Home & Shop Companion #0020
letter from a small corner of far away
Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,
As I was walking to the field this morning, I was thinking about what I might write here, but when I got to the field, I stopped thinking about it. As soon as I saw Molly, I started to watch how she was standing, moving and breathing as I gave her a feed, then half watched Lucy as I swapped some cultivator tines in preparation for the potato rows. I then harnessed her, moving deliberately but not that slowly, in the manner we are both used to, yoked her to the cultivator and did the potatoes, then swapped the tines again to do the other vegetables, and never once during that time did I think about this letter. It’s one of the great things about working with horses – your mind is occupied, by the horses, the surroundings and the work, so when it is all going well it is a relaxation, sometimes perhaps a meditation. Especially now, in this time of change, uncertainty or fear, returning to an absorbing preoccupation like working with horses is a relief from those actual, possible or imagined realities. It’s also one of the reasons I started writing these letters, as a different focus and a distraction, both for me and for anyone who cares to read them.
Nonetheless, it doesn’t make the news go away. On the television yesterday they announced figures showing that the British economy in April was down by 20%. This is not really a surprise, but stark figures amplify a stark reality. The economy has obviously hit a very big dip in the road, but is it too early, or are we too scared to call it a depression? The word itself is scary and heavy with meaning, particularly in America, recalling the hardships of the 1930s, though nowadays our ‘memories’ are often vague family recollections, or images we have seen on film. For us in Britain, the depression of the ‘30s has less resonance because the 1920s were already pretty tough too, the economy having already fallen by 25% in the three years up to 1922. Nonetheless, it was a hard time for everyone, including farmers.
For decades up until 1920, farming in Britain was largely based round the Norfolk four course rotation, but now there was no money in growing cereals, cheap frozen meat came in from around the world, and the market for draught horses was swamped by the extra foals bred during the war, not to mention the competition from motor lorries. The crisis in farming provoked mixed reactions. Some farmers who lived as country gentlemen cut out their tennis, fox hunting and drinking, and did some work for a change. Others, particularly those with high borrowings, went bust. Throughout the country, weeds proliferated as farmers neglected or abandoned growing root crops, the part of the rotation when weeds could be tackled with the horse hoe and teams of men with hand hoes. With the root crops mostly gone, so went the arable sheep flocks which ate the swedes and kale, fenced behind woven hazel hurdles which were laboriously pulled up, moved and reset every day. As farm workers left or were pushed out and cereals became unprofitable, farmers let the land tumble down to grass, and kept a few cattle and sheep, whilst fields became overgrown with scrub. In desperation, landlords offered farms for no rent at all.
Many farmers managed to struggle through the depression by not spending money, letting their farms become dilapidated, eating produce from the farm and selling a few animals and perhaps a few eggs. Others carried on by being on top of their game, working hard and intelligently and by running a very tight ship. Even so, there was a great reluctance to use newer methods. Two furrow ploughs for example, remained rare, despite being capable of doing the same work in half the time, with half the manpower and three quarters of the horses.
The farmers who did best, however, were those who were both efficient and flexible; if there was no money in grain, then feed it to pigs or poultry and fold them over grassland to eat insects and weeds and fertilize the soil. If non perishable goods were being imported, move to perishable produce such as milk, eggs or vegetables. If you couldn’t sell at wholesale prices, then sell direct to the consumer. Another trend was the move to ley farming, where instead of growing a one-year grass/ clover ley in a four-year rotation, the species rich pasture was down for three or four years, followed by three years of cash crops. This saved labour because the land was ploughed only three times every six or seven years, the grass was more productive, it suppressed weeds better and provided more fertility for the subsequent crops.
Amongst these changes, the twenties and thirties also saw the use of portable milking bails so the cows were milked outside in the fields, precise rationing of feedstuff, farmers delivering milk and other produce door to door, the increased use of semi digging ploughs instead of long mouldboards, a move away from the plodding Shire to the more active Clydesdales, Suffolks and Percherons, and fewer dual purpose cattle in favour of beef or dairy breeds. With many aristocratic estates being broken up and sold, some tenant farmers bought their farms, and the availability of cheaper land and livestock allowed many young people to go into farming.
Whether the solutions from ninety years ago are relevant today is another question. You could argue that farming has become so efficient that there is nowhere to go, but I am not so sure. It depends on how you measure efficiency. Admittedly modern farming is often efficient per person, but the longer and harder natural processes are pushed and suppressed, the less efficient it becomes per dollar. In terms of energy however, the balance sheet is crystal clear, modern farming is downright inefficient because it takes five calories of energy on average to produce just one calorie of food, even when you disregard the direct energy gain from the sun.
What I am sure of, is that as the economy changes, so do a farmer’s decisions. When income can no longer support large outgoings, the economy of a farm has to rely on the farmer’s skill and the ecological efficiency of a farm, but isn’t that what good farming is all about?
William Castle is a violin maker, farmer & SFJ contributor who lives in Shropshire, England.