The demise of home- grown food and the UK food chain.

After years of neglect, the lack of investment and support for the UK food industry is coming home to roost. Of course covid and Brexit are having a major effect, but the root causes stem from much deeper.

Successive governments have allowed and supported the systematic reduction in the supply of home- grown food. We’re now little more than 50% self- sufficent relying more and more on cheap imported food from across the globe, often of dubious provenance and standards of production. As a result, our supply chains and ability to process food has also reduced. We have seen the demise of almost all small and medium sized abattoirs in the UK (gold- plated regulation) killed them.

Supermarkets have (until now) run highly efficient, trimmed down national supply systems designed to maximise profit and minimise cost. That is one of the reasons why we can’t buy much locally produced, locally processed food from the Major multiples. It has of course been very successful at delivering relatively cheap food to the masses, which government positively supports.

This is the root cause of the issues we are seeing today. Brexit has not caused the problem, it has simply brought into focus the fact that in the government’s eager pursuit of cheap food for the masses, it turned a blind eye to the practices of using the cheapest drivers that can be found for transport sector, thereby driving down the market for UK drivers. Now there is a shortage. Lamb from Cumbria goes to Wales for processing to be brought back to Cumbria to be sold. Most of Cumbria’s milk goes out of the county for processing. One of the major multiples announced in sping 2021 that it was centralising all of its bread production to one “Ambient” bakery to serve the whole of the UK. That’s a lot of haulage and driving miles for one crust.

Today some milk is being tipped down the drain by farmers because there are no collection drivers. I say again this is a result of driving down costs in every part of the food chain. Now all of a sudden supermarket shelves are emptying and there is talk that there may be christmas shortages of pigs in blankets, most of which are imported. Don’t be fobbed off. British farmers with the right backing, the right support and a decent level of profit to ensure a viable farm business, can produce more great food to feed LOCAL people and improve the natural environment at the same time. it can be done but it comes at a cost.

What we see on the horizon are more plans to downsize UK food production, import even more food and concentrate in large rural areas of the UK on looking after the natural environment. This is not joined up thinking. We need to work together to produce the best environment we’ve had in decades, cleaner air, cleaner water and produce more food to feed a rapidly growing UK population. This is the greatest challenge of all. Instead Government is set to focus on nature recovery and significant landscape change, the latter suggesting little room for farming! The writing is on the wall.

We need investment in food production across the length of the food chain from field to fork. Farming, conservation, processing, shortening the supply chain and delivery journeys, seasonality of produce, education about food production and healthy eating. We need this now! i’m afraid the excuses about covid and Brexit will wear thin in time. This issue is synonomous with a much greater problem, the demise of UK food production and who has control of the food chain.

Meanwhile we have a brilliant farming community currently under- resourced, under- utilised, under- appreciated and being taken down a path that may lead to a much worse place in future, possibly the opposite of what government hopes will happen.

I am realistic to know that farming in the UK is going to be different in future and perhaps it needs to be. We all want to see a better natural world, more birds bees, butterflies, wildlife, more trees of the right type and in the right place. We also want to see cattle in the fields, sheep on the hills and more local food to local people.

Right now as world demand for red meat grows and supply falls, UK farmers are enjoying record prices in the sheep sector. This should be another wake up call as to why sustainable red meat and dairy production is vital.

There is a balance to be achieved between farming and nature and we are a long way away from it. It sometimes feels like banging your head against a brick wall.

“We will get there”….

Written for the Cumberland News June 2020.

“There are people on the pitch, they think it’s all over – it is now”! How I jumped up from the kitchen table and cheered as Geoff Hurst thumped the ball into the top right- hand corner of the German net. It was only a re- run of the 1966 football world cup, but I was lifted up.

Recently we haven’t had much to cheer about and not much of a feelgood factor. We’ve just gone about our lives as best we can. It pains me to say that we are not over the worst. Once the virus is beaten, it’s going to take a long time for the economy to recover. In agriculture we are in danger of being sucked into a short – term comfort zone. For most farm businesses, things ain’t so bad although there are of course a few exceptions. Constant reappraisal is going to be required. Where are we now and where do we want to be?

My feelings have not changed. Longer term, Cumbria has a bright future. The visitor economy if It can survive the current crisis, will recover to a stronger position. If we can ally farming and food production alongside the tourist sector to a much greater degree, then let us not miss the opportunity. Local food, produced, marketed, and consumed ethically and sustainably within the county is a great public good to be able to deliver.

The limitations of the grand global market have been exposed as have the mistruths about UK farming on climate change and greenhouse gases. Methane production from ruminant animals has been going on since first we crawled out of the primordial soup and “chowed” on a grassy tuft. What were the lifetime emissions of 100-ton Sauropods over the 120 million years they roamed the Earth? Annual gas losses from oil extraction emit twice as much methane to the atmosphere than the entire global bovine population?  Time for some perspective, then let’s go forward in the right way.

I know some who will accuse me of being a little Englander, but it isn’t that at all. I’m talking about best use of our local resources. We grow grass, farm livestock, and look after the landscapes. So, when we do reduce our agriculture emissions (currently 10% of total), and contribute to making Cumbria carbon neutral (or better!), I would hope to see fair reward for farmers and a little respect!

