Musings on farming and food, in the light of recent weather-related disasters in the UK

All views in this blog are my own.  Some people will, no doubt, disagree strongly with some or all of them.

As I write this, farmers in parts of the UK are still digging animals, many of them dead, out of snowdrifts.  Carcasses cannot be disposed of, because the roads are still impassable.  In at least one case the RSPCA has now become involved, apparently  because walkers are complaining about seeing dead animals.  I must admit this incenses me  – having lived in North Wales, where tourists in flip-flops used regularly to venture up Cader Idris, which is really suitable only for experienced hill walkers with specialist equipment and clothing, and then have to be air-lifted off the mountain when they got into difficulties, at vast expense to the taxpayer and personal risk to the helicopter crews, I have no patience at all with walkers who go out in hazardous conditions.  It is selfish and arrogant.  I have even less patience with those who want the pretty scenery but come over all indignant when they are brought face to face with the harsh reality of life and death in the country.  Surely it cannot have escaped their attention that in the last couple of weeks parts of the farming community have experienced an almost unprecedented  crisis, on top of 18 months of  weather related misery?  And that this has resulted in the death of thousands of animals?  Presumably these are the same kind of people who let their dogs run loose near pregnant sheep, refusing to believe that, to a sheep, dear little Bonzo is a wolf, and that their precious leisure activity can cause ewes to abort, threatening the farmer’s already precarious livelihood (not to mention the welfare of the sheep).  That’s always assuming Bonzo doesn’t actually savage the sheep, which is a very common occurrence.

The attitude of wider society, and civil authority such as the Welsh Assembly Government, to the recent snow crisis, seems to me to be part of an at best ambivalent attitude to farming and farmers which is, I feel, a significant threat to our national future.  Figures seem to vary enormously, but it is safe to say that in the UK we only produce about half the food we eat.  Therefore, should we be involved in a war, or should international transportation be interrupted through energy supply problems, industrial action, terrorism etc we would be in a poor position to feed ourselves, and the shelves of our shops and supermarkets would soon be very empty indeed.  However, addressing this does not seem to be a priority for government, nor does it seem to figure in our national security policy.  It should.

Not only are we, collectively, content to make ourselves hostages of fortune in this way, but we also have a very negative attitude to those farmers who are providing the food that is still produced in the UK.  Farmers are,  variously, regarded as rich, moaners, getting fat on handouts from the EU, preventing free access to the countryside (I sometimes wonder if the people who moan about this would be happy for complete strangers to come wandering through their gardens, leaving the gates open and dropping litter everywhere?), and (the greatest sin in this country of ‘animal lovers’) being cruel to animals.  The recent thread on BBC Radio 2’s Facebook page brought the latter element out in force.  Apparently it is cruel to raise animals for meat, and also cruel to let them get caught in freak unseasonal blizzards, and no sense of these being mutually contradictory.  Farmers can’t win.

The reality of farming life is very mixed.  Yes, there are prosperous farmers.  Generally in the east of England, with large arable farms where economies of scale help.  But even they are not immune to 18 months of relentless wet, leaving their land underwater and their crops rotting in the fields.  In the north and west, farms are generally smaller, more livestock based, and rural poverty is a reality.  Yes, they own large chunks of land with big houses on them.  Yes, they drive 4wds.  But the value of the land is tied up, the houses are unheatable, and the 4wds are not a status symbol but a necessity for getting around off-road (which is where the animals will be, obviously).  Diversification (adding value eg ice cream, or B&B’s), farmers markets and farmers wives working off the farm to bring in some money have become a necessity for survival, not a choice.  Foodbanks, ironically, are a lifeline in many farming communities.

