David Richardson: Farmers are winning the public’s hearts and minds

The British public is starting to love us again.

A recently commissioned survey by the NFU suggested 75% of the population now think of farmers favourably, an improvement of 7% in five years.

An even more impressive 86% of those questioned thought farming would be more important in the future. Only a hard core of 6% of respondents did not approve of our industry, which hasn’t changed since the annual survey was initiated.

There was also support for farmers’ position in relation to supermarkets, with 80% believing farm suppliers are being driven out of business by multiple retailers. But 57% were not convinced farmers gave enough consideration to others who love and use the countryside or the users of rural roads. Some improvement needed there, then.

But 83% of UK respondents would have no objection to GM crops being grown in this country. Seems like the antis may be losing the battle.

Needless to say, the NFU was cock-a-hoop at the positive responses and, by implication, at the success of its promotional activities for the industry.

Its Farming Matters campaign has obviously hit the spot, as has the peripatetic roadshow and other initiatives from Stoneleigh. But the union should not claim all the credit.

British Food Fortnight, which starts this weekend, is now in its ninth year and is bigger than ever.

In the early days it concentrated on getting major retailers on-message and, although only tiny itself then, achieved remarkable success. In recent years BFF has turned its attention to the expanding catering sector. This year, nine of the biggest foodservice organisations and eight of the major pub groups are participating in the fortnight.

This is a breakthrough. How many of those eating or organising food in a canteen, hospital or school would previously have concerned themselves with the provenance of what they were serving or eating?

Their only interests would be that the food was edible and cheap. The ingredients could and did, in most cases, remain anonymous. Well, not any more.

In these days of carbon-footprint consciousness caterers, too, want to boast about the home-produced food they serve and BFF have provided the vehicle for them to do so.

Meanwhile my old colleagues at LEAF continue to do their bit to improve our industry’s image. Last June on Open Farm Sunday 450 members and others invited people onto their farms to see how food was produced. Many of the 170,000 who accepted that invitation were children who will never forget the experience. Let’s hope when they become householders and consumers in their own right that it helps persuade them to choose home grown food rather than imported.

And there are other organisations, like the WFU and LIPS, for instance, all rooting for the same cause who are entitled to a share of the credit for improving farming’s image.

For completeness we should, perhaps, also admit that the value of sterling against other currencies has made imports more expensive and assisted their efforts.

In the meantime – and despite currency changes – the cost of food has risen by more than general inflation. And isn’t it an interesting paradox that consumers increasing approval of farmers should coincide with higher prices for food?

It must be to do with their increasing concern about food security and the fact that they are ahead of the government in recognising the risks. There was a similar reaction during World War II. Farmers could charge whatever they liked when there were shortages and consumers loved and respected them for it.

• Read more from David Richardson on his blog.

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