Farming, like all industries, has had its share of cock-ups over the years.

Everyone’s got a view on what the biggest one has been – it’s been the source of countless debates over farmhouse kitchen tables and village pub bars. With your help – and in association with Brown of Wem – we want to identify what the greatest cock-up has been over the past 75 years.

BROWNS-of-WEM-logoThe Greatest Farming Cock-up is brought to you in association with Browns of Wem – creating and crafting hand-made, individually designed farm buildings for nearly 65 years

Let’s identify the mistake, act of incompetency, greed, shortsightedness, lack of planning, lack of management or just downright stupidity that has cost us most in terms of money, aggro, bad feeling, animal lives or any other losses.

We’ve outlined a few possibilities below, but we’d like to know what you think

 




Foot-and-mouth

Foot-and-mouth is the greatest cock-up farming has ever witnessed. The blame rests squarely with the government.

In February 2001, it allowed F&M to take hold and spread to become a national disaster that cost the economy billions of pounds.

Government officials allowed a farm in Northumberland to continue trading despite it being described later as a “disease factory”. Even when it was suspected as the very centre of the outbreak, officials ignored instructions to visit and left it billowing virus into the atmosphere for another 24 hours.

In a second blunder, the ministry allowed national livestock movements to continue for almost a week. Unchecked, the virus spread with astonishing speed.

rex_F&M

Memories of what happened next still chill the blood. The relentless crack of the vet’s pistol. The grisly sight of carcasses stretched out ready for burning. Pyres lit the sky like beacons to the unfolding disaster.

In less than a year, up to 10m animals were burned and buried. Farming businesses that had existed for generations were wiped out. Grown men cried. Some took their own lives.

Despite that, the government ducked a public inquiry, which meant the true extent of its failings was never really known. It said lessons had been learned and it wouldn’t happen again. But it was wrong.

In August 2007, leaky drains at DEFRA’s Pirbright research facility which had been left unmended pumped live F&M virus into surrounding watercourses.

Although less extensive, the disease still brought dozens of farmers close to ruin. Is F&M the biggest cock-up? What else even comes close?

Jonathan Riley


Edwina Currie’s salmonella gaffe

rex_salmonella

On 3 December 1988, Edwina Currie gave a TV interview that forever changed the British egg industry and 20-plus years on, still stirs anger.

In it, the then junior health minister said: “Most of the egg production in the country sadly is now infected with salmonella.” She was referring to a tripling of salmonella food poisoning cases.

Her gaffe on ITN News saw egg sales plunge by 60% and the slaughter of 4m unwanted hens.

The ensuing media storm sparked damaging headlines such as “Poison yolk killed my son, claims father”.

Egg producers lost millions and many went out of business. But the most significant damage was to consumer perception. Eggs went from being a trusted, wholesome food to a potential killer. It took the industry many years and millions of pounds to fully repair this damage.

And it is for this long-term damage that it has to go down in history as the Greatest Farming Cock-up.

Yes, there had been a rise in salmonella cases and there was a problem, but she exaggerated it. The risk of being infected was very small, at less than one in 200m.

Fortunately, there was a happy ending. It led to the formation of the Lion Egg code and the British sector now has one of the lowest incidences of salmonella in Europe.

Richard Allison


BSE

With my usual impeccable timing I’d just loaded up a trailer of homebred steers for my local fatstock market.

On the way home for my breakfast, I collected my daily paper from the newsagent, but was stopped dead in my tracks by a headline on the front page of one of the tabloids: It’s official – eating beef sends you mad.

So began the greatest farming cock-up of the past 75 years.

Nearly 184,000 confirmed cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in British cattle since 1984 and, so far, 167 horrific human deaths in the UK from people infected with new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease from eating infected beef.

The financial impact of BSE on dairy and beef farmers at the time was catastrophic and, although the disease in cattle appears to have been eradicated, its longer-term costs remain with us today.

Greatly tightened deadstock disposal regulations and reams of paperwork erode the collective will of dairy and beef farmers to continue production in what have become very unprofitable sectors.

But, worst of all, BSE opened Pandora’s box for our industry. For decades some had railed against what they saw as the excesses of modern farming techniques. With the advent of BSE here, at last, was hard evidence that modern farming really might poison us all.

