The Year with No Summer – From The Province of the Cat
At the end of September, under the super-sized “Blood Moon” of a lunar eclipse, the Caithness farmers finally took their combines to the barley fields to begin the harvest of 2015. Three consecutive days of drying, ripening sunshine was the most they had seen since early April and at last now there was a weather window in which work could begin, albeit several weeks later than usual. This had been the year with no Summer and was almost, because of the poor growing season, the year with no harvest. But as an old farmer told me “If ye go intil the thing expectin naehin, then anything ye get oot oh it is sumhain, a bonus.”
With three times the average rainfall in July and a cool sunless Summer, and with what in the North of Scotland is often called by the farmers “catchy weather” in the middle of August which didn’t help the crops ripen, the consensus was that it is a miracle there was a harvest at all. At the end of September, for many farmers in the Far North, it was now or never as a lot of the barley was beginning to “brackle” (the shedding of leaves and the breaking of stems due to constant wind and rain). The moisture content, the nitrogen level and the grain weight, usually so crucial in deciding when to cut, was put to one side as everyone was content just to see the combine’s drum turning and the grain being tractored off in trailers. Grain in the barn is, usually, less worry than grain in the field.
In reality cereal yield production (in tonnes) is likely to be down as much as 20% and the barley price has fallen steeply fetching around £90.00 a tonne. Wheat, which is not grown in Caithness but is in in Aberdeenshire and eastern Scotland, is coming in at £110.00 or less a tonne. Most of the barley grown in the North goes to distillers or brewers who have an unhealthy market monopoly as do supermarkets on other forms of agriculture such a meat, dairy, fruit and vegetables. In general, in Scotland, as much as 55% of the barley produced goes into animal feed and only 35% into malting. Last year Scotland produced 2.1 million tonnes of barley and 989,000 tonnes of wheat. 24,000 hectares of oats were grown and 37,000 hectares of oilseed rape. From these figures alone you can see that Scotland is a rich country. Scotland produces over 12% of the UK cereal crop while Scotland represents 28% of the total barley growing area of the UK. The UK is the third largest cereal producer in the EU after Germany and France. Scotland for its geographical size and population is a major food producer. That most of the grain goes to feed animals – beef mainly – is absurd even though beef is by far the largest sector of Scottish agriculture and in 2013 was worth £756 million.
If all this is so – and if you doubt me just consult NFU Scotland and who could question such an objective body? – then why are there more farms on the market than there has ever been and why is the number of practising farmers in decline? The size of the machines working in the barley parks has grown in mindboggling proportions as concurrently over the past 50 years production has more than doubled as science and technology have become an essential component in agriculture.
But all this is in jeopardy. Caught between the twin headlights of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the Basic Payments Scheme (BPS) – i.e. subsidy – on one hand and the ever increasing pressure to be bigger in order to be better on the other and with costs (fuel, fertiliser etc) increasing and commodity prices falling farming, as we have grown to know it in Scotland, is under threat. For many people in other sectors of society farmers have cried wolf far too often to garner much sympathy and it is well known in Urbania that famers are always moaning about this and that. “It’s too wet.” “It’s too dry.” “It’s too hot.” “It’s too cold.” On and on forever. But this coming December could be the end of the line for many farmers when the cheques are in and they sit down and look at the books and decide that the game is most certainly a bogey.
Once the harvest is in can Caithness farmers look forward to a better year (in weather, yields, financial returns) next year? Who knows, but I doubt it. The weather pattern (as evidenced over the past ten years) is for longer Winters with Spring shortened into a wetter Summer and Autumn flicking like a switch into Winter. The other problem faced by farms in the Far North is that by “British” or even EU standards they are too small. There are perhaps half a dozen farms (as opposed to estates) between Dunnet Head and Helmsdale that are over 1,000 acres. The average size is around 300 to 500 acres. These “units” are just too small to be trapped in the mono-crop cash-culture of the CAP of the EU and the BPS schemes of the UK and Scottish governments. Retail giants such as TESCO and ASDA compound the situation by forcing the price they pay the supplier for their products ever downwards in their continual war for footfall while at the same time turning rural centres into retail deserts. The distillers and brewers who consume the barley for their products are mostly foreign owned and 90% of the profits from whisky alone leaves Scotland and benefits no-one living here.
On the other hand you have such movements as the “Ecomodernists” : “Nature Unbound: – Decoupling for Conservation” (a loose association of academics and individuals from around 20 or so universities and institutes but condensed by three of them into this report) who believe that people should be “decoupled” from the land through a massive and rapid urbanisation. Through scientific development, technological efficiency the Ecomodernists believe that human encroachment on the natural world can be reduced – as the population will have to be similarly reduced – and that people can “increase their standard of living while doing less damage to the environment.” This way all of “us” can become rich and green. Or turn into refugees in Urbania or environmentally denuded monsters.
