Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Farming life: Bean counting

It’s that optimistic time of year once again: when we’re planting seed
November 3, 2022

We’re drilling on the farm but not for oil, water or gas. Drilling is the term we use for planting our crops, and we typically do that in the autumn. It’s a crucial part of the year as we rush to get the crops planted between rain showers—we do it after the summer weeds have germinated, but before the soil gets too wet.

“A farmer has to be an optimist, or he wouldn’t still be a farmer,” said the American humourist Will Rogers, and this is an optimistic time of year. We’re buying seed—turning our money into grain before passing it over to the stewardship of the earth and the weather. All we can do is hope that the soil will multiply our investment.

In a good year, 200kg of seed sown in a hectare (10,000 square metres) will become 10 tonnes of grain; in a poor year it will become less than five, and the additional costs incurred mean that we’ll make a loss we can barely afford.

Over the next 10 months, we’ll spread a little fertiliser, add nitrogen-fixing bacteria and attempt to deal with the weeds. We’ll observe and tend the crop through the cold and dark of winter, through the lengthening and warming days of spring—when we’ll pray for rain—and into the summer. We don’t know what the future holds, but we’re hopeful that by next August, in a little under 300 days, we’ll be harvesting a bumper crop; we’re optimists.

As I look beyond the farm gate—at tumultuous markets and the revolving door of Number 10—I wonder what will happen to the country in those 300 days. While I’m in the field checking sheep through the bite of the winter, will our elderly and vulnerable be able to heat their homes? As the wheat, barley and beans root and grow, will our businesses and the wider UK economy wither and die? And when I sit down for supper in the security of the farmhouse, will the good people of Ukraine taste the same freedom and security that I enjoy?

As well as being optimists, farmers are also gamblers. Our profit relies on the weather, which is increasingly extreme, and world grain and fertiliser markets that swing wildly from day to day. I jest that the farmer doesn’t need to go to the bookies; everyday life is a gamble.

With gilts and bonds, currencies and pension funds, and stocks and shares lurching from bull to bear, who knows where the wise investment is? A 2015 survey found that 43 per cent of Americans keep their savings in cash, with over half of those choosing “to hide bills in a secret location at home”. While that doesn’t seem like wise investment advice, it does mirror the annual farming strategy. In this volatile climate, digging a hole and burying your money in the ground each autumn might just pay dividends.