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Published June 25, 2012, 01:28 PM

'For my sins'

CARLISLE, Cumbria — The fellow assigned to pick us up at the rail depot at Carlisle, Cumbria, acknowledges that — yes, he’s a farmer. “For my sins,” Eric Kitching adds for effect. It’s meant as a half-joke, and an expression we’d hear from others during our stay. Besides picking us up at the station, he volunteered his time to release the sheep for the dog trial competition.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

CARLISLE, Cumbria — The fellow assigned to pick us up at the rail depot at Carlisle, Cumbria, acknowledges that — yes, he’s a farmer.

“For my sins,” Eric Kitching adds for effect. It’s meant as a half-joke, and an expression we’d hear from others during our stay. Besides picking us up at the station, he volunteered his time to release the sheep for the dog trial competition.

In his early 50s, Kitching explains he and his wife, Sue, originally were from England but farm just across the border, which is about 10 miles away, into Scotland. The Kitchings, who moved here 18 years ago, have two sons, one 18 and the other 16. The older son is “quite keen on farming” but works on a farm near Gretna (a town where English flocked to marry at 16 without parental consent).

“I don’t have the land or the work for him at home,” Kitching says. “It would be a luxury, really.”

A small farm in this area is 200 acres, he says. The Kitchings rent just less than 300 acres from a large landowner, a duke who is among the largest landowner in Europe and elsewhere in the world. They have parcels varying from 12 acres to 20 acres, all fenced — two fields with stones, but the rest with hedges or wire netting. The incoming tenants must pay the outgoing tenant some amount of money for improvements in the houses.

Kitching milks 70 dairy cows in a herring bone parlor, with six on a side. In the winter, he buys concentrates and feeds a product from the distillery trade. He belongs to a farmer-cooperative called FirstMilk, which currently pays 26.5 pence per liter ($18.43 per hundredweight), compared with a cost of production of 27 to 30 pence per liter. “They just dropped the price 1.4 pence on that for next month,” he says. A Danish company called Arla has merged with another called Milk Link, to perhaps create a better market in the region, he says.

“It’s a ridiculous situation,” he says, of milk economics. Supermarkets are too willing to sell milk too cheaply, he says. “Once one milk buyer drops the price everyone else follows suit. There is not enough money in the industry for reinvestment.”

Kitching also has 300 breeding ewes, making him a mid-sized farm. He has North of England mule sheep but also Scotch mules, and white-faced Texel (originally Dutch). Most of his sheep go for the prime meat market. Wool prices are at a four-year high, sold through Texacloth, an Irish buyer.

Many people in the area buy sheep as hoggets, or hogs, or as shearlings, which are two-years old. They’ll breed with a Suffolk or Texel top on them. Kitching sells his sheep through the local auction market, and they mostly go to abattoirs (slaughterhouses) in the region. The reduction in the value of the euro has caused this market to decline, even as fertilizer and fuel prices go up.

Some farmers also raise maize (corn), using a biodegradable film, to keep weeds down, conserve moisture and warm the soil. Some of the corn is grown for a biodigester, and some is grown for silage for milking cows. Most of what is grown is grass, but Kitching doesn’t have arable land. Much of the land is drained, either with tile pipe or with coiled plastic.

Pockets of land have come up for sale now and again. Recently, a farm with about 300 acres was offered for 2.7 million pounds (a total $4.14 million, or about $13,818 per acre). Other small parcels have gone for $10,000 an acre, if more than one farmer wants it. The average sale might be about $9,300 per acre. Grazing land is worth about as much as cropland around here.

A few years ago there were advertisements in local papers asking farmers to consider moving to the United States to manage dairy farms. He doesn’t know of any who did.

One surprise to a North Dakotan: Chinese ring-necked pheasants often can be seen hanging around — even more than in most rural areas in the Northern Plains. Kitching says farmers and rural gardeners consider them vermin.

In England and Scotland, hunting rights are almost always leased. Almost all of the pheasants are raised and released as poults. Hunts involve beaters who drive the birds and induce them to fly. There are shooters and loaders — often there are eight to 10 people at a time. Every bird shot costs the hunter about $40 to $45, so it’s not cheap. “It’s a business, really,” Kitching says.

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