Your local farmer is your friend, not your problem!

Decades ago, my Cumbrian farming grandmother would prepare for long winters by filling her ample chest freezer with home produced lamb, half a pig, and a few large beef joints. The freezer was like the Tardis in that it seemed much bigger on the inside! It also contained racks of frozen vegetables from the allotment and pies with fruit picked from the hedgerows. The blackberry pies were the best, especially on Easter Sunday! Anything bought fresh from the shops was only what was in season at the time. 
In the modern world, we now expect by right to have cheap food delivered fresh from across the world. We care little about the people producing the food and even less about the provenance, the traceability and true cost of production.
We don’t actually perceive food to be cheap, because we know nothing else. We have forgotten the true age of austerity, ration books and queuing for food, in an age when no food could be wasted. Grandmother would have baulked at the idea of throwing out perfectly good consumables. Sell by dates meant nothing to our forefathers.
Today 4 pints of whole milk can be bought in most supermarkets today for about 1.10p. Many dairy farmers will be paid less than  half of that. The product is sold for a pittance and farmers are paid a pittance. Bottles of water are sold at higher prices! How can this be? And how would we manage today if more than 30% of our weekly wage had to be spent on basic food items? This is how it was in the 1950’s.
Because food is so cheap today,  very few people outside the agriculture industry have any inkling of the systems, processes, regulations and hard work that goes into producing a pint of milk or a prime lamb. As a population, we have lost knowledge and respect for the farming industry. We don’t understand and we don’t appreciate where our food comes from, and how it is produced. The constant supply of globally  produced cheap food means that UK farmers are any easy target on climate change issues, pollution, animal welfare and just about the ills of the world. This is a  seriously misguided blame game.
In the 1950’s UK farmers were truly the housewives friend. Government policies encouraged production at all costs. The nation was hungry and in post- war crisis. These days the government will not support home food production. In fact they barely recognise it. It’s a curious thing but many members of the public believe farmers get free handouts in the form of production subsidies. The reality is that those days are long gone.  Current support payments are based on environment and conservation outputs only. The UK farmer is always at the mercy of a painfully thin market. There are no fall back measures. If the beef price drops even lower, the beef farmer has to take it on the chin. It’s the same in every sector.
So where will the food to feed the British people come from in future? The answer if we continue as we are, is an even greater reliance on imports. Frankly it is the road to disaster. Worse still it is morally and ethically challengeable. 
My heartfelt belief is that we need to grow our own food and look after our environment at the same time. These are not separate portfolio’s. This work goes together. Too many people with vested interests seek to promulgate the polarisation of farming, food production and conservation. As a nation we are now less than 60% self sufficient in food and it continues to fall by more than 1% per annum. This troubles me greatly. Sure, we are ok now. Lots of food to bring in from all over the world! But where will we be in 20 years time if this trend continues? only 40% self sufficient? desperate to secure even more food from around the world for a growing population? it is madness. We have a 25 year environment plan, but no food and farming plan. This should be one and the same.
Instead we shove it under the carpet as we focus on “saving the planet”. Of course we need to do this urgently but we also need to focus on sustainable food production to feed the human race. We cannot continue a growing trend of importing out of season, cheap food products. If we do and this is more important than supporting UK food production, then we are simply exporting our problem, sweeping it under the carpet in the name of environment and conservation. Many of us will have seen the BBC programme on global meat production this week. I believe many of the findings in that programme actually back up much of what i have discussed earlier. This is a global issue but cannot be blamed on the UK farming community. We’ve been hung out to dry by those who support and promote cheap imported food and we know fine well who they are!
Take a look at the photo above. This is how fruit and vegetables are grown in parts of Spain, much of it destined for the UK market. It is grown this way using the cheapest labour that can be found, people often working in shocking conditions. There have been tv programmes about this recently. Think of the carbon footprint and the use of plastics yet we choose to ignore it. Sweep it under the carpet- again. Cheap food for the masses, stocking the supermarket shelves! “cheap food is our right. We are entitled to it”!
