It’s a month of misery

I AM SURE most people are familiar with the phrase annus horribilis saidby the Queen in her Christmas address to the nation a year or two ago.

While not intending to compare ourselves in any way with the events which befell the royal person in that tragic year, October for us has, without doubt, been a mensis horribilis. I have cribbed this from my son”s Latin dictionary and probably got it terribly wrong, but I expect you have got the drift by now.

Work wise we have had a stop-go relationship with the drill; we still have potato land to get into wheat at Sacrewell Lodge and three fields in a state of partial completion, with both barley and first and second wheat to finish off.

Perhaps we are being too fussy, but when the seed fails to cover regardless of the drill and power harrow setting, it is time to give up. We have mauled wheat into some appalling conditions over the years following sugar beet, but this year the seed-beds behind the plough are so wet they handle like soft plasticine.

I am also mindful that with the wheat price just over £60/t, it makes sense to make the best job one can to establish a viable crop before investing in the variable inputs of pesticides and fertiliser on something that may make a negative contribution to the farm’s profit and loss account.

Having had an excellent record over the years with labour relations, we have come unstuck recently with two young members of staff. We have tried to make three positions available to young people wanting a career in agriculture, which, hopefully, would benefit both us and them and help fulfil our part in keeping a pool of keen and qualified people within the industry. Looking at college rolls today, this may be a vain hope.

The post of farm management trainee, created when we took on Sacrewell Lodge, has worked well and is ably filled by Graham Johnson. On the pig unit we have employed a series of young graduates in the post of farrowing specialist, which until recently has also proved successful. But what happens when the young hopeful loses the momentum to move onwards after three years and becomes no longer motivated?

Under present employment legislation the options are not too numerous and after a protracted few months of negotiations, we have had to let the present incumbent go. His temporary replacement is being provided by a staffing agency at some considerable cost while we look around for someone else.

The third position, that of sandwich year student, has been in existence since 1989, during which time I like to think we have helped 15 young people to gain practical skills and qualifications on numerous training courses. They, in return, have given us hard work and commitment for 14 months.

At least, that was the case until this year, when in the middle of one of the most difficult autumns for some years and with staffing problems in the pig unit, I was handed two weeks’ notice by our latest student. Although barely 17 years old and without a driving licence, he complained of not being given enough responsibility. The post has now been filled at short notice with the help of Titania Staffing Solutions, an agency from Tamworth in Staffordshire, specialising in labour from the new entrant EU countries.

Donatas from Lithuania is a farmer’s son aged 18 and keen to work in the UK to improve his English and earn money to finance his way through university back home.

Is that the way forward? Certainly, my phone calls to agriculture colleges in the UK have drawn no response. In one case I was told that the college had no students studying agriculture.

Our machinery, tractors, combines, fertiliser and many other inputs come from abroad, why not labour? Unfortunately, so does a lot of our food. I have just returned from a sugar reform grower meeting called by British Sugar and the NFU. The message was clear: Unless we can change some of the proposals in the European Commission White Paper, sugar beet growing in Europe is dead. With 450,000 growers in the 25 countries of the EU, employing 1m people, that would be a disaster.

We are all encouraged to lobby our MPs and MEPs on proposals that could mean a UK quota cut of 180,000t and a 37% fall in the price of sugar beet after three years.

That would mean the loss of one of our most profitable enterprises, not to mention the effect on our inputs by losing a spring break crop and the impact on wildlife.

And then the crowning glory, our two-year-old Land Rover Defender with a net book value of 14,400 was stolen with the keys in the ignition from a field headland where we were ploughing and drilling wheat at Sacrewell Lodge. The insurance was invalidated and our profit and loss has had yet another hit.

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