Country Folk Will Make the Best of Hard Times
Getting through the Recession
The Daily Telegraph
January 7, 2009
By Clive Aslet
There is no such thing as bad weather, goes an old country saying, only bad clothing. That must be why the organisers of the Oxford Farming Conference chose to mount it in a marmoreal Victorian building, the Examination Halls, at the beginning of January. I and other shivering London journalists talked as much of thermal vests as of Nitrogen Vulnerable Zones as we tied up our scarves in an attempt to protect our own vulnerable zones. The farmers, meanwhile, strode around the place, probably feeling that the central heating made the atmosphere a little close.
This is one great difference between the metropolis and the countryside. In the latter, people are used to making the best of things and soldiering on. So their voice is not one that has sounded much since the credit crunch took hold. In the capital, you can hardly move for former high-fliers feeling sorry for themselves.
The countryside, particularly the part that relies on agriculture for its living, has been so battered by 15 years of economic woe that another disaster hardly registers. Besides, there's this to be said for living with animals: you can't stand moping for very long before you have to go out and feed them. Life goes on, whatever the state of the economy. Even so, I had expected to hear a trifle more resentment at Oxford than is doing the rounds.
It wasn't so long ago that the Government was so embarrassed by agriculture that it gave the Defra portfolio to Margaret Beckett. Her brief was to play a straight bat; avoid another foot and mouth, if possible; encourage farmers to do anything other than farm. The hayseeds took the hint and diversified. Barns, inconvenient for modern tractors, became office space; game shoots were developed to catch the corporate eye. The Notting Hill shopper wanted organic; farmers duly abandoned maximum production and converted to the organic system.
Metropolitan England was a money fountain, and the most the countryside could hope for was that a few golden drops would splash onto its boots.
Then the stopcock was turned off. The countryside wasn't responsible for the excesses of US bankers, but it is suffering. There is still money around in some quarters. A friend of mine, going into a gunsmith recently, overheard the following conversation behind a partition. " pounds 27,500: is that each or for a pair? One, is it? I'd better have a pair then.''
However, such anecdotes are now rare. Look at the number of advertisements for last minute cancellations from corporate shoots in Shooting Times. Barn conversions go unlet. The Notting Hill crowd finds it can manage with less ideologically pure purchases from the supermarket, now its wallet isn't so well stuffed. Might this make anyone who had invested in projects to delight the now penniless urban consumer rather cross?
There are two reasons why the bad temper doesn't show itself. (Three if you count the fact that country people are too polite to let it.) First, a tiny spark of optimism continues to burn in the breasts of those hardy outdoor folk. True, last year was a white knuckle ride for cereal farmers, who saw wheat prices skyrocket to pounds 180 a tonne at one point, before falling back to pounds 80. Inputs such as fertiliser, tied to the price of oil, went through the roof.
There was a record harvest, as the Secretary of State Hilary Benn said more than once, but atrocious summer weather meant that a fortune had to be spent drying it. The high wheat price made cattle feed expensive: so no cheer for dairy farmers, already disheartened by Benn's refusal to act against the badgers spreading bovine TB. As many as one in 10 pig farmers closed down. By the end of 2007, the land and its people were, you might have thought, on their way to becoming like those described by Jeremiah: "an astonishment, and a hissing, and perpetual desolations''.
Yet that seemed not to be the prevailing mood at Oxford. As the consultant Cedric Porter explains: "There is now more grain in the world, and prices have fallen. But the world still has only enough to feed itself for 66 days. An upturn in the global economy will mean shortages and high prices again.''
Not long ago, you could only get a good price for land if it had a nice house on it. Now, the market is for bare land, with perhaps a working barn.
Second, rural Britain doesn't have much of a cappuccino culture; it dislikes froth. The recession has blown that off and restored a degree of sanity. Falling house prices do not seem a negative in areas where locals have long complained of the impossibility of buying homes. In beauty spots, second homes are widely hated; there will be a lot of them on the market. Fancy restaurants may be suffering, but butchers are picking up custom from people wanting a treat to cook at home. More people will be holidaying in the countryside due to the falling pound. The recession will hurt country people, just as it does those in cities. But the natural resilience of the countryside will help it make the best of a bad job.