I hailed a taxi to try to avoid the Christmas crush on the underground when I was in London for a meeting recently.
It wasn’t totally successful because the streets were also full and the journey took longer than I’d anticipated. But at least I was sitting in comfort rather than strap-hanging in a crowded train like a battery hen. But that’s another story.
As I climbed into the taxi, I asked the driver to take me to The Farmers Club in Whitehall Court.
“Certainly sir,” he replied. “I’ve taken a few people there in my time.”
Then, as he threaded his way back into the traffic, he half turned and asked: “Is it just farmers allowed into your club?”
I explained that most members were farmers, but that there was a sizeable proportion who were associated with farming, like grain merchants, land agents, rural politicians and the like who also qualified to join.
So, why do they need to come to London? he enquired.
I replied that they might have business meetings, NFU or CLA duties, or any number of other reasons. Indeed some might be lobbying MPs on the sad state of farmers’ incomes, I concluded.
“Is your industry having a bad time then?” he continued. At which point (as we were still stuck in slow-moving traffic) I informed him how the prices of wheat, barley and oilseed rape had collapsed; what had happened to the ex-farm price of milk since the spring; about how potato prices had halved since the summer; the planned cut in the value of sugar beet from £32/t to £24/t for next year; and so on.
“How do you chaps make a living given cuts like that?” he asked. “Do your subsidies cover them?” So I told him that many farmers were not making a profit even with EU subsidies; that dairy farmers were being forced to sell up in their hundreds and many arable farmers, too, were struggling to keep their businesses afloat. Sadly, I said, farming is near the top of professions whose participants commit suicide.
“I had no idea about any of that,” said my taxi driver. “Why don’t they tell us about it on the news? My missus would be happy to pay more for good home-produced food if it would stop farmers killing themselves.”
I recalled that conversation when I read recently that Minette Batters, deputy president of the NFU, had suggested in a speech in Cornwall, that a Farm Supporters Association should be set up to counteract the negative influence of single-issue pressure groups.
As she pointed out, they constantly criticise farmers for what they allege we do and what we cost society. What we need, she said, is a pressure group of supporters.
She is right, of course, and it should be noted that before she took high office at the union she founded Ladies in Beef to promote the production and consumption of beef. In doing so, she demonstrated the same kind of evangelical zeal that drives those single-issue pressure groups. Unfortunately, her kind of effort is not very evident among most farmers. We tend to “leave it to the NFU”.
But frankly, if we are to match and overcome the misguided enthusiasms of those who oppose conventional farming we must do better than that. We will achieve little unless we generate similar mass commitment shown by our critics. It will take a radical change in farmers’ attitudes and actions. But I suspect Minette Batters knows that.
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David Richardson farms about 400ha (1,000 acres) of arable land near Norwich in Norfolk in partnership with his wife Lorna and his son Rob