Helping to make the change

Farming and politics are a bit like sausages and custard – OK on their own, but rarely satisfactory when mixed.

In fact the mistrust and hostility between farmers and policy-makers can probably be traced back to the middle ages and beyond.

So Clare Wise is a bit peculiar in being a fan of both.

Her background puts her firmly in the farming camp; the family has farmed at Little Stainton near Darlington since 1891 and now fattens beef heifers, runs a commercial Texel sheep flock and grows wheat, barley and rape on the 135ha (333-acre) lowland farm.

The farm business is a decidedly hands-on affair, too.

With no employed staff since 1991, father Mike and mother Mavis do all the work themselves.

Clare was involved in family business decisions from her early teens and given a cheque book, a pair of in-lamb ewes and a chance to build up her own flock when she was just 11.

But the Wises are political animals in their own way, too, and have never been inclined to accept the status quo without question.

Mike was an NFU livestock committee member, is a diehard supporter of livestock marts and is not scared to lobby when necessary.

“I’ve never known a time when Dad wasn’t trying to change things,” says Clare.

But he must have raised an eyebrow when his daughter announced she was spending a pre-college summer working in the Sedgefield constituency office of their local MP, a certain Tony Blair.

And that eyebrow must have edged even higher when she decided to take a degree in politics at Newcastle University rather than the more conventional choice of agriculture-and-something.

But Clare has no doubt it was the right thing to do.

“Working at Sedgefield gave me a bit of a taste for politics.

People are very cynical about politicains, but I could see they were trying to help.

I could also see the benefits of doing something completely different for a while.”

That philosophy of doing something different continued after graduation.

First she immersed herself in the tough, testosterone-soaked world of livestock slaughtering and meat processing at a supermarket supplier near Cambridge.

Then it was on to the equally rough-and-tough world of buying and selling livestock and agrochemicals.

Now she works for the Red Meat Industry Forum, an organisation set up in 2002 to help the livestock sector boost its down-in-the-dumps profitability.

Most of what she gets involved in are the business clubs – small groups of farmers who meet in pubs, colleges or farmhouse kitchens to compare their figures for all aspects of their livestock operations, discuss problem areas and try to make improvements.

There are now 100 of these clubs and, on average, the farms involved have seen a 10% increase in profits a year after joining. But it’s not just the financial benefits that have been very satisfying to witness.

“It requires farmers to be very open about their businesses,” says Clare.

“They’re not inclined to talk at first – farmers aren’t talk-show hosts – but gradually the trust builds up and they see the benefits.”

Much as she enjoys the job, Clare can’t wait to return to the family farm.

It won’t be for a while because she wants to learn as much as she can about other parts of the food chain first.

That is all part of the plan.

But will there still be an industry there when she is ready to return?

She ponders for a moment.

“The next three years will be tough, but I think agriculture will be in a better shape in 10 years than it is now.”

There are some big hurdles to be jumped.

Farmers will have to keep up unwavering pressure on the supermarkets to pay prices that are above the costs of production, for a start.

They will also need to market themselves much, much better.

But in the end it may be consumers that come to farmers’ aid by increasingly insisting on high-quality, healthy food that has not been jetted halfway round the world.

The proportion of consumers who understand that you can’t have Mercedes-quality food at Ford prices may be small now, she concedes, but it will surely grow.

“There is a great future for farming.

It’ll take a lot of work, but we will get there.

You should never underestimate the British farmer.”

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