Cheap food is ours by right! That’s one hell of statement, but it must be true because clearly supermarkets support this policy (just as long as their margins are maintained). Clearly the UK government supports this policy wholeheartedly. Cheap food means we have more disposable income to spend on other consumer goods and this keeps the public happy. It’s a measure of economic success to have a tv in every room and be able to eat out several times a week in fast food restaurants or via the take- away. The grim reality is that food is too cheap and we don’t deserve it by right. The grim reality is that global food systems are ensuring the planet is paying a high price, to keep food prices low. The system is broken and most of us don’t even know it. Or if we do, we lift that carpet yet again. We readily accept these global food systems whilst ignoring our own UK sustainable farming systems. We’re even allowing some sections of society to blame UK farmers for the global food production mess!
I steadfastly believe that we have to change our ways. We desperately need to invest more in home- grown food production. As a result and as a condition of this, we need to achieve better environmental goals in offering the public benefits in clean air, clean water and conservation in the natural environment. To do this our farm businesses need to viable and sustainable. The farm business is the key to all this. The government does not recognise food as a public good. Absolute madness and they are missing a huge trick.
Our mentality has to change. Food needs to be priced fairly to respect the producer and the way in which in which our food is grown. We need to return to seasonal purchasing instead of importing goods from across the world. What is the true cost of this in terms of food miles and carbon footprint? no one is saying and we’re sweeping under the carpet yet again in order to protect a 52 week food supply season. It’s easier to criticise our own farmers rather than admit the true cost of food importation.
We must invest in local markets, in other words locally produced food purchased by local people. We must reduce food waste, Millions of tonnes of the stuff, binned each year. Why does this happen? Again because its cheap and not respected and therefore neither is the producer. In fact almost 2 million tonnes of food is wasted in the UK annually of which 240,000 tonnes is binned by supermarkets alone. Ask yourself why this is allowed to happen?
With education and investment we can do much better. Feed our nation more sensibly than we do now. Make the best of our natural assets to grow more food, not less! and at the same time be proud to improve our natural environment.
it’s time to big up the UK farmer, one of the best assets we have. Once again in the future the farmer will become our best friend. Start the planning now and let’s do this on our terms rather than in desperation some years down the line when we run out food and run out of ideas.
This will mean huge changes to the farming industry, new skills to learn, new technology to embrace as we seek to grow more food using less inputs. Our future farmers will be skilled food producers but they will also be upskilled conservationists. And if they are, then they must be rewarded for it. Farmers already offer a huge range of benefits to their communities and the wider public, but we’ve lost the knowledge and understanding of this, again through cheap food and a lack of education about food and farming.
We can get it back but we have to act now to protect our home- production and in doing so our natural environment. Food, farming and conservation go together side by side and it is so easy. We need a Rural Grand Plan to encompass all of this.
But don’t just take my word for it. In 2017 the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) issued a stark warning in a report entitled “The Future of Food and Agriculture: Trends and Challenges.” The message was this: –
Because of a growing global population (7.3b today rising to 10b by 2050), agricultural output will need to increase by 50 percent. This needs to happen alongside the necessary steps to mitigate climate change.
This is perhaps more evidence that farming, food and conservation go together. People are now understanding the significance of climate change. Why the hell aren’t we talking about sustainable food production? All of the good conservation work will be destroyed if we start to go hungry. The bad conservation work needs to be called out for what it is. Time to end the polarisation! Bring it together….. “A Rural Grand Plan”.
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Grandmothers roast lamb dinners followed by homemade blackberry pie will never be surpassed. it’s time to re-discover her old fashioned values from a time when food was so much more important than it is now. My grandparents in their own little way were proud farmers, feeding the nation. That pride remains today within the farming industry especially among young people who are desperately keen to farm. We’re in danger of losing this in the next generation unless we start respecting, appreciating and supporting them. We’re in danger of losing far more if we continue to import cheap food from abroad, without any consideration of those production systems. You have been warned!
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FOOD FOR THE MASSES – MAINTAINING STANDARDS AND WHY WE SHOULD SUPPORT ALL BRITISH FARMERS.

