A HARVEST LIKE NO OTHER
Denys Fell explains why this year things are going to be very different and challenging for so many.
This year I’ll be enjoying (or possibly enduring!) my sixtieth harvest. By harvest, I mean that time in late summer when we bring in to store all the wheat, barley, oats, peas, beans and oil seed rape that have been growing in the fields for the previous eleven months or so. It’s the focal point of the farming year.
My first harvest was when I was 13 years old, the age us young farm lads leapt for joy because we could legally drive a tractor in the fields. But alas, my main duty that year was to stand behind a baler with its ensuing and voluminous dust cloud and gather the straw bales on a sledge in stacks of eight. (And being very careful not to tip them over as I pushed them off the sledge onto the field.)
Jumping ahead to the year 1973, it was the year I was married to my wonderful wife Mary, and was an especially memorable year as she decided it would be a good idea to brew some home-made lager to help the whole farm team with the rigours of the work. She was right.
Come rain or shine – or hurricane
Then 1976 was remarkable. It had been a particularly dry year and, come harvest, we had three weeks when we could crack on with absolutely no interruptions from any rain. England has often been recognized as one of the best countries in the world to grow crops but one of the worst in which to harvest.
Take 1986 for example. We had started to make good progress when we had a very unwelcome visitor by the name of Charley, Hurricane Charley in fact. We’d had Hurricane Gloria the year before which sent our stress levels to overload so to have Charley was sickening.
I remember racing from the field with the combine harvester to reach the safety of the shed as Charley pummelled and flattened the crops, paying scant regard for our previous eleven months’ work and costs. As I descended the combine steps (sorry, gentle reader, a stark reality coming up) my dad met me and told me that Ted Moult, a farming and TV personality, had shot himself. My immediate comment was: ‘I know how he feels’.
The 90s overall were a settled time, in fact a little too good. We were introduced to a scheme called ‘set-aside’ in order to decrease the grain mountain and one year in that decade the whole farm was fallowed, and I didn’t have a harvest at all.
By the time the new millennium had arrived farming was waking up to the damage it was causing to the environment by the emphasis on big crops via the armoury of chemicals that were out there. The organic movement (which I joined) began to gain momentum. Farmers were encouraged to join schemes which were intended to reverse the impoverishment to wildlife which intensive farming was responsible for. They were compensated for their efforts and for taking land out of food production. This eased the sometimes seemingly almighty pressure at harvest as so much of a farmer’s income could be in these schemes. My farm has 30% of the land area devoted to this. For those of you who watched Clarkson’s Farm I think Jeremy’s percentage is about the same.
The emphasis on the environment received further impetus through Brexit and the opportunity to formulate our own plans. The European system of paying farmers subsidies on the amount of land they farm is being phased out and largely replaced by something known as ELMS (Environmental Land Management Scheme). The director overseeing this transformation is a lovely lady called Janet Hughes1. I was privileged to have a meeting with Janet to discuss an important aspect of how the potential new schemes will impact farmers.
War turns world’s attention to harvest
On February 24 this year it seemed the whole world was caught by surprise and shock that Vladimir Putin ordered his troops to invade Ukraine. The horror, suffering and brutality of the invasion soon became evident through our news channels.
By May 24 the impact on the world’s food supplies was becoming a very serious issue also. António Guterres, the UN Secretary General, warned of mass hunger and global food shortages because of the conflict throttling one of the world’s richest agricultural areas. The 2020 statistics show Ukraine having an 8.9% share of global wheat exports, feeding an estimated 400 million people worldwide. The Russian blockade of Ukraine’s ports meant 22 million tons of grain were unable to be moved.
A Farmers Weekly headline at the time read: ‘Drought, conflict and tight supply push grain prices ever higher.’ Inflation on farms was assessed to be 30.6% through higher fuel, fertilizer and feed prices. Food prices in the shops were rising so fast it was precipitating a cost-of-living crisis. A Daily Mail front-page headline reported: ‘Bank chief (Andrew Bailey): Families are facing food price apocalypse.’
On farms we have always experienced some uncertainty and volatility through the weather, markets and politics but nothing on this scale. The cat was wreaking havoc with the stability pigeons. It was shaping up to be a harvest around the world like no other, its importance second to none.
As May was beginning to give way to June any doubts we may have had about the severity of the food and farming situation were dispelled during a Sky News interview with the Transport Secretary Grant Shapps who warned that more people could die due to the grain blockade than in the war itself.
President Zelensky and G7 nation Ambassadors at Port Odessa. Polarnet (in the background) was the first ship since the start of the war to be loaded with grain for export, leaving the port on 29th July 2022 and heading for Turkey. Others have since left from Odessa and other Ukrainian ports.
Your Kingdom come, Your will be done on earth…
As the hideous cruelties of the war raged on into August even seemingly good news had its drawbacks. An agreement to lift the blockade on Ukrainian ports was greeted within a few hours by a Russian missile striking a ship in the port of Odessa. The extremely sharp thorn of hunger was not piercing the conscience of those orchestrating the war.
The problems that the world is facing were ratcheted up in severity during the summer as if drawing attention to themselves in a competition to gain the limelight. Record heatwaves and record floods, political instability and festering discontent throughout the world. An extremely worrying scenario of strikes together with exorbitant energy and food costs is stalking the land here in the UK.
For most of us, even those of us who have quite a few runs to our innings, our ‘experience’ of war was through the history books about the First and Second World Wars. Now it was on our doorstep with not infrequent mentions of nuclear missiles. For many Christians the prayer ‘Your Kingdom come’ took on a deeper and more urgent significance.
In the meantime, we can get involved in whatever activities we can to alleviate the stress and suffering whose tentacles are reaching more and more individuals.
On Densholme Farm2 this summer, we are participating in what are known as Holiday Activities and Food Days which are specifically for those children eligible for free school meals.
One staff member was so burdened by the trauma that uprooted families in Ukraine had experienced and wanted to help in some way. She offered to do a sponsored ‘sleepover with the pigs’ to raise funds for a fun day at the farm for the refugees. However, I didn’t agree to this (she might not have lived to tell the tale if she’d fallen into a deep sleep!) but instead approached the local Lions for funding, and they very kindly agreed.
Personally, I am very conscious that my bit of God’s good earth could be farmed more effectively to produce as much healthy food as is possible through sustainable and regenerative farming practices. That’s what I’ll be looking into over the next few months, but I’ll have to go right now. As I write, it’s August and I’ve a harvest to get in. A harvest like no other.