I hesitate to say it, but the countryside is looking good in the sunshine. That tundra-like look as recently as late April of stunted crops and grass, bare soil and Arctic winds, seems a distant memory.
There are still patchy fields where growers can continue to repent at leisure for not ploughing out and re-sowing failed areas, but most fields now look moderately promising as growers begin a mental countdown to the start of harvest – wheat dark green and filling, winter barley starting to change colour, potato and vegetable crops solid masses of foliage.
It’s quite a transformation in a few weeks because for much of 2013 crops have been at least three weeks behind normal, if we can assume that there is still such a thing as a normal year. For much of June fields of oilseed rape in flower and thick May blossom on hawthorn hedges was the covering we usually associate with the month of May. Now crops and nature in general are racing through their growth stages to catch up.
That has posed more problems than usual for chemical control of growth, pests and diseases and lack of rain means irrigation is being used wherever possible – that is, any grower who can get water on to crops, mainly potatoes and vegetables, is doing so. Crops don’t look the way they do without a lot of care and attention, loving or otherwise.
When we think of the inexorable drive by supermarkets to commandeer 100 per cent of the food and drink market, it’s interesting to note that pockets of resistance remain, such as the quality high street butchers we’re lucky to have in the Borders and north Northumberland. And, in the case of doorstep milk delivery, not only remain, but start to regain a little of lost territory with personal service and often a range of other products. That’s encouraging when, for at least 20 years, doorstep deliveries declined steadily as more and more of us settled for four-pint plastic containers from supermarket shelves.
I first thought about a possible reversal of that trend when talking to one of the few East Lothian milk producers left. They now have more than a dozen doorstep delivery vans on the road servicing a wide area and are increasing the size of their dairy herd to at least 400 cows. That’s commitment and optimism, not to mention a daily logistical problem I wouldn’t like to deal with. But an entrepreneurial spirit that’s paying off and a welcome relief from endless discussion on how the European Union’s common agricultural policy support payments will be allocated.
That East Lothian business is not alone. The latest figures show that Britain’s milkmen deliver more than £300 million worth of dairy products to two million doorsteps each year with an average of 475 customers. They also offer an average of 245 other products and often, they say, play an important part in the local community especially for the most vulnerable.
But it’s not easy in any respect and reading those statistics I was reminded of a line from Hawick’s inimitable public performer Ian Landels that his first job was as tail-gunner on a milk float on a housing estate. He named the estate; I have, conveniently, forgotten it.