In The “Good Old Days”, when I presented radio and TV farming programmes, the Smithfield Show was used by machinery manufacturers, banks, feed firms and others to entertain the likes of me in the hope that we would say something kind about them. They invited dealers and influential farmers as well, and a visit to Earls Court each December was often something of a battle between partying and producing programmes for those farmers unfortunate enough not to be there.
Times have changed. First, the show is now held alternate years. Second, most of the farming programmes with which I was associated have been taken off the air. Third, there is insufficient spare cash in any sector of the industry (except perhaps consultancy) to fund the kind of entertainment we once enjoyed. When I took a short cut through the area where suites of private restaurants once buzzed with animated conversation interspersed by the clink of glasses, it was like the Marie Celeste.
The pressroom, in past years a hive of activity as reporters from the broadsheets as well as specialist magazines competed for desks and telephones from which to file their stories, was almost as bare. Racks that once groaned under the weight of press releases on new equipment were a quarter full. As one fed-up Scottish hack commented, “It”s a sign of the times”. Indeed it is and a reflection of how far our industry has slipped in the prosperity league.
That said, I had the impression that there was a higher-than-usual proportion of young people in the crowd. It was a feeling I could not verify and it was also impossible to tell whether they were mainly machinery buffs, there to gawp, or genuine agricultural aspirants, there to plan their future strategy. But the atmosphere felt positive and there were several reports of modest business being done.
Whether this apparent farmer optimism was justified is another matter, of course. Perhaps the prospect of radical change in the way our industry is managed by government and the EU has provoked determination among a younger element to accept the challenge. If that is the case, it will be music to the ears of a number of the great and good who launched Fresh Start at the show. This is an initiative that seeks to reverse the trend for farmers” families to seek better-paid work away from home and to persuade more young people to come into agriculture.
There can be no doubt this is a key issue for the future wellbeing of our industry and for its ability to respond to future demands. Farmers” contribution to the nation”s food may not be fully appreciated at present, but one day the cycle will turn, as it always does, and farming will be needed again. Meanwhile, we need well-trained young people to manage land according to society”s current requirements. But if the decline in numbers going to farm colleges continues, we are in danger of losing almost an entire generation of skilled operators and managers. And that is very serious indeed.
But one key question was not mentioned or questioned at the launch of Fresh Start. How are we to persuade ambitious and able young people to enter an industry that involves harder work, longer hours and lower rewards than the much more attractive alternatives in the City and elsewhere?
There were many advisers on stands taken by DEFRA and allied organisations to tell visitors how to run their farms under the new regime. There was advice on how to comply with new regulations on water purity, waste management, and cross-compliance. There were stands spelling out a variety of options for farmers to make money. Most were activities on the fringes of conventional farming; many were unconnected with food production; some involved exploiting whatever assets a farm might have, including the supposed entrepreneurial skill of the farmer.
All of which are realistic and may hold the key to survival in business. But I couldn”t help wondering how such activities squared with the objectives of most of those young men I had seen avariciously wandering round the machinery stands. From the look in their eyes as they toured the tackle, they were hoping to make a go of growing conventional crops and using the “boys” toys” they were eyeing. They may be up for the challenge, but can they win on their terms?