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
News

literature

News
Dermot O'Leary attends the X Factor Wembley Arena auditions at Wembley on August 1, 2014 in London, England.

television

News
news
Arts and Entertainment
At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
photography
News
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
people
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
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.

    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing
    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower