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.

YOU’RE NEVER TOO OLD TO LEARN….

I went off to the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester in September 1984. To a boy from the hills of Cumbria, it was a world away from the sheltered life I had known. My parents were proud, my old farming grandfather even more so. In many ways it was a rude awakening to the harsh realities of life and people. I met some of the best and some of the worst. “Mountain Man” as i was christened by fellow students from the south, had an awful lot to learn about both. These experiences have continued through my whole career.

The qualification was everything. Rural Estate Management was the key to the door for a lifetime of working within the farming community.

Trent Lodge Hall of Residence, Cirencester – second floor right hand window – my room!

Three years later I returned to Cumbria in my battered old Mini 1000, with rather more life experiences under my belt, and a new job as a trainee land agent and auctioneer for Penrith Farmers Kidd’s. A 20 minute interview with the Managing Director, Harry Richardson secured my dream job. It was a no- brainer for me to return to my home county.

The learning was far from over. For on my very first day and less than five minutes into the job, I ran into the first of many bollicking’s off a farmer.

The brand new Penrith market on Junction 40 of the M6 was full to overflowing with trailers backed up the A66. It was pandemonium. I donned my shiny new auctioneer’s coat and headed for the calf ring to help auctioneer and now life- long pal, David Jackson. As I rounded the corner, I bumped straight into Geoff Faulder, Ewan Close Farm. A man in his late 60’s, he was clearly disgruntled, having to queue to unload calves. He looked me up and down.

 “I don’t know who the bloody hell you are – Boy” he said, “but get out there and sort the bloody mess out”! With that he turned tail and left me standing open- mouthed. Things did settle down and in time Geoff became a good pal, as did his brother Jared, a top county buyer of sheep in local auctions, including his favourite, Lazonby.

Today my own college life seems a world away. Those three years were important not only to learn about my chosen profession, and get the certificate, but more widely to learn to communicate, deal with people and to gain some much-needed self- confidence. I made some good choices in the knowledge that I desperately wanted to return to live and work in Cumbria, but I also made some bad choices in other areas of my life. I wouldn’t change it, but oh boy, would i do it differently! Hey, hindsight is a wonderful thing and I’m still learning, for you are never too old to learn!

Today my auctioneering duties are part- time and still very enjoyable. I’m classed as an old hand now. It is good to work with a young team and where needed impart a little advice or just offer support where i can. I am perfectly at home dropping down livestock trailer doors or opening ring gates as much as i am in the rostrum, although there is nothing beats the buzz of a good trade when you’ve got hold of the gavel.

Five years ago i became the Managing Director of The Farmer Network based at Newton Rigg College near Penrith. I get much pleasure seeing the myriad of ways our non- profit company finds to support farmers and their businesses. Our goal has not changed since the Network was formed 15 years ago. It is to support a viable and sustainable farming community.

I enjoy talking to students on campus and have even tried my hand at lecturing in farm business management. Many students are the offspring of farmers that I grew up with. It is the circle of farming life. Those students are going through the same learning experiences as I did back in the 1980’s when the girls had big hair and big shoulder pads!

College life for todays “Aggies” is more important than ever. They are the generation that will have to work within a rapidly changing industry. It is so important that we prepare them with the necessary skills both to farm smarter and manage the landscapes in evolving ways. In our industry we start them young, encouraging a strong worth ethic and great pride in the job. In the mart, young handlers sale days are just one of the learning experiences offered.

The future of Newton Rigg college is under threat. The parent organisation Askham Bryan which owns the Penrith campus has persuaded the further education commission that the college is not viable. They have been given permission to sell the site and if this happens the sale proceeds will taken out of the county, back to Yorkshire. Too many this a cruel and unjust end to a bastion of Cumbrian farming life.

Newton Rigg Farmhouse – present home of the Farmer Network – but for how long?

Even worse is the fact that we will lose a cherished and respected seat of learning in Cumbria, the second largest red meat and dairy producing county across the country. To the farming community and indeed the wider rural community, this is an appalling state of affairs. Closure is due July 2021.

An independent Newton Rigg Land- Based Education Taskforce was formed consisting mainly of representatives from the agricultural and educational sector in Cumbria. The taskforce has been trying to formulate a plan to save Newton Rigg as a seat of learning or at least to ensure that land- based learning can continue in Cumbria in some form. I am proud to be part of the group knowing full well the importance of not only further education, but life- long learning for members of the farming community. There are currently three consortia interested in talking over the campus, and a bidding process is underway. The Land Based Education Taskforce remains in place to offer support where it can. There is still hope!

Our young people starting their careers will be brilliant farmers, food producers and conservationists, in fact the best yet, all in one package. I am convinced of this. If i have one message for them it is: – “learn and keep learning because you are never too old”.

More than 30 years have passed since the day i walked into Penrith mart with my shiny new auctioneers coat. These days my white coats are rather larger than they used to be, but i still feel the same privilege working for the farming community . Difficult though these times of change may be, i have an unwavering belief that farmers are going to become more and more important to this country. We just haven’t quite woken up to the fact yet. Time will tell!

The Landscapes of Lakeland – what value?

I took this photo one afternoon from the summit of Hardknott Pass in Cumbria. In my role as a livestock auctioneer and land agent, I had spent the day visiting farms in Eskdale and other western valleys of the Lake District and i was on my way over the top, heading for Wrynose and then Kirkstone before driving home along Ullswater towards Penrith. It was a great day and i was feeling fortunate to live and work within the farming communities across Cumbria. What a commute home!

I spied her whilst i was driving. A lovely young Herdwick sheep, the indigenous breed of the Lake District. She stood there with her two front legs on a small rock and she was just watching the world go by. I could not help myself. I stopped my car and doubled bac to her. She saw me and carried on watching me intently. She seemed to be saying, “this is my world” and we stared at each other for a long time before she turned tail and ambled off down hill, in an instant lost from view. She was not frightened of me. She was at ease in her surroundings. I have sold many thousands of Herdwick sheep in my lifetime. it’s part of our culture and our heritage in these remote valleys and high, challenging fellscapes.

These sheep are heafed to the fells. They are bred to live here, attached to hills, acclimatised to them and very much part of them, as are the people that shepherd the flocks.

These green hills attract 40m visitors a year who love the landscapes as they are. Trees could not grow here but grass does. The sheep produce wool and meat and the soils store carbon. But the sheep are worth far more than that. They are a linchpin to communities, vital for so much more than just meat and wool.

Last night, to see them on a Channel 4 tv programme, plucked from a model landscape with such ease, betrays an ignorance and shows a lack of understanding and knowledge or worse still, regard for rural life, and the public benefits that sheep on the hills, cattle in the valleys and people working the land actually deliver.

That is not to say that managed landscape cannot be improved. We can make our soils better, we can improve the natural environment, create more habitats and plant many more trees in the right place but these sheep and our rural communities and what they deliver, cannot be over- valued and i hope, will never be destroyed.