Kelso ram sale is one of the fixed points of Borders farming. On the second Friday in September every year, come heatwave or monsoon, more than 6,000 rams are sold. Thousands of farmers, bankers, machinery dealers, agricultural merchants and townsfolk are there to watch or take part, from the traditional hand-bell start until late at night when, in a confusion of lorry headlights and torches, the last ram is loaded for its new home.
The sale is a barometer of farming fortunes. The link between beef, sheep and grain prices means that when times are good, the price of rams is high, and when times are bad, prices are low. This year they were low. Driving through the Borders to Kelso on a wonderful Indian summer day it was possible to wonder why that should be. The countryside looked prosperous. Combines at work finishing off an early, high-yielding harvest are enormous and expensive; by comparison, the red Massey-Ferguson ten-foot cut driven with pride a generation ago looks like a Tonka toy. Tractors of 150hp haul ten-tonne trailers. Where once three or four small tractors, providing three or four jobs, cultivated fields and drilled grain, one driver with a huge machine pushes cultivating equipment in front and hauls a drill and harrows behind. There’s big and shiny machinery and lots of big and shiny cattle in the homeland of good stockmanship. Flocks of ewes are thick on the grass or grazing stubble. Farmhouses and buildings are tidy and well cared for, with late roses in unexpected places.
The ram sale is a time warp. Take away the fleece jackets and occasional baseball cap and it could be Kelso 1969. Add a few brown raincoats and trilbies and it could be Kelso 1949. An illusion. Times have changed and farming is on the ropes. The hottest day in memory for a Kelso ram sale, bringing out ice creams and smiles, can’t hide it. Ram prices don’t collapse as expected, but are well down. Much of the talk is about whether the government will help pay to clear the glut of old ewes past their useful breeding life. There is also talk of farmers investing in a slaughterhouse and meat-processing plant based in the Borders, retaining and adding value to the tens of thousands of animals which at present leave the region each year on the hoof.
It’s good to hear talk like that. It suggests farmers trying to do something for themselves instead of relying on a pilgrimage to plead for more from the Treasury. It smacks of diversification. A wonderful word that. In farming terms it means trying to do something different that will bring in money when farming falters or, as it has done in the past two years, almost founders. But there are problems with it. It usually needs investment, money pumped into a new enterprise when the core business can least afford it. And there is the mental leap needed, particularly in a traditional farming area such as the Borders.
Many of the farms are large scale and have been tenanted by the same family for several generations. If the present tenant can’t make a living from farming, that is an admission of failure. He, or occasionally she in this most traditional of industries, has failed where his forebears succeeded. Most farming families have tales of how fathers and uncles came through the last great depression of the 1920s and 1930s. If they could do it, surely the present generation can get through the late 1990s without putting on the fixed grin of the bed and breakfast host, turning farm buildings into workshops, getting a part-time job or having a wife who brings in a wage, rather than being on hand to take phone calls, go for spare parts, keep the VAT book up to date or check the cattle passports?
Not necessarily. One bad year for almost every sector of farming, such as 1998, was unusual. Two in succession is a crisis and 1999 is worse than last year, in spite of £500 million in European Union subsidy coming into Scottish farming. The inexorable historical trend towards bigger farms and fewer farmers continues in the Borders, as elsewhere. Families on 150 acres 30 years ago are now farming 1,000. Hill farms have been amalgamated. Big owner-occupiers take more land in a region that produces about 20 per cent of Scotland’s sheep and more than 12 per cent of the country’s quality beef cattle. The gross domestic product of the Borders is six times more dependent on farming than Scotland as a whole. The accepted multiplier factor means that every pound lost to farming represents a £2.50 loss to the local economy.
It is likely that the bigger farmers will survive by doing more of what they presently do, but the paradox is that it is bigger businesses that are more likely to invest in diversification. The extreme example is Tom Renwick, who from an 11,000-acre family farming business has invested about £5 million over a decade in a new village, hotel and golf course at Cardrona, Peebles. Few are in a position, or have the vision, to do that. Some won’t need to, particularly if they tighten their belts further. But others are struggling. In the Borders this reluctance to believe that the worst can happen to a farmer is combined with a reluctance to look for a way out except through farming. Cut costs as far as possible, go contracting, look for more acres, pay off staff if there are any, don’t renew machinery; that is what farmers think of. As Denise Walton, coordinator of a study by the Borders Foundation for Rural Sustainability and a farmer’s wife, says: “There is little evidence that Borders farmers have been diversifying in an attempt to solve their problems.”
The study did seem to suggest that farmers might show some interest if someone gave them a list of choices. But in a depressed Borders economy, what might they be? Where is the part-time job for a farmer or a new job for a redundant farm worker in an area where the textiles and electronics industries have made several thousand more redundant in the past year? Tourism is struggling. There is a surfeit of golf courses. The large scale of most Borders farming and the lifestyle farmers have enjoyed does not incline them to tele- cottaging. But it is hard to believe that the people of an area with such a turbulent history, with an independent outlook, will go under. There are some farmers who, at the crunch, will prefer to walk away. If they can’t make farming work, they don’t want to be the Basil Fawlty of bed and breakfast. But there are others who, when there are possible options, will try to diversify and hang on and, when better times return, might even prosper.