It came in the form of a newspaper cutting headed, 1917 Land Cultivation Scheme. ‘In response to government encouragement the parish Council set up a committee to grow potatoes for the war effort. Mrs Godman promised part of a tenant’s field (which later became the churchyard extension). Allwoods (the world famous carnation growers) sprouted the potatoes in one of their greenhouses. Mr Knight ploughed the fields and Mr Baldock supplied 8 – 10 loads of pig manure. Hoeing and earthing up took place in June and July. In autumn 5 women were employed to lift the crop which Mr Woods supplied 50 sacks but there was no market locally. The Army bought the crop for their hospitals at £6 per ton. The scheme made a loss of £30, which was met by the ratepayers’.
This story made me realise little has changed. Food was scarce following years of war and blockades, a time when people were encouraged to ‘dig for victory’, to help feed the nation. This small community obviously did their bit and despite contributions from local farmers, growers and businessmen, the enterprise managed to make a considerable loss.
Today farmers are told that by 2050 production levels must increase some 30 per cent. However, farmgate prices for grain, potatoes, milk and meat are now regularly below the cost of production, and some farmers who are unable to diversify, farm on a scale which spreads the cost of production, or add value in other ways, are struggling to survive.
The law of economics has taught us that financial rewards rely upon the power of supply and demand. What is difficult to fathom is whether this problem is a supply issue or a demand issue, today and back in 1917.
It is rare that Open Country and Helen Marr manage to delay me from going out to check the cattle and various livestock around the farm. Last Saturday was an exception as I listened to Helen Marr’s conversation with my old friend Philip Merricks as she visited his Elmley Estate.
The farm covers 3,000 acres in Kent which has been managed by Philip and his family as a working farm, and the marshland as the Elmley National Nature Reserve for wildlife for the past 30 years. The land falls within the North Kent Marshes Environmentally Sensitive Area, and now supports a greater number of breeding waders than any other lowland wet grassland site in England.
The success of this enterprise is entirely due to the inspirational foresight and dogged determination of Philip who saw an opportunity where others would have perhaps seen a conflict of interests.
In the late 1970s when Philip a keen young farmer unexpectedly found himself responsible for his family farms and dependants, the national agricultural policy direction was – increase production.
Drainage grants of up to 70 per cent meant that conversion of environmentally interesting but agriculturally unproductive grassland to arable, was hugely profitable to a farmer.
Countering this the Nature Conservancy Council put forward terms of the Wildlife & Countryside Act offering financial compensation if farmers stopped draining, ploughing and fertilising along with all other farming operations.
The story of how Philip, who has a razor sharp intellect, and a passion for both farming and the environment, managed to influence the then Department of the Environment, the Countryside Commission and many environmental organisations, is too long to tell here. But what came across clearly was that Elmley’s success is due to his determination to guide these agencies and create a partnership between his farm, the conservationists and Government.
Philip’s message was that farmers play a pivotal role in the management of the countryside. Many may care about it but it is only farmers, landowners and foresters who have the ability to care for this huge national asset, a resource which needs to be used and not preserved as a museum as some might have us believe.
Growth in wildlife at Elmley has been achieved through positive management of water levels and the grazing of sheep and cattle together with other land management techniques. It provides a successful example of practical and integrated farm management producing prime quality store livestock and greatly increased wildlife.
Ian Botham launched an open attack against the RSBP in The Mail on Sunday. You Forgot The Birds, is a new campaign by farmers and conservationists. He said the RSBP is a ‘dictatorship’ that has’ messed up its finances’ and betrayed bird lovers and the species that it is meant to serve.
In the same article he praised Philip Merricks and said, “His land in lapwing heaven, the RSBP reserve next door is lapwing hell. For every 100 lapwing chicks that successfully fledge on the farmer’s land, the RSBP manages only eight. The RSPB doesn’t do enough to protect birds”
This campaign criticises this charity which like the RSPCA misleads the public regarding its use of their donations, and supports poor leadership. It notes that only 24p in every pound donated actually goes to its nature reserves, the rest is diverted to paying 405 fundraisers and the rest is directed to paying down its pension deficit.
These organisation need people like Philip Merricks and fellow farmers who have a better understanding of how nature and a well-managed countryside can prosper and thrive.
Carola Godman Irvine