Long hours, intense physical labour, low pay and foxes in the hen house: who’d be a farmer today? A growing number, it seems. We enters a brave new world of drone tractors and designer sheep
First published in the Guardian Weekend Magazine, 4th Oct 2014
At the Three Counties show, the shearing competition is in full swing. Tucked into one corner of the vast showground is a stage into which are fitted six little booths like the starting gates on a racecourse. Each one has a number, a chalked-up name and an electrical point into which the competitors fit their shears. Six men line up and on the signal each one opens the gate, extracts a sheep, flips it round onto its back, wedges its head between their thighs, bends over and starts shearing belly first. The ewes do not seem quite as happy with this arrangement as the audience does.
Each shearer is trying to remove the fleece as quick and clean as pulling off a jersey, no nicks or cuts and no more than three minutes per sheep – the current British record stands at 30 seconds.* The spectators watching from the stands see six pairs of spindly legs splayed out like the wrong end of a hen party while the commentators’ voice rises and falls in one seamless sentence: ‘… And they’re going at it hammer and tongs here ladies and gents number five’s already into the left shoulder and number four’s turning to come down and that’s a Blue Leicester over in number six useless breed buy ’em in the morning snuffed it by the evening and number three’s streaking ahead down the last side easy home run and we’ve got the man from Mid Wales out to beat the English champion looks like number three’s going to be first out ooooh bad luck he’s got hold of a real wriggler she’s gone all Michael Flateley on him see tap-dancing all over the place won’t stay still shame about that cost him a couple of seconds and number one’s gone in for his second ewe looks like it’s going to be ve-ry tight here some real talent for you today …’
The voice of the commentary recedes. A few rows away on the New Holland stand, a boy of about three detaches himself from his parents and hurtles towards the tractor display. ‘Daddy! Daddy!’ he yells, halting at the largest one and gazing upwards. ‘I want to buy one of those!’ The tractor’s back wheels are five times taller than him, but his father isn’t looking at the tractor. He’s looking at the star of the arrangement, the combine harvester. It is hornet-yellow and as big as Liverpool. One by one, groups of young farmers detach themselves from the walkways and come over to look at it. One of the combine’s side covers has been left open, revealing its mechanical innards.
As they stand beneath it the men talk reverently to each other, as if the combine’s sheer immensity somehow makes it sacred.
This combine is 25 tons, costs £383,000 and is apparently the standard size for farms in the Cotswolds. New Holland and its competitors would be quite happy to make combines bigger than this; the only thing stopping them is that the roads can’t cope. It runs on tracks like a tank and it takes a thousand litres of fuel at a time. It’s got a fridge, a coolbox and is fitted with a satnav and autopilot system which allows the farmer to set the co-ordinates, plot the field he’s working on, sit back and forget it. The only thing he has to do is turn the corners at the top of the field, and with some models you don’t even have to do that. Several manufacturers are already at work on drone combines, unmanned machines that can be programmed to bring in the harvest all on their own.
Over on the western edge of the showground are the stockpens, sheep in one, cattle in another and pigs in the last, each animal waiting its time to be shown. Farming families sit on picnic chairs beside their animals, gossiping and sharing out packed lunches. Many of the individual pens have been decorated with plants and rosettes and most have banners describing the different breed qualities. Dexter cattle, for instance, are the Shetland ponies of the cattle world, small, native, hardy, dual-purpose (ie they can be both beef and dairy cattle), ideal sucklers, and good for conservation grazing.
Mostly, though, nobody wants small. They want huge. The current trend in some breeds is for ‘double-muscling’, meaning that one of the genes directing muscle growth has been suppressed so the cows have twice the lean muscle mass of normal cattle. In other words, they’ve got an arse like an airbus, great rich landscapes of flesh all quivering with potential rump steaks. Double-muscled calves are too big to be born naturally so their mothers must have repeated caesareans. Watching the cows standing here facing the walls or easing themselves down onto the straw, they look simaultaneously funny and sad. There is no money in a cow’s face so they’ve been left as they are, patient and delicate, thin cows wrapped in animate fat. Something in their eyes tells you they know exactly how obscene they look, and have chosen just to bear it well.
