2007 will go down in the history books as one of the most difficult that agriculture in this country has ever faced.
It is true that, at last, milk prices are climbing and certainly many arable farmers have had a good year, but floods followed by foot-and-mouth, then the arrival of bluetongue and huge rises in feed prices have presented many farmers with unprecedented challenges.
From my travels around the country I know just how difficult life has become, particularly for the upland farmers, many of whom are facing real hardship, and my heart goes out to them.
In October, with the generous support of The Duke of Westminster and some of the retailers, I was able to raise more than £600,000 for the “Farming Help Charities”, and I can only urge farmers in need to seek help – this crisis is not of their making.
Our hill farmers, of course, play an utterly invaluable role in maintaining some of this country’s most beautiful and much-loved scenery. They are a unique part of our heritage and culture, and vital producers of food. Their skills have been built up over generations, just like their herds and flocks. And continuity of management is what farming is all about.
To succeed, however, also depends on initiative and resourcefulness and, despite all the difficulties, farmers are increasingly using such qualities in abundance to come through these hard times.
I have seen countless examples throughout the country of successful collaboration, of better marketing, of a greater determination to focus on quality rather than quantity and a growing understanding of the true meaning of sustainable farming. This has to be the way forward, not least because, at last, consumers are beginning to demand it.
In this regard, I am delighted that the first two of my Farmers’ Marketing Initiatives seem to be making good progress Mey Selections in the North Highlands of Scotland and Peak Choice in the Peak District.
One of the most positive developments of the last few years has been the sea-change in the approach to food in this country. I accept that we are not yet in the same league as the Italians, who make food an art-form to the great benefit of their farmers, but there is a revival of interest in food, how it is grown and where it is from. Retailers are responding to this growing consumer demand and farmers are becoming much more aware of the opportunities this presents.
“The Year of Food and Farming”, of which I am delighted to be Patron, is playing a crucial part in this. The objective is to instil in children a life-long appreciation of food and the way it is produced. It is something with which every farmer can become involved and it is in the interests of the whole of agriculture that we do.
Of course, one of the other features of the last year has been the widely acknowledged acceleration of the effects of climate change.
Whether we can directly attribute the extreme rainfall we suffered this year to global warming is something we can never prove, but we know that the North Polar ice cap is melting much more in the summer than ever before and we know that extreme weather patterns are a consequence of climate change.
This crisis is so great that it demands an unprecedented global response, and farmers must be a part of this – but it also brings real opportunities.
First of all, this country is blessed with some of the best grassland in the world and fertile land is going to become ever more precious as the effects of climate change are felt throughout the world. There is also real potential to create renewable energy from farm waste and to diversify into energy from crops and crop by-products – but I pray that this is only done in a way that is sustainable (and it can be done sustainably and not in competition with food).
Climate change is going to increase the need for us all to operate at a more local level. However, this is not something to be feared, but rather to be welcomed. Instead of primarily trying to compete in the global commodity markets, we can focus first on producing quality food for ourselves – and in this uncertain world, there is much to be said for every country recovering greater control over its own food strategies.
Perhaps what we need is a new farming model whereby farmers collaborate not just in the production of food, but also in the production of energy to supply their local community. And while people talk now of putting a price on carbon, let’s remember agriculture’s extensive and valuable eco-system services, including properly-managed water catchments.
There is no single silver bullet to solve climate change, but farmers have real opportunities to make a positive difference in mitigating its effects as well as in adapting to changes.
Christmas is a time of reflection and a time of hope and rebirth. I can only pray that next year will bring better times for our family farmers and for all those involved in British agriculture. Perhaps, at the end of the day, it is worth remembering the words of the great French writer Antoine De St-Exupery: “Only he can understand what a farm is, what a country is, who shall have sacrificed part of himself to his farm or country, fought to save it, struggled to make it beautiful. Only then will the love of farm or country fill his heart.”
What do you think? Have your say on the forums.