Carla Carlisle on the state of farming

Lost in the attic, behind a wall of green Hansards, are my copies of the Whole Earth Catalog. I’m pretty sure I have the very first one, published in 1969, with the first satellite image of the Earth as seen from space in the centre of the vast black cover.

Unlike L. L. Bean, The Whole Earth Catalog didn’t actually sell anything. Its mission was to show readers how and where to find everything, a forerunner of Google, a kind of hippie Country Life for the vast numbers of disenchanted urban dwellers who wanted to go back to the land. Its readers weren’t in search of a country estate with 1,000 acres, however. They were more likely to be looking for the simple life, assisted by marijuana and casual sex, nurtured by that most useful fertiliser, a trust fund.

I was mesmerised by entries that told how to raise my own barley and make Tibetan barley bread, how to make adobe bricks out of molasses powder and bunker oil, capture a colony of bees and arrange a do-it-yourself burial for $50. Making my own hashish pipe didn’t interest me, but I circled the address for a snake-bite kit for $3.

But, despite my hours spent browsing the Catalog, I felt no longing to go back to the land. The triumph of my life was getting off the land, of knowing that when I walked out my door, I was unlikely to need a snake-bite kit ever again. It is with wistful irony I find myself now growing barley. I’ve put down deep roots, but I neither churn nor weave. My reading now consists of the Farmers Guardian, a weekly feed at the trough of despond, and the Thriplow Farms newsletter, an end-of-year account of the farming year written by friend and fellow farmer in Cambridgeshire Oliver Walston.

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Oliver is an exotic farmer in these parts. Son of a Labour peer and an American mother, whose 10-year relationship with Graham Greene inspired The End of the Affair, Oliver has a rough glamour that is rare in arable country. Despite his education Eton, Cambridge, Princeton he isn’t a shootin’ and fishin’ landowner, but a dedicated and cunning farmer. He’s also the best chronicler of agricultural life this country has.

His 2009 newsletter arrived this morning. It begins: ‘In 2008 we made more money than we have ever made in my farming lifetime. Wheat yields were big, prices higher than ever and costs relatively low. This year we shall lose more money than we have ever lost. Wheat yields were average, prices were down 40% whilst the cost of inputs doubled.’

Those lines gave me the shakes. If Oliver Walston is losing money with all his equipment and know-how he was the first farmer I knew to have a computer, he always has the latest, biggest kit what chance do the rest of us have? But he explains the problem. Farming today has nothing to do with husbandry. What separates the good from the bad and the rich from the poor is marketing. It’s not enough to get the agronomy right, you have to second guess the rainfall in Australia, the price of oil, currency exchange rates and the capricious moods of a small gang of commodity traders. You then speculate as to when to sell ‘forward’ (that’s where he went wrong in 2009) and when to hang on. Farming, like hedge funds, is a crap shoot.

But hedge funds may be less risky. HSBC predicts that, in 2010, it will cost the average farmer £135 to produce a ton of wheat. The forward price this week is £109. The only other farmer I knew near Thriplow sold up to folks whose main crop is concrete science parks, housing estates, Tescos and bought a few thousand acres and a salmon river in Scotland. I’m glad that Oliver, like us, is ploughing on. We may not turn our barley into Tibetan bread, but we hold fast to the Whole Earth farmer’s slingshot of a motto: ‘Stay hungry, stay foolish.’