FW Opinion: Empathy between town and country works both ways

The NFU’s decision to invite archbishop Justin Welby to give a speech before a gathering of farmers this week was an interesting meeting of minds.

One is an organisation that is perceived in some circles to have a rapidly ageing membership that struggles to relate to much of modern society, and the other is the Church of England.

These perceptions are not always accurate, I should hasten to add.

About the author

Andrew Meredith
Farmers Weekly editor
Andrew has been Farmers Weekly editor since January 2021 after doing stints on the business and arable desk. Before joining the team, he worked on his family’s upland beef and sheep farm in mid Wales and studied agriculture at Aberystwyth University. In his free time he can normally be found continuing his research into which shop sells London’s finest Scotch egg.
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Speaking at the fourth Henry Plumb lecture, in front of the 96-year-old former NFU and EU Parliament president himself, the archbishop said parishioners are coming forward to be ordained at the fastest rate for 30 years.

Plenty of life in the church then, and plenty in farming too.

See also: Farmer Time project expands to 400 schools

His speech was a useful reminder that the big challenges faced by UK food producers are still of a lower magnitude compared with many farmers in the worldwide Anglican community.

Many are attempting to farm in countries torn apart by conflict or experiencing catastrophic weather events.

Yet despite all the stability we enjoy, affordable, nutritious food is still not available to all.

Few would disagree with the archbishop’s aspiration for food justice – a fair price for producers that is still accessible to poorer consumers.

The second part of that equation is the fly in the ointment of the very credible claims from farmers currently that food prices need to rise to meet soaring input costs.

In the week that Arla has relieved producers by increasing its farmgate milk price – surely it seems reasonable to ask consumers to pay a few pennies more at the other end?

Yet if these marginal increases are replicated across all food types and in other monthly bills, many more families may soon be facing a choice between adequate food or heating this winter.

Is this farming’s problem?

It is easy to admire hard-nosed farmers who say that food production is a business like any other and it is not their job to feed the world, just to support their family by making self-interested decisions on how to use their land that keep them in profit.

You may see more of this breed come to the fore as direct subsidies are withdrawn and we are more at the mercy of the markets than ever.

But there is also a case for those who believe farming has a bigger role to play in society than only making a margin – such as by taking costly long-term decisions to improve land and supporting the wider rural way of life.

Whichever view you take, it is vital that consumers maintain a positive view of us and we are not scapegoated as an industry if there is a looming cost-of-living crisis.

This means ensuring the gap in understanding between town and country is as narrow as possible, and it is why I am a firm supporter of the excellent Farmer Time initiative.

This sees farmers make regular live video calls to schools to tell children more about life on the farm – and more farmers are urgently needed to meet demand.

Our industry is currently desperate for good publicity like this.

But in return we owe it to those children and their families to do more to understand what their lives are like as well, and lobby on their behalf, as well as our own.

Farmers certainly can’t fix society’s problems on their own and bring everyone three square meals a day – but empathy is a two-way street.

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