COUNTRY & GARDEN: Country Matters - Digging in for the long term

All over the country farmers are going out of business. Dairy herds are being disbanded, sheep slaughtered and buried, pig-breeding units are closing down. Yet there are thousands of men who have no intention of quitting just because times are hard - and among the stayers is Francis Evans, who farms high on the south-western fringe of the Cotswolds.

A big, burly man, with a deep, slow voice, he is a quintessential English farmer, to whom growing crops and raising livestock are as natural as breathing. Now 69, he has devoted his life to the land, and though the current crisis is forcing him to adapt his methods, the idea of stopping has no place in his outlook.

Francis's family have been farmers for generations. Before the parliamentary enclosures of the 18th century, his ancestors on his mother's side reared huge numbers of horses on the Mendips, in Somerset. The animals were destined for transport work in London, and herds of them would be driven to the capital, up what is now the A4.

The forebears of Francis's father were established on the Cotswolds by 1860, and today he farms 600 acres, half owned, half rented. The operation - on a relatively small area - is still just viable because the farm is run as a family unit. His sons, Stephen and Simon, both work full time; his wife, Monica, takes in bed-and-breakfast guests.

Most of the land is high and cold - at least 700ft above sea-level - and some of it is too steep to cultivate, especially where the plateau falls away in undulating banks towards the escarpment above the Severn valley. All the fields have names, handed down over the centuries, and often they reflect the nature of the ground. "Clay Hill" speaks for itself, and so does "Stony Croft" - although this last scarcely does justice to the mysterious objects scattered about its surface.

The shallow soil is full of "brash" - pieces of limestone that have broken off the underlying rock - and in hundreds of the stones are embedded fossil skeletons of scallops and other sea creatures - which shows that these hills were once on the ocean floor, and must have been forced upwards millions of years ago by some gigantic upheaval of the Earth's crust.

On their better fields the Evanses grow wheat and barley, alternating with oil-seed rape, which breaks cycles of disease in the cereals.

Looking out over the winter wheat in the Thirty Acres, Francis can tell me exactly what every phase of cultivation has cost: ploughing, pounds 9 per acre; tilling (twice), pounds 2.70; drilling, pounds 6; seed, pounds 15. No fertiliser has gone on to the field yet, but an application in spring will cost pounds 11-pounds 12 an acre. Eventual harvesting will come to pounds 21 an acre and, if the weather is wet, drying the grain will cost anything up to pounds 9 per ton.

Yet by far the most expensive item will be the various sprays - herbicide for suppressing weeds, and fungicides to kill off diseases that would otherwise attach themselves to the growing crop. Taking all this into account, the field will have to yield more than three tons to the acre to make any margin above cost.

In the last four years the price of wheat has fallen drastically, from a peak of pounds 130 per ton to its present pounds 68, and one leading merchant is already quoting pounds 62 for next year's harvest. Paradoxically, in spite of this gloomy outlook, more people are going into cereals, as farmers forced out of dairying look round for a new alternative. The inevitable result will be a grain mountain next autumn. This year's harvest produced four million tons of wheat for export, but it looks as though next year's total will be at least six million - and that will push the price down further.

In the middle of these upheavals, Francis is adapting all the time. He has reduced the size of his sheep flock, but is converting some of his less productive arable land into grazing - for, in spite of all the scares about BSE, it is beef that has kept the farm going. The secret is that it runs a suckler herd - cows rearing their own calves - so that every animal's history is known and controlled.

Farmers, Francis reckons, "are going through a traumatic period of change". Yet he is sustained not only by natural optimism, but also by his deep knowledge of history; he knows that agricultural depressions are cyclical, and that many have come and gone before this one.

He points out that when the wool industry collapsed in the 1840s, hundreds of families left destitute in his area were shipped off to Canada and America, leaving their houses to fall down and disappear. In the great depression of the Thirties, 60 acres of land just west of his own holding were abandoned, and reverted to scrub. Now they are back in hand - but who knows if they may go wild again?

Luckily he has an extra string to his bow, in that he owns a considerable area of woodland and is a skilled forester. In the last 20 years many farmers have succumbed to temptation and sold their woods to professional firms which buy and manage on behalf of investors. Now Francis is more glad than ever that he has held on to his, as the trees produce steady income from thinnings, and go on growing whatever the economic climate.

The point about him is that, although officially retired, he never stops working. If he is not helping on the farm, he is in the woods or rebuilding collapsed sections of the dry-stone walls that bound the fields - a task which gives him huge satisfaction.

In his youth, when milking by hand, he spent hours leaning against cows' flanks, observing the patterns used by masons in the stonework of the barn. Now he re-creates those patterns in the walls, making sure that every junction between stones is covered by the one above. On a good day he can complete two linear yards - but, as he says, "the wall's got to be put up proper. If he's only going to last half a lifetime, it becomes an expensive exercise."

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam