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Selling the farm

My family have been yeoman farmers in Leicestershire for three generations. Now my father is having to sell up.

By Graham Bowley   March 2002

My father stands apart from the rest of the crowd next to the auction ring. It is as if the other people in the barn-about 300 in all-let him have his space, maybe out of respect, maybe out of fear of contagion. They look at him when one of his cows gets a good price, and glance away when a grinning dealer in a tie books down another as a bargain. My father’s face doesn’t change. But everyone knows what he must be feeling.

It’s a warm day in June, a time when the year is running round and the cows should be grazing in the fields. The velvety pastures beyond the farm are almost a clich? in their postcard prettiness. The hedgerows in the twenty-acre are filled with dog rose blossom, the oil-seed rape is like a yellow haze along the brook and the grass on the hillfield flushes green for the second cut of silage. (Yes, I know, but it really is like this.) For the 58 years my family has lived in this part of Leicestershire, the summer has been a season of growth and work and harvest. But not this year. Today we are selling our farm.

We have hung black plastic sheets between the stanchions of the barn to create temporary walls, and stacked tiers of straw bales for people to sit on so that the building looks like a small amphitheatre. The air smells of tobacco and coffee. Our 120 cows, 80 heifers and 40 calves, all scrubbed, trimmed and brushed so they shine, bellow from the pens outside. Clive Norbury, the auctioneer, a young man with a bright red face, stands on a podium clutching a microphone.

I look at my father. Standing alone, head up, trying to be dignified, he wants everyone to know that he’s proud of his beloved herd, even as he allows it to be divided up and delivered into these strangers’ hands. His face is pinched and grey. He bites his lip. His big hands reach out and grip the metal bars on the gate.

“Bids, gentlemen?”

Two men in their fifties who sit beside me on the bales have an edge of anxiety in their voices as they chat about who will be the next farmer in the area to sell up. A Friesian heifer with the number 21 branded on her flank-she’s one of my father’s best milkers-lunges through the gate and stumbles around the sawdust in the ring. The dealers signal their bids.

At four o’clock, the last animal, our big, angry Limousin bull is sold. An old favourite, we gather around him (though not too close) and he becomes the focus for a last gathering of the clan. Many of my cousins who grew up with me on the farm but who now, like me, live scattered across the country, have returned for the sale. So has Keith, our stocky workman who left two years ago to become a security guard at Caterpillar in Desford; and Jenny, who worked in the dairy but left when we sold our milk round. Aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers, sisters stand in front of the bull for a photograph; a memento of the generations that grew out of this land.

Afterwards, when we cram into the old farmhouse for tea, the tension eases and there is some laughter. The chatter dies down when a big articulated Volvo lorry rumbles into the yard to take a batch of cows away to Devon. The lorry backs up to one of the sheds and strangers wave our cows up the backboard. An hour later, when the room is empty, I look at the grainy photograph on the wall: my great-grandfather holding a prize bull and a trophy. It hangs beside my brother’s graduation certificate from agricultural college and his stock judging awards. I think of the arguments that raged at this kitchen table over the last couple of months: my aunt red-eyed and weeping at six o’clock on a pea-souper of a February morning. “Why is the farm losing money?” I think of our milking parlour outside, all shiny pipes and new glass. It was meant to transform the herd into one of the most productive in the county. It would help us fight back against the big dairies. Now it stands empty.

In the evening after the auction, I can’t find my father. He’s not in the barn, or in the yard. Eventually I push open the door to the living room. The curtains are drawn and the room is quiet and dark. In the corner the big shadow-Dad’s a big man, six foot and a second row’s shoulders-doesn’t look up.

“What are you doing, Dad?”

He turns over a page of the brochure he is holding. I think he hasn’t heard me. It’s the auctioneer’s catalogue from the sale. On the page there is a photograph of one of his pedigree cows and a table of her vital statistics: the cow is posed, legs apart, on the hill outside our house-in the background you can see my Dad’s hand and the halter lifting the cow’s head. He stares at the photograph for a few seconds.