Over the last 30 years I’ve worked in the farming communities of Cumbria and to a lesser extent the Yorkshire Dales and the Lancashire Pennines too. In that time several million sheep and maybe a hundred thousand or more cattle have for a tiny part of their lifetime been in my care within an auction mart. I’ve worked with high turnover, low margin feeders, operating highly intensive fattening systems and also very extensive, low production, high nature- value farmers. No one can persuade me there is a right way or wrong way. The best and most successful farming systems are conducive to the type of farm, the area, topography, soils and climate. It is horses for courses. A one- size fits all policy of land management could never work despite what some “experts” believe.

In the auction mart, I owed both the farmer and his animals a duty of care. For the farmer it is important that the animal has safe passage to the buyer’s farm or indeed the abattoir for slaughter. For the animal we try to ensure that whilst in the confines of the auction it is as stress- free as possible, comfortably penned and where necessary fed and watered if the on- going journey is delayed. The duty of care is always impressed on auction staff. Most auction staff now have an NVQ qualification in livestock droving.

Animal welfare continues to be a major contributing factor in the design and operation of auction marts. Quite rightly the performance of the market and its systems are regulated and policed by DEFRA and Trading Standards. Sometimes marts are visited by other groups such as RSPCA and Farm Assurance inspectors. There are also occasional visits from other less desirable organisations, whose mission is to disrupt the market and by subterfuge or even plain lies, seek to pervert the truth about the welfare of animals in our care.

Most markets will always welcome the general public in to the auction environment as long as they too are respectful and keep out of harm’s way. A Health and Safety inspection once recommended a total of 22 different warning signs to be placed in one of my markets between the unloading docks and the sale ring! By their very nature, markets must be efficient, smooth and professional work places. Knowledge and experience of working with livestock (and People!) is essential.

Markets are very much favoured by the farmer. They are seen to be independent sales centres, helping to add value (on most occasions) by bringing a range of buyers to the ring. In other words, a buyer for everything regardless of quality or size. The market also guarantees payment to the farmer. In an age where some meat companies can go in to receivership on Friday and their directors back in business by Monday, this is a very useful safety net for the farming community. There is also a very strong social element to the market in an industry where rural isolation can play a part. I know some farmers in these parts who only leave the farm and socialise with others on auction day!

On Prime stock days, cattle and sheep are brought to market and sold to a ring full of buyers representing a range of wholesale and retail meat buyers. These range from the high- ranking supermarket chains to catering butchers and local high- street butchers. Buyers from the ethnic communities are vitally important, particularly in the sheep meat sector. This market continues to grow year upon year.

Our job as an auctioneer is to ensure that any animal must leave the market in at least the same condition as when it arrived. It must not be bruised or otherwise injured. It must not be stressed, as this can affect the meat quality and the way in which the carcase cools and sets. Also it must not have lost condition or meat quality during that time. Buyers will only visit the market if they are confident that animal welfare is high on the auctioneer’s agenda and that what he buys, he will get delivered to the point of slaughter. In this respect there is a trust and a bond.

There is also a trust and a bond between the farmer and the auctioneer. Most farmers genuinely care about the animals they rear and want them to live the best lives they can. This maybe particularly so for farmers with favourite dairy cows, beef cows and even some breeding ewes. The message is hard to get across to the general public and one which needs to be done far better in future. Even among the more commercial and intensive farming operations, where there may be less of a bond between farmer and animal, there is a desire to ensure that the animals are healthy, in the best of condition and able to be sold for optimum value. In order to achieve this, animal welfare has to be a top priority.

The regulation in the auction mart industry as described above is even more intense and just as robust on livestock farms. Every bovine and ovine animal in the UK has an individual ear tag number specific to it. This must be recorded by the farmer or he may be financially penalised at a later date. Everywhere those animals go during their lifetime, their ear tag goes with them. As a result we have the best traceability system in the world. Without any shadow of doubt, our livestock production and welfare rules are of the most stringent with few countries able to bear comparison. This has been embraced by UK farming to a great extent despite past farmer grumblings about farm assurance being only for the supermarkets benefit.

As an industry we are passed that now. We are genuinely proud of the high standards we have achieved and are maintaining. That is why supermarkets, government and the general public should recognise that our standards, food provenance and traceability comes at a price, an on-cost to the producer which is not redeemable at the point of sale nor re- reimbursed by the supermarket. There is no added value to the farmer for giving assurances to the general public. It could be said that only supermarkets benefit when they choose to promote “assurance”, hence the grumbling.