In the sheep section, it’s the sheer number of breeds which is striking – not just the usual Texels and Suffolks, but things with evocative names: Badger-Face Welsh Mountains, Rough Fells, Gritstones and Lonks. Unlike cattle, it seems the optimum size and shape for a modern sheep is that of a badly-designed coffee table. Many generations of careful breeding has gone into producing something with a back flat enough to balance a six-pack, a large rectangular rump, a squared-off chest, four ricketty legs and a face like an afterthought.
It probably doesn’t help that many of the dips used on sheep turn the wool a dodgy sort of stripped-pine orange colour.
Back out into the sunlight again. Despite the rows of shops and stalls here – the Tesco marquee, the Pig & Whistle, the Land Rover Experience – the Three Counties remains a proper old-fashioned agricultural show, albeit on a large scale. The reason it exists is to allow farmers to show off the results of all that lonely winter work, to have a pint and a chat or perhaps to arrange a spot of agricultural speed-dating: your bull, my cow, back of the shed in a week’s time. The former Environment Secretary Owen Patterson is here, glad-handing the men in the NFU tent and trying to look knowledgeable about sows. There’s a dog show and a goat bit and if you do want to buy any of the clothes on sale, then be aware that outerwear trends this year are more or less the same as last year: fleece, tweed, foul-weather, slightly fouler weather, posh foul-weather, Force 12, and novelty wellies.
Next to the shearers, they’re talking about succession in the Young Farmers tent: how to get into farming, how to deal with recalcatrient parents, how to find new tenancies. It’s always been a hot topic, but never more so than now. A decade ago you couldn’t give a farm away, now it seems like it’s what everyone wants to do. Courses at agricultural colleges were once closing down for lack of students, today they’re full to the brim. In 2001 farming was knocked sideways by the Foot & Mouth outbreak during which 6.5 million mainly healthy animals were slaughtered and 3,200 farmers left the industry. Now the figures are beginning to move in the opposite direction. For every tenant farm that becomes available, there can be sixty applicants or more. Land prices are rising and competition for a life on earth has never been stronger.
And there’s another big change. Farming’s turning female. Of the 2,500 full-time students at Harper Adams University in Shropshire, two-thirds are now women. They were always the backbone of farming – invisible within the statistics, but the ones who kept the business afloat, the paperwork complete and the show on the road. Now, as farms pass from father to daughter or from husband to widow, they’re rising up out of the shadows and into the figures: 5,000 fewer men in 2012, 6,000 more women.
The only trouble is that there’s often nowhere for all these new farmers to go.
At the moment, farming represents the ultimate closed shop. Because it takes a very long time and a great deal of money to set up as a farmer – buy the stock, invest in the machinery, build up the herd, ride out the slumps, deal with floods or disease or sudden switches in agricultural ideology – it suits a family succession. If you’re going to do all that work for all those years, then it stands to reason that you want to pass the results on to your children.
Currrently, the system is designed to encourage people to continue farming for as long as they’re physically able, which in some cases means well into their eighties. The average age of British farmers is still rising (59 at the last estimate), which in theory makes a young farmer anything below bus-pass. On farms where all generations get on well, that’s fine. But on many farms the younger lot want to innovate while the older don’t. So either the younger generation accept that things aren’t going to change and leave to work elsewhere or they remain where they are, locked into an everlasting bullfight with their father. Or, in some cases, their grandfather. No other industry is still run like this, unless perhaps you count the monarchy.
Which means that if your parents worked in medicine or the media and you suddenly decide that you’ve got a thing for organic beef, then there are three ways to find yourself a farm. Either you buy your way in, or you spend several years working for someone else before saving up enough money to buy a share in your own herd / flock / crop, or you apply for one of the dwindling number of council farms.
