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A Risky Business

This morning a commentator on the TV stated that the gambling industry in the U.K. made as much money as every single farm in the country added together. As a farmer I was very surprised at this, as I thought the gambling industry was highly profitable. Okay that was possibly not his point, but I do see that farming does have an affinity with gambling. So many things we do depend on the turn of a dice. It is calculated perhaps but when the weather and nature have their say, every farming decision is a gamble.

This has especially applied this autumn. After harvest, most of our arable land has to be cultivated and replanted before winter sets in. The longer we can leave the planting the more chance we have to let the weeds, especially blackgrass, start to grow and be killed. If conditions are good for drilling it is a game of chicken to see how long you dare leave the planting before the weather turns. This year we could have left it a bit longer, as we had a very mild and dry spell at the end of October. Another calculated gamble has been our change in policy to try direct drilling, which reduces cultivations and is therefore cheaper, but might lead to more problems with soil compaction. The dice seemed to have rolled kindly however (along with hard work and good husbandry) as most of the crops seem to be coming up well, with just the usual problem of a surfeit of slugs, something not helped by direct drilling. There was a bit more mess getting the beans planted, but now it has started raining in November it is a relief that all the crops are in the ground.

We do have more weapons in our armoury to take some of the risk out of farming compared to 70 years ago. We now have vaccines and antibiotics in livestock farming, and sprays to kill disease, weeds and pests in crops. I remember reading about the experiences of a young apprentice on a farm in the 1930s. He was sent with the foreman and a couple of other men to plant a field of stubble turnips that was several miles away from the main farm. By the time they had got all the horses and drill and set of harrows over to the field, time was getting on and then they discovered they had forgotten the seed. The foreman thought for a minute and said “Ah, the fly always gets the first planting” and they set to, going up and down the field with nothing in the drill. Sure enough 10 days later the farmer comes up to the foreman “Damn fly must have had those turnips you planted, Joe. Best get along and do it again.”
We might have been able kill the fly these days, but not the down to earth humour of the farm worker, let’s hope.

Mike Hartley

December 2017 – January 2018