Monday, 14 April 2008

Greedy farmers?

It was the Jeremy Vine show on Radio 2 last Wednesday and they were discussing the proposed badger cull in Wales to try and halt the spread of Bovine TB.

A listener called in to protest.

“I have compassion for all animals,” she declared. “The cull must not go ahead. Greedy farmers!”

Now I’m not going to argue here about the rights and wrongs of the badger cull. The Welsh Assembly has decided it needs to do a trial cull either here in South West Wales or on the border next to England. But what really brought me up short was the venom in the woman’s voice as she said: “Greedy farmers,” and the implication that she had compassion for animals, whereas farmers don’t.

Farmers have such bad PR don’t they? In addition to being ‘greedy’ they are ‘money grabbing’ or ‘cruel’.

I think the ills of today’s over-intensified food production systems were started by supermarkets, not farmers, and that was the mood of the talk last Tuesday night where the audience, of course, was stuffed full of farmers. I live in a rural area on a farm, surrounded by farms. I see no evidence of ‘factory farming’ around here. These are grassy hills and support extensive rather than intensive farming. Factory farming is a disease of the supermarket supplier, yes, and really refers to poultry and pigs, but the vast majority of farms are just trying to eke out a living in the face of a downturn in prices, and severe upturn in costs, all the while pilloried for being a farmer in the first place.

Supermarkets tell farmers what to produce and when. They agree contracts, arrange delivery dates and all too often reject the produce for some spurious reason. (Read ‘Tescopoly’ by Andrew Simms for more information on this, or ‘Shopped’ by Joanna Blythman.)

Some complain that farmers do not speak up when other jobs and industries are threatened, but quite probably the opinions of farmers were not considered important enough to report in the press. After all only 3% of people work in agriculture in this country now and farmers are only quoted about farming, not what they think about miners or car workers losing their jobs.

It is awful when huge factories close down and steel workers, miners and car workers lose their jobs, but hopefully that is all they lose, and armies of advisers move into the area to assist them in finding new jobs. But they usually will have a home to go to when they are handed their P45s. When farmers lose their jobs they lose their homes too.

I live on a very small farm. It’s only 22 acres, but it is a business and it occasionally makes a profit when lamb prices are good. Right through the middle is a bridleway, as there are footpaths and rights of way on many other farms throughout the country. Imagine if I hopped onto a horse and clip clopped through the Dagenham Ford plant, perhaps telling the workers on the way that they were not doing their jobs properly? Yet people think it is their absolute right to do that with farms.

So what should farmers do to earn the respect of the people of Britain? I think it is something quite difficult for them to do when the media only reports the bad news (animals found dead or dying on a Northern Ireland farm, for example). There was that awful story about horses and ponies found in terrible conditions near Amersham. If we follow the tradition of tarring farmers all with the same brush, is it now safe to assume that all horse owners are cruel and heartless and leave their equines to starve to death?

What about the good news? What about the farmer who gets up at the crack of dawn, 365 days a year, looks after his much loved cows, milks them twice a day and produces the best quality milk in the world and does this happily for a wage that is below the poverty line? And don’t anybody tell me about the farmer’s brand new Land Rover, because I haven’t seen one of those around here for a while now – except driven by a tourist or by someone who has moved here from Kent and now lives in a (former) farmhouse.

It is not a level playing field out there for farmers. They are competing in a global market where countries, such as the US, pay huge subsidies to support their own agricultural industry to ensure a continuity of food supply. And subsidies are another area I’m not prepared to argue about here, but if American farmers get subsidies, why is it so terrible that British farmers get them too? And why is it so bad to be compensated when, through no fault of your own, except that you happened to take stock to a certain market on a certain day, your livestock get Foot and Mouth and have to be destroyed? Economies of scale mean that some farms have grown very big indeed, so of course will have large numbers of stock worth a lot of money. So why is it so distasteful for a farmer to be paid a compensation cheque of nearly a million pounds when his stock was worth more than that any way?