Council farms are one of Britain’s great secrets. Everyone in farming knows about them, and no-one outside of it does. They were first established a century ago when the exodus of large numbers of workers to the cities led to the establishment of smallholdings designed to encourage people to remain on the land.
Giles and Mary McQuiston have the tenancy of a council farm in North Herefordshire. Both of them come from farming backgrounds – Giles in Northern Ireland and Mary in Wales – but neither were high enough up the family pecking order to inherit. Now in their forties and with three young children, they make a vivid partnership.
Giles is tall, measured and soft-spoken, while Mary is small and fiery, flitting from one strong thought to another.
Having made the decision to go into agriculture, the McQuistons applied to Herefordshire County Council for a holding. To do so, they had to prove they had five years’ practical experience, an agricultural qualification and £40,000 either in capital or as stock. Then they had to go for an interview. Mary: ‘The first time we went we weren’t married – we said we were engaged, but I hadn’t got a ring, so we ran down the town, bought a ring out of Argos, and off we go. Anyway. But we got in there, and they said, ‘we’d like you to give a ten minute presentation on why you’d like this farm.”
‘Well, we were both used to doing presentations, but not just as you go through the door. There were about six counsellors, and clerks taking notes, and you had to prove you had the money so they were flicking through copies of our bank statements. Because we wanted it so so much it was an incredibly intimidating procedure. Giles gets up, makes his speech, they ask a few questions. And we weren’t successful.’ They went through the same procedure five times with Herefordshire and twice with Powys. ‘Every time a farm came up, we applied. We were dogged – we just kept on and on.’
It took five years before they were given Cokesyeld Farm near Leominster. They started with 65 acres, and eighteen months ago they added another 42. The trouble is that they’re now stuck in a double-bind. Having spent the last ten years building up all the things that would make them farmers, they’ve been unable to save any money. Mary: ‘When we came here, we didn’t have one sheep. Now we’ve got 350. We had 11 cows when we came here, we’ve now got 30. And we’ve got 600 chickens. We didn’t have a hammer, a nail, a hurdle, a trow. For eighteen months, Giles fed the sheep with a wheelbarrow. He’d put all the sheep food on it and wheel it across the field.’
“Now, we’ve got a fancy-pants machine that we drive. It has progressed, but sometimes I feel it’s desperately slow.”
For the McQuistons, full-time farming has been full of violent highs and lows. The supermarkets refuse to look at them because they’re too small and and two weeks ago a fox got in to the hen runs. ‘He got 15 one night but he traumatises the rest, so they all lay funny-shaped eggs.’ More ominously, someone recently turned up to value Cokesyeld. Since land in this fertile bit of England can fetch £12k an acre, flogging off council smallholdings is a quick way for councils to make money. Scotland, Sussex, Buckingham and Kent have already sold off all their holdings, Somerset is getting rid of two-thirds and Gloucestershire is losing nearly half.
But surely the subsidy system must soften things for them? After all, isn’t this place – small, marginal, supporting the next generation of farmers, growing cheap food for all – exactly the sort of farm that the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy is supposed to protect? Not really. Like most farmers, the McQuistons are uncomfortable with subsidies, but go on taking the money. They realise that the CAP gives the good guys a bad name whilst working as a benefits system for agricultural incompetents, but the way the market works, it’s difficult to make a living without them.
Though it tends to be the huge agri-businesses which make the headlines, the truth is that very few people are getting rich from farming. Seven-tenths of Britain may be used for agriculture, but the industry employs fewer than half a million people and in 2012 a sizeable number of them – mostly the ones on small farms like the McQuistons – had a net income of ‘less than zero.‘ Besides, as they point out, even if you don’t take the money you still get the red tape. Some sense of the system’s peculiarity comes from the revelation that in order to receive the Single Farm Payment, farmers have to purchase the entitlement. So they pay two years’ worth of subsidy and after that they get it for free. In other words, they start off by buying the money.
