America of 2005. Our blind vanity is to view the path of human civilisation as constantly upwards. It isn’t. This is a bump in the road. And it isn’t certain where that road will end. Or if there will be a road at all.
How quickly the narrative has shifted. I wrote recently about how ideas could only become policy if they were inside the “Overton Window” (the range of ideas considered tolerable for public discourse). A hard Brexit was, a year ago, unthinkable. Today it’s the frontrunner in a one-horse race. These are the worst of times.
“We will look at this issue in the round and make sure there’s adequate food supplies. It would be wrong to describe it as the government doing the stockpiling” (Dominic Raab).
These words should chill us to the very bone, given that they were uttered by a Brexit secretary who believes that foodbank users are not hungry but simply suffering a cashflow problem. Adequate food? Five hundred thousand weans rely on foodbanks while living in the world’s sixth largest economy. Forgive me for questioning the UK government’s competency- or desire – to feed its people after March 30th, 2019, when they can’t – won’t – do it today.
March 30th 2019 is year zero. British meat products cannot be brought into the EU. Because of the highly sophisticated “just-in-time” supply chains facilitated by frictionless borders supermarkets have never felt the need to build large storage depots. It has allowed them to develop a brilliant business model that allows them to operate with a tiny working capital. Stockpiling means their working capital increases by a factor of ten. They might refuse. I wouldn’t blame them.
The reality is that a hard Brexit now looks very likely. The Supreme Court is highly likely to rule against Holyrood this Autumn over its Withdrawal Bill. In the ever-likely case of a no-deal hard Brexit Westminster may, emboldened by the Supreme Court judgement, may declare a state of emergency and suspend the powers of Holyrood – after all, they will argue, Westminster is sovereign, Scotland is not.
But they are wrong. The sovereignty of the people of Scotland trumps all. And it is now far too dangerous to continue as a member of the United Kingdom.
There is a light and it never goes out, and there is a better path.
My heart goes out to the fine folk I met in England and Wales last week. This isn’t about you, whatever the media says. But we are Scotland and we have a chance. We will miss you. But go we must. We’ll meet you further on up the road.