Landlines: Free time for farmers harder to come by

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ALL organisations and sports clubs I’ve been involved with and the many others I’ve seen in operation have one thing in common – a small percentage of members do most of the work, probably confounding Pareto’s classic 80:20 principle.

Essentially about economics, Pareto’s Principle states that in any business 80 per cent of activity will produce only about 20 per cent of results and 20 per cent of effort will produce 80 per cent of results.

But it can also be applied to most things in life; for example, 20 per cent of toddlers in a nursery will produce 80 per cent of the noise or 80 per cent of effort in the kitchen will produce only 20 per cent of the results.

Think it through about any farming or leisure activity and you’ll find that within a few percentage points either way Pareto’s 80:20 will apply. Except, possibly, as noted above for organisations such as local NFU committees, cricket and rugby clubs and agricultural discussion societies.

There the percentages might be closer to 5:95, with five per cent of those involved doing 95 per cent of the work while others confirm the old saying that any fool can criticise – and most do.

The hard fact that there are fewer farmers than there were 20 or 30 years ago is one reason for the decline in attendance at agricultural discussion society meetings.

Linked to that is the fact that many farmers still in business virtually run a one-man show or a contract-farming “empire.” Either way, free time is harder to come by and there are other options for its use on winter evenings, such as curling. Or TV.

There is also the amount of information available now on any given farming subject that can be gleaned quickly from specialist advisers, internet websites, mobile phone apps, emails and texts, with daily newspapers and farming magazines a last resort.

In the hey-day of discussion societies in the 1950s and 1960s the hunger for information about how to farm more efficiently meant top men on straightforward, immediately applicable, farm management methods such as Mac Cooper on grassland, Bobby Boutflour on feeding dairy cows or Alan Fraser on sheep breeding could draw crowds of several hundred.

More recently, in the 1980s and 1990s, controversial speakers such as Peter Hepworth and Oliver Walston or the solid good sense of Professor Dickson of Newcastle University could draw audiences of 150 plus to Kelso discussion society.

Now an audience of one third that size would be a good one in spite of the best efforts of secretary and committee to produce an interesting and varied programme for four winter meetings.

Smaller discussion societies, such as the Merse, would have settled for an attendance of 50 at any time and, in a way, I found that a smaller group often produced a more lively discussion because no one felt intimidated about taking part, as could happen to the shy and retiring in a big gathering.

The fact remains that in changed times all agricultural discussion societies face an uphill struggle to pull a crowd. So perhaps Merse chairman Hugh Veitch’s decision to provide light relief in a lousy farming year was the right one, with a turnout of almost 40 at Duns last week to quiz local panelists Jonathon Constable of Meikle Harelaw, Jim Fullarton of Lumsdaine and Tom Douglas of Glendarg.

Probably more heat than light was generated, especially by Mr Douglas – “I grew up with three sisters so learned to argue in triplicate” – and discussion shot from subject to subject pinball-style. But coherence occasionally broke through, as with Mr Constable’s view when asked how new entrants could get a start in farming.

A self-made farmer himself – from a 15 year old milking cows on a farm in the south of England to farming 900 acres in Berwickshire with substantial holiday cottage lets – he said, refreshingly, that no one had a right to farm.

That’s life, he suggested, so face it. New entrants will be outbid for a tenancy by existing farmers, likewise if they try to buy. And if they do have financial backing, why try to start in Scotland? Go abroad, go to Eastern Europe. Don’t sit around and moan.

Harsh, but fair although I disagree to some extent as I still believe that the most determined can, and do, get a start and most of us can think of at least one example

They usually do it with single-minded, self-sacrificial, determination and that is true of any trade or profession – those who want it badly enough get there.

There was also some interesting discussion on organic farming where Jim Fullarton said that intensive farming does not work “up the hill” while organic farming helped him cut costs.

He agreed the system would not feed the world, but “it does teach us lessons.”

As for other subjects covered during an entertaining evening such as farming co-operatives, genetic modification, Scottish independence, beef exports, renewable energy versus nuclear power and meat processing, Mr Douglas had a conspiracy theory for each. His sisters must have had a hard time at the family supper table.