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Transcript of radio documentary 'AgriCultured: Five Oxfordshire farmers'

PRESENTER: Agriculture: five Oxfordshire farmers

PRESENTER: I visited five Oxfordshire farms in early summer 2002. I wanted to find out from farmers what changes they had witnessed in agriculture over their working lives. Economists would see increasing capitalisation in the agricultural industry, as machinery has replaced Labour, they also would note the emergence of international markets and consolidation in the food and agricultural sector.

PRESENTER: The conversations you'll here in this programme reveal these changes, and show what it means to these individuals, who live and work as farmers.

PRESENTER: Clive Hawes farms sheep and cereals at Grange Farm near Bicester. He diversified a number of years ago, beside farming he also trades in timber and develops property, including setting up a nursing home which he runs with his wife. I spoke with him over his kitchen table. Clive Hawes.

CLIVE HAWES: I'm forty eight years old, been farming here all my life, my father was a farmer and my grand father before me; um, probably five or six generations, as far back as family knowledge goes.

PRESENTER: Go back when you started working here. You were working here with your father on the farm?

CLIVE HAWES: Yeah, lots and lots of Labour, um ...

PRESENTER: So let's see, that's about forty eight, forty eight years ago?

CLIVE HAWES: Well I was born forty eight years ago. I've started going down the farm; I was always taken down the farm as a baby because my mum and dad were milking down there, umm so I can remember from three years on, they were milking in a very old fashioned parlour, very un mechanised whereas today it's totally changed round the other way.

PRESENTER: Was it a small herd?

CLIVE HAWES: Umm, it would be considered a very small herd today but in those days they considered it to be quite large. I think they started with about fifty cows, and built up over ten years to about two hundred, which in those days was considered large, today of course, a thousand is large and five hundred is probably a fair sized heard.

PRESENTER: When you started going to arable, did the farm get larger? Did you take on more land?


PRESENTER: You've been farming for about thirty years, roughly, is that about right, here at this farm with your father?

CLIVE HAWES: Well, my father died when I was eighteen so I've been doing it in on my own for thirty years. Once we went to arable we did take over a lot more land as farms became available and guys retired, we would take over the farms and contract farm it or share farm it with them. And um we would have ended up, I would have ended up, in about fifteen, twenty years ago I’d have had about thousand acres, all under arable.

PRESENTER: That's quite a size, err …

CLIVE HAWES: Well it was then, but now a days of course it's not. Now, I mean now you're looking at Guy's in the area probably doing five thousand acres, um and they'll be the people that continue, and I guess in ten years time, they'll have twenty thousand acres, because it will go in multiples, because the machinery is that much bigger. I remember fields that I used to bail, I used to do the bailings because we needed a lot of straw back here for the live stock. And um there's a farm between here and Bicester, which was four hundred acres of arable, and it would take me about a month to bail that. Now with the big high-density bailers, like last year I saw the guys go-in, they'd bailed and cleared the whole farm in three days, and that was one man, whereas when we were doing it, we'd have been like me bailing, three guys pitching and loading bails and another couple stacking them back in the barn. And so five men working for thirty days, that's one hundred and fifty men days replaced by three days. It's just incredible; I mean its fundamental difference.

PRESENTER: When you started going to arable, did you err, or was that all sub contracted, or did you use, or where the employees who lived on the farm, did they start going into that?

CLIVE HAWES: No, we always used contractors, because we could see from our point of view, it was far cheaper to go there contract route than it was to have our own machinery.

PRESENTER: And then of course, there's the associations, producer associations, I don't know if you're a member of producer associations?

CLIVE HAWES: No I'm not. I always tried to, for what ever reason; I sort of paddled my own canoe to be honest. I've kept away from that. Of course the biggest media, the biggest way to learn what was going on was the markets, the live stock markets, because then you would meet everybody else you’d all picked a bit up here and there, if there was a new subside or a new rule coming out it would be discussed in the bar and everybody that went was switched on. And of course that’s gone.

PRESENTER: Presumably farmers go to the market, did the frequency with which they went to the market, did that change over your farming livelihood?

Clive Hawes: Well definitely, yeah, because the markets gradually shut down. Um, I used to be in the markets at one stage, I would have been in the markets five days a week, because as I said, I also digressed into the meat trade so I was purchasing livestock as well as selling livestock, so I would have done a different market five days a week and from that I was obviously meeting different people from different areas. Well, of those markets I used to cover, there's probably, probably only Thame that's still going , and Thame's going purely by chance because a group of farmers got together and bought it as a co-op. I think if any survive they probably will.

PRESENTER: What were the names, can you remember the names of the other markets you used to go to?

