FROM CAMBRIDGE TO CUMBRIA.

A Cumbrian farm visit for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

Amid the clatter of stone on stone, I took a deep breath and surveyed the scene across the upper reaches of the Ullswater Valley in Cumbria. 150 years ago my forefathers were engaged in hewering iron ore from the deep depths of the Helvellyn range. My maternal Grandfather X4, William Jackson, owned the contract or “bargain” which from the 1860’s allowed him, followed by four sons, to spend several years breaking through from Glencoynedale to Greenside Lead Mine in pursuit of the grey gold. You simply cannot imagine their working life in those conditions as they trudged up the miners trod from their home at Seldom Scene six days a week.

I was pondering my local family heritage as I watched William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge   gap- up a dry stone wall above Deepdale Hall, Patterdale. It was a rather surreal situation. I offered His Royal Highness a pair of work gloves but he politely declined. That being the case and not to be outdone, the Duchess also declined the offer of gloves.

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As they set about their task, the farmer, Jimmy Brown was telling them that the walls on his farm were over 250 years old. This was part of his heritage and they weren’t going to be allowed to fall down on his watch. He does this work with pride to enclose and protect his sheep. However the general public, walking the many miles of footpaths that cross the farm, gets the benefit of this landscape free of charge.

It is truly a working landscape and it is is free for everyone to enjoy. For Jimmy, this work is unpaid and an on-cost to the farm business. It is simply part of his life and the traditional way in which farms are maintained. Jimmy and many more farmers get little recognition for the work they do. As we talk of placing a value on the natural capital of beautiful areas like the Lake District, what value do we place on our people and our communities? What is our cultural worth and how do we define it?

Heritage is a current buzzword in Cumbria. Whilst few families can compete with the documented history of the royal family, those of us accompanying the royal couple were struck by their knowledge and understanding of rural life, farming issues and the importance of farmers to local communities.

Taking part in a Royal Visit was a huge honour that I shared with a number of farmers from all over Cumbria. Inside Deepdale Hall farmhouse kitchen,  we were struck by their easy- going nature as we took tea and cake whilst having a chat. They genuinely appeared to be having fun with us on the day. The huge media presence and a blur of whirring cameras and TV lights did not detract. In fact it gave many of us the chance to give a positive spin on Cumbrian farming and also raise some of the many concerns.

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Jim Cockbain talked of how he engages with tourists on a daily basis, explaining what he does to build understanding about sheep farming in the hills above Keswick. Many visitors to Rakefoot have little or no understanding of sheep production or the life of a working shepherd. Jim can often dispel many of the falsehoods perpetuated by certain anti- farming groups or others who would seek to reduce sheep from the hills yet further. 

Young couple, Jack and Rachel Cartmel discussed their difficulties in securing a viable tenancy in Martindale, to enable them to farm together and simply make a living. These days it is so difficult for young people to get a foot on the farming ladder. Despite coming from strong farming backgrounds, in order to simply make ends meet and pay the rent, both Jack and Rachel have other jobs as well. Rachel is a sheep dog trainer and runs the farm bed and breakfast business. Jack is a professional sheep shearer, clipping thousands of sheep for many farmers, throughout the summer season. His expert guidance ensured that the William and Kate did not put a foot wrong when clipping some Deepdale Hall Herdwicks. The Duchess stuck to her task with much determination when the young sheep which had not previously been shorn, started to kick. This caused some merriment for William and clearly they are a quietly competitive couple!

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Sam Rawling raised fears of future agricultural policies and the pressure of not wanting to be the first to fail in a 500 year old family farming tree in Ennerdale. He is forceful in his belief that Farmers who voted for Brexit may have committed a huge mistake. No one knows for sure and therein is the uncertainty for all farmers at this time. 

Mary Bell talked about her 40 year career in Patterdale, producing and promoting wool based products, to add value to what is now a loss- leading commodity to many farmers. Mary wants more commitment in trying to raise the profile of wool and thereby the price. In times gone by an annual wool cheque could pay the farm rent or even buy a tractor. Nowadays, sheep shearing is a huge cost to the farmer, the excercise only performed for the health and wellbeing of the sheep. There will be little payment for the wool from Deepdale Hall, being dense and thick fleeces from one of the hardiest of hill breeds.

Danny Teasdale spoke with passion about embracing farming with conservation, side by side in the Ullswater catchment, rather than the polarised views which too often grab the headlines. These hills and valleys are not for blanket re- wilding but can be farmed and conserved in equal measure with the right support and policies. With all the talk of climate change and greenhouse gases, perhaps extensively managed farms like Deepdale Hall actually store much more carbon than they produce. If this is true then it will fly in the face of those who constantly seek to do down the farming industry. This must also have a value and gain some recognition. 

All the while the Duke and Duchess, listened, questioned and commented. At the end of the visit when the goodbyes were said and the royal procession took off down the dusty track (it didn’t rain all day!), we were left in no doubt that our future king understands who we are and what we do. Farmers are one of the greatest public goods of all and we need to shout louder. What a great afternoon!

