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September 13, 2007

Farming Life: Swimming in the rain - Jorocs recalls this year's summer - and why it will mean a very tough winter for farmers

Posted by Jorocs

The rains came and they came and they came. Having a dentist appointment, I drove to the nearby Cotswold market town but an hour later the return journey was almost impossible due to the most amazing floods. Cars were being abandoned through lack of nerve or mechanical failure. Luckily I was in the farm four wheel drive, nothing flash, just two hundred pounds worth, but I was able to get through.

The scene of deserted cars, the amount of rain and the volume of the flooding was so great the situation was becoming unreal. The challenge of getting through these vast expanses of water, although exhilarating, was creating an unreal situation causing one to lose touch with reality. One had to move from a panic mode to a coping mode. The current problem was how to get home. After achieving that, the problems were feeding and caring for livestock in a scale of flooding not seen for three generations.

Strangely enough the water could not get away down the ditches. Possibly the reason the water couldn't get away is that there is a new government regime which no longer subsidises food production directly but subsidises it indirectly through environmental schemes. This bars the farmer from cutting his hedges before August 1st. Back in more normal times, farmers would have spent late spring and early summer cutting roadside hedges and clearing out ditches, making sure all was shipshape. I am sure the poor wild life that was drowned out of their burrows on this occasion would have appreciated more conventional countryside management than that currently dictated from Brussels.

Such is the resilience of country people, we still managed to carry on a social life, having been invited out to supper by a Professor friend. On the journey there, we rescued twelve American philosophy students who were going to the same destination from their stranded bus. They thought this was all very good fun and a change from their sterilised academic life, but they'd forgotten they were meant to be camping that night! Nevertheless, there followed a very jolly evening. On the way home that night my son-in-law was able to swim along the road past the farm entrance, such was the depth of the floods.

The sheer volume of rain became so alarming it was almost laughable. It wasn't until next day that the river through the farm burst its banks but luckily our old farmstead was built well above the flood line. On the radio, one commentator was stating how the cause of the flooding was farmers keeping heavier sheep. This was compacting the land and causing water to run off more quickly. Another stated it was heavier farm machinery compacting the land. I thought the flooding was caused by more rain and this had something to do with cars, fridges and air conditioners.

I rang farming friends who were on the periphery of the Tewkesbury triangle and there were serious horror stories. One farmer would be without water for his stock for a fortnight and one with five hundred cows had been told his milking parlour would be out of action for five weeks. Another, totally flooded out, had to send his whole herd out to bed and breakfast.

The wrath of these storms has demonstrated the thin veneer of civilisation and also the dependency on the supermarket culture. One woman was reported to have driven fifteen miles to a supermarket in an unsuccessful quest for bottled water. How many farmers had she driven by but who would willingly have parted with a five gallon container of water for nothing?

Once the floods have receded the farming problems are quite immense. Half of our cattle grazings for the milking herd had been flooded and it will be some time before these can be grazed again. Grazing polluted and muddy land can cause cows to abort. A third of our second cut silage crop has also been under water and the feeding value of this is debatable. The fields are water logged; there is very little photosynthesis and grass growth is virtually nil. The silage crops are starting to rot as they stand with very little possibility of getting them in the clamp.

Some herds have been rehoused and put on full winter rations and the price of barley has nearly trebled in two months, making winter feed very dear. And by the start of August virtually no bales of hay had been made in Britain. It all points to a very expensive winter for the farmer. On the plus side milk yields are falling and milk is going into short supply. This is against a background of increased world demand for dairy products and therefore rising prices but unfortunately the price of milk to the farmer is not rising fast enough to stop the haemorrhage of people leaving the industry.

For those that can hang on through this very difficult winter to come, the financial tide will have turned. But I am afraid for a large number of dairy producers they will have hung on by their financial fingertips until it is too late.

And now I hear on the news that Foot and Mouth has broken out again in Surrey.

Jorocs writes about hunting life for the Social Affairs Unit. To read more by Jorocs, see Hunting.

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