Will’s World: SFS and the lost art of listening

I think a lot about the polarisation that’s affecting today’s society. I don’t know if it’s social media to blame, where users can hide behind their screens and spout off bile and hatred with impunity.

Perhaps it’s the rise of populism in politics over the past decade, which has seen cowardly and weak leaders deliberately creating division and telling people only what they want to hear in desperate attempts to gain, or cling on to, power.

See also: Video: 3,000 Welsh farmers tell government ‘enough is enough’

About the author

Will Evans
Farmers Weekly Opinion writer
Will Evans farms beef cattle and arable crops across 200ha near Wrexham in North Wales in partnership with his wife and parents.
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I suspect it’s elements of both, but either way, it feels like there’s altogether too much shouting and anger in the world, and not enough listening and empathy.

Being the history nerd that I am, it leaves me feeling uneasy about the future. We’ve been here before, after all.

Battle lines

We’re seeing it here in Wales, with battle lines being firmly drawn between, on one side, farmers and the unions and on the other, the Welsh government, over the new Sustainable Farming Scheme (SFS) proposals and their potential impact.

Neither side is showing signs of backing down.

Whatever your opinion about this situation, I find it sad that at this crucial time, with one of the great challenges of our age – producing safe and affordable food in a way that has the least negative environmental impact – hanging over us all, the two parties involved seemingly can’t grasp this once-in-a-generation opportunity to work together and create a scheme that benefits everyone concerned, as well as the natural world.

It doesn’t seem like it should be that difficult, but what do I know?

What I do know is that any sort of working relationship needs to be built on trust.

After speaking about it with friends and neighbours over the past few months, I believe this is one of the major sticking points for farmers with the Welsh government.

If there was any trust in the first place, it’s been slowly eroded to nothing after decades of inaction and incompetence on bovine TB.

How can any farming family, left on their own to deal with something as financially, physically and mentally damaging as a TB breakdown in their herd, possibly have faith in the people who’ve deliberately chosen this path for us?

I do not use those words lightly, because in repeatedly refusing to even discuss the idea of a badger cull, let alone trialling it in a small area, the government has completely abdicated responsibility for the farming community.

Border patrol

For years we were told culls don’t work, and it’s cattle movements that are to blame.

But after pointing out cases of TB suddenly appearing in closed dairy herds that have never had the disease before, we were not only patronised, but also portrayed as bloodthirsty monsters for even daring to suggest that it could have come from badgers and that a cull was needed to get control of this appalling situation.

Meanwhile, over the border, recent peer-reviewed analysis of Defra’s badger control policy revealed a massive 56% fall in bovine TB rates.

What a surprise! Who could possibly have predicted this? I wouldn’t bet the farm on an apology – let alone any resulting decisive action – in the foreseeable future.

What we are promised though, as we have been so many times before, is that a vaccine will be available “in the next few years”.

But I won’t be holding my breath for that, any more than I will be for a satisfactory outcome to the SFS debacle.

All we can do is hope that, on both issues, the new first minister is prepared to engage with farmers far more than the last one did. Maybe then we’ll build the trust and make some progress.