CLIVE HAWES: Yeah, I used to go to do Bicester market on a Monday, err  Stratford Market on a Tuesday, umm Aylesbury Market on a Wednesday, Banbury Market on a Thursday and, Friday, I think Andover was Friday, but Friday was a bit of iffy day, sometimes it'd be Chippenham. I don't know if Chippenham is still going.

PRESENTER: I think Banbury used to be one of the largest  ...

CLIVE HAWES: Banbury was the largest livestock market in Europe and ...

PRESENTER: Were you surprised when that closed?

CLIVE HAWES: Um, I could probably see it coming. Um, with hindsight it closed because the business wasn't there to be done. There weren't the buyers, and without the buyers there's no point in having the market. I mean I've been in Banbury Market when there'd be two thousand fat cattle, ten thousand sheep, a couple of thousand pigs and five hundred barren cows, not to mention a few bit's and other pieces that was there, on one day. And there's be hundreds of people there, all trading. It made a, in my opinion, a very healthy community. That's what I used to enjoy, mixing, interacting, to me to be stuck in one place looking after my sheep, that romantic thing is not what I want.

PRESENTER: So what's replaced those markets?

CLIVE HAWES: Um, I think, obviously direct selling has now replaced them because the foot and mouth issue, really forced what was happening anyway, probably forced it on ahead, by two or three years so people had no option bar to sell there livestock on to the abattoirs during the foot and mouth thing, um, producer groups, which is a good thing, um and various co-operatives that are selling direct to the abattoirs anyway.

PRESENTER:  That was Clive Hawes. Jane Bowler and her husband raise pigs at Meadow Farm near East Hanney. She sells the pigs as pork direct to the public, through all her farm shop and at the local farmers market. Her son is the butcher at the farm shop and I visited Jane at her farm, which is beside the busy main road between Oxford and Wantage. Jane Bowler.

JANE BOWLER: I'd describe myself as a farmer, umm ...

PRESENTER: Do you say you're a pig farmer or a livestock farmer?

JANE BOWLER: Pig farmer, yup

PRESENTER: That was your father’s main business, farming?

JANE BOWLER: Yes, it was originally, yes, until he sold the farm in about 1968.

PRESENTER: And err how old were you when he sold the farm?

JANE BOWLER: About seventeen.

PRESENTER: So you'd grown up on a farm had you?

JANE BOWLER: Yeah, yes. We was milking, dairy milking.

PRESENTER: Did you take any part.

JANE BOWLER: Yes, I left school to milk the cows.

PRESENTER: At what age did you leave school?

JANE BOWLER: Fifteen. I really, I loved it, I really used to, dairy was my pristine, um, but then it meant spending thousands of pounds on a new dairy parlour and we were only a small farm and my brother couldn't do the farming for medical reasons so dad sort of thought, oh well, you know, Jane will be off and married, you know, daughters it does tend to be a bit like that, you know.

PRESENTER: Was it a family farm, did you father employ anyone to work with him on the farm?

Jane Bowler: Well that was part of it really, if you're a family farm and you're small, unless you've got someone working, you're working seven days a week, 52 weeks of the year. So it was either get bigger, so you could employee people, or carry on, you know, sort of struggling on, and, you really then, had to have a house, if you'd got, especially if you were milking, you had to have a house for whoever it was, you know, you had to supply a house to get a good person to work for you. I don't think farming was in too good of a state in '67 it was.

PRESENTER: What sort of size was the farm then?

JANE BOWLER: It was about one hundred and fifty acres, and it was just at that point where everybody was getting quite a lot bigger, at least most people were, I think the dairy prices were difficult even then. There was the milk marketing board and all that then of course. The other thing was the milk churning. We were on milk churns then and so it was new practices and machinery really because everybody y was going into bulk tanks and so this was the whole scenario, that you had to change your system really.

PRESENTER: And you think your father didn't want to do that?

JANE BOWLER: No, no. I think he thought it was an awful lot of money to invest, um probably borrow to invest, that amount of money at that time.

PRESENTER: What did he do when left farming and sold the farm?

JANE BOWLER: Well he already had a coal business anyway and...

PRESENTER: He was a coal merchant was he?

JANE BOWLER: Yes, he was a coal merchant as well, and he used to do light haulage as well, with, because he'd got the coal lorry, so it worked quite well, because when the farm was busy in the summer, no body wanted any coal, and in the winter when the coal was busy then it was a fairly quite time on the farm.

PRESENTER: That was Jane Bowler. David Orpwood is leaving farming to work as a consultant. Foot and mouth he says was the final straw. He produces pigs at Woods Farm near Watlington, which are sold for fattening. I spoke with him in his farm office, and in the background you can hear newly hatched chickens.

