“This blog is the unfolding story of Rush Farm and an exploration of life by its philosopher farmer.” T
The week was the warmest of the year so far but still chilly at night. The lack of rain means cracks in the soil already, but at least there is real growth on the pastures. Prospects for the coming week do not look nearly as encouraging. It has been a very quiet week on the farm. The daily routine of watering, feeding and checking both cattle and sheep continues. When the cattle go out, the barn will need clearing, and no doubt there will be calves needing to be weaned. A cow that recently had a new-born calf showed her displeasure that her previous calf was still with her; Somehow it had escaped notice that the first calf was now nearly ten months old!
In truth there is somewhat of a sense of marking time. April, certainly towards its end, will undoubtedly be very busy with ewes lambing, and cattle being tested and then returning to separate fields, but all being well we can just coast up to that point.
Otherwise, I am very happy to say all looks shipshape and Bristol fashion; the fences and their hedges look good, the brook is well within its banks, the unavoidable vehicle marks are now largely grown over, except of course around the barn, and there are few lying patches of water. All but two pastures have been ungrazed for weeks and appear to have new growth. In fact, the only work going on is the fields is where hemlock has been a problem for a number of years. With the ground hardening up, pulling is becoming more difficult.
As for the barns they survived the tempests, and the newer one has manifestly proved its worth. Of our two tractors, that which we have had from the beginning remains in very regular use. The one piece of machinery we may have to worry about in the coming autumn is our muck spreader, which is too small, but second-hand muck spreaders are like gold dust – hard to find and very expensive. All no doubt due to the price of fertiliser quadrupling – when we started farming, muck was given away, but those days are long gone!
You will recall the three of us listened to a webinar on what we might expect from the government’s plans for agriculture. This week as part of the government’s determination to move advisory service to the private sector, we had a 90-minute free visit from two ‘advisors’ from Strutt Parker aka Fisher German. Both had farming backgrounds and the lead speaker for this visit was patient and courteous. So, what were they actually interested in? Essentially our resilience and capability to survive in the coming world, when the totality of subsidies will, in a very few years, fall significantly.
What, above that did they currently know aside from the ‘fact’ that in the coming future no farm could expect the same level of subsidy? Perhaps unsurprisingly, very little, but they were sure the combination of covid and Ukraine, rather the green agenda, would dominate government thinking.
More positively, in terms of the large numbers of farms visited, our position seemed to them to be in the top small percent of likely survivors.
We parted amicably expecting to receive a short report and their regular newsletter to ensure we learnt of any definite decisions by government.
Only one statement ruffled my feathers slightly, and probably it stemmed from their youth. Farm subsidies, aside from an earlier intervention in the United States, were for us and other European countries an outcome of the Second World War, when action by German submarines threated the UK with serious food shortages, and it became clear that even if every square inch of land was cultivated, barely 80% of our total food needs could be met through home production.
How we got to this position can be debated, but the reality is that beginning with the ending of the corn laws in 1834, the UK opened its’ arms to cheap food imports from the empire – one of the developments resisted fiercely by landowners since it effectively began to reduce the power of them and the aristocracy. Thereafter, so long as the merchant navy was large, and faced only natural hazards at sea, all was well, and the fear of the leaders of all states over the centuries that cheap food would not be available could be forgotten in the UK at least – the situation was more complicated in Ireland not least because potatoes were the staple diet.
Hence after WWII there was a recognition that farming, which usually was barely profitable at most times, needed supporting for two reasons – national security and an understanding that in the minds of many people, landscape and its farming populace should be protected.
It was only fairly recently accepted that intensive farming of crops and animals had its drawbacks, and so a proportion of the subsidy ‘pot’, in this country 15%, was held back to support better environmental practice, and of course requirements relating to animal, and indirectly to human welfare, became national policy.
Three small but significant points to make. Since WWII, when it became possible to supply 80% of the nation’s food:
Even under intense agricultural systems, that figure of 80% is no longer achievable however much we change our habits.
There is no doubt that a basic flaw in the subsidy practice was quite simply basing payments on area and no other consideration; this though eventually slightly mitigated by cross-compliance, caused ill will within the farming world, which was added to after we joined the economic union, and it became clear that continental practice widely abused the subsidy system and was often tied to political considerations.
Before totally leaving the farming/environment world, I could perhaps remind you, that now is the time to enjoy early blossom trees and yellowing/greening of the willow trees, and the catkins and buds to be seen on other trees. For us, the explosion in colours in the garden is a joy to see. Bumble bees have now been joined by innumerable bees on the blossom trees and the grape hyacinths. As for the birds, our population of small insect and seed eaters has extravagantly expanded and I have come to realise the, in most ways timid, moorhens have no problem in ‘seeing of’ jackdaws, magpies and rooks. Pigeons they largely ignore and in any case the pigeons are much more interested in each other.
