10 April 1998

VITAL TO RECONNECT WITH COUNTRY SOCIETY…

Recent changes to rural society have broken the links between farmers and their local communities, argues Andrew Errington, research professor in rural development at Plymouth Universitys Seale Hayne Faculty of Agriculture.

"Farmers are being marginalised because of the reduction in the agricultural workforce and an increase in the proportion of people involved in other kinds of business," he says.

But Prof Errington adds that other factors make it vital that farmers reconnect with rural society.

Farming is increasingly dependent on purchased inputs such as agrochemicals, animal feed, and farm machinery, he says.

And these agricultural ancillary industries have drawn farming into what Prof Errington terms a "seamless web" with the rest of the economy. In turn, farmers provide food retailers, processors and abattoirs with the lucrative raw materials of crops and livestock at a knock-down price.

"Farming has increasingly become part of the seamless web that binds together the national and indeed the global economy," he argues. "So any change in agriculture has an impact upstream among the supply industries and downstream among the marketing and transport firms and primary processors."

Many farmers feel misunderstood by a modern society which appears to be interested in food only from the consumers point of view rather than the producers. Indeed, when Jack Cunningham was appointed farm minister almost a year ago, he announced that his "number one priority was to meet the needs of consumers." Less than a month later, he severed a 25-year-old link with agriculture by abolishing MAFFs nine regional advisory panels on which farmers had seats.

Farming leaders immediately warned that in doing so, Dr Cunningham was leaving himself vulnerable to consumer pressure groups. But Prof Errington says that farmers can mend the broken links between themselves and rural society.

"The farming community needs to be more proactive in making links with other parts of the rural business community," he says. "But there is a psychological barrier between farmers and what I would call the new rural community of former urban dwellers.

"Livestock markets were once a forum for rural business people to get together. But in urban areas theres now a new breed of business clubs such as the Chamber of Commerce. That equivalent is just not there in many rural places where there is no longer a livestock market. It leads to a breakdown in communication and its a gap which needs to be plugged."

Prof Andrew Errington:Farmers feel "alienated" from their communities.