DAVID ORPWOOD: Well I'm a farmer, a fully time professional farmer, who's just exiting the industry. I've had pigs and sheep. Due to the total collapse in the industry, or the commodity price of the industry, I couldn't continue any longer without loosing everything I've got. I sincerely hope I won't loose my house although I'm prepared, well not prepared, I'm aware, in the meek and misty background that I might loose it, because of the amount of debt built-up, um ...

DAVID ORPWOOD: When I went into it, with two hundred sows...

PRESENTER: What sort of date do you think that would that be, roughly?

DAVID ORPWOOD: When I started?


DAVID ORPWOOD: 5th November 1979, umm

PRESENTER: Gosh, you can remember that very clearly!

DAVID ORPWOOD: Well Yeah, it was a big step in my life wasn't it really, you know, starting up my own farming enterprise. Um, 5th November is not difficult to remember is it, because it's fireworks day.

PRESENTER: Is that because you had to sign a contract.

DAVID ORPWOOD: No, no, no.

DAVID ORPWOOD: It was the farm sale, farm sale, and I bought two hundred sows at the farm sale, and the farm sale was the guy I used to work-for, Roland Harris. He was getting out of pigs, so I bought two hundred sows out of his business; well I think I bought ninety eight sows in pig and um on hundred and ten guilts that hadn't been served yet. So, yeah I went into it and I worked bloody hard, I worked seven days a week, like I still do, unfortunately, and um, I was on my own to start with, with these two hundred sows, on some else's land, which I rented, umm and it was, very exciting. I'm getting out of agriculture at the moment, I've got five hundred and seventy pigs left to sell, that's growing pigs, all my sows have now gone, they went by, I don’t know, the end of April, and err we built a heard up to one thousand two hundred sows, and in the beginning of 1998 we sell what we call straw pigs, which is a pig at 32 kilos that someone else buys and fattens, we haven't got the facilities or the room to fatten them, and um, we were selling pigs at £40 a piece and you know that was good good business, um, and within six weeks they'd dropped from £40 a piece to £11 a piece, which is equivalent to two pounds of bacon, and you know I'd got, I'd got a years supply backed up you know from when they were bought, growing and everything, and so I couldn't stop it, you know I couldn't say stop! You know, I haven't got a widget factory which I can stop today, um so anyway, that gave me a big loss. I built my business up out of profits, which I thought was the right think to do, umm and some of it was borrowed money as well. I'd built up a strong viable business with a turnover of a million pounds, which in agriculture is quite a lot.

PRESENTER: Do you know why the market price dropped so much?

DAVID ORPWOOD: Yeah, it dropped for a number of reasons. The pound strengthened against the Deuchmark, um the Russians, um suddenly became bankrupt and they couldn't afford to buy any meat, so pig meat suffered, and the tiger economy went through a depression too and they were big pig importers, importers of pig meat and so those three things took us apart and the fourth one of course was the EU had quite a lot of pig meat, we were over supplied of pig meat, and we lost all our export markets, so you know, total supply and demand, because the pig industry has no subsidy.

PRESENTER: Was your decision to get out um, of farming, mostly due to foot and mouth, or had you made the decision before that.

DAVID ORPWOOD: No I hadn't made the decision before that. Foot and Mouth cost me me, um last year, on my budgeted income it cost me, £75,600 last year … we've seen a lot of imports of food from the Continent in 2001 after Foot and Mouth was announced, umm the Minister of Agriculture, Nick Brown, who I know well, stopped all livestock movements for a week, um when we got Foot and Mouth in this country, which I think was the right thing to do, um but what it did was it opened flood gates of food coming into this country and if you look in the first two weeks of March, every motorway was an absolute quagmire of food, coming, you know from the Continent, and it's done enormous damage to agriculture in this country, and it was the final straw, I couldn't see myself to , to, to break out of, what I saw was a spiral down of my net worth, um, and because I was so heavily involved politically in Foot and Mouth, and because I was so depressed about the situation, like many many farmers were,  I um, I wasn't astute enough to realise the problem.

PRESENTER: That was David Orpwood. Marilyn Iving and her husband farm at Mill Farm, near Church Enstone, Chipping Norton way, keep cattle and poultry. The eggs from their chickens and ducks are sold through the village shop. I spoke with Marilyn with her in her sitting room. Marilyn Iving.

MARILYN IVING: I always call myself a farmer, which can put people back on their heels a bit, you know, they think you ought to describe yourself as a farmer's wife or something, but I'm equally as much a farmer as my husband, and he won't call himself a farmer's husband would he? So err, I always say, you know, I'm a farmer.

