Country Matters April 22: No Man is an Island

By Arrowsmith

Ukraine is the breadbasket of Europe.

Last month changed so many assumptions for all of us.  And we’re amongst the lucky ones. I’d expected to write about the sort of April Fool pranks people play on one another out in the country. But now it’s hard not to think about how we are going to cope with rocketing energy costs, and where we’re going to get grain and maize, now we can’t import it from Ukraine.  We’re going to face shortages of bread, beer, and even sunflower oil.  Our land usage has changed – fields in which grain used to be grown have been turned over to rape to produce rapeseed oil and animal fodder.

I have grown up children living in the North of England.  Their dual fuel cost for 2021 was £1,840.  Their new contract price from April the first 2022 looked to me like an April Fool prank; £10,080 for the year, based on a fixed tariff contract for two years. My thoughts drifted back to the Christmas Carol, Good King Wenceslas; “when a poor man came in sight, gathering winter fuel”. In Mediaeval days peasants were granted the opportunity to gather firewood ‘by hook or by crook’ and they could then keep warm sitting next to an open fire.  That was apparently extremely polluting, and, from last May, is now illegal.  In both log burners and open fires, fuel must be certified ‘Ready to Burn’ and contain less than 20% moisture.  So poor people planning to collect firewood by hook or by crook to enable them to reduce their heating costs are likely to be breaking the law.

Wars always have an impact on farming and life in the country.  In the World Wars of the 20th Century women carried out work traditionally done by men.  In the cities this might have been factory and engineering work, but in rural areas many women joined the Women’s Land Army, or a branch of that civilian service, the Women’s Timber Corps. The work involved was arduous and demanding, and in today’s rural communities far more women choose careers that were formerly almost exclusively ‘men’s work’.  Certainly, mechanisation has levelled the gender divide, not to mention the introduction of artificial intelligence, computer control and satellite geopositioning. Many aspects of farming remain labour intensive, particularly in picking crops, but with the inevitable rise of wages, leading to a consequent rise in the price of food, then demand from workers for wage rises, the only way to avoid spiralling inflation is to automate tasks wherever possible, and eliminate the need for human workers. Robots do not buy food.

In the Second World War, rural communities became hosts to evacuee children, and back in the cities people with gardens were encouraged to dig up unused land to plant food, encouraged by the slogan “Dig for Victory.” Food supplies are always a vital aspect of warfare; it’s often said that an army marches on its stomach, and civilians have been attacked indirectly throughout history by being cut off from food sources and besieged, whilst their enemies have plundered the very fields from which their country’s citizens were accustomed to get their food.

Only recently we have started to talk about ‘food miles’ and begun to realise just how much worldwide import and export markets have created interdependencies between nations.  None of us can truly claim to be self-sufficient, and the poem by John Donne which begins “No man is an island” is possibly even more relevant today than it was in 1624 when Donne wrote it.

The invasion of Ukraine is a worldwide problem. Our hearts go out to the people living in and fleeing from this dreadful situation.  Here, in the countryside, our farmers face challenges beyond living memory.

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