Stephen Carr


Implementation of the SPS in England

If you went back to my grandfather’s generation, they’d be talking about the “great betrayal” of 1921. Then it was a case of a cash-strapped government reneging on its statutory commitment to give farmers at least four years’ notice before withdrawing price guarantees for cereals. It left farmers who’d invested in those crops at the mercy of collapsing world prices and damaged the reputation of the ministry for a good few years.

But that was then, before computers took over the world and the term cock-up was invented. So, perhaps predictably, I’d nominate the implementation of the Single Payment Scheme in England. Not because it was a typical IT bungle, but because it was a premeditated cock-up, where the government favoured political dogma over facilitating agricultural success. That’s why it’s top of my list and not, say, the BSE and foot-and-mouth debacles we’ve lived through in recent times.

With SPS, policy choices and poor planning careered into a cost-cutting programme at the RPA and poor IT selection to produce an almighty pile-up. Over five years later we’re still picking up the pieces. The real tragedy is that something that was, politically, a critical step in the reform of the CAP has become mired in implementation issues that have left English farmers with lack of trust in DEFRA’s judgment and ability to deliver. And it’ll take another good few years before that’s restored.

Peter Kendall


TB

Badger-TB

TB in cattle was eliminated from the British herd in 1958. Its re-emergence and dispersal across the country 50 years later seems, at the very least, careless. In fact, it is the greatest governmental cock-up.

In those days, milk was not pasteurised and was implicated in spreading TB among humans. It was vitally important to remove this source of infection. The fact that a few badgers still carried TB was not considered relevant.

Then hunting badgers was banned. Numbers built up because they had no predators. Today some parts of the country are over-run by them; they infect one another and other animals.

The government’s abject failure to adequately tackle this phenomenon has resulted in the culling of up to 40,000 cattle a year; a compensation and administration cost to taxpayers of £80m-100m a year; illness and suffering for cattle and, of course, badgers (and now significant numbers of household pets and alpacas); not to mention heartache and financial loss for countless farmers.

The dangers of infected milk have disappeared now it’s all pasteurised, so ministerial priorities are on votes. Culling badgers would upset part of the electorate. DEFRA says it plans to catch and vaccinate badgers and set them free again. What a joke. The cock-up is set to continue.

David Richardson


Farmers losing the public’s support

Once upon a time, just after the war, farmers were heroes, proudly supplying the nation with food and, on government directive, turning all available land into production.

However, fairytales have their villains and within 30 years those very same farming heroes were being labelled the “public enemy”.

Losing the support of the vast majority of the populace, they were considered destroyers of the countryside, running intensive animal factories, poisoning land with chemicals and, to top it all, filling their pockets with bags of subsidy money. It’s no wonder we kept our heads down with that kind of reputation.

Failing to understand our consumers and relying solely on institutional marketing to promote ourselves, we lost touch with the public. Admittedly, government, European policies, mismanaged disease outbreaks and world market forces played a part – but we can’t entirely blame those things.

Fortunately, we’re now regaining our rightful recognition as responsible custodians of the countryside, we’re more in touch with consumers, selling produce locally and exploring our own market opportunities. Also, thanks partly to our white knight Jamie and his handsome friend Jimmy, we have a positive farming image to be proud of.

So I think we should swallow our pride and vote this loss of public support as the biggest cock-up. Learning from past mistakes, after all, is how we’re managing to become the good guys once more.

Suzie Paton


What do you think?

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Do you agree or disagree with our suggestions for which what constitues The Greatest Farming Cock-up – or, better still, do you have additional ideas of your own? Tell us what you think (ideally, giving us a few words explaining your choice). Post your suggestions on our website forums or email to tell us at fwfarmlife@rbi.co.uk

Why nominate?

Everyone who contributes a suggestion will be entered into a draw – the first one drawn in each of the six categories will win a year’s free subscription to Farmers Weekly.


Other greatest

BROWNS-of-WEM-logoThe Greatest Farming Cock-up is brought to you in association with Browns of Wem – creating and crafting hand-made, individually designed farm buildings for nearly 65 years

As well as The Greatest Farming Cock-up, we’ll be looking for your suggestions in five other categories in this series. With your help, we’ll be establishing what is The Greatest Farming Innovation, Figure, Machine, decade and View.

We’ll be drawing up a shortlist from all the suggestions and then giving you the chance to vote.