MARILYN IVING: We are a Marks and Spencer preferred farm. So they came round and had a look and we had to answer a whole series of questions and such like, and we passed their standards, so our cattle can go as Marks and Spencer. They actually, hum, pardon, hum, pardon me, they, they go up to Nuneaton to an abattoir there.

PRESENTER: That's one that Marks and Spencer specifies is it?


MARILYN IVING:We were very lucky really. I think there are probably two in the Chipping Norton area. It's probably within, what, perhaps ten miles of Chipping Norton, something like that. So we're very lucky that we passed. It means that you get a slight premium, and of course your got a certain market, you know, which is very good, because you know, if you sell to an, um, abattoir which doesn't specialise, then they are dependent on people buying on that particular day, and um if they've got a lot buyers then the prices is up, if they've only one or two buyers, then they have a lot of, what you might call over production and the price falls. Whereas sending them to the Marks and Spencer place then you know what you're going to get and it's not going to alter.

PRESENTER: You told me about your three children.


PRESENTER: And, they all work off the farm. Do you think any of them will take over from you, farming here?

MARILYN IVING: I rather doubt it.

PRESENTER: And what do they say about farming?

MARILYN IVING: Har, har, I think they have a rose view that they would love to bring their children up on  a farm, but um they wouldn't want the hours, they wouldn't want the returns, and I don't think they would want the um, the gamble of it, you know, the insecurity really. They've got good jobs, as I say, with good money, and really they're better off, doing what they're doing. There isn't anything much on the farm which you can do by pressing a button. Most of it involves, when you're putting machinery on and off tractors and things, it's quite a heavy manual job.

PRESENTER: What do you think will happen to the farm when you retire, and you stop farming, because although you say you're retired, you're still doing some farming here.

MARILYN IVING: Well when we pop our clogs I have an idea that the whole lot will be lotted up and sold.


PRESENTER: That was Marilyn Iving. Charles Peers lives at Views Farm, Little Milton, near Oxford. Although he says he is retired from farming in April last year, he still oversees his farm. The farm grows organic cereals, and keeps beef and free range chickens. He's also developed holiday accommodation and converted farm buildings into offices for rent. I spoke with Charles as he poured over his dinning room table. Charles Peers.

CHARLES PEERS: I'm been a farmer at View Farm, Great Milton Oxfordshire since 1974, farmed all my life, mainly arable.

PRESENTER: So initially you sold your grain to ...

CHARLES PEERS: An ordinary grain merchant, whoever there was, I mean, round here, there was one in Thame, there was one in Abingdon, and basically speaking I dealt with them, mainly. The one in Abingdon,

PRESENTER: Do you remember what they were called?

CHARLES PEERS: Yes. The Abingdon one was Harrison Mathews. They used to be, um, the old jail, that's where their depot was. I remember going all round the old jail. They had different cells, different lots of corn. And the one in Thame was Halland and Bush. They were taken over by a firm called Franklin's in Bedford, which was immediately taken over by Delgetti's. And well, they’ve disappeared. And then I thought we'd try a co-op, because that's really the way we should be going, very much in favour of co-op trading. And there was a company; um, well they were taken over by West Midlands Farmers, down in Gloucester, called Three Rivers or something. And that worked quite well and then they sort of disbanded. We had a grain group and it was sort of disbanded or I forget what happened, but I went back to this other guy who was trading with a big company, or biggish company, or a big independent company, err down in Winchester, and err then they were taken over by Banks, err about seven or eight years ago. I dealt with Banks Southern, which was the same company, until I packed up really. But, it was getting to the stage where, not happy about it. Because basically speaking with gain you see, you've got, about three buyers, that's all. And they're just, playing silly buggers with farmers.

PRESENTER: What are those three buyers?



CHARLES PEERS: There's, well there's, Banks, Grain farmers and Cargill.

PRESENTER: They're all national companies aren't they, Cargill ...

CHARLES PEERS: Cargill is international. Banks and Cargill have joined forces you see. Yup. So it's only, only Grain Farmers. There was a big co-op called Viking Grain and they went bust this year. So its, its you know, that's some of the trouble.

CHARLES PEERS: But, but, but you know there are two hundred thousand farmers, dealing with, basically speaking, three supermarkets,  two grain merchants, four fertiliser companies. Not a chance.

PRESENTER: Do you think they have a lot of control?

CHARLES PEERS: I'm bloody sure they do. But they've got power, real power. That's where we slipped-up in agriculture all along. We would not co-operate. That's why the French farmers are so strong, because they speak with one voice.

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