Last week I watched a documentary re-run of the 1996 European football championship. I remember my spine tingling way back then as Stuart Pearce stepped up to take a penalty in yet another shoot- out. He had missed one in the 1990 world cup and England went out.

Now here he was volunteering to go again, stepping up to be counted. He absolutely smashed it past the Spanish goalkeeper, bottom- right, to wipe away 6 years of misery and prove he had the ultimate bulldog spirit. Again, even though it is 24 years later, I was off around the kitchen table “Get in”!

We will all need some of that spirit before this crisis is finished. It might be day by day, month by month, but we will get there.

Lockdown – When Friday night was party night!

I’ve haven’t blogged for a long while. In the long months of Covid lockdown, i found myself doing new things to try and keep my head together, and to help others who needed a bit of a cheer up. In normal times apart from working for the Farmer Network and continuing to do some auctioneering, i sing in a band called the Soul Survivors. From March 2020 all our gigs disappeared. One night i did my first ever live stream on social media. i dedicated it to a young couple whose wedding had just been cancelled when lockdown kicked in.

I sat at my piano and sang a very average version of “Don’t let the sun catch you crying” by Gerry & The Pacemakers. I thought i would get laughed at but was amazed to find that some people watched it and actually seemed to enjoy it. In fact i was asked if i would do it again the following night. This i did for the next 4 months, live- streaming every night, sometimes from the house, sometimes from the garden.

I couldn’t believe it as more and more people started to join me at 8pm each evening. I watched the messages dancing up my phone screen as i sang. Friends unable to meet were having text conversations with each other and with me. We had banter and fun. It seemed we were all keeping mind and body together with each other.

One Friday night instead of the usual two or three songs i put together a longer one hour show from my office/ music studio. I set up some band lights and called it “Friday night is Party night”. Thereafter for many weeks, Friday night became party night as friends from across the world joined me live or viewed the show. We all had a drink with us, some more than one! At regular intervals after a song or two, i called out “Cheers”! and we drank in unison.

By July lockdown restrictions were being lifted. I was able to go to the local pub. That was the signal to end my live streaming. I was honoured and proud of the many comments of support and sadness from some of my friends who said they would miss the 8pm music slot. I sat on the wall outside the pub, happy in my pint but reflecting on how music had brought many of us together each night. It was never about the quality of the performance or the musical selections which were often very average, but more about the sense of community and friendship during a time of hardship for some. I never intended for this to happen, it just did!

In November 2020 more lockdown restrictions were announced. No more pub, no more socialising, not that there had been much going on. Myself and the rest of our band had remained redundant for the last 6 months. I started to get messages from people asking if i would do another “Friday night is party night” to cheer them up. I needed it too, so the office was turned into a stage again and i put together a 30 minute show. I ended up doing 75 minutes. All my old chums had returned to listen and take part. Messages and greetings were flying up the screen again, and those “likes and loves” for certain songs gladdened my heart. I actually felt like a proper musician again.

I did a Friday night 80’s night, then a swing night and then it was Christmas. My Christmas on line show had more than 5,500 views. Then all of a sudden it was New Years Eve. Few people had any desire to go out, so my 2 hour show from 8pm to 10pm attracted a lot of attention. Crazy times, lonely people, just trying to make the best of it, dancing around the kitchen table. Little people dancing with mum and dad before bed, watching me on the TV. 94 year old Gladys who loved the old swing tunes as it brought back memories of her late husband and their courting days. These nights made me feel worthwhile and alive, like i was doing something positive in my own mediocre way.

The year turned and a third lock down was introduced. Once again i was being requested to start the nightly’s again. I could not say no. So every night i did a couple of tunes saying hello to people who tuned in every night without fail including my own mother and father who never missed. Sometimes there were sad messages to purvey, friends very ill, people we knew well passing away. But always the message had to be “We will get through this”!

Friday night continued to be party night. We did an elvis night and a country music night. We carried on for another three months. It gave me something to look forward to each evening until finally lockdown restrictions started to ease. The finale show came on Friday 9th April. i knew this would be the end and we all welcomed it with open arms. Even so it seemed like the end of an era somehow. I was sure there would be lots of good stuff to look forward to as we slowly returned to normality. Through all of it i had made new friends, found old ones, lost some, and i had a huge repertoire of over 1100 songs that i had learned and performed in the grainy flashing light of my office/ stage in front of an international audience from Africa to New Zealand

Now it is August 2021. Most Covid bets are off although it is still out there. The Soul Survivors are up and running again and i’ve got quite a few gigs happening. We are in catch up mode. Once again i’m starting to think about writing as we move towards whatever the new normality will bring. So now that you know what I’ve been up to, you can expect to see more of the usual stuff about farming, rugby and lots of tales to tell from the past. I hope this is of interest. We’ll put the lockdown stuff to bed and remember it for what it was. I always said that we would get through. Most of us did but of course we spare a thought and perhaps a tear for those that we knew and loved, that did not………