‘Ten years ago, I thought we could change the world,‘ says Mary. ‘We were upbeat and we’re going to do this, but my God, it’s a lot harder than I thought. It’s hard, it’s hard graft. It’s all got to be positive and upbeat, but sometimes it isn’t. It’s bloody hard starting at the bottom as a first-generation farmer. You need to be in farming for such a long time and I feel one generation sacrifices for the benefit of the next.’
“We don’t have anything to give Jack, Fergus and Molly except our experience.”
But then something always happens to remind the McQuistons why they’re here. A few days ago, their childrens’ primary school classmates came for a visit. The kids were entranced by the sheep and the calves and the feel of a hen’s feathers in their hands, ‘And,’ says Mary, ‘I thought, yes, this really is great. I’ve been out there in the middle of winter when it’s pouring with rain and it’s windy and I’m like what am I doing here? But that moment, it just made up for it.’
Walking round the farm later, we pause by the lambing shed and watch the orphan lambs capering over the hay bales. The smallest one – tiny, barely the size of the farm cat – totters and shakes in a corner. He looks so keen to join in but he’s too weak to do so. The McQuistons have been hand-feeding all the orphans, an extra job in a cast of thousands. Giles looks around the yard. ‘I am positive,’ he says. ‘We will get through. It might be hard, but at least when I go to market, I don’t have someone looking over my shoulder telling me what I can and can’t buy.’
There are plenty who have. When things go wrong on family farms, they go very wrong; glowering Shakespearean dramas played out silently in front of the TV in houses full of guns. Farming is only marginally less macho than deep-sea fishing – why bother the doctor for anything less than a broken back? – so no-one likes to admit to weaknesses like age or pain or simple knackered sadness.
Tom Milsom is 35, and, had things been healthier, would by now have started taking over from his father at the family’s arable farm in Devon. He’s more than competent – degree in engineering, years of agricultural experience, runs his own business, represents Young Farmers at both UK and EU levels, passionate about agriculture – but instead he’ll probably end up moving away.
Back in the 1950s his grandparents bought the farm from the local landowner. At that stage it was a 300-acre mixed enterprise, but when his grandparents got divorced they split the land and divided it between their two sons. Tom’s dad got the arable and the farmhouse, and his uncle got the stock.
Since the land was divided by use rather than geography, that meant that Tom’s father was stuck in a farmhouse surrounded by fields now owned by a brother he couldn’t stand.
At the moment, Tom and his sister share the farmhouse. His father lives in the nearby village but still runs the farm on his own. Does Tom ever help his dad? ‘No. I don’t want to. He runs it and if I interfere I’ll be in trouble. He likes some help when he’s busy, but I’m not quick to volunteer.’ What’s the problem? ‘I think it’s largely to do with different ideas. I’ve got a different perspective because I want to farm the farm for 40 years or more and plan for the future, whereas he’s very much coming to the end of his 40-year career and he’s looking at this as a retirement fund.’ So he wants to let out his land to other farmers? ‘Yes.’ And he doesn’t want to hand it on to you? ‘No. Not really – he’s not planning to die, I don’t think.’ He laughs, though it’s not the sort of laugh with any humour in it.
Do they ever talk? ‘No. We say what we have to say, but the bare minimum. We could have blazing rows, but I don’t – I just avoid it. It might look a bit odd to the outside world, but we tend to just grunt at each other. The trouble is that you get my dad talking and he just goes on and on, and you think, oh God, I wish I never asked.’ What about his uncle? ‘We used to get on alright, but not any more. He’s done things to piss me off – being an inconsiderate neighbour, fairly obnoxious, and so I thought I’m not going to waste my breath.’
