David Short, who until recently was landlord at the Queen’s Head in next-door Newton, is a mine of local historical information. When he tells me that he knows what my family, who used to live in Newton Hall until 1971, got up to back then, there’s always a twinkle in his eye. So far he hasn’t told me any really scandalous stories but I am sure they are in there – certainly there must be something more juicy than where the guy lived who sold my parents their herbal remedies forty years ago. Another scrap he mentioned to me was how when he started working at the pub, one of the old timers, who had never left the village, used to use the old Anglo Saxon way of pluralising words, which was to add the suffix -en, rather than the -s we use nowadays. We still use a few words left over from those days – David’s example was “oxen” – but there’s also “children”, “men”, “women” and a handful more. Anyway, there is one word that David recalled him using a lot, and it’s how he would have described the reason why my eye has been off the farming ball for a lot of 2017: housen.
So, the first year without any cattle of my own – and life was a lot less stressful. But that didn’t mean we had no cows, as for the second year a bunch of small dairy cattle turned up to graze for the summer. And to be honest, they did terribly. We can do the post mortem a couple of pages further on, but to begin with everything was poor, only to look much better later on, and then finally the end result was a disappointment. This would also be a pretty good way of describing the rest of the farm this year.
I suppose the biggest thing to happen this year has been a rather fundamental change in the Wagyu situation. This is what I wrote almost exactly 12 months ago:
“The Wagyu herd continues to grow, and I continue to have no real plan what I am doing with them. The total herd is up to about 60 now (doubled from 2013), and my first animals will visit the abattoir at some point in the coming spring.”
Unfortunately I had reached a point where it was no longer a hobby, but neither was it a business. The truth is that I am no stockman, and was not enjoying my task, especially one which was complicated by embryo transfers and calvings spaced out randomly throughout the year. The options, as I saw them, were to go big, or go home. After months of agonising, I decided on the latter. Most of the animals left that spring, but the last remaining ones are scheduled to move down to Somerset any day now. It was fun (in parts) whilst it lasted. And as a bonus I have three chest freezers full of this:
I spent a few hours at harvest doing what I should have done several years back, and I read 35 Harvests, which is my father’s compilation of annual reports from 1974 to 2008. It showed me that some of the ideas we have now have been tried in the past – hopefully the bad ones won’t be repeated. You’ll notice there are quite a few references to old reports, so now you’ll know why. One thing that struck me was the following line from 1979:
“One rather dismal aspect of the cereals on this farm is the continued advance of blackgrass. Three years ago it was only present on the chalk to the north of the farm but since then it seems to be advancing about one mile a year. This autumn we have noticed it on the hill at Duxford so we have now been gripped in a pincer movement.”
Given that this was back in the day when all the straw was burnt, it’s fairly obvious that the rose-tinted spectacles are wrong; burning wasn’t a failsafe way of controlling grass weeds after all.
This was the year when we could have had a record harvest – but didn’t. It did not start off very well; the spring was incredibly cold. So much so that sugar beet and pea planting was a month later than normal, and the oilseed rape was all eaten by hungry pigeons. In June there was a drought and heat wave which saw the crops, which by this point were looking great, suffer badly. The cows were also affected badly as the heat scuppered an embryo transfer program – luckily before the embryos were implanted. It also made them unusually thirsty, meaning a lot of extra water bowser refilling duties.
A most peculiar year. It was wetter than I can ever remember. Our normal rainfall is only around 550 millimetres but in 2012 we have reached 817 millimetres. After an extraordinarily dry Spring, the Times contacted me in March and asked me to write a piece about the desperate plight of farmers in one of the worst droughts in my forty years of farming. I said I would be unwilling to do this and from that moment onwards the rains came.
The year was notable for the expansion of the farm by 100 hectares and dry conditions which reduced our yields by fifteen per cent. The new land, which is in Barrington, is only half a mile from the north end of the farm on the west side of Rowley’s Hill but thanks to the village of Foxton, the A10 and a level crossing, it takes at least fifteen minutes to reach it from the grainstore. The soil is heavier than the rest of the farm and suffers from much worse blackgrass but it is level and easy to farm. It consists of a single block of land amounting to ninety five hectares and small chunk of five hectares surrounded by houses which one day might be developed. In about twenty years we should be able to make profit on it, but in the meanwhile we shall have to sit back and forget that this small chunk of land cost more than the entire two thousand acres with fifteen houses and a full range of grainstores did less than twenty years ago.
I suppose it would be more than a bit dishonest of me to claim that my stroke on November 4 was the not the most surprising event which had ever happened to me. It was. And now I am trying to get rid of it. The only really important irritation which I am still trying to get overcome is a failure to memorise people and lists which I should have remembered like peas in a pod. All the other problems of the stroke sufferers have, I am happy to say, have passed me by.
In 2008 we made more money than we have ever made in my farming lifetime. The wheat yields were big, the prices higher than ever and the costs relatively low. This year we shall lose more money than we have ever lost. The wheat yields were average, the prices were down by 40% whilst the cost of inputs doubled. Indeed the cost of fertilisers actually rose by 300%. Put these two years together, divide by two and you have two average years.
A year to remember and a year to forget. I have never known anything like it since I started farming thirty six years ago. We produced more wheat than we have ever grown before, and we sold it at a higher price than we have ever done before. So it stands to reason that it was a wonderful year. But it was not.