Worse still is the fact that supermarkets are very happy to promote “farm assurance” with brands like “Red Tractor” but only at a time when it suits them. For when farm gate prices rise and there are several reasons why this can happen, the supermarkets like to have a Plan B. This takes the form of imported frozen meat such as New Zealand lamb which is pre- purchased several months before it is to be sold to the British consumer, shipped half way around the world and kept in frozen storage until the supermarket decides to off- load.

Time and again in recent years this has occurred at the time of peak lamb production in the UK, often in the autumn and winter months when public demand is highest. The frozen goods are then given premium shelf space, advertising and of course clever “two for one” offers designed to make the consumer think they are getting a real bargain. At this point our un- rivalled standards of welfare, traceability and provenance go out of the supermarket window. This is the biggest heresy of supermarkets who hide behind their public facing statements that British lamb is “out of season”. It is a lie and a slap in the face for the UK producer. It is disrespectful to both the farmer and the consumer as is the often deliberately confusing and misleading labelling system on meat products. There are many examples of this. Some of the larger supermarkets play on the consumer’s lack of knowledge and information. Time and again they market price over quality and provenance.

If we are to maintain our standards, support viable and sustainable farm businesses then these issues have to be dealt with and things must change. It is clear that governments are not prepared to act in any meaningful way. The Supermarket ombudsman has proved to be pretty toothless up to now.

We are at a crossroads leading up to Brexit. The farming industry perhaps like other industries too, is in a state of limbo. Few farmers may be prepared to invest in future development. Without the safe but some would argue penal umbrella of the EU common agriculture policy, we neither know what or where our markets will be. Like for like support measures are only guaranteed until 2022. We do not know what support measures (if any) will be in place thereafter for farmers, especially those that have in the past helped to keep food prices relatively low and stable (another supermarket win!) Also we don’t know what trade deals government may agree to increase the volume of imported food from around the world, where we know production standards, animal welfare and ethics are simply not up to scratch. Food production and farming may be the throw-away bargaining chip to sustain other industries through trade deals.

If future, farming policies are to succeed, government, supermarkets and other industry players need to step up to the plate. There is no shame in encouraging the message to “Buy British”. There will be no shame in explaining to the public why farming needs to be financially supported. Viable and sustainable farming business’s will ensure investment, best practice, encouraging a culture of more production from less inputs and in doing so, protect and conserve the environment. I have concentrated on my area of knowledge however I am well aware that across the country we have a wide portfolio of highly productive farms growing arable crops, field scale vegetables and fruit all of which I fear are under- valued and under- utilised by the good people of Britain.

There may be multiple benefits to be had in creating such a farming policy. As the population of Britain and indeed the rest of the world continues to rise, the pressure on food production and by association our landscapes and environment will continue to grow. We can make plans to tackle this head- on and be ready to do so but only by starting now. Ten years hence will be too late!

By that time, we may well be regressing to post- Second World War food policies, rationing, poaching and black marketeering to combat food shortages, and the pressure on clean water supplies. In that respect, and I have said this repeatedly since 2001, once again the farmer will become the “housewife’s” best friend. Forgive the term “housewife” in the modern age, but you get the gist. My concern leads me to question, at what price to our landscapes and environment?

The public will need our farmers and their food. Let’s make sensible plans and provisions to stock the larder now. It will provide far better value for money than crisis management, which is where one day we will end up, as the country starts to go hungry.

Finally there is a sadly misguided and ill- informed belief among many politicians that if the supply of imported goods fails and prices rise that British farmers can just “turn the tap on”. I have actually heard that phrase used. The connotations of such a policy are frightening. Trashing the land to feed a starving population would be such a backward step, akin to the American mid- west in the early twentieth century. I believe such stupidity adds even more weight to the argument to invest and support balanced sustainable farming and food production with looking after the land, improving soils and maintaining the environment. Take the fetters off farming, release the handbrake now and we have every chance in being able to sustain the British Isles and our people for generations to come.