Sowing discord

27 September 2011 § 8 Comments

Seeds of change

One for the rook
One for the crow
One to wither
One to grow.

One for the deluge
One for the drought
One each for the pigeon
And mouse to dig out.

One for the subsidy
One for the crash.
One for the Government
Desperate for cash.

One for the trader
In futures, who bets
On prices, then pockets
The millions he gets.

One for the banks.
Make that two – make that ten.
No, make it a billion.
And then start again.

One for the climate,
Now warming, it seems.
One for our hopes.
One for our dreams.

One for our gluttony
One for our greed
None for the millions
We choose not to feed.

One for the rook,.
One for the crow.
One to wither.
One to grow.

The farmers are already busy drilling next year’s cereal crops, and I’ve had the old rhyme about seeds that bookends this poem going round in my head all day. Blame the Party Conference season for the rather downbeat tone of the stuff in between!

Weeding wheatfields by hand

24 March 2011 § 6 Comments

Roguing

Sometimes
Fickle Summer picked up her skirts
And took a short, unscheduled break,
Lending the farm to Autumn
Who, having no truck with harvesting,
Drove us from the fields
With a thin and ruinous drizzle.
Other times
A snapped belt, sheared bolt or burst hydraulic hose
Deep in the combine’s vitals
Would leave the big machine
Bellied like a bog-bound mammoth,
Spilling its guts in gouts of oil
Across the gasping stubble.
As such times
We lads, not seeking or permitted
To wait out the delay with idle hands
Would fill the old blue van with plastic sacks
Then bundle in ourselves
And rattle to some distant field
To hunt out rogues: the wild oats
Whose tasselled heads rose, mockingly,
Above the standing crop.
We’d deploy along the headland, sacks in hand,
And take a tramline each, walking steady
Like policemen on a forensic sweep,
Stopping to pull the rogues up, roots and all
And bag them for the bonfire. To relieve
The tedium, we’d tell the green boys, out from town,
Them ol’ rogues’ll hear you comin’, see,
And bein’ woild, they’ll duck down quick
And ‘ide till you’ve gone boi,
Then pop’en up again, so moind you watch ‘em.
We learned to curse those wily weeds
And the gaunt, grey man who sent us there:
Four-pound-fifty seemed so little
For an hour that felt so long,
And all the while we knew
The rogues would not be vanquished
And we’d be back to pull more out next year.
A hopeless task, but honest, and somehow
No crazier than the work I’m doing now.

Rogue n a plant that falls short of a standard, or is of a different type from the rest of the crop; vt to eliminate rogues or inferior plants from (a crop, etc)

Roguing is the traditional way of keeping the harvest help occupied when inclement weather or the inevitable mechanical catastrophes bring the main activity to a halt. I know weeding a fifty-acre wheatfield by hand sounds daft, but compared to some of the so-called ‘proper’ jobs I’ve been given since my far-off student days, it  seems like a sensible use of time.

A tale of our times

24 March 2011 § 6 Comments

Cuts

He walks
Towards the grey stone house
Like a battlefield surgeon coming down the line
Or a man who, shaving hastily, contrived to nick
An artery in his neck.
The warm red rain has spattered his face,
Soaked his cap and shirt-collar,
Stained overalls and hands like some apprentice butcher’s.

He knows
This was a task he should have tackled
Back when they were calves,
The horns mere buds, and their removal
No more than a touch of glowing iron,
A brief sharp stink of burning hair –
A job for life in a minute’s easy work.
Now, left so late, it took three men
And a whole sodding day of trodden feet,
Shouting, straining, geysers of muck,
Maddened beasts slamming on sleepers and steel;
An improvised corrida, short on finesse,
Long on blood.

He begrudges
The time, the hurt, the fat fee to the sweating vet;
Still, it had to be done:
Seeing them swaggering into the yard,
Cocksure with their weaponed heads,
There was no question. The wounds, torn wire
And their seigneurial strutting at the trough
Left him no choice
But the crush, the needle and the blade. Yet

He finds
He cannot say who won this one. He’s left
Slumped and blasted, arms hanging like empty sleeves; the beasts
Bewildered, polls still stunned
By adrenaline local and the shock of shears.
All change in the herd, he thinks:
A social shuffling, a shift in power.
A bullet bitten, the right thing done.
But as he stumbles in to wash and eat
He shakes his head. And does not smile.

Black and white decision

13 March 2011 § 6 Comments

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.

Under pressure

11 March 2011 § 4 Comments

Under pressure

The big John Deere
Is working late;
After so long waiting
For a reborn sun and drying wind
To strip winter from the soil
They’re staying out,
Getting on.
The ten-foot, two-tonne roller
Treads thick, green scents
From the tender grass;
Driving in frost-lifted stones,
Making pancakes out of molehills,
As it wraps broad silver bandages
Round the bruised and pummelled pasture.
But these bent blades will be re-forged,
Stronger, and in greater numbers,
Ready for the tearing mouths
And hooves of summer cattle.
The roller passes on –
No time to lose –
And the soft earth breathes again:
When pressed, we do not break;
Though crushed, we do not die.

