No-one is mourning butter mountains or wine lakes

The sun is shining, the grass is green, the blackbird sings as robins start to squabble in the garden; and the hens have started laying eggs, two a day so far. Is it spring? Is it climate change? Whatever it is, I like it!

Lorayne has had the lawn-mower serviced, and ready to go. We always argue about cutting the grass, she cuts too early in the season, and too low in the summer. Nothing short of slashing the tyres will stop her cutting next month if this weather carries on. But will it? There is a battle between the warmer wet fronts, against darker, dry but very cold weather; which one will win?

There is a meter of snow in Bulgaria and its minus 20 George tells me! Are the little birds and daffodils (and me) in for a shock?

We hope not and have applied a top dressing of Nitrogen at Tillington, the first time ever in January, and the electric fencing is all refurbished for the season ahead. There is no season as such at Tillington though, it just speeds up or slows down, with more stock or less stock, as Gwenan grazes heifers all year round on the sand, feeding some concentrates and straw (when necessary) in order to control the rotation length.

This is a very healthy and cheap way of rearing young-stock, but it does give them a long woolly coat, something not normally associated with the Holstein breed.

This last Sunday was ‘Plough Sunday’; traditionally celebrated in January, on the first Sunday of Epiphany, to mark the beginning of the agricultural year. The origins of Plough Sunday go back a long way, at least to medieval times, before farmers had their own ploughs, and when all crops were sown in the spring; unlike today when the majority of crops are drilled in the autumn.

The communal village plough would be brought out, decorated with ribbons, and God’s blessing would have been sought for the work of ploughing and tilling the land. I took part in Chichester Cathedral, where the NFU and The Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution, jointly get involved in this annual service. The service was led by The Very Reverend Nicholas Frayling, Dean, and the plough kindly provided by Mr Ivan Wadey of Ebernoe.

We are carrying our own inspection of all cattle this week in order to make sure that everything is in order. All animals will be put through the crush, ear tags read, matched to passports, so that everything on the farm can be matched to the British Cattle Movement Services data-base.

All births and movements can then also be checked, taking hours to carry out thoroughly, but essential in order to make sure that if we do have an inspection that everything is in order. We seem to get more than our fair share of visits and inspections (I wonder why!), and if things are not in order, large fines are imposed, with no regard to common sense and practicality, so we try and be prepared.

The Common Agricultural Policy is 50 years old this year (1962 – 2112). Now I don’t expect anyone to celebrate that, or throw parties in times of austerity, but it is something to contemplate. There is no doubt that the CAP founding principles of increasing agricultural productivity and efficiency, ensuring a constant and reliable supply of safe food to all consumers in Europe at reasonable prices has been a resounding success. We must of course acknowledge that due to government policy and EU policy in particular, being clumsy and taking too long to implement, the CAP had some darker moments, when agricultural methods went too far in certain directions, and too much food was produced, at the expense of the environment in some cases, with butter ‘mountains’ and wine ‘lakes’ just two examples of that overproduction.

But that was a long, long time ago, and many changes have since re-directed the CAP, with a better balance between productivity and the environment, animal welfare and bio-diversity. Sustainable and welfare friendly farming are now rewarded, whilst the cost of food is as low as it has ever been. The challenge of feeding a growing population in this country and the world over the next 20 years or so is exercising everyone’s minds, as the CAP goes through another reform.

In an ideal world, where markets worked, retailers played fair, extreme climate and drought did not hamper production, and farmers had money to re-invest and grow their business each year, the CAP may not be needed, but we are not there yet and food will never be left to the markets by politicians; it is far too important.

The NFU raised £200,000 for ‘Farm Africa’ in its Centenary Year, and one of our staff went out to Kenya recently to see what was being done with the money. The ‘Cassava Project’ has transformed the local people’s lives, as the yield of this root crop (Manioc - from the spurge family) has increased dramatically through selective plant breeding; giving people seed that will grow healthy plants, bred to withstand virus infection which normally devastates yields.

This tuber, which is used to make flour for baking, is the staple diet, and as it happens this breeding programme has not involved GMOs (not that it would have mattered or made any difference if it had), but has dramatically changed the lives of people, who otherwise have an existence where it ‘takes all day to live’ as someone once said.

Teenage drivers can now be tracked using a mobile phone! With the aid of a new ‘app’ which automatically alerts parents if young drivers exceed speed limits, or indeed turn off the device or drive too far from home, the ‘teen agree app’ is free and available for iPhones and Android phones; it must be downloaded and linked with a password.

Devised by an American couple to keep tabs on their 9 children (!) the device is proving to be controversial, as ‘experts’ suggest the device could cause friction and tells your children that you do not trust them.

I would like to see the NFU Mutual, our sister insurance company, find ways of improving its insurance rates for young people. Given that all customers are country people; the company is exposed to the most expensive claims in car insurance, which are accidents in the countryside involving several young people in a car, often with terrible consequences.

The company does not have the urban car insurance portfolio with the cheapest claims, in order to balance out the former. If such ‘app’ devices were involved, maybe the accident rates and astronomical insurance premiums that follow the carnage involved in claims could be lower. I would much rather have a stroppy teenager, hopping mad about my ‘lack of trust (and respect I expect!)’, than the potential consequences of inexperience and speed. I think it’s a good idea.

Gwyn Jones