Will work for food

A day of rest? Not for this silage crew.
Hard-pressed, the forage harvester devours
The thick green swaths; the spinning steel blades chew
A month’s growth into half-inch lengths. For hours
The tractors have been hauling high-heaped loads
Then racing back with empties, raising dust
And thunder from rough headlands hard as roads.
To lay the winter’s feed in is the trust
Placed in them. In the next field, unconcerned
With hurrying machines, the engines’ roar,
The man-hours and the diesel being burned,
The cows plod in to give their milk once more.
An ancient pact, whose terms both sides accept.
A Sabbath broken. But a bargain kept.

Called in

In Wellingtons and waterproofs he stands,
A lonely lighthouse in a sea of grass,
To call the cows in: whistles, claps his hands,
Cries ‘Hup’ and ‘Go on then, girls’ as they pass:
Unhurried, rope-veined udders swinging, large
With milk, the smells of warm crushed turf and dung
Surrounding them in their slow-motion charge
Towards the gate. Their names are on his tongue
And they obey his summons. What do I
Bring in from my own forays in the field?
No milk or meat, no crop to justify
My time; and yet my labours have their yield:
When nothing’s left of this land, man or herd,
Their memory will live. You have my word.

 

Black and white decision

Gone dry

We tried, but now it’s over:
We’ve finally closed the gate.
No milk today, nor ever –
Not from us, at any rate.

They milked here for a hundred years.
Now Daisy, Mabel, Ethel,
Buttercup and Blossom have all gone,
Reduced to lot numbers and guineas-per-head
Under the auctioneer’s hammer.
Enough to pay the bank back
And leave the family in the clear
Without a penny over.
Three lifetimes’ work
Leaked away
A litre at a time.

No waiting now for cows to cross
The road twice-daily.
No forager’s snarl, no rumbling trailers
Hauling home the rich first cut.
No rustling maize rainforest rising nine feet high.
No kicking-up-of-heels
As the ladies leave their winter quarters
And dignity behind
And feel the new grass underfoot.

The herdsman, stockman and relief
Have been let go,
And the farm is worked by just one man
With a big New Holland
And a hunted look.
The leys are ploughed under
And put down to wheat.
The sheds stand like deconsecrated churches,
In silent communion with the swallows and spiders.
And the black-and-white company’s memory
Is fading into grey.

And in the supermarket
Milk’s down two pence today.
Cheaper now than ever.
Getting dearer by the day.

 

Britain is currently losing two dairy farms a week. The main reason is the milk price: farmers receive, on average, three pence a litre below the cost of production, thanks mainly to the supermarkets and the country’s obsession with ‘cheap’ food. We could be effortlessly self-sufficient in milk  – indeed, we’re so good at it, quotas had to be introduced to curb overproduction – but today, we’re a net importer. No dairying means no cows. No cows means no grassland. No grassland means no hedgerows. No hedgerows means no birds, and so it goes on. Meanwhile, dairy farmers are rushing into arable – not because they want to (dairying is a life’s work, a family tradition and a labour of love in the truest sense) but because last year’s disastrous harvest in Russia means world wheat prices are sky-high, and farmers have to make a living the same as the rest of us. 

The farm I worked on as a student recently sold off its dairy herd after more than 100 years and four generations of the same family. It’s a story being repeated all over Sussex, and the country as a whole. It’s sad, avoidable and wrong.