What effect does living in the middle of all these atmospheres have? ‘It’s uncomfortable at times, it’s like a weight, a ball and chain. I just feel limited by it, I suppose. But then to an extent that’s all I’ve known – it’s not like it’s a sudden change, so I just get on and do the best I can in the hope that one day these things will be sorted out or I can start afresh, even though I might have to wait for some people to die before that happens.’ So you’re waiting for your father and your uncle to die? ‘Yes.’ How old are they? ‘Late sixties.’ So they’ve got a while to go yet? ‘Yes. But it’s either that or sitting down in a room together to talk, which I would say is more unlikely. It’s been tried. There was a meeting, and a heated discussion, and lots of letters which cost a fortune went to and fro. And that was just over one issue.’
So what keeps him here? ‘I don’t feel the time is quite right yet (to go). Probably five or ten years ago I thought about nothing more than staying here forever, but now I really don’t want to. But to emotionally do that takes time. I can’t walk away tomorrow. Or I could, but it would be very hard. And for the time being I can live very cheaply here, and it’s a great base, lots of space. Although it’s not necessarily a joy to be here, if I’ve been on the road all day, I come back here and I watch the sun going down over this valley – you can’t beat that.’ So it’s the land that’s restorative, rather than the people?
“Yes. I’m attached to the land. Yes. Definitely.”
Chris North took a different route. Now aged 25, he’s the herd manager of a dairy farm in north Herefordshire. The cows here are small by modern standards, a mixture of British Friesian, Brown Swiss and Jersey bred for the high-protein, high-quality milk required in cheese production. Each one gives about 5,000 litres a year or 23 litres a day each – about half of what cattle in the big dairies would be expected to produce. ‘Someone once described cows to me as like someone autistic,’ he says, ‘The way they look at life. They see things in routines, and as soon as there’s something slightly different, ‘No, I don’t like.’’
Chris takes me round the milking parlour, explaining things as he goes: the system, the routines, the signs of contentment or stress. In two hours there isn’t a single question he doesn’t answer openly and knowledgeably. He’s not trying to sell me something; he just loves his job. Afterwards we return to the office. Outside, the last cows are moving into the parlour and below the sound of milk rushing into the tank are scribbles of swallow song. Chris looks round at his empire, the wall full of whiteboards detailing yields and rotas, a box full of woolly hats and a filing cabinet labelled Cow Passports. ‘To be a good stockman, you’ve got to be placid. If you’re rushing and stressed, the cows sense it. If you think, ‘well, if it takes an extra hour it takes an extra hour, I’m not bothered,’ they’re happier.’
His background wasn’t in agriculture – his father is a vicar in Hereford – but Chris knew from the age of eight that he wanted to farm. Not just farm, but one day to have a dairy farm of his own. Why? ‘Coming here, doing a days’ work, you feel like you’ve achieved something. You look back and think, I’ve milked all those cows, I’ve done that. And a lot of jobs these days, you don’t notice the achievement, do you? You don’t see the big picture unless you’re quite high up. But the way farming is, you see the whole lot. And it’s just such a nice working environment you don’t realise the time has passed.‘ Even in January? With a sawing wind down the back of your neck?
“Well, there’s always two of you in there, and a cup of coffee isn’t far away.”
But what about relationships? Don’t farmers always have to be with farmers? ‘Yes. You’ve got to be like a double-vocational partnership, someone who understands what it is to work with animals.’ Have you ever tried going out with someone who doesn’t? ‘Yes. It doesn’t last for long. I’m very fortunate that my partner at the moment is from a farming background back in Ireland, so he understands exactly what it’s like. He works for Bulmers (cider), so when they’re spraying they’re spraying, regardless of what the weather is or whether it’s five in the morning.’
Like many farmers in this part of the country, Chris got his degree from Harper Adams University in Shropshire, one of the UK’s oldest and largest agricultural institutions. Harper is exactly the same as a normal university, except that at normal universities you don’t usually get conversations between students that begin: ‘You know that armoured personnel carrier I was driving the other day? Yeah? Well, I broke it.’
