2007 - 2021

The Year with No Summer – From The Province of the Cat

XUvst3RlAt 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”.

Comments (10)

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  1. Dougie Blackwood says:

    There is little help for farmers in the north. Our climate is never going to be the best for growing grain of rearing animals as the short summers, long winter nights and incessant rain and wind will always reduce yields and increase costs. In the hard world of global competition they will always be at the end of the queue when profits are being distributed. These facts do not mean that we should not take action to improve their lot and to improve production of food locally.

    The cost and availability of land is a major factor as is the cost of fuel for machines, heating and lighting. The present land bill being considered by the Scottish Government is a case of “deckchairs on the Titanic” but until we have the powers to really tackle the problem it is unwise to poke our masters in the House of Lords and Tory government with something radical. Energy costs are a scandal with a cartel of 6 big companies creaming off profits and the Westminster government set to maintain the fuel taxes at the present or higher level.

    Join the dots. We need a government run fuel supply company managed on a not for profit basis; we need an effective land management and ownership regime that frees up land for both agriculture and affordable houses throughout Scotland. Let me add that we also need a real “Bank for Scotland” – think Clydesdale Bank (up for sale) – that is again run “not for profit” to provide seed and start up capital to let both farmers and people with good ideas get on with making Scotland profitable.

  2. George Gunn says:

    Dear Dougie,

    you should have written the piece, as your comment goes straight to the heart of the matter. I’m not so sure we need to poke lightly the ermine arses in the Lords but your point about the power to do anything lasting and meaningful is well made. Without land redistribution and the cash flow – through a real bank, not a casino ponzy racket -to the people who work the ground we will see depopulation and everything which goes with it. The tragedy is thatthe inner acres of Caithness and Sutherland, where there is good land turning to peat, there is no one and nothing is grown. Sporting estates deny the people an economy and it is a crime.

  3. raddledoldtart says:

    I was impressed by a discovery made by a friend who moved to a rural village in Lincolnshire -that a local farm sold to locals their excess and unwanted (by the supermarkets!) crops through a stall, payment through a honesty box arrangement. Consider how much better than foodbanks this arrangement is. People struggling to buy food, get fresh locally grown vegetables of their own choice (if the kids like peas but not carrots – and hate the foodbanks’ ubiquitous value baked beans – not a problem!) and can choose privacy rather than fear of public shaming (or the fear of official records held against them in the future) about the state of their finances. How pleasureable would it be to think that Tesco no longer profited from the poverty stricken?

  4. Gordon Bickerton says:

    Didn’t New Zealand cut agricultural subsidies out almost completely and the farmers survived?
    Also, we know what works for agriculture south of the border doesn’t work here, nor, as you say, does EU regulations.
    As for reducing the rural population, the enlightened immigrants from south of the border to our Highlands and Islands would indicate some have had enough of urban or city life.
    IMHO we are becoming more educated to the realisation that governments are dancing to the tune of corporations.
    More of our young are voicing their opinion that enough is enough.
    It gives me great hope.

  5. john young says:

    Repeat we need to bring back into public ownership all of the utilities inc banks where we could encourage new small businesses through reductions in the cost to them,we should control the housing market whereby we could charge reasonable rent/mortgage payments freeing up much needed readies,I am not sure the SNP will deliver,I am of the opinion that they will/are just another group of self seekers.

    1. dennis mclaughlin says:

      In other words SNP = BAAAD!.

  6. Broadbield says:

    Farmers respond to the economic imperatives – if there’s a subsidy to pull up hedgerows then they’ll dig them up; if there’s a subsidy to plant hedges then they’ll plant hedges. I was a farmer. It’s one of the few businesses where the price of all your inputs and the price of all your outputs are decided by someone else. And the price of your outputs rarely goes up. In the 90’s malting barley was fetching £200/tonne – heady days, long gone – and the price of cows has barely changed since we bought our first one in the 80’s. As a farmer you lead a very isolated business and often social existence and have little clout.

    If consumers want chicken for £1 then you’ll pack them into sheds; if they won’t pay a decent price for prime, slow-grown grass-fed beef then you’ll rear fast growing tasteless pap in feed lots so that people can gorge on 16oz steaks. (when we have a sirloin we eat about 2oz each) Many consumers have little knowledge of how food is produced or where it comes from and don’t seem to care as long as it’s cheap and they can get whatever they want at any time of year. Strangely, food is both too cheap and too dear.

    It’s cheapness (for many) means that often it not appreciated as a vital resource, but as just another commodity which has to be bought as cheaply as possible and then thrown out and wasted if not eaten before the dreaded best by/before dates – most food waste comes from the kitchen, apparently and not supermarkets. (of course supermarkets are problematical in many ways, including waste, and in they way they drive down prices) Buying cheap usually means you’re not buying quality, but it also means the farmer isn’t getting a fair return and therefore his livelihood is in jeopardy.

    For some food is also too dear, even though as a proportion of the weekly income it’s a fraction of what it was a few decades ago. The rise of food banks, as the UK government has remorselessly embarked on a transfer of wealth from poor to the rich, bear testimony to this as many struggle to feed themselves and their families.

    As a society we have to think about what we want from our rural and farming communities. I would like to see and end to factory farming, monoculture, dependence on herbicides, insecticides, artificial fertilisers and all the other ingredients that seem to have become indispensable to modern intensive agriculture. I would like to see the return of smaller family farms – something between crofting and large scale farming – producing quality, naturally grown meat, cereals, fruit and veg.

    Scotland’s uplands are ideal for rearing native breed cattle without the need for concentrates – we never fed barley or nuts other than an occasional handful to keep them friendly – slow-maturing breeds like the Angus, Highland, Galloway etc producing great beef, which should be eaten in small portions and only occasionally. Cattle are also great for bio-diversity, but they are disappearing from our hillsides.

    If we want low-input low-output extensive farming then we have to find ways of making it sustainable and that means money. Otherwise you’ll have to keep eating beef, pork and poultry from factories or become vegetarian, much of which is also factory produced.

  7. Tony Rozga says:

    Enjoyable read George, it is all down to ownership of land. Scotland has massive estates and large farms, where agri-biz is the driver. We need to get back to Agri…CULTURE! This can be done by having more farming families looking after and owning many more smaller farms.

  8. Douglas Murray says:

    Good article. Sorry to lower the tone, but my sleepy night-shift brain now has me listening to a techno obsessed Virgil. Toga step.
    Eenz-eenz doomph doomph
    To the
    Eenz-eenz doomph doomph…

  9. deewal says:

    Thank you for another great article Mr Dunn.

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