David Richardson: Why meetings matter

When I was a boy the saying here in Norfolk was “February Fills Dykes“. I should explain to those for whom a dyke is a wall or a bank that in East Anglia it’s a ditch. In other words, February’s the month when we expect plenty of rain or snow and the ditches to carry lots of water.

These days we could add “February Fills Conference Halls”. There have been several every week of the month and the ones I’ve been to have been well supported. As always at this time of year, most days have been pretty wet so there’s been no chance of doing anything on the land. A relatively open autumn last year meant arable work was up to date before Christmas. So why not spend a few hours at a meeting – especially if it’s free and includes refreshments?

There’s a chance you might learn something to your advantage and here in the arable east, at least, it’s an opportunity for a crack with neighbours and friends.

Very few of us have livestock any more so seldom have cause to go to the market. A meeting run by the local land agent or accountant – even though it’s a thinly disguised marketing initiative on their part – is a pleasant excuse to spend a few hours in the warm when there isn’t much to do on the farm.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not belittling such meetings, discussion clubs or dinners. I regard them as an important part of farming life. And since I’ve spent several days travelling the country to speak at such occasions this month I’m the last person that should knock them. But I do believe they are as valuable socially as they are for business.

Farming can be a lonely life. The number of people working on most farms has declined to very few and on some there’s only the farmer left. Social contact is vital, not only to keep up-to-date, but also to break the monotony of single-handed working, sometimes against a background of financial stress.

At their best these occasions provide the lubrication for farming life to run smoothly. They also allow for malice-free mickey-taking among friends.

One discussion club dinner I attended in Essex a few nights ago, for instance, provided an opportunity for local wits to poke gentle fun at notable people within the group. “We now know why … doesn’t cut his hedges,” one speaker said. “It’s because he’s got so many misses in his wheat drilling. And he claims he’s left them deliberately for skylarks.”

Another speculated on how a prominent member was able to afford to change his machinery so regularly, implying in mock disgust that there must be something fishy going on. It’s the kind of banter you hear all the time on shooting days. And it’s at least as important as the sport.

I suppose other industries must have similar opportunities to socialise and poke innocent fun at one another. But my feeling is they may be a bit more guarded because of the competitive nature of their relationships. And I can’t believe they enjoy it as much as we farmers.

For us it’s a vital part of country life, much of which is lived in isolation demanding great self reliance. So on the rare occasions when we do get together we may let our hair down more than most. Long may such gatherings continue.

They’re one of the main reasons I so enjoy being part of the farming community.