The cows are certainly better off inside for the time being

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Well I’m glad I didn’t turn the cows out! You may find it hard to believe this, by last Friday at Crouchlands, our young stock were beginning to make a mess in the fields. With almost two inches of rain this month, and more this week, the cows are certainly better off inside for the time being; especially as it has turned cold. I am not complaining, mind, the grass has accelerated at Tillington after the rain, and it is forging ahead at Crouchlands too. Our maize drilling was delayed by a couple of days, but was drilled in perfect conditions into moist seed-beds. With a third of it in the ground, we can relax a bit, knowing that the easy sandy soils can be worked as soon as the rain stops.

The early spring has brought a stunning display of wild flowers in the woodland; primroses, oxslip, violets wood anenomies, bluebells. The landscape is increasingly decorated with white, as the blackthorn, cherry, crab-apple and in an old orchard we have plum and an old pear tree all covered in frothy blossom.

The old adage of a ‘blackthorn winter’ lives up to its reputation of a cold, more wintery spell when they bloom. We also have thistles! A few less now, as it is getting to be a bit of an obsession of mine this year to dig them up; a spade on my shoulder now each time I check stock, fences, water, and I see them at a hundred paces, striding over to dig them up.

I have broadband at Crouchlands! Before you get too excited, it is not that the Government has held its promise to make sure all country areas have broadband by 2012; far from it.

With the increased likelihood of Plaistow village (40 mins from Putney Bridge at the right time of day) not getting broadband anytime soon, and BT completely losing interest in the old dial-up system, I bit the bullet and ordered a satellite dish which seems to have revolutionized the world of communication via my computer.

This will not affect my attempts to make sure that all rural areas do get this basic necessity these days for running a business and for general communication. I shall continue to criticize and hold Government (which ever colour) to account on the promise that there would not be ‘digitally disadvantaged’ rural areas in this country.

After a hectic week of interviews with Welsh radio and TV last week about drought and hose-pipe bans, I was sad to read that dairy farmers in Wales are not planning to expand their production, which is a very different picture to Ireland, who are planning to increase milk production by 50 per cent in the next 10 years. Independent consultant Ian Browne (who was speaking in Wales recently) commented that ‘with the level of rainfall, a good range of air and soil temperature promoting all year grass production in many areas, conditions are near perfect for dairy farming’.

Julie Macleod (senior market analyst) commented that only a third of Welsh producers are planning to increase production, with half of the current dairy farmers simply maintaining output. The Welsh Government’s Agriculture Minister is planning a dairy ‘summit’, to put together the best possible CAP (Common Agriculture Policy) package for dairy farmers.

I think he is missing the point. What is the difference between Welsh and Irish dairy farmers? Confidence; confidence which is based on two things, transparent markets and a government which is supportive; with the fundamental test of government on side being action on bovine TB.

The world of dairy is very good at the moment, strong demand in the world, good prices which enable us to cover the increased prices of feed and fertilizer and fuel (when the Government is not preventing us from getting any). Growth in this country’s household purchasing has been strong, with an increase of 10 per cent over the last 4 years in cheese for example.

Dairy is exceptional value and incredibly healthy of course, and delicious, especially if you ignore the rubbish about fat and experience the full taste of full fat dairy products, which are far better for you.

As a Sainsbury’s supplier, I have been voting on the negotiated offer to have my milk price based on the cost of production.

A model has been drawn up, incorporating the costs associated with the costs of producing milk, with a regular review on those costs that dominate and are becoming increasingly volatile in this uncertain and fast moving world. All the Sainsbury’s dairy farmer suppliers voted last week, and we need a two thirds majority in favour of the new proposal in order to have it implemented.

As far as I am concerned it is a ‘no-brainer’; given that the UK price of milk for the best part of 80 years (since before the Milk Marketing Board was invented, during its tenure, and since); has been near the bottom of the European price table, and often below the average cost of production Its no secret which way I voted!

I am pleased to see that consumer awareness and confidence in the ‘Red Tractor’ continues to increase. Even more important is the fact that more consumers know what it stands for, and that six in 10 shoppers are influenced by the logo.

Food safety and traceability, knowing where one’s food comes from, is the main reason given by shoppers, and the biggest group with the biggest increase in Red Tractor shopping, are families with children. Looking at the retail market as a whole, I see that China has now overtaken the USA as the biggest grocery market in the world; £607 billion (USA £572 b), with growth forecasted to push China further ahead in the next three years. The ‘BRIC’ countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) are all in the top five, with the UK grocery market in 8th position worth £162 billion.

Reading Professor Tim Lang’s (Professor of food policy at City University London) article in the ‘Grocer’ magazine, where he blames speculators for driving food prices up and market volatility in particular, he makes a poignant observation regarding the importance of food and its effect on society.

Having chastised the Government for cuts to Working Tax Credit for low earners (212,000 working couples with children, earning less than £17 per annum), and the fact that a single unemployed parent has to live on a shrinking job-seeker’s allowance of £67.50 a week, Professor Lang spelt out what effects he expects to see on public health.

In his closing remarks, he sums up why food is so much more than just another commodity. ‘In public health, we foresee long-term damage from a vicious circle; bad food, bad living, bad educational performance, bad culture, drain on society. Next time you read of food prices going up here, don’t just think about low income countries, where 70 per cent of income may go on food. Think also about here, your shop, your street, your NHS costs’.

Gwyn Jones