Some Suffolk landowners get invited to the President’s Lunch at the Suffolk Show every year. We are not among them. I’ve rifled the only records I have-back issues of Country Life-and can confirm that the last time we were guests at this lunch was June 1997, when Charles Notcutt was president.
My account of that day describes the new age of farming: space-age machines designed to cocoon the driver from noise, vibration, heat, fumes, dust and jolts. Combines and tractors would be as cool and dark inside as a church, the altar a small screen tracking the machine speed, crop yield and temperature as it maps every foot of a field.
Prophet and farmer Oliver Walston predicted that precision farming-using GPS-would revolutionise farming as much as the internal combustion engine did 100 years ago. Farmers would never need to spray a whole field again, costs and pollution would drop dramatically and, in time, the combine would glide across the field by remote control, no driver needed.
Fifteen years on, and I reckon there isn’t an arable farmer in Suffolk who doesn’t have GPS on his combines. We work from maps with digital images of our fields created by orbiting satellites and sent to us by the internet. As you glide along the fields in machinery as soothing as a table at Le Gavroche, listening to a playlist that includes Graceland and the soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, you can see crop density and moisture content and measure the amount of photosynthesis.
The thing about revolutions, however, is they’re apt to go unnoticed. In the years since I wrote about the change that was coming, farmland has gone from £4,000 an acre (described here as ‘the highest since the Second World War’) to more than £7,000, and yet, despite huge increases in labour, diesel, energy, hungry people, droughts, floods and low grain stocks-you name it-the price of the wheat grown on that land in 2012 is as volatile as it was in 1997.
A little horse-sense tells you why. We may be able to create earth-shaking machines that promise to transform agriculture, but we can’t change that other vital component: the weather. After the driest winter since records began, we’ve had the wettest April.
The lunch was a showpiece of Suffolk produce: perfect asparagus, tender lamb and this year’s president, Lord Deben-John Gummer, the former Minster of Agriculture most loved by farmers-had gathered together the most interesting and varied collection of guests, bucking tradition by not putting husbands and wives on the same table (such a good idea). Afterwards, my husband spent the afternoon with the Wildlife Trust, as I concentrated on the Suffolk Trinity magnificent Suffolk Punches, seductive Red Poll cattle, hunky Suffolk sheep-and planned my return trip the following day.
But the next morning, as we drank coffee with the radio in the background, we suddenly heard a familiar voice describe how raging winds had ripped tents apart and blown down marquees overnight, and that the forecast was for worse to come, with winds of 45-55 miles an hour. It was John (Lord Deben) on the radio, saying that the Suffolk Show was cancelled. He spoke of farmers and stallholders who spend a year preparing for the show and sounded tearful as he announced his heart-breaking decision.
When the country is in a mess and the rest of the world is in a mess, cancelling the annual agricultural show may seem trivial. It’s not. The show is a reprieve from the messy world. The tractors and combines are beacons of progress. The pigs are as clean and sweet as Wilbur, and fill me with longing and love. For two days, it’s an inspiring universe where Cold Comfort Farm meets Star Trek. This year, it’s a happy story with a sad ending. I’ll try to be more cheerful next week.
* Subscribe to Country Life and save £60