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120 years of The SF – 1920s, part II

– In those post war years, the government remained very much involved with the business of food pricing, and no more so than for milk, which could only be sold at an officially pre-set price.

Two notables of the 1920s farming world -- Tom Templeton, of Sandyknowe, Kelso, and James Swan, of auctioneers John Swan and Sons -- meeting at the Edinburgh Highland Show
Two notables of the 1920s farming world -- Tom Templeton, of Sandyknowe, Kelso, and James Swan, of auctioneers John Swan and Sons -- meeting at the Edinburgh Highland Show

In cases where a company was caught retailing milk over that level, dire consequences ensued – unless it could be safely proven that the extra cash had been going into the pockets of dishonest employees manning the milk wagons, and not into the business' own coffers.

– "Were Johnny Gibb o' Gushetneuk to rise from the kirkyard and ride over on his bay mare, Jess, to the feeing market at Pitmachie, I am afraid his old world views of labour and wages would receive a rude shock," wrote our correspondent, as the stunning annual salary of £200 was reached in the open market for farmworkers. What was the world coming to, when the very best farmworkers of memory had been happy to work their entire lives for £12 a year, and mere youngsters without skill with horses were expecting three-figure sums? Of course, it was noted, the First World War was to blame, when the need for a secure food supply, and a dire shortage of men to work the fields, had acted to vastly increase the bargaining power of the hired hands.

– The effects of the war echoed in the wool market too, where the 1916 decision to compulsory purchase the entire wool clip for the manufacture of military uniforms was still in force come 1920, and sheep farmers were beginning to resent the low price imposed, particulary as the war had been over for two years. Worse still, during wartime need, a roaring trade had been established for colonial wool, from Australia and New Zealand, and The Scottish Farmer's market commentators looked on with alarm as the ships that had plied those routes in support of the motherland continued to sail, but now with profit as their motivation. Merino wool was even attracting a premium because of its quality. This new market leader was, of course, unavailable from British farms, where the best nearest equivalent was a limited quantity of fleeces from Southdown flocks.

– In an effort to get an organised forestry industry established in Great Britain, the Forestry Commission was created by an Act of Parliament, and there was an expectation that its 'ample powers and funds' would prompt 'many thousands of people who formerly took no interest in this important subject' to get aboard the afforestation wagon. The commissioners, it emerged, had been given the extraordinary budget of £3.5m to cover the first 10 years of their project, buying up land and planting it, to create a wood resource that would shore the country up against future need. "Some enthusiasts of the creation of smallholdings have an idea that the advancement of forestry will jeopardise the encouragement of smallholdings," wrote our columnist, John Boyd, who rejected that argument, stating his belief that the workers and communities associated with the new forestry industry would need an ample supply of fresh dairy produce, which could only be supplied from just such local smallholdings. Mr Boyd went on to argue that forestry could usefully take over 'the most deadly' sheep grazings on the high hill, whilst boosting the stock carrying potential of lower grazings by providing shelter, and thus stock numbers would not be diminished.

– There was much enthusiasm for the idea of establishing a 'Plant breeding station' for Scotland, where scientists might take Darwin's principles of heredity and selection and improve upon the national staple crops. At the start of the decade, a mix of public and private funding had raised £36,000 towards the project, and there were high hopes that this would increase as farmers realised the financial advantages such research could bestow. A good example, argued one supporter, was Scotland's huge turnip crop – weighing in at 6m tonnes a year. As it stood, the digestable nutritious component of these neeps was recorded as a mere 6.35% of their actual mass – if the scientists could increase that digestability by a mere 1%, the effect would be equivalent to an extra 60,000 tonnes of turnips, a bonus that would instantly pay half the cost of establishing the research station. In 1921, a suitable site was found at Craigs House, Corstorphine, and work proceeded on the genetic improvement of oats, potatoes, grasses and swedes. But by 1925, following the failure of initially promising new spud varieties, the enormity of the task at hand was becoming clear, and there were appeals in The Scottish Farmer for patience – and continued funding – to let the fledgling research body find its feet.

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