More thought needed on complex issue

The phone is ringing.

“Ah darling, have you got a moment?”

It’s Rosemary, my mother-in-law.

“Ye-e-es” I answer cautiously.

“I’ve got a WI meeting this afternoon and wanted to ask you something.”

Panic. She wants me to speak to her branch meeting. Not even Tony Blair survived a WI gig with his rictus grin intact.

“Oh, we’re a bit busy on the farm at the moment, Rosemary. If you wanted a speaker for…”

“We’re fine for speakers, thank you, dear,” she laughs. “No, it’s just that we’re being asked to comment on a proposed resolution that will be debated at our AGM in Liverpool in June that concerns farming and I wanted your advice.” There is a rustle of paper at the other end of the phone and she continues: “This meeting abhors the practice of factory farming, particularly large animals such as pigs and cows and urges HM government to ensure planning permission is not granted for such projects.”

“OK, what do you want to know about mega farms? They’re efficient. That should please you, Rosemary – cheap food.”

She replies: “But sweetie, every time I see you you’re always going on about how the government and the NFU seem to think about nothing but “industrial farming” at the expense of your blessed ‘family farms’.”

“Look, do you want your food grown here or in Europe? If we don’t build mega dairies in the UK then we’re just leaving it open to the French or the Poles.”

“Calm down, dear,” she says (provocatively, I think). “I know you weren’t keen on that huge Nocton dairy that was proposed in Lincolnshire. All you kept saying was: ‘On balance I hope it doesn’t go through.'”

“My main problem with Nocton was that I didn’t like the environmental record of the lead farmer behind the scheme.”

I can hear her taking notes. “So what about pigs? You always insist on UK bacon when you come to stay.”

“In the UK we’ve got the best pig welfare in the EU and therefore probably the world. We banned farrowing stalls over a decade ago. The EU has yet to introduce its long-promised ban of farrowing stalls and even then it will only be a partial ban – just for the later stages of the sows’ pregnancy.”

“So even intensively-farmed British pork is all right then?”

I cross my fingers and say: “I’d prefer outdoor-reared UK pork, but if it’s got ‘pork produced in the UK’ on the label, Rosemary, you can’t really go wrong. The trouble is there isn’t much UK pork of any sort left to buy – since the introduction of the UK’s unilateral sow stall ban in 1999, British production has halved – undercut by cheap imports.”

“So, what shall I say at the meeting?” she asks.

“Tell them their resolution needs to be made longer.”

“Go on then,” she says, “I’ve got my pen.”

I take a deep breath. “‘And urges HM government to refuse planning permission for factory farms provided the same applies across the EU, where a ban should exist on the import of all meat and diary products where those products are derived from factory farms – provided we have a clear understanding of exactly what ‘factory farming means’.”

“Er … that’s quite a complex resolution,” she says.

“The WI may just as well understand what they are taking on. I wish it were more simple.”

“I’ll do my best. Byyeee!”

Poor Rosemary.

Stephen Carr runs an 800ha (1,950-acre) sheep, arable and beef farm on the South Downs near Eastbourne in partnership with his wife, Fizz. A third of the acreage is in conversion to organic status.

Read more columns by Stephen and Farmers Weekly’s team of Opinion writers.