Flindt on Friday: Uncertainty’s the only certainty in farming

Many years ago, when life seemed simpler, and when the fridge wasn’t cleaned out daily by hulks, we had enough spare cash to go and enjoy a day’s racing.

We’d ring a few chums (Google “telephone”, kids), put some semi-smart kit on, and head up to Newbury. And when we got home, inevitably somewhat poorer, we’d get a semi-serious lecture on the evils of gambling from Dad.            

My reply – that there is no bigger gambler in the world than a farmer – would provoke a great deal of harrumphing from behind the Daily Telegraph, but no denial. How could he deny it?

See also: Read more from Charlie Flindt

OSR failure 

Take the last six months on this farm. At the end of September, we had just finished redrilling the Hangar field with oilseed rape, the first attempt having failed to grow. We never saw that coming.

It grew for a bit, took up some of the first dose of fertiliser, and then all but vanished. Last week, in a farming first for me, I went in with glyphosate and took out the survivors, ready for a replacement crop of spring barley.

So that was an expensive bet that didn’t pay off – although the decision not to put on pre-em grassweed-killer now looks a wise one, as the barley should be OK.

At about the same time, Billy Goat Gruff (who, despite the name, is actually a ram) was firing up his Barry White CD and working his romantic magic with Hazel’s flock of young sheep.

Numbers were down after a flock clearout following the long hot summer, so he had more time to schmooze those ewes.

The result? Last week, Dot had twins. And that was that. The inquiry is ongoing. Was it the summer? Was it the earlier lambing date? Should he have stuck with the Bee Gees? Or Sheep Trick?

Whatever next?

We farmers are gamblers, and gambling is all about one word: uncertainty. It’s not just on a long term basis that we don’t know what’s going to happen.

Take, as another example, last Tuesday. At 07.30, a cheery chap rang to tell me that the barley that should have come the week before (with 24 hours notice) would be here at 09.00.

So that would clash with the gutter repair men who were due at 09.30 to sort the damage some silly sod did with his new hedgetrimmer, and their cherry picker would be blocking the barn as a result.

And the NFU pensions man was due at 09.30 too. And then the man coming to mend the depth gauge on the sprayer rang to say he was on his way.

Several frantic phone calls got my farming world rearranged, and it wasn’t the world that I’d anticipated at 07.29.

Uncertainty: the only certainty

A 10-minute session with my loo book, Franklin’s 1948 compact masterpiece The History of Agriculture, is always calming and reassuring: it’s not just me and my little farm.

Our whole industry has battled since the dawn of time with the unforeseen, the unexpected and the unpredictable – although I bet Thomas Coke never had to deal with twits hitting the barn with a folded-up hedgetrimmer in 18th-century Norfolk.

My point – finally – is this: farming’s leaders and bigwigs seem to spend all day every day warning of the horrors of impending “uncertainty” around the B-word.

But farming has always been uncertain – over months, over years, over centuries – and it always will be.

If it’s cast-iron certainty you seek, try the Netherlands in the Eurovision Song Contest (with Russia an each-way). But keep that Telegraph handy: you can hide behind it when our song comes on.