I WASN”T around when the first issue of farmers weekly rolled off the press. My debut was a few years later and once I became conscious of such things, I can”t remember a week without a copy of the Yellow Peril coming into the house. Looking at its photos of animals and tractors through my childhood must have contributed to my desire to farm.
In those days, FW had fewer competitors. Most notable was the Farmer & Stockbreeder that had been around much longer but, sadly, foundered as a stand-alone national magazine about 40 years ago. It continued for a while as a publicity vehicle for the NFU, then disappeared altogether.
As you might expect, the establishment, existence and demise of farming publications reflected the ups and downs of agriculture. In 1935 the industry was recovering from depression, helped by the establishment of commodity marketing boards and the threat of war with Germany.
By the 1960s profits were declining again, partly because the food shortages, begun in the war, were over and partly because of a run of bad farming weather.
Then, in the 1970s, Britain joined the Common Market. Farm prices and profits rose and a rash of new farming titles followed.
One of these was Big Farm Weekly, which started in 1976. I became its weekly columnist, a task I fulfilled until 1992, when it and I were absorbed into farmers weekly. During those years I also contributed regular columns to the Financial Times, having succeeded my friend and mentor, the late John Cherrington. He had followed the equally distinguished Tristram Berisford. The three of us had kept the financial world informed about food and farming for more than 30 years.
But in 1996 the editor of the FT telephoned to say that because of growing demand from the heavy metals sector of his readership, he was redesigning the Commodities page and this would leave no space for regular farming pieces. He was complimentary about my contributions and said how much he regretted having to stop them, “but times have changed”.
Clearly he had made up his mind, but I still decided to question him. “How many FT readers are interested in heavy metals?” I asked. “There must be thousands,” he replied. “We publish all over the world.”
I said I was aware of the wide distribution and that I received letters about my pieces from around the globe. “And how many of your readers eat food every day?” I continued. “Nice try, David” he said, “but food is no longer an issue of world importance.”
To be fair to him, the FT had retained farming writers for several years longer than the rest of the national press. Other papers had replaced their agricultural correspondents with environment or countryside specialists. They still wrote the odd piece about farming but from an outsider”s rather than an insider”s viewpoint.
Inevitably this meant more critical articles with the subject matter and stance often dictated by single-issue pressure groups.
The objectivity of popular journalism had also changed from keeping a balance to campaigning for one side or the other.
None of that surprised me because I had experienced the same mixture of apathy and hostility from those who managed the radio and especially the television programmes with which I had been associated at the BBC and ITV for many years.
Back in 1960, when I started broadcasting, there was still a hangover from the “Dig for Victory” days. It was accepted that programmes about farming and food production should feature regularly in the schedules.
The programme producers all had farming qualifications. The presenters, like myself, were practical farmers. And we made programmes for farmers, from the farmer”s point of view. But as food became more plentiful and diverse and the number of people working on the land declined, pressure mounted to “stop making programmes teaching farmers how to grow more wheat”.
Most of these criticisms were unjust. Our approach was dynamic and we were already reflecting social changes in our programmes. But programme controllers seldom seemed to watch or listen to the output they oversaw and, on the basis of out-of-date perceptions, axed most farming programmes from the airwaves. The countryside programmes that replaced them are often hostile rather than helpful to farmers.
All of which has contributed to the low esteem in which farming is currently held. When the media withdraws the means to explain what happens on farms rather than what is perceived, it is difficult to communicate with customers.
Provincial newspapers in farming areas that still retain specialist agricultural reporters and some local radio stations are about the only media avenues still open to us – and good old farmers weekly, of course.