 

I promised my good friend and fellow poet John Stevens another tractor poem; I had something different in mind, but this one came along first, during a ride on the Paramount yesterday as afternoon gave way to evening. Apologies for the pic; a long-range phone-camera effort, I’m afraid.

Close encounter

3 March 2011 § 7 Comments

To boldly go

In his overalls, bulky boots
And thick fleece hat pulled right down over his ears
He lumbers, slow, stiff-legged,
Over the sodden ground
Like a spaceman on an alien planet
Where the atmosphere’s thin and bitter cold
And the gravity’s turned right up.

The mission commander remains behind
On the quad-bike that squats like a moon-buggy
On its fat balloon tyres
And from the seat, he barks peremptory orders
At the half-dozen sheep
Gathering round the trough,
Grateful for this daily visitation
From another world.

I saw this little scene played out on a dog-walk in Wales the other week. I think the whippet (who was wearing his fleece jacket at the time) felt rather inadequate when he saw the collie standing on the quad-bike seat in the freezing wind, barking joyously, having almost certainly spent the night outdoors too. I was certainly conscious that I’m not nearly tough enough for a life like that. Then again, how many of us are?

Life force

1 March 2011 § 6 Comments

Miracle

I don’t need
To see five thousand fed
On loaves and fishes,
Blind eyes opened,
Or a man shake off the tomb like a twenty-four-hour flu.

Just show me
A calf
Thirty seconds into life;
A heap of wet rags in the straw.

Her wide-eyed dam licks every glistening, astonishing inch of her;

And with the steam still rising
From her new piebald coat,
The calf snorts, shakes her head and strains to govern
Those outsize, unruly legs
And stand,
Drawn to the udder by a power
She can’t resist, and I cannot explain.

My mother-in-law’s house in Wales is on her brother’s dairy farm. My daughter and I went down to visit Uncle R one afternoon, and arrived literally seconds after a heifer calf had been born. My daughter, who’s nine, was captivated by the new arrival (who’s since been named after her) and I was reminded that miracles not only can happen, but do. You know them when you see them.

Sunday shepherding

27 February 2011 § 2 Comments

A price on their heads

Out on the Forest feeding sheep
Marking time on rented keep
Too meagre for such eager beggars.

Haul out two bales of precious hay;
Enough, I hope, to last the day
And overnight. A sodden August

Followed by a savage winter
Has made barns into bank vaults,
Stacked to the roof with summer’s riches
Bound in bales, tight as wads of tenners.

I slash the strings,
Releasing long-imprisoned scents
Of late July, and shake the flakes
Into the rack with the careful hands and watchful eye
Of a chef preparing Alba truffles
For a visiting head of state.

And the woolly starveling mob crowd in
Rowdy as schoolboys at the bell,
Tearing, greedy, at the pale green stems
Like shoppers in the New Year sales.
I watch them, forgetful of the cost
In their contentment. And long for spring.

I’ve finally managed to return to my shepherding roots in a small way, as a part-time volunteer helping out with a conservation grazing project on the Ashdown Forest. My charges are 240 Hebridean sheep, an ancient breed from the far north-west of Scotland. They’re tough, hardy beasts, but good winter grazing is hard to come by, and they’re on pretty thin pickings at the moment, with the soil still too cold for the grass to start growing in earnest. We’re having to supplement their diet with hay, but prices are at an all-time high, and we’re longing for the day when they can leave their winter quarters and go up onto the Forest and start doing their job properly.

Fallow ground

3 February 2011 § 6 Comments

A poem about a group of deer I spotted on a ride this week.

FALLOW GROUND

Were they cattle
I could count on them
To still be here
At sunset.
But within an hour
Or at some sudden sound
They can vanish,
Passing like woodsmoke through
The arbitrary lines and limits
Ruled across the land:

Fences, gates and hedges
Do not hold them;
Feeding like sheep
In this quiet pasture
They’re never for a second
Less than wild.
Everywhere and nowhere,
Slotting in among the common stock
Then blithely with their white rumps bobbing,
Misting into the sheltering woods
Leaving the tame, compliant and confined
Flat-footed in the field.

Cold hard truth

29 January 2011 § 3 Comments

JANUARY LAMBS

A cold wind out of the east
Like this would cause my old boss to shake his head
And mutter, “It’ll check ‘em, worse’n snow,”
And he was a man who ought to know:
A dozen winters on Romney Marsh as man
Then twenty more as master
Of three hundred acres of stubborn clay
Had taught hard lessons. He’d learned them well,
And in time passed them down to me;
And so today, riding by a meadow
Sprinkled with January lambs
Like well-floured loaves or fallen clouds
Pressed to their dams in the wind-combed sward,
I shook my head, murmured ‘This’ll check ‘em’
And felt the easterly thrust me back
Into a life now half-forgotten
And wondered if I’d grown at all.

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