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The life and times of farmers weekly

Friday 07 January 2005 00:00

BEGINNINGS

THE FIRST edition, with plain yellow cover and priced at 2d, appeared on June 22, 1934. Its policy was set out in a leading article, preceded by this verse:

Give fools their gold, and knaves their power;

Let fortune"s bubbles rise and fall.

Who sows a field, or trains a flower,

Or plants a tree, is more than all.

Declaring itself to be a "newspaper of the soil", the journal stated that it had one fundamental policy - to see more agricultural production in Britain. "There is new hope for all of us here in the broad acres of Britain. Youth has drifted these past years from the shires into the cities. Youth must be recalled to till the fields from which it has sprung. There is a golden opportunity for work and for happiness, and above all for service in our countryside."

farmers weekly was launched when farming was beginning to emerge from the Great Depression that followed the Wall Street Crash in 1929. Unemployment was high among the million and a quarter rural workers, three-quarters of whom were labourers. But things were improving because in late 1931 the government had been forced to abandon the Gold Standard, the artificially high level of the pound which had been set by Winston Churchill in 1925. Immediately the pound fell by 25% which made imports more expensive, and exports cheaper, thus laying the ground for a gradual economic recovery.

1934-1944, OUTBREAK OF WAR

THIS DECADE was dominated by the onset of war. The issue for Sept 8, 1939 - shrunk by two-thirds to only 36 pages - recorded its outbreak and the immediate and dramatic effect on farming.

In a small box, headlined This Week"s Orders in Brief, it set out the controls imposed by the government:

At least 1,500,000 acres to be added to the tillage area by the following harvest; petrol rationing introduced; prices fixed for cattle sheep and pigs; cereal stocks of more than 50t were to be requisitioned.

The editor"s response was a stirring piece, headed Responsibility, under a large picture of a farm labourer resting from his exertions while storm clouds gather overhead. "A campaign will be fought in the fields and factories of this country as crucial as any which might be fought overseas. It is up to us farmers to play our part with the same devotion and self-sacrifice that we expect from other services. The country cannot afford, and will not tolerate the lazy or incompetent farmer. We have our job to do - a great job. Let us get on with it in a spirit of devotion and, if needs be, of sacrifice."

1944-1954, BLACK WINTER 

AFTER THE war the government was still struggling to increase home production because it did not have enough foreign currency to pay for imports. Food rationing continued til 1954. In August 1947 a five-year plan was introduced to boost output from farming to over 50% above pre-war levels: Milk by 23%, eggs by 52%, and barley by 179%. Four new subsidies were introduced to drive this plan, as well as a raft of legislation covering agricultural holdings, wages, marketing and land services, all of which were to have a lasting effect. These followed hard on the heels of the devastation wreaked by storms in autumn 1946, followed by blizzards and floods in spring 1947.

Four million sheep and lambs were lost, 50,000 cattle died of hunger or cold or had to be shot; 24,300ha (60,000 acres) of wheat and 35,000t of potatoes were destroyed. In the Fens many farmhouses were ruined.

Bread rationing was introduced although it had not been necessary during the war. FW produced a special pamphlet, Black Winter, recording the disaster, priced 2/6, with proceeds going to help those afflicted. This is now a collectors" item and should be required reading for those who blame today"s relatively minor climate variations on global warming.

1954-1964, THE DESIRABLE PATTERN

THE OUTPUT targets set by the post-war Labour government were met by the mid-1950s. A new Conservative administration switched the emphasis to greater efficiency of production, and more openness to imports especially from the Commonwealth. However, it gave assurances in the Agriculture Act 1957 that supports would not be drastically reduced. This gave farmers the confidence to invest and crop yields improved due to higher yielding varieties, herbicides and fertiliser. Machines supplanted men at an increasing rate.

FW ran a long interview with the minister, Derick Heathcoat-Amory, on Apr 18, 1957, headed The desirable pattern. He made clear that precise targets for individual commodities were to be dropped and farmers must produce whatever the market wanted, meaning that quality and price must be right.

Agriculture ministers have ever since uttered such sentiments. In the same year, the Treaty of Rome established the European Economic Community, with a much more interventionist and protectionist approach to agriculture. The stage was set for a clash of philosophies which still bedevils the UK"s relations with mainland Europe.

