LANDLINES

At time of writing we couldn’t ask for much better weather in January than the past few days of crisp, calm and, mainly, blue skies and sunshine.

A pity they only came after devastating early January gales had uprooted trees, caused havoc with trains, planes and roads, and resulted in much damage to houses and buildings, including some large sheds on farms. Luckily, there seem to have been no human casualties, and few animal ones.

Following the partial or total collapse of more than 3,000 farm sheds during the heavy snowfalls of 2010 and 2011, questions remain about the design of some of the big sheds that have appeared on farms in the past 30 years or so. Insurance companies are obviously asking the same question and considering their premiums accordingly.

Will even more safeguards and extra strength have to be incorporated into future buildings against the one year in every 20 or 30 these might be needed to cope with extreme weather? There are at least two certainties. One is that insurance premiums won’t be reduced and, two, once a gale starts lifting a big shed roof it’s wise to stay out of the way.

The size of farm buildings has increased because the scale of farm enterprises has grown so dramatically during my lifetime – and that’s not over-statement, but simple fact.

Farms that handled a few hundred tonnes of grain now handle thousands; where most arable farms used to grow 10 or 20 acres of potatoes that yielded 10 or 15 tonnes an acre, a few big businesses each now grow hundreds of acres, yielding 40 tonnes an acre and more, and need huge sheds for storage; a big dairy herd used to be 60 cows, now arguments rage over planning applications for buildings for herds of several thousand cows; 100 breeding sows used to be a sizeable herd, now 1,000 sows is modest; 10,000 hens in a battery was big business, now some sheds house a million.

The beneficial effects of those increases can be seen on any supermarket shelf, particularly, of course, those supermarkets that buy from British suppliers – a range and quality of eggs, milk, vegetables, potatoes, lamb, pork, beef and chicken unavailable 40 years ago.

I would also argue that that the quality of farm management, staff skills and technology needed for this production has developed in line with the increase in scale. The casualties, as we know, have been farm staff and smaller farms, but name any industry where that has not happened? I regret the loss of jobs to big machinery as much as anyone, but what was the alternative?

For the bright and ambitious there are skilled management and technical jobs working with big acreages and large herds, far removed from the physical drudgery of many farm jobs of the past, and better paid. That can’t be bad?

Oh yes it can, of course, according to critics of “factory farming”. It could be pointed out to them that the epithet “factory farming” was first used about the lower range of flock and herd sizes mentioned earlier – like the “Frankenstein foods” label attached to genetically-modified crops, it has stuck.

The subject came up at last week’s Oxford farming conference, annual alleged pace-setter for thinking farmers for the coming year.

Jim Paice, UK farming minister, apparently told the conference that Britain had a choice: try to keep farmers as good old boys of the countryside – I interpret rather than quote – with Buttercup and Daisy in flowery meadows, pigs grunting in orchards and poppies in the organic wheat, or try to produce as much food as possible to feed our own growing population and help cope with increasing world population.

An audience of mainly farmers obviously responded well to that exhortation to produce more. Critics of large-scale milk, meat and egg production obviously reached for their metaphorical revolvers.

That included Charles Clover of the Sunday Times who waded into Paice’s claim that he had no view on farm enterprise size by writing that that missed the point: “This is an argument about systems, not size … the idea of keeping cows or pigs indoors all their lives is alien to British farming and regarded by most consumers as unacceptable.”

He went on: “Factory farms aren’t run by real dairy farmers, but by conglomerates that make money by driving down environmental and animal welfare standards and dumping their rubbish food on the rest of the world … Making pasture farming even more efficient with good management is a low-cost way of feeding the world.”

Like the claims that all farming should be organic, Mr Clover’s view is unrealistic. There’s a certain appeal to all of us in the children’s picture book version of farming, but let’s remember that’s a rose-tinted version that never coincided much with past reality.

In the world as we have it, and as far as the future can be forecast, ample food supplies will be more important to most people than how that food is produced. My contention is that even on a large scale, most of it is produced in better, and more strictly controlled, conditions than in the past.

And, as far as national finances are concerned, the more we can produce at home the better.