'Steel's gone, coal's gone - why shouldn't farming go, too?'

  • @pvall

Jean Williams's husband and son were sitting at the kitchen table, smiling, when she returned. They ought not to have been in such a good mood. When she had left their farmhouse that morning all three of them had been dejected.

Jean Williams's husband and son were sitting at the kitchen table, smiling, when she returned. They ought not to have been in such a good mood. When she had left their farmhouse that morning all three of them had been dejected.

"I've been down to the jobcentre and got a list of all the local vacancies. Here's my computer print-out," she said, throwing it on to the table.

"Here's mine," said Godfrey, her husband.

"And here's mine," said Peter, her son.

All three of them had, separately, come to the same decision. It was not that the three of them don't have jobs. They do. They all share the thankless task of running the 140-acre family farm at Bradwall Green, near Sandbach, in Cheshire. It was a mixed farm of the old style with several fields of wheat and barley, a small beef herd and 90 dairy cattle.

At least, it was until 18 months ago when milk hit a low price of 12p a litre - about half of what it costs to produce - and the family decided to sell almost all their dairy herd.

The Williams family spread the jobcentre print-outs on the table. "What about the undertaker's," Godfrey said. "Funerals are usually between the hours of 10 and 4, which would leave me free to look after the stock, morning and evening."

And so it was that, at the age of 50, Godfrey one morning pulled off his wellies, put on his black suit, and left the farm his family had run for generations to begin a new job as a pall-bearer and polisher of hearses. As metaphors go it is a sombre one. For farming in Britain is a declining industry and its farmers are a dying breed.

It is not the only grim symbol. In Farndale, on the North Yorks Moors, John Forbett has sold all the sheep from his family's hill-top smallholding and has become a lavatory cleaner. And at Hale on Merseyside, Mike Elliott, 52, a pig farmer for 27 years, has sold his animals and allowed the land to become overgrown; he has recently received planning permission to turn the farm into a cemetery.

"It's culling-out time. Jobs have to go and we're one of them," Jean said. "Steel's gone, coal's gone; what's the big deal about farming going too?" she asked. Suggest that such talk is defeatist and she replies, simply: "We are defeated."

Beryl Otley could not disagree more strongly. "We're not giving in. We're a resourceful lot, us farmers' wives," she said as she attended to a customer at Dutton Farm near Upper Poppleton in the vale of York. From the farm Beryl has started up a business called Get Ahead Hats, which "through a UK network of country ladies, offers a complete hat sale, design and hire service".

"Unlike farming it's a cash business, it's 52 weeks of the year and you don't need bank loans to tide you over from one season to the next," she said. "We're not making great fortunes, but it makes the difference between giving up farming and carrying on."

Up in the heart of Swaledale, at Hazel Brow Farm near Low Row, Catherine Calvert noticed how much guests at her holiday cottages liked to watch milking or lambing at the farm, so she started a visitors' centre. "It now produces more than a third of the farm's total income," she said.

"There were some 12 million visitors to such open farms' last year, more than the total who went to the top five UK tourist attractions, including Alton Towers," according to Rob Simpson, of the National Farmers' Union. A recent NFU survey showed that more than 60 per cent of UK farms are now dependent on non-traditional sources of income.

Some, such as the undertaker's assistant, Godfrey Williams, have take jobs on the side. Farmers are also part-time postmen, firemen, and in one case a stand-up comedian. One farmer from Staffordshire, inevitably a beef specialist, even tried his hand at doing strippergrams.

But most try their hands in allied activities - landscaping, livestock haulage, running game shoots, agricultural surveying, supplying feed or grazing to horse owners, dry-curing hams and bacons, or rearing ostriches and llamas. The NFU estimates there are now more than 150 non-traditional occupations carried out by farmers.

One great growth area is farmers' markets where, in a throwback to the original idea of the marketplace, those who raise crops or livestock cut out the middle men and sell their produce direct to customers.

Most often they set up stalls in town centres, by roadsides or at any event where people gather in large numbers. But increasing numbers use the internet and next-day delivery couriers. Hazel Brow Farm, at www.yorkshirenet.co.uk/atasteofswaledale, sells freezer packs of lamb raised on pastures where thyme, parsley and sorrel grow wild; the scheme has upped the farm's income by about 20 per cent.

Back at Upper Poppleton, the hat-maker Beryl Otley has set up her own website at www.getaheadhats.co.uk. And another Yorkshire farmer's wife, Sally Robinson, of Valley View Farm near Helmsley, runs a mail-order business selling bras from www.amplebosom.com. Many of the most enterprising diversifiers are not farmers but their wives.

Not all the men, however. Ring Fred Walter and ask the name of his farm near Selby, North Yorkshire, and he does not respond with anything lyrical or bucolic. "It's called Fred Walter & Sons Ltd," he said.

A decade ago, when the sun seemed still to shine on the British farmer, Fred saw that the writing was on the farmyard wall. He has diversified to the extent that - as well as cultivating his own land - he does contract farming for others, reclaims gravel pits for tarmac, stores grain for a local corn merchant and has planted huge acreage of willow trees - to be coppiced on a three-yearly cycle to feed a pioneering new green power station that opens at Eggborough next year.

"Ten years ago we had two options - to stick our head in the sand and hope the looming problems would not materialise, or to diversify," he said.

Some 40 per cent of his income now comes from non-traditional farming activities.

Easier said than done, in the view of the farmers who now have to carry coffins or convert their land to cemeteries. At his defunct pig farm on Merseyside, Mike Elliott is aggrieved. "We were a very efficient producer of pigs - and totally unsubsidised," he laments. "What killed us were the restrictions the Government placed on us, from animal welfare requirements and the additional BSE abattoir charges to the extra cost of diesel. It has just driven pig production abroad to where animal welfare is worst."

Dairy farmers can tell a similar tale. Some 10,000 dairy farmers, one-third of the industry, have been forced to quit over the past five years. They blame profit-greedy dairy companies and supermarkets who have halved the milk price.

"At least the suicides are fewer now than they were a few years ago," said Godfrey's wife, Jean. "People realise it's the same problem for everyone; it's not just them."

"More like they can't afford the bullets any more," said Fred Walter sardonically.

It is not the kind of joke Godfrey Williams would think funny as, after milking his few remaining cows at dawn, he pulls off his wellies, dons his black tie and heads off for his day-job at the funeral parlour.