“I suppose I miss ’em already,” he says at last. He smiles. “Perhaps I’ll drive over and visit some of them one day soon.” In The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitzyn wrote that the worst thing for the peasants that were sent to the Russian prisons was the separation from their animals. It was as bad for them as exile or the death of a family member.

Over the last ten years, about 160,000 full-time farmers and their families have left the land. There’s nothing new about that. In 1901, more than 2m people were still working in British fields, by 1950 this number had shrunk to around 800,000 and now there is barely half that number. The exodus from country to city has been happening for centuries. What is different this time, however, is that the English farmer-our peasantry, our yeoman class-is about to become extinct.

So what. To most of us city dwellers, this last gasp of a dying industry just seems interminable. It has terrified us with food scares, and taken over the newspapers and the television with its mad cow disease and the foot-and-mouth funeral pyres. Many people are tired of these old-fashioned farmers whose protests seem as pointless as those of the coal miners did 20 years ago.

But there is real pathos in this dying people. These are my people-my own father, brother, mother, aunt and uncle are on the endangered species list-so naturally I feel their struggle keenly. Yet I have no illusions: the death of these archaic, unprofitable businesses is inevitable, even desirable. Farmers must go. But it is also the case that something rich and timeless that binds us to our roots and our past, something central to our cultural imagination-the stuff we sing about when we sing of England-is being lost.

If you drive around the countryside today, you will see communities that exist in a weird interface between their traditional way of life and a new, bleak, accelerated marketplace of global competition. It’s not a pretty sight, and few people want the life that goes with it. A poll conducted before foot-and-mouth found that 41 per cent of farmers said that they didn’t expect anyone in their family to succeed them. In my father’s case, he went into the red in 1998. That was when the big dairies and supermarkets drove down the price they paid for his milk so that he could no longer meet the interest charges on the farm mortgage. He limped on for another two years by eating into his capital, a common recourse for many farmers who, although apparently broke, often have a few hundred thousand pounds tied up in their land.

The economics of modern capitalism mean that increasingly our food is being produced on large factory farms, or imported. Meanwhile, the rest of the countryside is becoming a yuppie’s playground-inhabited by the nouveaux rural classes who convert the cottages and barns, perhaps keep a horse or two, but who drive to work in the city each day, and have limited patience for the natives’ troubles.

No wonder that the small farmers who remain are a bitter and unhappy lot. They are lonely and isolated, huddled on the edge of something they don’t really understand. Some doggedly try to adapt, while others look around for someone to blame.

“Most farmers were farming because of the lifestyle,” Peter Orpin, my father’s vet, told me when I telephoned to ask what was happening on our farms. “They had always done it that way. But now, with global competition, they are farming for profit and that wasn’t the get-out-of-bed factor for them.”

Derek Crane, a farming neighbour and friend of the family, echoed this point: “It was a way of life and you made a living doing it, and now you make a living at it and it’s not so much a way of life.”

One rainy day-it always seems to be raining-earlier this month, I went back to try to understand the crisis for myself. I started with my father. In the end, he had stayed on his land: it was not quite the closure we had imagined. Although he cleared his fields of animals and sold the machinery, no one bid for his land and buildings. He couldn’t afford to buy more cows so he found a way to make money by rearing calves to be killed for beef in supermarkets. This was a pattern I saw on many farms-a drastic reordering towards specialisation to meet the demands of the consumer for cheap food. But steak isn’t sneakers or Playstations and, though our economy might demand that farms become production lines, what they produce are living creatures, not widgets.

“Can you hear them catching their breath?” my father said. The four-month-old calves stood around in the straw. He has 200 calves, but February’s warm, wet weather meant that at least 20 of them had caught viral pneumonia. Six had died within the last two days. Suddenly there was another splutter of bovine coughing in the barn around us. Dad winced.

The vet, Wendy, arrived and we corralled the calves behind the tractor and injected them with antibiotics. Wendy said that a lot of farmers had tried to save money by not vaccinating their cattle, so viral pneumonia was common. The antibiotic was costly, but Dad was close to making another loss this year so he couldn’t afford to lose more animals. Four hours later, I ventured back into the muddy yard with my notebook; two more calves had died. Dad came out of the barn, blinked his eyes, then cried. Rain spotted on my scrawled handwriting. I folded the notebook away in my pocket.

We all know the typical farmer from caricature-either he’s the tweedy toff or the subsidy-guzzling, nature-destroying ignoramus. In the past few months, I have met some real ones.

Derek Crane-the neighbour I have already quoted-is a farmer in his sixties who, with his son, David, milks 100 cows morning and evening on their 500-acre farm. “We are about on survival rate,” he tells me, rubbing his calloused hands. “We are cutting costs. But we need 200 cows to be a business.”

I am starting to feel sorry for them until Derek continues: “David’s just got back from skiing.” Their son, a tall, wiry man in his late twenties walks into the kitchen wearing a rugby shirt and sporting his tan from the slopes. Suddenly I’m thinking that times can’t be so hard. Derek continues: “We’ve thought about converting the farm buildings to some other use but we can’t come up with anything that we’re interested in.” Where have the intolerable commercial pressures gone? Joy, Derek’s matronly wife who is prominent in the local Conservative party, tells me that they tried bed and breakfast once but “we didn’t like sharing the farm with strangers.”

Derek says, “it does frighten me, if subsidies were to finish. Then we’d be in a loss position.” I wonder to myself whether anyone should be subsidising David Crane’s skiing trip to France.

Clifton Lampard is the cheerful, enterprising kind of farmer who makes you think he will always get by, even if it’s not strictly by the rules. He rents a farm, six miles from the Cranes, where his father worked before him. Today, rain-yes, more rain-is pelting against the window, geese are on the pond outside, and a Guardian newspaper (unusual for a farmer) lies on the kitchen table. His partner, Brenda, sits beside us cradling a dog. Clifton has a finger in many pies: he milks 425 cows-up from 70, 12 years ago-using a “34-point fast-exit parlour” he built himself; for a year he’s rented an old mill next door where he and Brenda cook and wait tables for private parties; he’s invested a lot of money in a new dairy co-operative which farmers hope will take on the power of the big dairies and supermarkets; and he’s been quick to embrace high technology farming-he rents out heifers to a rich neighbour who implants calf embryos in their wombs. “We could run without subsidies,” he says. “We’ll do whatever it takes to stay on the land.”

“We like dealing,” Brenda explains. “It would be so boring if we got up each morning and went to market and did the same old things. We like to come up with ideas, speculate a bit.” But she’s not convinced that farming offers a future for their children-she doesn’t want their son, Tristan, to carry on the farm. This is a cause of friction with Clifton.

Their work this morning has involved Clifton buying and selling milk quotas over the phone from his office. “Look. My collar’s clean,” he laughs. The work may have been profitable, but Clifton regrets that many farmers make money by exploiting the bureaucracy. “All I’ve done is taken it off some other bugger. That’s done nothing for farmers.” He sighs. “I’ve just watched the film Billy Elliot,” he adds. “It made me think. Are we like the miners? Are we so blinkered that we can’t see the inevitable?”

If the oblique messages coming from government are to be understood properly, it is that subsidies to farmers will end soon. Our armies of yeomen can no longer be paid ?2.8 billion a year to produce food that nobody wants in a way that is wrecking our landscape and poisoning our animals. The latest thinking comes from the Curry report, “The Future of Farming and Food,” published last month. The future for farmers, the report declares, is organic food and environmentalism-being paid to be responsible custodians of the countryside.

What it doesn’t say, but which is there between the lines, is that without subsidies, few farmers will survive in this new world. Organic food can only ever be a small market. Most consumers, beyond the few who already buy their free-range chickens at a local stall, will not be prepared to pay much more for their food. The report itself admits that on current trends, there will be “more purchasing of convenience foods and ready-meals, and less cooking from ingredients bought at retail outlets. Already, few people in England have a direct link with the way that food is produced; a knowledge gap is growing.”

