When right seems wrong…

09 +00002013-05-19T12:56:48+00:0031 2012 § 8 Comments

Oh, yummy!
The farmers I knew in Lincolnshire were mostly millionaires. They lived in huge houses, set proudly in the midst of their many acres, and were rarely seen on tractors; they drove luxury limousines with personalised number-plates; they made their money from growing crops on what is perhaps the richest arable land in the country.

Farming is quite different where I live now, in the foothills of the Pennines. Most of the farmers are tenants, the land they hold carved from estates that were parcelled up generations ago. Today, the farms are small by modern standards; mostly devoted to animal husbandry, they are barely large enough to sustain the families owning them, some of whom have been working them for many years. One farmer told me that his lease entitles the family to hold the land for five generations, of which he represents the fourth. I am impressed by this family’s loyalty both to its landlord and to farming as an occupation, and fearful for its future. What will happen to it when the present incumbent’s son dies?

In reality, the family may have to quit long before then. Modern farming is a scientific business. Farmers are not, in the main, scientists; therefore, as farming methods become more sophisticated, they have to rely on the trained representatives of, say, the feed manufacturing companies to give them advice. A couple of years ago the farmer I have mentioned (who is still in his twenties) was rebuilding his dairy herd after inadvertently buying two tubercular cows from a neighbour and consequently having to slaughter his whole herd (in accordance with DEFRA regulations). Building up a new herd was expensive. He had always farmed in the traditional way, keeping the cows in byres in the winter and allowing them into the fields to graze in the late spring and summer months. The feed manufacturer advised him that this was inefficient, because cows use up energy wandering about and trample much of what they feed on. The modern way is to improve milk yields by keeping them in the byres the year round and feeding them on corn. The company’s representative paid visits to advise him on the quality of the corn he should use and how much to give each cow. The cows were kept in.

Yesterday, I was therefore surprised – but delighted – to see that the whole herd was out in the fields. Anyone who has seen a cow skip and dance when it is first released into a meadow after a long winter can be in no doubt that, although fastening them up in byres may not actually be cruel, they surely value their freedom.

When the farmer is about he usually stops for a chat. He was there yesterday and told me that he’d had to abandon the corn-feeding regime over the summer months because the cost of the corn was bankrupting him. Milk yields had dropped, too. During the winter, his milk cheque had covered barely half the amount he’d had to pay for feed. As he commented in his laconic way, “Something’s not right here.”

If he is right, this sounds to me like a case of legitimised fraud. It reminds me of how communities in Africa have been devastated after being persuaded by large companies to grow cash crops, destroying traditional self-sufficiency and yoking people to an artificial dependency. This Pennine farmer’s case is not as irrevocable, of course: he has still the option of going back to more conventional farming methods, which he’s chosen to do. Nevertheless, he is still repaying the loan to replace his herd, which is not yet back to its former size, and now has to bear the additional millstone of debt for the corn. The investment in the extra feed has been counter-productive; his business has taken a big step backwards. No-one will be brought to account for this, except, perhaps, the farmer himself, if he is unable to pay the debt quickly enough. The feed manufacturer will have all the weight of the law – and of ‘science’ – on its side.

Crime and legality are sometimes difficult to distinguish.

Spring meadow

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§ 8 Responses to When right seems wrong…

  • carol hedges says:

    At the back of this are some greedy unscrupulous greedy men who are only interested in lining their and their shareholders’ pockets. Until the whole system falls off a cliff. Name check Tesco…… Same in the garment industry, pharmaceutical industry,banking,etc. We waved goodbye to morality, ethics and belief in ‘spiritual’ values of caring for the poor and valuing people for their humanity not their profitablitly; why are we surprised?

  • vallypee says:

    You have touched on a subject I feel deeply about, Christina. Farmers are being and have long been blackmailed by the feed makers and agri-chemical companies, Monsanto to name the greediest of them all. Unless they toe the line and follow EU and/or Monsanto policies, they are often squeezed out of business. I could go on at length on this subject, but suffice to say I have been following the misfortunes of the small farmers since the 1970’s when EU agricultural policy forced Cornish and Devonshire farmers to abandon century old family farms and either turn them into caravan parks or leave the land altogether. I am so pleased to hear your own local farmer using his head and doing what he believes is right. I hope he survives. I fear he won’t as the agri feed and chemical merchants will have their way in the end. Their lobby is immensely powerful.

  • Tom Winkle says:

    The U.S. Supreme Court just decided nine to zero that an Indiana farmer acted illegally by withholding Monsanto “Roundup Ready” soybean seeds to plant in his next year’s crop. Read a bit of Paolo Bachigalupi’s “speculative fiction” to get a taste of the world we’re making with things like this have run amok. “The Calorie Man” in the collection “Pump Six” would be a good place to start. That story is deep; I had to read it three times to pick up on all the nuances there. Stuff like this doesn’t bode well for us, if we continue along this path.

    • Thanks for visiting, Tom, and providing your take on this. You have given an insight into just how difficult it seems to be for farmers who resist the power of such huge organisations. Thanks, too, for your recommendations, in which I’m sure readers here will be interested. I was commenting on a local example, but it is clear that this is something with global significance.

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