The day before the Summer Ball, six students – Oliver, Matt, Grace, Sophia, Saul and Drew – are gathered round the table. Four of them are from farming backgrounds and all are doing BScs in Agriculture with various add-ons – Land Management, Engineering, Animal Science. Grace O’Reilly grew up on a big Suffolk arable farm and, aged 20, is now specialising in Developmental Agriculture. ‘I always struggled at school. I’m not particularly academic, and I’m dyslexic – a lot of people here are dyslexic. So I like the ability to learn practically, hands-on. With this, you do something, and straightaway you see the effects of what you’ve done.’
At home, ‘I have three older brothers and I’m the baby, so in reality, the oldest one should have had (the farm). But because we’ve all been pushed to get our own careers, my older twin brothers have never sat on a tractor in their lives. One’s in the RAF and the other’s in IT and music production. They’re not interested in farming at all. But if you’re around animals as a child, it really gives you a sense of responsibility. You have to look after them, you have to feed and water them in the morning, and for me, that was really important.’
“It does make you grow up quickly, but there’s also the innocence and the simplicity of it – even if you can only carry half a bucket of water, it’s something.”
How easy is it for women coming into the industry? Grace: The boys at home, they’ll pick up a cement mixer, lift it above their heads and run across the yard with it. I’m never going to be able to do that, but I can move it three times quicker because I’m not going to have this ego thing.’ Sophia: Women often end up doing the business side of things, but nowadays the technology does a lot of the heavy lifting.’ Grace: ‘And you know everything can still be fixed with baler twine.‘ Really? Even a £380k tractor? ‘Definitely. One of the combines, it cracked at the struts, I spent half a day running round it with baler twine, stuck a ratchet strap on and carried on combining for the rest of the day.‘
So what qualities do you need to be a farmer? It seems in the end it’s down to love, mostly. Grace: During harvest, you’d be working seven days in a row, you’ll be doing 20, 21-hour days, no person in their right mind is going to do that unless they absolutely love what they’re doing. Drew: Some days it is hard, in the winter or the spring lambing, but when you go to market and you’re stood there with something you’ve raised from birth, and it’s such a proud moment. I experienced it for the first time a few weeks ago – I had my first beasts go in through the ring, and it’s like a warm fuzzy feeling – it’s like excitement to start with because you don’t know what you’re going to get, but then when it’s happened, it’s like, yeah, I did that. It’s amazing, absolutely amazing.’
Matt: One of the farmers I’ve been working for this year, he’s 66, got no sons, no reason to carry on working, he’s still doing dairy but he’s given up beef. He’s got 130 acres and he’s probably got £150,000 worth of machinery sat there. He could sell that tomorrow, sell the land and he’d probably have a couple of million in the bank. He could live the rest of his life out in luxury. Not interested – he’s still perfectly happy getting up at five in the morning, going down to grease everything before we get there. Oliver: My grandad is 94, still drives the combine. He gave up one year when he knocked a wall down, but next year he was right back on it.’
Traditionally the urban view of farming has conformed to one of two mutually incompatible stereotypes. Either farmers are a bunch of feckless subsidy-junkies hosing the land with herbicides and milking the system, or they’re Cold Comfort yokels held together with nothing but hay and desperation.
Both and neither are true. Above all else, farming demands breadth. To do the job well, a farmer has to combine the skills of a vet, a botanist, a mechanic, an administrator, an IT expert, a chemist, an accountant, a bureaucrat, an arboriculturalist, a marketing expert and a high-stakes poker player. British farming is structured to encourage conservatism, land passing from hand to hand inevitably down the generations, but it also demands that its practitioners must be supremely quick to adapt and open to change. It’s a lot to ask of farmers, and it’s a lot to ask of the land. And since it’s this new generation of farmers who will be feeding us all, perhaps it’s up to us, the urban majority, to widen our view of what we want from our countryside, and why.