So organic produce will be a niche market and the rest of our food will come to us through traditional channels. Here, the forces of large-scale economics hold sway and the farmers’ enemies-supermarket chains and the big meat and dairy processors that supply them-reign supreme. You can almost hear the sound of the shake-out across the country as the big farms, that are able to grow bigger and more efficient, toe the supermarkets’ line and prosper while everyone else cashes in their acres.

“In five years there will be only 50 per cent of us producers left,” Andrew Scott, a Midlands farmer who has helped stage protests against the supermarkets, told me. “Their plan is to have all milk produced along the M1-M6 corridor, close to the processing plants. I am despondent.”

But Scott and most of his fellow farmers have embraced modern capitalism and it is modern capitalism that is killing them. They had no sympathy for others mowed down by these same forces-my Tory-voting family was quite happy to see the miners destroyed. I embrace the modern capitalist lifestyle too. So if they and I are honest, we have to admit that there is no alternative for them but to die.

Broadly speaking, we should let the big farms and the developing world take over food production and pay those small farmers who want to stay on the land to become stewards of our countryside. The few small farmers who will survive as farmers will be doing high-end organic farming. These are the right solutions, but it means the death of the farming community as we have known it. Tony Blair should stand up and tell them what Margaret Thatcher had the courage to tell the miners.

I am in Borough Market in south London. BMWs and Mercedes are parked outside. You can hardly move for pushchairs. I am talking to Lizzie Vines, co-owner of Wild Beef, while her vacuum packs of prime rib and stewing beef are flying off the stall.

“We are doing what the public says we should do,” she says. “We farm rare breeds, the old-fashioned way. These are people who care what goes into their children’s mouth.” Lizzie and her husband Richard raise Welsh Black and South Devon cattle on their farm near Dartmoor. They kill two or three animals a week, and she spends three days a week away from home selling the meat at farmers markets.

She sells a small joint of beef for ?20.50 to a middle-aged woman who says how much she enjoyed last week’s cut of silverside. A young couple, one with a takeaway caf? latte, ask for shin. “Shin?” says Lizzie. “It’s that wretched Delia again!”

This is the future. Why can’t my father be here, selling his food directly to Londoners with money? I look around the rest of the market (San Francisco sourdough bread at ?2.65 a loaf, Somerset clotted cream butter at ?12.50 a kilogram) and I realise that it’s won’t be farmers like my father that make the new Borough Markets work. It will be a new breed of urban creatures like Lizzie-she used to work at Sotheby’s and only moved to the country a few years ago-who colonise the countryside, catering for the tastes of city people.

I ask Lizzie whether her Devon neighbours would be able to survive doing what she is doing. “Oh, the farmers?” she says. “Our vet calls them the ‘usas.’ You know, ‘Us ‘as always done it that way.’ They raise ponies on Dartmoor because they get a ?5 subsidy, but they shoot them when they can’t sell them.”

Will she be passing the business onto her children? She mentions a big company that distributes organic meat. “Our own idea is to sell out to someone like that,” she says. “But it’s difficult to see someone paying a million and then still doing all the work we do. We don’t have time to have a bath at the moment.”

A few days later my father visited me in London, and we sat on a bench beside the Thames not far from the crowds of Borough Market. It was just over a year since the auction on the farm. My father said: “You spend your life building something of value, something that’s going to last. You think that’s what life is all about-and it’s what people in this country care about. But it’s not… you have to understand what condition England was in after the war. Children in our village were sent to bed hungry. England needed food badly and we were called upon to produce it. Yes, we ripped out hedgerows, but that’s what the government of the day encouraged us to do.

“It all got out of hand, I know. But, look, I love the countryside as much as the next man. Everyone thinks it’s easy just to find fault with us farmers. It makes me angry.” I didn’t know what to say.

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