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.