Farming's frontline: Tales of hardship and resolve

As the industry battles with dreadful weather and soaring costs, four farmers tell Charlie Cooper of their personal struggles

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The Independent Online

The combined impact of a year of dreadful weather, two livestock diseases and soaring feed costs have left Britain’s farming facing their worst crisis since foot and mouth.

With Britain forced to become a net importer of wheat for the first time in a decade, as reported in The Independent  on Saturday, farmers have been speaking out about the personal impact of a year that has cost the industry £500m, according to the National Farmers’ Union.

“We had BSE, and foot and mouth twice. There’s always been something… this is the worst winter and spring I’ve known in 30 years,” said Angela Sargent, a farmer in Derbyshire, who lost corn to last year’s wet weather, cattle to bovine tuberculosis and lambs to both the Schmallenberg virus and snow. The NFU wants the Government to do more to help livestock farmers who have lost stock – up to a thousand lambs in some cases – by paying for the disposal of carcasses. It warns that dead animals are being stacked in farmyards  as the snow thaws.

Angela Sargent: It’s the worst winter and spring in 30 years of lambing

Angela Sargent, 54, has a 240-acre tenant farm near Etwall, Derbyshire, raising 100 beef cattle and 200 sheep, and corn to feed the livestock.

It’s been a grim year. It was so wet in 2012 we struggled to sow all that we needed for this year. Now half of the crops that we did manage to get in have failed and the other half aren’t growing because it’s so cold.

We were temporarily cut off by the spring snow. It was blowing straight in to our sheep shed. Normally the lambs would be dry, warm and snug in there, but it was freezing and snow was getting into the mothering pens so we lost many. I would bring them into the farmhouse kitchen and try and warm them up by the old range cooker. We tried all sorts, even drying them off with hairdryers. But we had lambs that died there in our kitchen.

It’s something people don’t understand. Of course you’re rearing them ultimately for slaughter, but you want to give them as good a start and life as they can have. It’s such a shame to see them die like that. But it’s out of your hands. It’s the worst winter and spring that I’ve known in 30 years of lambing. We’ve also been affected by the diseases that are spreading at the moment. We had two lambs born without eyes, we think because of Schamallenberg virus. Three weeks ago we found TB in one of our 10-year-old cows. The financial impact has been big – on the crops alone we’ve lost £30,000.

I don’t think there’s anything much anyone can do, nobody can control the weather. We’ve considered giving up, but I don’t want to yet, and I don’t know if we’d be able to.

My husband is a third generation farmer. Our children aren’t going to go into farming, so we will be the last generation of this family on this farm.”

Alistair Mackintosh: We found frozen lambs in the snow

Alistair Mackintosh, 54, has a farm near Ravenglass, Cumbria, with 1,000 ewes, 100 cows and growing oats.

We had horrendous snow during lambing time – and lost over 100 lambs and more than 20 ewes. That’s small compared to some of my neighbours. Some of them have lost hundreds, maybe near 1,000. This was two weeks ago – we had 48 hours of blizzard conditions. It was a whiteout –  I had no idea exactly where I was, even on my own farm. It was scary.

We went out on the Friday and the Saturday to try and rescue sheep and make sure they had feed, but we had to give up – we were putting ourselves at risk. Once the storm abated it took us three days to dig our way back into the fields.

Then we started to find frozen lambs under the snow. It was horrendous. A terrible time. I’m looking at losing in excess of £10,000. With the added cost of the extra feed you can put another £10,000 on top of that – a very expensive winter.

To help us through this we need consumers to get behind us, to stick by our product. I want them to look at farmers and say: “These guys are doing a good job and giving us a good-quality product”. Some of the poor lads near me have lost so many sheep they will be looking very hard at their business and doing some serious soul-searching.”

Guy Poskitt: Nature has a way of correcting itself

Guy Poskitt is a second-generation farmer in Kellington, in the East Riding of Yorkshire. He raises cereals, potatoes, carrots, parsnips and swedes across 10 sites, with 17 full-time staff.

We lost an awful lot of crops in the past winter – perhaps about 20 per cent of it. Now we have this very cold spring, which will mean the crops that are in the ground are growing slowly and the soil’s still very wet underneath.

Carrots, parsnips and swedes are our speciality and we’ve lost around 10 per cent of them – a financial loss of more than £150,000. Conditions are very bad in the north. There’s a substantial amount of land that will not be able to be farmed for arable at all this year, it has been that wet. In certain areas 30 to 40 per cent of the land will have to be left alone.

Farmers want to farm and they’ll want to get out and try and make something of it. But nature has a great way of correcting itself. Good growing conditions over the next few weeks could sort us out. It’s not all doom and gloom. But we have to be realistic. It’s a high-risk job.”

Tim Papworth: No whinging, but this is hard

Tim Papworth, director of LF Papworth Ltd, from Felmingham, north Norfolk, is a fourth-generation farmer with 5,000 acres, growing cereals, oilseeds, peas, beans, potatoes and maize.

It’s been difficult to manage the weather, but that’s one of the things us farmers have to do – we have to take what we’re given. We have potatoes left in the ground that we should have lifted in October. The quality and quantity won’t be so good. Many will have rotted away with the cold temperatures and wet soil.

This cold spring has put us back significantly on many of our crops. Potatoes are about a month behind – that will impact later in the year. It’s difficult, but we manage, and we don’t like to whinge about it. The long-term outlook is good.

Farmers are needed to feed the population, which is increasing, and export markets are expanding.