There was a recent exchange of views in a newspaper about the meaning of the phrase “déjà vu”. One reader argued that its precise meaning in a psychological sense, coined in 1903, is not a repeat of a previous experience, it is the illusory feeling that you have been in a place or had an experience when you have not.
But the paper’s resident linguistic arbiter said that the way most of us use “déjà vu” is now generally accepted, in the sense of “Goodness me, here we go again” or, as the famous baseball coach Yogi Berra said after a defeat: “It’s déjà vu all over again.”
Which brings us to the weather of the past month because if anything is déjà vu it is what has been going on since about November 25. Perhaps Groundhog Day would be a better description, because as I write we’re heading for another day of six to 12 inches of snow.
I don’t blame the forecasters for saying that light snow showers were likely and we are getting heavy ones because, as they have admitted, the present lack of any weather pattern is a nightmare for them.
A block of very cold air, said one, is hovering and circling over Britain. Within that, small depressions whirl around “creating havoc”.
He can say that again, and probably has. All most of us can do as we struggle through the daily round and common task is to be thankful we’re not stuck in an airport departure lounge. On the other hand – excepting those who have urgent or family reasons to travel – there is a grim irony in the fact that the tens of thousands opting to go abroad for Christmas have been sabotaged by the very weather they were trying to escape.
But back on farms, and throughout our mainly rural area life shows few signs of getting any easier under persistent snow and ice. These weather problems add significance to the latest effort by RSABI, to provide a listening ear to farmers and others in rural areas feeling isolated.
The service provided by RSABI – formerly known as the Royal Scottish Agricultural Benevolent Institution until it gave in to the modern fad for acronyms only – is a confidential telephone helpline called Gatepost, “the first listening and support service dedicated to the farming and land-based community in Scotland”.
It attracts attention to the service with the following introduction: “The bank manager won’t return your calls, the tractor’s broken down and you can’t see the kitchen table for forms waiting to be filled in. You have a family business, but the family can’t agree on how to run it. Your partner is looking worried, but won’t say why. You’re worried about the health of someone in your family. You’re stuck on your own in the back of beyond and never see anyone.”
Possibly a gloomy view of farm life, but given the past month, we could add: “The oil tank is dangerously low. The haulier can’t get feed in and you can’t get cattle or sheep out. Defrosting water pipes is a full-time job. A shed roof is about to collapse under the weight of snow – and it’s snowing again.”
The RSABI’s offer to provide an understanding listener won’t appeal to everyone. Farmers are notoriously independent about their problems, often to the point of refusing to admit they have any. They also tend to be uncommunicative, especially to those closest. But those nearing the end of their tether with present bad weather threatening to be the tipping point should think about phoning 0300 111 4166.
A number of dairy farmers could be among those considering Gatepost. The latest attempt to draw attention to how tough times are for milk producers was giving away free milk to shoppers at two big supermarkets. I don’t know how effective that was, given that most shoppers have their own problems, but the figures produced by NFU Scotland to go with the protest, made grim reading.
These showed that in 1985 there were more than 5,000 dairy farmers in Scotland; in millennium year there were 1,900; there are now 1,100, and falling. The number of dairy cows has fallen in about the same period from 280,000 to 185,000.
The great problem, of course, is that total milk production has not fallen nearly as much as might be expected from the above figures. Herds have become much bigger, the better managers have survived and expanded, and, crucially, the Holstein cow now used in most herds produces far more milk per individual than the Friesian and Ayrshire cows it has replaced.
That is why I doubt the NFU claim that milk costs 28p per litre to produce while the average price a dairy farmer gets is 25p. I believe the most efficient herds are producing milk for well below 28p a litre.
But I also believe that supermarkets are hard taskmasters who have a lot to answer for in a decade that has seen the retail price of milk rise by 24p per litre and the return to farmers by only 6p.
The NFU’s claim rings absolutely true, that all dairy farmers want is a fair deal. As for their chances of getting that, a letter to Santa is as likely to be successful as an appeal to the better nature of supermarkets.