1964-1974, CONFIDENTLY INTO 1973

THE UK joined the EEC in February 1973, after long negotiations. At the start of that year FW reviewed the position of its own farms - it then had six. All had enjoyed a good 1972, from intensive arable and dairying to livestock on the hills. "We enter the New Year and the Common Market with considerably more confidence than we have felt since the mid-1950s." This confidence was certainly justified, at least in the short to medium term, as farm prices in the UK were generally lower than CAP prices. But another major event for farmers had passed by without comment from FW. In July 1964 an Act was passed abolishing the maintenance of retail prices, so that shops could sell most goods for whatever price they wanted, not the ones the manufacturers had set.

That fuelled the rise of the supermarkets, which piled them high and sold them cheap. Today FW is full of complaints from readers that supermarkets have depressed farmgate prices while maintaining retail ones. Whatever the truth in these allegations, there is no doubt that supermarkets wield tremendous influence. I wonder if the architects of the 1964 Act realised what effect their creation would have on all our lives.

1974-1984, VICTORY

FOR MANY people the memorable part of this period was the two drought years 1975 and 1976 when we all thought it would never rain again. There was, though, another unusual event - a British triumph in Brussels, which was celebrated by FW as "probably our best Common Market bargain yet". In October 1980, agriculture minister Peter Walker declared the newly agreed sheep regime "a victory for the producer, the housewife, and for New Zealand." No mention of the taxpayer.

The absence of a uniform regime for sheep had led to so-called lamb wars when France had sought to restrict imports from Britain. The deal introduced deficiency payments in place of guaranteed prices, and set import quotas from New Zealand, which undertook not to sell into "sensitive areas," ie France. Prices in Britain at the time were well below the new reference prices and so the settlement generated a tremendous increase in sheep numbers here. This, in turn, led to complaints about overgrazing, and environmental degradation on the hills. Lobbyists portrayed farmers as despoilers of the countryside, an image which has proved hard to shake off, despite being wrong.

1984-1994, CHAOS AND DOUBT

HISTORY DOES repeat itself. In October 1990 Margaret Thatcher was persuaded by John Major and Douglas Hurd to put the pound into the European Exchange Rate Mechanism at too high a rate, making exactly the same mistake as Churchill had made in 1925. This depressed farming and industry generally.

On Sept 16, 1992, immediately but wrongly dubbed "Black Wednesday," the pound was forced out by speculators, and fell sharply. Quickly that proved a godsend for farmers who got a double benefit from higher prices and higher subsidies. No one who witnessed the events of that day unfolding in Downing Street will ever forget the chaos and doubt, as FW pithily described them. Norman Lamont, the hapless Chancellor, tried to defend the indefensible by raising interest rates twice within a few hours, from 10% to 12% to 15%, but to no avail.

The fall-out persists to this day - very few people want to give up the pound for the euro. The Conservatives lost their reputation for managing the economy, from which they are still suffering.

1994-2004, CRISIS UPON CRISIS

"NO REAL proof. No real evidence. Just maybe. That is all it has taken to throw the UK farming industry into the biggest crisis it has faced for nearly 30 years." That is how the editor started his half page leader on Mar 29, 1996, a little over a week after the announcement that BSE in cattle might be responsible for a new form of CJD in man.

We all know the tragic consequences of this finding, and there may well be further bad news to come. Although he had only a short time to reflect, the editor went on to make exactly the right recommendations:

Restore consumer confidence at home and abroad, without delay, by mass culling if necessary; no loophole in controls at slaughter houses and feed mills; a substantial investment in meat inspection; further R&D into CJD and BSE; and the government must recognise its responsibilities to hard-hit producers.

All these steps were adopted in time but it is only relatively recently that the beef industry has recovered, having had to endure the further agony of foot-and-mouth which claimed the lives of 7m animals, cost the economy 9bn and caused untold misery.

POSTSCRIPT

ALL 70 years of farmers weekly are available for inspection at the Museum of English Rural Life. My day spent studying these fascinating archives flashed by. Although the journal has become much fatter and technically more advanced, its layout and content have remained remarkably consistent over 70 years. I was left with admiration for a publication that had maintained its sense of purpose since the first issue.

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