Talking with Anne about matters Ukrainian and Russian, somehow, we slipped into wondering about Siberia and its history, and how it became part of the Russian empire. Our trusty Times History of the World atlas was yet again looked at for information, and together with other sources, including Russian novels, proved helpful. Until the late 16th century the original inhabitants of Siberia were made up of many distinct tribes, each with their own lives, who lived relatively freely and untroubled by their neighbours to the west. Many of them were almost certainly related to those who live in what is now the USA. The first Russians in Siberia were fur trappers – rather as in the northern areas of what became the Northwest Territory.
A century or so later, the potential of Siberia, in a variety of ways, allied to Imperial aspirations, a not unknown characteristic of Russian Czars impelled the seizing on the vast territory as part of their state. By the time of Empress Elizabeth, action actively began to exterminate the tribes and, rather as in the expansion of the American Republic a little later in time, active genocide was introduced.
Later, at fairly early date, Siberia was used, as Australia was, as a dumping ground for troublesome individuals or political prisoners and criminals. The ‘gulags’ which we all know about were not a new invention but just developed to a new level.
Stalin of course was to also use Siberia as a place to send whole populations to, because he had taken against them, but he broke no new ground. At the same time, Siberia became settled in a more peaceful way and the region’s other riches began to be exploited. Additionally taking this territory gave access to the sea, and Vladivostok developed both as naval base, and in addition, to allowing access of goods into and out of Russia. It was also the base for the ill-fated war with Japan early in the 20th century.
So, what has changed. From the point of view of the Russian economy, Siberia has added great wealth, ‘gulags’ still exist though now called ‘penal colonies’; unfortunately, the territory now has its drawbacks, as from both the Russian and global point of view, climate change has meant the melting of the permafrost, releasing substantial amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and makes the territory less accessible, and less attractive to live and work in. From the point of view of the original population, matters seem better, and numbers have recovered from a very low point, to now what it appears is 10% of the total population of the territory.
With Putin’s desire to restore the Russian Empire, one thought that came to us both was, how does he feel about Alaska, which was Russian, and part of their expansion into what is now the United States. By 1867, Russian state finances were in a parlous state and the decision was made to sell Alaska. Both the UK and the USA were interested, but poor relations with the UK meant the sale was made with the USA. My memory tells me that the cost was no more than 1 cent an acre, but I cannot substantiate that.
What has been interesting to observe is the difference in response across the European Union towards the Ukrainian war, particularly as regards Poland and Hungary, since both countries leaders have been in trouble with the EU for increasingly illiberal policy decisions. Now it becomes very clear that the Hungarian government essentially is pro-Russian. Personally, I find this all but unbelievable given the uprising in 1966. I was fortunate enough to have as my politics tutor all those year ago a Hungarian tutor who had been forced to flee after the uprisings crushing by Russians tanks.
Attention has also become directed more closely at the situations in France and Germany. In France a gradual realisation has come to the political class in that country, that amendments to the basic constitution forced through by General de Gaulle in 1968 – the Fifth Republic – mean the current President has collected around himself almost all the powers of an absolute monarch, with no built-in checks to challenge his decisions. This risk has always been there, but under Macron we saw the creation of a new political party dedicated to supporting him, and so ensuring his absolute position.
In a way, none of this should be surprising given the history of the past 200+ years in France, and the way in which liberty in that country is interpreted. Certainly, Macron appears to regard himself as the leader of the continent as we see from the way he thrusts himself forward in negotiations or is that there some hidden agreement tied to the supply of French military equipment to Russia, at least there was until 2020. Should any of this worry us given that France is now probably the most powerful country in Europe – who knows.
Germany has it appears, in the person of the new Chancellor, recognised that feeling guilty is not sufficient cause to shelter under the blanket of American power, or to have a policy towards the Russians that surrendered to the pull of economics, at the expense of fellow Europeans. As Zelensky said when he spoke to the Bundestag, towards the end of his speech to the assembled politicians: German obsession with ‘economy, economy, economy’ had played a part in leading to the situation in Ukraine. In fairness, his speech was applauded warmly, but bizarrely the ‘leader’ of the house at the end of the speech decided that birthday wishes were more important than following up on what they had heard.
It is relatively easy to increase the money devoted to the German armed forces but turning the existing services into something corresponding to a serious military force is obviously another matter. Another problem is actually acting on the decision to send real arms to Ukraine.