But received wisdom has it that farmers are greedy. The woman on the radio said so. It must be true.


  1. Oh dear - I'm cringing now! I thought I might start a storm! You make many many valid points and I honestly didn't mean to suggest that all farmers are greedy. I have huge sympathy with what is happening in agriculture and yes, yes yes to many of your points. I certainly agree with your views on supermarkets BUT I don't think they are soley to blame. However, I don't want to get into an argument, I think we'll just have to agree to differ. I'm by no means an enemy of farming - I couldn't be, living deep in the countryside - and, in the trues spririt of defence,'many of my best friends are farmers' (it's true!),but I do have some rather robust views on some of the views expressed by them! Good and bad everywhere, I guess, and with that cop-out I'll finish, except to say that miners often did lose their homes, and entire communities collapsed.

  2. I'm not getting at you Suffolkmum, it was the woman on the radio who said farmers were greedy. She was the one who really made me mad! Your very valid comments wandered into a blog I had already ready written. I apologise for my ignorance about miners - I have never lived in a mining area and only know the farming side of the story. But I love a good debate!

  3. That woman must be mad or have no understanding of farming, but the people who phone in to JV are often quite opinionated , i find it hard to listen these days.

    Farmers have a tough time of it , and are compassionate about animals and wildlife. It so hard to get the right balance.
    Supermarkets are putting the pinch on to food production and that is wrong.

  4. Hmm, I find myself waggling my head from side to side in a kind of 'sort of' way. Round here most farms are pretty small and life is darn tough (lot of hill farming, sheep, bit of beef or dairy cattle, chickens). As I've said, several times before, I watched friends in torment when, having survived Foot & Mouth, their herd was destroyed because of TB 'caused by badgers - NO doubt whatsoever' (their words). Yet there are also big cat farmers and I've been at dinner parties where some have bragged about how they 'made a killing' over F&M or this or that subsidy.
    I think a lot of the fault lies with the public and their demands for cheap food. If we insisted on good local produce, meat humanely reared and slaughtered, food produced with integrity - and were willing to pay a decent price for it, then we would not have farming in such a mess. I know, I know, it's not that simple.
    but I do think farming is caught between a rock and a hard place. I guess the bottom line is that there are good farmers and bad farmers, as there are good and bad in everything. But the naivety and prejudice of urban people is staggering and shocking.

  5. I think there's a lot of wisdom in what Jane says. I grew up on a small pig farm and the herd caught swine fever - wiped us out. Life can be awfully tough - as I suppose it can be in any business. For farming is a business and so the analogy with miners breaks down. No one has mentioned the farming unions and at the risk of someone saying I don't know what I am talking about I'll say that the NFU, representing - in the main - large farmers - carries at least part of the blame for not promoting the extensive traceable agriculture that Mags is talking about. In Wales there are two farming unions, one focused more towards the smaller and more traditional farm.
    Perhaps that's the answer - a new collective movement representing the extensive food chain: farmer and seller - against the big supermarkets and barley barons. Who is banging the drum for organics, farmers markets etc (Monty Don is of course but he is not a collective) Anyway I'd better stop wittering.

  6. I don't know enough to comment with any validity. But I did think that broadly speaking supermarkets were seen by The Man In The Street (him clutching his tesco bag) as the baddie of the piece. But so useful ... And the passion with which you write is thought-provoking.

  7. I have many friends amongst the farming community and know how tough life is for them and the hours they put in. All the ones I know care for their animals. None of the ones I know drive anything other than beat up old landrovers.

    Can't bear the idea of badgers being culled - different argument - but how can a Government decide to wipe out a whole species - have they learned nothing about upsetting the natural ecology.

  8. A fascinating blog pm and i agree with much of what jane says about the importance of paying a proper price for properly raised food. we are in an area like yours and most of the farmers i know work astonishingly hard. Most urban types would keel over in a month or two.
    I have very mixed feelings about the badger cull - hate the idea of culling anything really but we have amazing numbers of badgers around here, as if they have no natural predators.


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