In the North of Scotland, in the past, similar schemes have come to be known as Land Enclosure and the Highland Clearances. We do not need less people in the Highlands and Islands: we need more. What we also need urgently is land reform. Whatever miracle we are searching for it will only come with the redistribution of land from the few to the many. The land owning elite have to make way for the land owning and working majority. Throughout the world from South Korea to Japan land diversification and the wealth created from it has been used to develop small scale industries and a vibrant economy. However we are to feed ourselves in the future it will not come from mass urbanisation or be the result of dictates from on high but from schemes and developments which sustain the agri-base and are administered by the people on the ground. Both the Common Agricultural Policy of the EU and the detached and soulless theorising of academics and Ecomodernists will still leave us ploutering around our barley parks in the rain watching our way of life draining off into the ditch of history.
2015 in the Far North of Scotland was “The year with no Summer”. 1816 was another “Year with no Summer”. During it, in Switzerland, Mary Shelley, aged 18, wrote “Frankenstein – A Modern Prometheus” in the Villa Diodati on the shore of Lake Geneva. As she did so thousands of people died from starvation all across Europe as the skies were filled with the Sun-blocking ash cloud from Mount Tombora, the Indonesian volcano which had exploded the previous year, and acid rain poured down poisoning water systems and wiping out harvests. The central tragic drive of Mary Shelley’s revolutionary novel is that once Victor Frankenstein has created his human familiar, and for the “best” of all reasons, he is horrified by what he has done, refuses to give his creation a name, cannot love it and abandons his “monster” to its fate. Suffering chronic and needless rejection, un-nurtured and unloved, the “monster” takes terrible revenge.
Is modern agriculture our “monster”? Is it now just so large, so mono-productive, techno-obsessed and enslaved to the interests of big business and addicted to subsidy that we can no longer recognise it as farming and so, subsequently, cannot love it? The mixed arable farms of my grandfather’s time where grown men bled empathy into a half-acre of neeps and nurtured enterprises which ensured that no-one in the district would ever starve is a world gone the way of the Inca. Agriculture, like every aspect of our lives, has been financialised to the point where a lot of farmers are using their potential crop yields as an entry into the Futures Trading Market which in case you do not know is a form of investment which involves speculating on the price of a commodity going up or down in the future. This is the modern Promethean world where a farmer gambles on the value of his own crop; this is the sordid algorithm of capital which now gives us crypto-cereals: along with drive towards genetically modified crops becoming normal this is the Frankenstein world of modern farming. 2015 may have been the “Year with no Summer” but it is also the latest chapter in the book of the “age with no empathy”.
It is interesting to note that the word “verse” comes from the Latin “vertere” which means “to turn”, as in ploughing so there is, thankfully, an etymological link between poetry and putting a seed in the ground. The greatest champion of this beautiful relationship, other than our own Robert Burns, was Publius Vergilus Maro (70BC – 19BC) or Virgil as he has become known. He begins his great poem to the land, “The Georgics”, with this declaration:
“What cheers the grain, beneath what star to turn
the soil, Maecenas, when to wed vines
to the elms, what care the cows, what care
the flocks require, what skill the thrifty bees, –
here I begin my song.”
What “cheers the grain” would be an injection of empathy into the natural world and the environment before the “Year with no Summer” turns into the “Year with no harvest” and subsequently the “Year with no food”. It is difficult to predict what “star to turn the soil” the farmers of the future will be working under. But Scottish farmers are a resilient breed and there is already talk within the food producing community about a farming life after subsidy, something you would never have heard even two years ago. By their very nature farmers have to look to the future and plan accordingly. Without CAP and BSP farming in Scotland would shrink. Would that be a bad thing if it meant that the farms produced the food the people of Scotland ate and did so naturally?
The morning after the Blood Moon shone down red and beautiful on the quilted barley acres of Caithness I watched a friend of mine climb into his Class combine harvester and head off into a wide open field of barley which swayed in the sunlight of our brief Indian Summer as if it had been painted by Van Gogh. “Ye’ll be happy now, Andrew” I said to him. “Uch”, he replied, “The barley’s good the now, but the corn (oats) is as green as leeks!” And off he roared to show to history what “cheers the grain”, as optimistic as Virgil.
©George Gunn 2015
George Gunn will be reading from and signing copies of his new book “The Province of the Cat” (from Island Book Trust http://www.theislandsbooktrust.com/) at Picaresque Books in Dingwall at 2.00 pm on Saturday 17th October as part of “Word on the Street”.