Oliver Walston: At a time like this, agriculture is the business to be in

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The Independent Online

Amid the encircling economic gloom in Britain today, alert observers will occasionally notice small beams of light which illuminate the night sky. This phenomenon is caused not by meteorites entering the atmosphere but by two or more farmers meeting for a drink.

Happiest among this tightly knit band of economically motivated men are the sheep farmers who are enjoying the sort of prosperity which would have been unimaginable to their grandfathers.

A fat lamb (ie the animal before it becomes lamb chops) today is worth around £100, which is as much as a tonne of wheat. Two years ago the same farmers were suicidal because their lambs fetched less than £50 each. A close second place in the happiness stakes (steaks?) come the pigmen who, after some very lean years, are today at least as happy as pigs in muck are reputed to be. Other livestock farmers are, it is true, less exultant than their shepherding brethren but they are still reasonably content. Milk producers are, however, a very mixed bunch. Those who sell to Tesco for 27p a litre are exceptionally cheerful while the majority, who receive nearer 20p per litre from the Dairy Farmers of Britain, are only making a small profit. Beef producers, together with poultrymen, have seen the cost of their feedstuffs rise steeply but they can still make a bob or two today.

I myself am an arable farmer and today, let's face it, I am a miserable old git. One year ago I actually sold a load of wheat for £200 a tonne. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Today a tonne of wheat is worth the same as a fat lamb: £100. Meanwhile the cost of my fertilisers has risen by 300 per cent. And as if that were not enough, I have rarely seen my crops looking worse after the coldest and wettest winter for a decade or two. Those fields of wheat and oilseed rape which are now starting to grow again are being attacked by waves of pigeons which act like Stuka dive-bombers. And what the pigeons miss, the hordes of rabbits manage to munch.

Yet in spite of the fact that my own farm looks so miserable today, I must admit that every night before I go to bed I give thanks for the fact that I am a farmer and not a shopkeeper or an estate agent or a car dealer. Compared to every profession on the high street, farmers have nothing to worry about today. Well, almost nothing. My current preoccupation is whether to receive my annual subsidy cheque in euros or pounds. It's tough being a farmer.