Landlines by Halidon

No, I don’t believe it either. According to the calendar it’s now May, but outside it’s autumn or early winter and we’ve just come through one of the coldest Aprils since 1766. For some parts of Britain it was also one of the wettest on record, possibly the wettest.

Because of that torrential rain in the south of England we’ve all had fun laughing about the hosepipe ban in some areas. It’s bound to raise a smile when river levels rise six feet in the constituency of the water minister after several inches of rain in two days.

Much the same happened in 1976 when a minister for drought was finally appointed, followed almost immediately by weeks of heavy rain. At least the man appointed then, Denis Howell, was inured to insults and laughter – he was a former football referee.

Given the April weather we had, it was good to have something to laugh at, if briefly, because as various experts have pointed out, the recent heavy rain has not been nearly enough to counteract falls in reservoir and underground aquifer levels over the past two years or more.

They also point out that longer-term planning, and action, is needed to make maximum use of rain when it does fall. Better storage and utilisation at every level – house, farm, factory, city – is needed.

Thinking back more than half a century to my grandparents’ house with a pump in the yard and all drinking and washing water carried in buckets, a wooden barrel to collect rainwater off the roof for the Monday wash, and an outside chemical toilet, it’s obvious that we now all use much more water.

With irrigation now seen as a necessity for most potato and vegetable growing, farming uses much more water. Those same crops going into supermarkets use much more water during cleaning and processing. Most of us bathe and shower much more frequently – most of us, I said – than in the good old days. Factories and the tourist trade use vast amounts of water.

In short, think back then look around at the prodigal way we use water now, taking the increase in population into account, and it’s small wonder there are concerns.

Looking at the “dry” areas of the world, it’s odd to think that Britain could suffer a water shortage in future, but we’d better believe it and take the problem more seriously. Farm crops aren’t the only thing likely to suffer if we don’t.

Many pay lip service to helping new entrants get a start in farming, from local NFU meetings to the European Union’s commissioner for agriculture Dacian Ciolos, who said recently: “If agriculture does not provide future prospects to young farmers, one might wonder what kind of future European agriculture has.”

Capital investment, he said, was clearly a limiting factor for potential new, young, entrants. EU member states should tackle that with a sub-programme for young farmers within the overall Rural Development Programme.

Access to land is another problem for new entrants without much capital, he might have added. That problem is usually exacerbated by competition from existing farmers trying to extend their business or get a start for a member of their family.

Add to that the facts that landowners in Scotland have been panicked since devolution in 1999 by fears that tenant right to buy will eventually become compulsory and consequently most forms of new tenancy lets have dried up, and that new entrants usually fail to get subsidies paid to existing (and retired) farmers, and it is obvious why getting a start is uphill all the way.

But, as I’ve suggested before, becoming a farmer from a standing start has never been easy and yet the most able and truly determined do get there. I think that a recent short item and an article in the Scottish Farmer prove my point.

The short item was from “50 years ago this week” about brothers Dugald and Thomas Brown, sons of a farm worker, who saved enough to take on a dilapidated farm and in their first year milked seven cows.

Seven years later they had 78 producing an average of 953 gallons per lactation, well above average for the time.

The article was by Andrew Marchant, one of the successful contenders for several rare Buccleuch Estates tenancies offered recently.

With a background as manager on a beef and dairy farm, he said that starting from scratch was daunting and challenging, but had benefits: “We have the opportunity, not entirely through choice, to keep fixed costs and depreciation to a minimum from the start and we also have the freedom to makes choices based on what we feel is right for our business rather than because ‘it’s what we’ve aye done.’”

As the Brown brothers were doing half a century ago, as several now extremely successful farmers of my acquaintance did before them, and as Andrew Marchant is trying to do now, it is possible to get a start in farming in spite of the odds against.

It always will be, for the most determined.