I don’t begin to understand the complexities of EU farming payments.  Fortunately, farmers have learned to, although the amount of time and energy this (and other paperwork) takes diverts them from the core business of raising crops and livestock.  None of this would be necessary if we had not, as a society, bought into the idea (some time post-WWII) that food should be cheap.  The supermarkets seem to have become effectively the Ministry of Food, telling us what we can have and at what price, and keeping farm gate prices so low (eg milk) that any connection between the cost of production and the cost to the consumer has been lost.  We have been terrorised into thinking that it’s only the benevolence of the supermarkets which prevents the UK consumer from starving, as local shops and producers are all hideously expensive.  Well, it simply isn’t true.  Readers of this blog will remember my own fears about moving to the country, away from supermarkets, at a time when we were moving from two incomes to one.  In fact my food expenditure is down at least 30%, and my food miles are down more as I shop locally.  I appreciate that those who live in the middle of London, say, may have fewer local producers than here in Somerset, but towns have markets!  Food shoppers of the UK, you have CHOICES – you don’t have to believe everything the supermarkets tell you.  Explore the alternatives.  Yes, if you work 9-5 you may have to work a bit harder at accessing other sources, but it can be done, and really, what is more important than the food we eat?  The cheap food culture has led, inevitably, to a devaluation of food, from something precious around which family life revolves, to processed fuel grazed on the move or in front of the telly.  The demise of the dining room, and the dining table, from the homes of the UK tells its own story.

It’s time to put food back into the place it deserves in our lives.  You are what you eat – on that basis most of us are Chorleywood ‘bread’ and processed meat, with lashings of fat and sugar.  Somehow, we have, as a nation, to re-learn to value what we eat, and the people who make it and bring it to us: the farmer, the butcher, the baker, the greengrocer, the farm shop, the deli.  The vet, the abattoir manager, the shearer, the AI technician, the scanner.  The milker, the mechanic, the cheesemaker, the brewer, the shepherd, the sheepdog.  The people working unsociable hours to get us fed, on the milkround, in the corner shop, in the milking parlour, in the lambing shed.  And in the last fortnight, out on the hill digging animals out of snowdrifts.

The government isn’t going to make that change.  Left-wing governments tend to have it in for farmers, and the current one is too full of urban millionaires to be able to relate to what’s going on in the real world.  The supermarkets aren’t going to make that change.  Their entire business model depends on the status quo.  It’s down to you and me.  I fully appreciate that those living on benefits or the minimum wage won’t have the option to spend a little more time, energy or (sometimes) money on buying local and cooking from scratch.  Many people, raised on two generations of the supermarket and processed food, no longer know how to cook from raw ingredients, and since cooking is no longer on the school curriculum, I am hugely worried about that too, for the future health of the nation.

But just because some cannot, it doesn’t mean that the rest of us – middle class, middle income and above – shouldn’t be taking responsibility and doing our bit for change.  I am now no longer routinely doing food shopping in supermarkets.  If I really can’t get something locally, or in the village Co-Op, then I try Waitrose (those two chains have a slightly less awful record of dealing with the farming community).  But that’s only every 2 or 3 months.   I try not to eat out of season or imported fruit and veg – and as a result, this winter I have discovered swede, turnips and curly kale, none of which I had regularly eaten before.  I am buying all my meat from local butchers and farm shops, and trying out cuts which are simply not available in supermarkets.  I WON’T buy New Zealand lamb while we still produce UK lamb (as I write this, on Easter Sunday, this evening’s leg of Exmoor lamb is slow cooking with garlic and rosemary.  Bought from the farm shop, and cheaper than the NZ leg for sale in the Co-Op).  And I think we have eaten better this winter than ever before.

My small changes in buying and cooking habits may not, by themselves, make the difference to making UK farming viable, thriving and a valued part of the nation’s economy and life, but what if you did it too? And you?  And maybe you?

Buy local.  Failing that, buy regional or national.  Buy fresh and cook real food, not processed.  Enjoy seasonal treats (asparagus, strawberries, plums, apples) fresh when in season, don’t eat imported versions all year round.  Find your local farm shop, butcher, market.  Ask where the produce comes from.  Make it clear to your retailers that you value local produce.  Be prepared to make a bit more of an effort to get good, fresh food, produced in the UK (and ideally in your county) onto your dining table.  You are what you eat.

If we don’t, farming in the UK will continue to decline, and we will have no-one to blame but ourselves.  After 18 months of relentless wet, flooding, poor grass growth (grass=meat), rising feed prices, higher vet bills, and now, in many places, huge losses at what should have been the most optimistic part of the farming year, the question must be why on earth anyone stays in farming.  The rates of bankruptcy and suicide speak for themselves.  We simply have to take responsibility for supporting our farming industry, or we will all starve.

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