I don’t know about March coming in like a lamb – remember the adage “In like a lamb, out like a lion” – but the first few days of mainly blue skies and sunshine, even if cold, have certainly been an improvement on the grey misery that was February.
As we all know, there is no strict dividing line between the last day of one month and the first day of another, but the change from February 28 to the first theoretical day of spring on March 1 always seems more significant than most monthly changes.
The grass and wheat look greener, the oilseed rape is perking up, hedges have been cut recently in many places giving the countryside a business-like look, the first ewes and lambs going outside from the lambing sheds look well, and only some crops that were direct-drilled into stubble last autumn still look feeble and patchy.
As we all also know, that picture can change within a day in March, but I’m enjoying it while it lasts. I haven’t seen a grain drill in action yet, but given the way ploughing is drying out on top – I know, it can be a lot wetter underneath – sight of the first drill going can’t be many days away.
That’s always the first real sign of spring for me. Snowdrops and crocuses and fertilizer spinners and sprayers and birds starting to nest are all very well, but a grain drill working in early March means spring is here. And if that doesn’t guarantee heavy rain, snow or gales straight from the Urals by the end of this week, I’ll be surprised.
On that subject, in passing, I note that some farmers in Aberdeenshire and Banffshire last week completed their oat harvest and straw baling on fields that had spent most of the winter under snow. The oats only – only being a relative term in this case - yielded 1.2 tonnes an acre and the bales tended to break up rapidly once cut open in cattle yards.
I’m not surprised. I think November was the latest we ever baled straw and it was badly weathered then. Only the present high to record prices for straw of any kind can have made salvaging the north-east residue worthwhile.
The oats were obviously worth cutting though, better half a crop than nothing at all. The latest we ever combined was beans on Christmas Eve, though I recall a field of beans in East Lothian being cut in February one year and was told the crop had been surprisingly good. Farming, eh? Still a surprise round every corner.
Although I understand the reasons, usually poor returns and rising costs, that persuade farmers to take part in them I’ve never been convinced that public protests are a good idea. At least not in Britain where, no matter how hard they try, farming protesters lack conviction compared with the vindictiveness and bloody-mindedness of farmers in some European countries. That’s right, in France.
That’s because in France the public don’t think any the worse of farmers shouting the odds, blocking roads and burning imported meat. In Britain protesting farmers tend to look slightly embarrassed when carrying placards, shouting slogans, or singing songs such as Stand by your Ham as pig farmers did in London last week.
The main reason they were there was, as ever, the price squeeze exerted on suppliers by the big supermarkets. Last week, I noted that the big banks are not there for the benefit of their customers, but to give their top men big earnings – a point I’m pleased to see Mervyn King of the Bank of England picked up on, good to have him as a reader – and the same goes for supermarkets.
They stay in business and make profits for their executives and shareholders by keeping shoppers as happy as possible. In spite of all the lip service, the same does not apply to their suppliers. Some large-scale farm product suppliers have recognized this, lived with it, and even prospered. The average farmer, supplying a supermarket through a co-operative, a processor, or in a few cases directly, does not recognize the law of the jungle that is supermarket selling.
As a result, when their costs rise – as feed and other costs have for pig farmers in the past year – and their returns don’t, they are driven to protest publicly for a fairer deal in the belief that the hearts of supermarket bosses will soften. As the joke about a bank manager used to go, you could spot his glass eye because it occasionally produced a tear. Ditto with supermarket bosses and buyers.
Pig farmers can protest until blue in the face that for every £10 of pigmeat sold the retailer gets £5, the processor £3 and the farmer £2 and it won’t make a bit of difference. Not only that, supermarkets deny those ratios and produce their own figures. If British pig farmers – welfare friendly, efficient, hard-working as they might be – can’t stay in business at present prices and costs then, say the supermarket bosses, tough luck. We’ll find suppliers abroad who can. And the same goes for every other product from British farms. It’s a hard world and it’s not going to get any better.