21 September 2001


Neil Datson laments

the sorry state

of British

farming but counts a

few blessings, too

It has been an epic year for figs. Not a crop that comes high up most farmers priorities, but it figures in mine. In our yard at Spelsbury are two trees, planted by a lady who spent the First World War nursing in Serbia and came back with a liking for figs. I like nearly all fruit, but figs are a favourite. They cannot travel more than a few miles, which is why the dry lumps of puce cotton wool that are sold in the UK never tempt me. If you want figs go to a tree, not a shop.

In which, of course, I am lucky. Thanks to Kaiser Bill and Elsie Corbett, I can enjoy my own figs. Even more, whether due to global warming or the maturity of the trees, over recent years they have cropped better and better.

Farming, meanwhile, has become worse and worse. Prices are low, subsidies are declining, and we have just come through one of the most difficult and frustrating arable seasons that most will remember. On this farm we did not have three dry days together between mid-September and mid-December, and some fields wouldnt have borne a tractor until April. Yet most of our land is fairly light, and from what travelling I have done, the crops in north Oxfordshire have looked better than most. Worse still than the weather has been notifiable disease, swine fever in the autumn of 2000 and this year foot-and-mouth.

Possibly the gloomiest thing of all is the most intangible. Many farmers will not stay in business in the current economic climate, and circumstances beyond our control have made the struggle all the harder. But it does seem that we are not wanted. The way in which F&M has been reported by the media makes farmers wonder who is living in the parallel universe. Is it us, or the rest of the nation? There has been a feeling of terrible unreality in reading the national press, and discovering that it is all about profiteering, compensation millionaires and deliberately spreading disease.

Harvest is a good time for taking stock. Things may be difficult, but every farmer has something to thankful for. We live in a democratic country that is at peace, and we live in some of the most beautiful parts of that country. We see something of nature every day. Many owner-occupiers are wealthy, and few live in absolute poverty. Almost every town has at least one street where I would not choose to live, and almost every city has at least one district where I would fear to live. But somebody has to, and frequently it is the people with the least choice and the least freedom.

Recognising your good fortune does not mean becoming complacent, or meekly accepting unfairness and injustice. It means keeping a sense of perspective and not allowing difficulties to take over life to the exclusion of everything else. It enables you to see that there is more than one side to every question. It helps you to take a positive outlook.

Although nothing is more difficult than being positive when times are hard nothing is more important. While farmers have never been the whingeing subsidy junkies that they have frequently been called, too many have been looking round and expecting others to save them. It isnt going to happen. Individually and collectively, it is farmers who will have to solve their own problems.

See more