How exactly Germany reduces the extent of its economic ties to Russia and China is going to be a real challenge, and indeed no energy sanctions will be employed this year; Germany flatly blocked sanctions in coal. Moreover, East German businesses are refusing for a variety of reasons to apply many sanctions. Interesting how what can look like good decisions come to smack you in the face; Ms Merkel rejected nuclear power and reinstated coal power – popular at the time, disastrous in so many ways in today’s climate. Polls suggest most Germans support Ukraine, however, reports that the mayor of a Bavarian German township in which a sanctioned Russian oligarch owns several properties, refused to take action on the grounds of neutrality, caused eyebrows to be raised!
In so many ways we see history repeated. For centuries the struggle to be ‘top dog’ in Europe and or dominated political thinking, and, after Spain fell by the wayside, the struggle was between France and Austria – later Germany. Two countries similar in area but after Bismarck, it was Germany, in both size of population and GNP, that became the more powerful, and so the balance of power changed significantly. For centuries the British role was centred on balancing these competing powers but, of course we have now ‘opted out’.
Earlier I referred to the Times Atlas of World History. Maps have always given me pleasure, and it saddens me considerably that the use of satellite navigation seems to have devalued them for great numbers of people. For the farm I have a straightforward 6” to the mile map, two geological maps, one of the subsoils, and one of the rocks underlying the area, and other maps showing details such as hedgerows, water courses and trees.
As an A level student, maps, were of real excitement, from weather charts to major fault lines and maps showing tectonic faults. As an adult who enjoyed hillwalking, the old 2 ½” to the mile maps were vital. Once all maps displayed contours, heights and footpaths, and a mass of other details. As a motorist in the bad old days, we always carried 1” to the miles Ordinance Survey maps, vital when attempting to avoid traffic jams, and also containing a wealth of extra details about the countryside we were driving through. When driving in Europe maps were also essential if you were interested in getting off the beaten track.
For many years when we went out on our small boat, nautical charts showing tidal movements, currents, hidden dangers and of course the depth of water under the boat, were essential. I also remember clearly when we lived in the central African bush there were no maps and that it was only Anne’s amazing sense of direction that allowed us to go for long walks in the Bush. Incidentally I think we only bothered to carry a gun the once, relying instead on staying alert to avoid danger – in truth a .45 rifle was much too heavy and uncomfortable.
Last Sunday Anne and I watched, on catch up, the first two episodes of the television version of the Ipcress File. Catch up is, on the face of it, a splendid idea, and so it may be if your hearing is still 100% but the absence of sub-titles makes it like, Brit box, a real test.
I had originally shied away from watching the series because of two things. The first was that I still remembered the impact on me when I first read the book in 1962, when it was hot of the presses. It struck me then as a completely new approach to the genre of spy fiction, and totally gripped my attention. Perhaps I responded also to an approach which rather than having a public-school hero, had a bright, obstreperous grammar school product, operating in a world made up of ‘public-school products’, and the inevitable networks they could call on – my own experience at Oxford clearly came into play here.
On Monday I reread my rather tatty paperback copy in the afternoon and got almost the same buzz as I did all those years ago. I rather wondered why the script writer felt the need to cast ‘Harry Palmer as an anti-hero, which I do not think was Deighton’s intentions, but we certainly will watch the remaining four episodes. Our new hero is no Michael Caine, and I doubt whether that 1965 version can ever be bettered but the series could be a lot worse.
Last week I promised to find a Danish poem to share. I read all the translations of the songs set to music by Neilson – some 160 in total; a range of fairly modern poems that seemed not particularly Danish, I read poems first read at the Roskilde Poetry festivals in recent years, but I struggled and failed to find a translation of the ‘Roskilde Riim’ authored by the poet I turned to in the end. That great Danish theologian, democrat and educationalist born in the late 18th century, and who died in the 1870’s. Nikolaj Grundtvig was also regarded as the leading Danish poet of his time. Of his poems I have chosen the following called:
‘A simple, cheerful active life on earth’A simple, cheerful, active life on earth,
A cup I’d not exchange for monarch’s chalice,
In noble forebears’ tracks a path since birth,
With equal dignity in hut and palace,
With eye as when created heav’nward turned,
All beauty here and grandness keenly knowing,
Familiar though with those things deeply yearned,
Stilled only by eternity’s bright glowing.
I wished for all my line just such a life,
And zealously I planned for its fruition,
And when my soul grew tired from toil and strife,
The ‘Lord’s Prayer’ was its rest and its nutrition.
Then from truth’s spirit I great comfort gained,
And felt joy hover o’er each garden border,
When dust is placed in its creator’s hand
And all is waited for in nature’s order:
Just fresh, green buds that sprout in early spring,
And in the summer heat the flowers’ profusion;
And when the plants mature and long to bring
Their harvest fruit to autumn’s full conclusion!
The human span assigned is short or long,
It is for common weal, its yield is growing;
The day that started well will end as strong,
And just as sweet will be its after glowing