When my old nanny was angry she would sometimes mutter under her breath “Go to Jericho”. Fifty years later, I would like to take up her suggestion. The town of Jericho today is a dusty settlement on the west bank of the Jordan, surrounded by Palestinian refugee camps. It is also a place which farmers should be thinking about this year. The reason is simply because it was in Jericho, around 7500 BC, that arable farming was born. It was here that man, instead of simply gathering the grain from wild einkorn (an ancestor of wheat), actually began to plant these grains and harvest the resulting crop.
There is nothing worse than a whingeing arable farmer (except perhaps a self-righteous environmentalist). Raised on a diet of subsidies, shielded from the cold and drafty market place and supported by a doting Brussels, some of today’s East Anglian farmers have the chutzpah to complain that their lives are hard. And so they are if you take the past year in isolation and forget about the previous two decades.
The year began with wheat prices moving sharply upwards. The world was running out of grain, demand was overwhelming supply, and optimism – at least in this part of the country – spread like listeria on soft cheese. By May the price of wheat touched £130 per tonne and it was clear that it could only move in one direction; upwards. The price of land – which, for some strange reason, inevitably reflects the wheat price – sailed through the £3000 per acre barrier, and for the first time in almost two decades, there was a waiting list for certain tractors. Even the gloomiest arable farmer (and I have yet to meet one who does come into this category) had to admit that the future rarely seemed brighter.
Mr Berra, who was a very good catcher for the New York Yankees and a so-so baseball manager in later life, would never have heard of the Common Agricultural Policy. The nearest he ever got to agriculture was probably playing for the reserve teams which are known as farm clubs. This is just as well because Yogi Berra, like all rational human beings, would certainly find it hard to understand why this year – once again – the prices went up and the subsidies went up too. This phenomenon started in 1994 and I assumed it would soon correct itself. Far from doing so, it actually repeated itself so what had once looked like mild eccentricity turned into serious lunacy. Not t hat I am complaining in any way. Far from it. As far as this farm is concerned, we are profoundly grateful. But a still small voice somewhere deep inside what might otherwise be called a conscience keeps asking whether the system is not stark staring crazy.
And roll they certainly did. The price of wheat went up, the yield of wheat went up and the subsidy we received for every acre went up. Which all goes to show why this farmer isn’t complaining in 1994. On the contrary.
If “I love you” is the most frequent lie told by civilised (?) man, then “the cheque is in the post” must be the runner-up. Few people seem to love farmers these days so we have not been unduly worried by the first promise. But the second is giving us some nervous moments as 1993 draws to a close. Any day soon a brown envelope should come thudding through the letter box. Inside will be Brussels’s thank you note (giving a new meaning to Bread and Butter letters) for the three hundred acres (120ha) we set aside this year. But that won’t be all. There should also be a small financial sweetener, amounting to a mere one hundred and twenty five thousand pounds sterling. At the time of writing this exciting event has still not happened, though some of our neighbours have received their cheques. We, like most farmers, will put the cash in the bank, grit our teeth and pay our taxes. There are, however, exceptions. One of our friends was so overcome by excitement the day his cheque arrived he immediately went out and bought himself a new sugar beet harvester.
This time last year there could be no doubt. The slurry was about to hit the air-conditioning. Ray MacSharry’s talked-about, worried-about but as-yet unpublished Common Agricultural Policy reforms were going to be disastrous. The experts were unanimous. British farms in general, and big farms in particular, would be hit very hard. Setaside was going to be introduced and we would receive compensation for only the first fifteen acres, just like a Portuguese peasant. As if that were not enough, the Intervention price for cereals was going to fall and the co-responsibility levy would rise.
It was the year of the Sale. This time last year we were farming three thousand acres. Today we are farming two thousand. Every farmer always wants to farm a few more acres, and we are no exceptions. Yet the future now looks so difficult it is time to take drastic measures. And those drastic measures have only one objective: to free ourselves from all debt.
“The trouble with farmers”, says the man on the Clapham omnibus, “is that they always complain. If it isn’t the weather it’s the prices, and if it isn’t the prices it’s the politicians”. This time he is right. For almost twenty years since these reports began, we have resisted the temptation to moan. Today we can hold out no longer
The weather played an even more important role than usual this year. On our light land we need constant rain; we did not get it. In fact we actually experienced a worse drought than 1976. What was even more worrying is that (unlike 1976) the drought appears to be continuing throughout the autumn and winter. While the topsoil today is damp after a month of mists, the subsoil is as dry as an Ethiopian hillside.