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Penrith Farmers suggest Lancet Report is “Hot Air”…..

This is an article i published in the Cumberland and Westmorland Herald Newspaper in January 2019. I had been auctioning cattle at Penrith Auction Mart and several farmers were conversing on the following topic. Sometimes old -fashioned “common sense” can beat “science” hands down….

The EAT Lancet Commission Report advocating a “planetary health diet” was a hot topic around the ringside at Penrith Auction Mart recently. Farmers were indignant that this is just the latest in a series of negative farmer- bashing stories. Many farmers questioned why there appears to be so little appreciation for their work in producing food either from government or members of the public. This at a time when confidence is generally running low in the industry with such an uncertain future and scant mention of food production in the Agriculture Bill.

Our conversations centred around two themes: firstly, an incredulity that anyone could suggest reducing red- meat consumption to the equivalent of one large steak per month, replacing protein  requirements with imported nuts, legumes and exotic fruit and vegetables, most of which cannot be produced in the United Kingdom. Secondly that the science promoted within the report is not clear cut.

There appears to be strong merit in both these discussions. As one Eden Valley farmer said to me pointing at his cattle “we can grow grass very well on an extensive system. It is sustainable cattle and sheep production and we can keep on doing this as long as we get a fair market price to help us invest back in to the business”. He has a point as over 60% of UK farmland is grassland. It is also the case that grassland is an excellent store of carbon which in turn helps to mitigate the effects of climate change.

This brings us nicely to the science. As seems to be the case with all environmental arguments, you can find apparently plausible “science” at both ends of the climate- change spectrum, some arguing for a significant reduction in livestock farming others opining that at current production levels, no changes are needed. The issue of the carbon cycle is far from straight- forward. Furthermore the Lancet report fails to address the sustainability of countries like the UK having to substantially increase imports of products that cannot be produced on a commercial scale at home.

Another farmer shrugged his shoulders and asked “where is the common sense in this”? Thinking further about the debate I realised that there are areas of agreement. We all accept that the world population is set to rise to over 10b in the next thirty years. Forecasts also show that UK population will increase by 20m to over 85m people. We need to feed people properly and sustainably while better protecting our environment. These are areas of common consent.

With all the challenges of climate change and rising populations that the next thirty years will bring, would a sensible common sense approach be to increase investment in sustainable food production? Also to make best use of local resources (and people), reducing food miles, increasing production from less inputs and giving the public what they really want: a sensible, healthy balanced diet including plenty of red meat for those who like it and a sustainable alternative for those who don’t.

COMMUNICATION WITH THE CUSTOMER IS EVERYTHING!

 

I was given my first company mobile phone in 1996. I’d spent months trying to persuade the auction mart directors to let me have one. Their answer was; “there is a phone box in most villages if you need to phone the office”. Then we lost a buyer’s order because I was out and uncontactable. A phone was duly purchased.  I used it late one Saturday evening to ring my fiancée from the rugby club bus to come and pick me up. My fellow players thought it rather amazing.

Farmers of today could not live without a mobile. They are in use everywhere from the milking parlour to the tractor cab. Our younger farmers are tech- savvy and rather brilliant at marketing. The back- end normally starts in late summer with social media posts showing “the top pen for next Wednesday’s sale” or “our run of heifers for next Friday”.

Some farmers post working shots throughout the year. Who can forget the photos of buried sheep being rescued from snowdrifts or stock huddled together in flooded fields as farmers battled on to rescue them.

My point is that farmers are brilliant at preaching to the converted. They are doing a great job of pre- marketing their wares to farmer- customers but now is the time to try and go a stage further. Yes, selling to best advantage is of premium importance but with the rise of social media, we should make a concerted effort to engage with the public, lift the profile of farming and persuade the world why farming, food and looking after the environment matters.

“Public payment for public goods”. If the Agriculture Bill receives royal assent by the end of March 2019, this will be our future funding regime. Now is the time to engage much more closely with the public. Food doesn’t grow in supermarkets. Our farmers need to use those newly learned marketing skills to reach their end- user, the last link in the food chain. I for one would be delighted to see a farming good- news story to counter every negative piece of anti- farming propaganda we read or watch.

So let’s get the message out there and go one step further than social media. More on- line video’s, more TV and radio interviews, more books. Whilst we are at it, what about a more concerted effort to engage our public on the farm with open days and meet and greet events. The Farmer Network and other organisations have been doing this for years on a small- scale. The photo above shows Herdwick Sheep Breeders Chairman working with volunteer farmers to talk to visitors at Grasmere Sports. Don’t leave it to someone else. Get involved

So when we promote the “top pen” or the “run of cattle” on social media, maybe explain why this is important not just to farmers, but to the public. We must lift our profile. Public payment for public goods…… like it or not, it will be the future.THE LAKE DISTRICT – OUR LAND, OUR LIVES, OUR HERITAGE.