Farming Life: ‘The scale of the inflation is boggling… The January price for our milk is double what we did our budgets on’

As high inflation takes hold, farmers are, for once, making hay says Jamie Blackett.

‘It looks like a wolf.’ We all put down our croissants and hobble across to the telescope thoughtfully placed by the window, actually more of a glass wall, in our chalet. It turns out to be a fox, but the initial confusion is understandable: he has a magnificent brush and an enviably lupine pelt. Just as it is my turn on the telescope, he pounces on some unsuspecting rodent under the snow and a carnivorous tussle ensues.

We are skiing and, although this is nominally a farming column, I make no apologies for going a little off-piste. Nothing illustrates better the current chirpiness in the farming world than the fact that your columnist has taken to the slopes.

There was a time when agricultural commodities seemed doomed to keep sliding lower in price as almost everything else, notably wages, climbed inexorably higher and I thought we might never afford to go on holiday again, let alone skiing.

Now, as milk and wheat hit all-time highs (in nominal if not, by a long chalk, in real terms), the squirearchy is at last able to rub shoulders on ski lifts with plumbers and electricians without feeling like poor relations.

Credit: Sheri Blackett

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I don’t think the inflation has quite sunk in, certainly not to those who seem keen to promote its principal architect to the premiership (not the football one). For most, it may usher in impoverishing 1970s retro-misery.

For farmers — I should feel more guilty than I do as I write this — it feels like the balm of Heaven-sent rain at the end of a devastating drought. My father’s generation farmed against a backdrop of eye-popping inflation. It helped pay off their debts and ironed out any mistakes. My generation has, until very recently, had to live flintily with decisions and scrabble to pay back our mortgages by diversifying madly. No longer, it seems.

The scale of the inflation is boggling. My man in the Bob-the-Builder hat tells me that if I were to invest now in the gleaming new dairy we put up 18 months ago, it would cost half as much again. The January price for our high-butterfat milk (which is always higher as milk is scarcer and more expensive to produce) was exactly double the 25p per litre that our bank manager, John the Wise, prudently made us do our budgets on. I shudder to think what interest rate we might have ended up paying on the loan he kindly made us, after months of nail-biting negotiations, if we had not fixed it for a generation.

I have been farming long enough to know it is a game of snakes and ladders. There is always an unforeseen circumstance around the corner. I remember when Putin annexed the Crimea, sanctions were applied, dairy exports to Russia stopped and the sudden oversupply on European markets caused the price to plummet and dairy farmers to go bust. Meanwhile, on the Ukrainian border…

But for now, I am enjoying sliding down ski slopes in the French Alps, rather than snakes. It is hazardous in a physical rather than a business sense, particularly after lunch. I might still be lying on my back giggling in a mogul field were it not for the patience and team spirit of my kind companions.

The Savoie is the perfect destination for a dairy farmer looking for a morale-boosting foray. The Savoyards have a robust appreciation of cheese in all its most delicious forms. We should demand the British broadcasting media follow Veganuary with a month of Savoyard cookery programmes for ‘balance’.

It has not been an ornithological treat, however. The Axis of Spite is always telling us the UK is uniquely bad for wildlife, mainly because we don’t have the covering of Continental ‘forest’. Yet, bar a few choughs and ravens on the tops, the odd buzzard and a murder of crows scavenging near restaurants, we saw little. In the (forested) valleys, even by steaming middens that would be covered in birds at home, there was a fraction of the birdlife we would see on similar upland farms here.

I can’t help but feel that the French Revolution and its startling effects on the pattern of land ownership has caused every small tree to be butchered to within an inch of its life to yield the neat stacks of logs outside every dwelling, plus a notable absence of gamekeepers — but the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch may draw different conclusions.

Jamie Blackett farms in Dumfriesshire. His next book ‘Land of Milk and Honey: Digressions of a Rural Dissident’ (Quiller) is due out in June.