Was that it? Yup, afraid so. Summer – ha! – has been and gone and today, September 1, is the first day of autumn with much of the harvest still to be gathered in.
No surprise there, given the vagaries of August weather, with a distinctly autumnal English Bank holiday weekend, including one of those days when it never rains properly, but spits on and on, accompanied by a cold, blustery wind, in a “no good to man or beast” way as leaves start to fall.
Not the sort of day to look at fields of grain still to cut, straw still to bale and sowing of next year’s oilseed rape and winter barley still to do, but as a friend once said of a dreadfully patchy crop in one of his roadside fields, if he wasn’t there looking at it, he was in the house thinking about it.
If he was still around, he could have added to his worries the deep wheel ruts left by combines and trailers in the soggier parts of some fields, including those extremely deep ones where machinery sank and had to be hauled out.
Too many operations like that take what fun is left in it out of harvest.
As does wet or damp straw, having to dry the grain it has been possible to cut and waiting for crops to ripen while studying the most recent bill for fuel, electricity or bottled gas or machinery spare parts and repairs. In short, a slow, late, harvest is no joke and this is proving to be a slow, late harvest.
At least, as a generality, oilseed rape yields have been good and much of the winter barley better than expected. Early spring barley returns also seem to have been slightly better than feared, but that probably depends on how low growers had set their expectations after the difficult dry spring start for that crop.
I pin my hopes on one of those glorious spells of weather that can come in September with hot, sunny, days, blue skies, Technicolour sunsets and, quite probably, late honeysuckle round the cottage door and slices of mother’s apple pie in the harvest-field bait box.
Or something like that.
Whatever happens, surely September, probably my favourite month, can’t be more depressing than August was.
I have mixed feelings about farmers’ markets and farm shops. I appreciate the effort and commitment and – in the case of shops – the bravery of financial investment by farmers and their families, but I sometimes wonder about what we’re being offered and whether the claimed extra quality justifies the prices.
When shopping – yes, it has been known – I make a distinction between products such as fresh meat, eggs, cheese and butter, potatoes and vegetables and items such as the hand-made chocolates, soaps, fancy baking and small, expensive jars of jam, chutney and preserve that seem to be accepted as necessary.
The first group is what I expect to find at farmers’ market or farm shop, not the second group. I also expect the food I do buy to be locally produced. It’s depressing to enter a farm shop in good faith with good intentions to find that much of what is on offer is from abroad or the south of England. If that was what was wanted we could go to one of our local supermarkets which in spite of some shortcomings offers fresh, good quality, products from Scottish and north of England farms whenever possible.
I don’t hold a brief for any particular supermarket, but perhaps Morrisons’ claim to sell 100 per cent British meat inclines me towards them. More than 2,300 British farmers supply livestock directly to the three slaughterhouses owned by Morrison through its subsidiary Woodhead Bros, the sort of close link with immediate feedback on carcases that has been advocated for years to aid farm management efficiency and better meat quality.
The supermarket has also recently taken vertical integration – field to plate, as the saying goes – a step further by starting to farm at Dumfries House, Ayrshire, though claims that it is the first big retailer to do so are a little exaggerated. Surely the Co-op with its tens of thousands of acres throughout Britain was the first.
Farm shops find competition for customers is increasingly fierce. Figures from the National Farmers’ Retail and Markets Association indicate that there are more than 4,000 farm shops in Britain with a combined turnover of more than £1.5 billion a year and that the number of new openings is increasing rapidly.
I really do wish them the best of luck in a tough market and admire the efforts to cut out the middlemen between producer and customer. I simply think that connection via farm shops is often not as clear-cut as it should be.