2 August 2002


Trying to do the right

thing down the years

has brought

farmers more

regulations, higher

costs and scant


An Opposition politician slapped me on the shoulder and said, "Glad to see youre still laying into Labour in your column, old boy. Keep it up!" Then after a guffaw: "But things arent really as bad as that are they? Eh what?" He obviously, but erroneously, thought I was one of the Party faithful. Equally obviously he was ignorant of the realities of farming – a constituency he claimed to represent.

I did my best to put him right. But he didnt listen. For whatever political points he and his colleagues may score in public, in private most of his party is as blindly obsessed as the government with WTO policies, without recognising the implications of what is going on elsewhere.

"When we were in power you were jolly positive in your articles," he continued, "ready to meet the changes that will have to be accepted by your industry. Im sure we can rely on a return to that attitude when we regain power. Jolly good! Must move on."

Later, when I had cooled down, I wondered if that was what other people think of what I write? I hope not. Yes, the man I had the misfortune to meet is a caricature politician who should never be elected for any Party. Meanwhile, perhaps I should make my motivations clearer.

For most of my farming life I have tried to do the things farmers are now being urged to do – as if the concepts were brand new and we were incapable of thinking for ourselves. And, yes, I have advocated that others, who may not initially have had the same inclinations, should do the same.

One of the first things I did when I started farming was to join a co-operative. I reasoned that membership should bring power to buy what I needed to run the farm cheaper than if I did it alone. I have been a member since, spending 18 years on the board and 13 in the chair. The same co-op helped start a potato marketing group, pea and bean harvesting groups, a training group, and a machinery ring. Most of the grain we grow on this farm is marketed through a farmer-controlled business that began as a co-operative. I believe co-operation with other farmers is a vital tool of farm management.

More than 20 years ago, when farmers began to be criticised for lack of care for the countryside this was among the first farms in Norfolk to join FWAG. Twelve years ago, as pressure group influence grew and criticism of farmers became more intense, with the co-operation of FWAG, I was instrumental with others, in starting LEAF as a national initiative. We believed it would fill the gap that then existed and help farmers combine commercial and conservation considerations. And so it has proved, to the point that the widespread adoption of integrated farming, in which LEAF led the industry, has become the aspiration of most of the food chain.

Through all those years I have been involved in the organisation of the Royal Norfolk Show where one of our consistent objectives has been to promote local food to local people. I am pleased to report that the associations activities are growing apace and beginning to make a real difference to those local food producers who participate.

I began diversifying (into TV, radio and writing) when I was 23 and have (somewhat obviously) continued with some of these, plus other newer initiatives, ever since. Some of my diversifications have been successful, others have not. But I have consistently tried to earn part of my living from activities other than straight farming.

I have from time to time written about all of the above, in my columns. Indeed, reviewing my record almost makes me look politically correct by current standards and I apologise for that! But having tried all these things, having at times had direct encouragement from government ministers to continue them, and, on the back of such encouragement, having recommended others to do the same, I now feel a sense of personal betrayal.

For I, we, the UK farming industry, have delivered what was asked of us. We have spent and still spend significant sums installing and running the systems and standards consumers demand. In so doing we have unavoidably become higher cost producers.

And what is our reward? The imposition of more regulations that add to our costs; the accusation that we swallow up vast subsidies that in truth benefit retailers more than farmers; the challenge that we must match the low costs of other countries farmers where few if any of the same rules apply and land and labour are dirt cheap; the almost unregulated importation of diseased animal products that start epidemics for which we are blamed; the expectation that we will continue to provide food for the nation at a loss while funding that production from second and third jobs.

The UK operates the worst possible double standards. Insisting on high quality and full traceability at home, but welcoming low quality with cheapness from abroad. That is why I criticise the government and why I shall continue to do so, whichever Party is in power, until justice is done.

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