Opinion: Do you pass the farming ‘straight-face test’?

A phrase often used by farmers who don’t like change is: “But my farm is different.” 

Agreed, it is a statement of fact. Blindingly obvious. Every farm is different. They all have their own identity, topography, soil type and history. And saying one’s farm is different allows those resistant to change the luxury of not changing, while not sounding like a Luddite either.

The “my farm is different” approach is not dissimilar to the “let’s do more of the same and expect a different outcome” school of thought. 

See also: Delivering public goods stacks up, says Ian Pigott

Actions and responsibilities

We are all entitled to farm as we see fit – so long as our actions do not compromise the health of our farm, stock or other farmers.

But how do we know if the consequence of our actions extend beyond our own farm gate? We need to adopt a simple litmus test – the “straight-face test”.

This test is about honesty and transparency. If you were to describe a particular action to any audience – neighbouring farmers, friends in the pub, members of the public – would they agree that what you are doing is acceptable?

Does it pass the test?

If it does not pass the test, you shouldn’t be doing it.

Let me give two examples where farmers often fail this test:  spraying multiple applications of pyrethroids to control (largely resistant) flea beetle in oilseed rape; and the routine use of antibiotics in intensive livestock systems. When science tells us something is wrong, we must listen.

At this point, I need to be a tad careful. It could be interpreted that I am about to refer to Guy Smith as a Luddite for his recent piece in this magazine on “min-till” and “no-till”. Absolutely not! But I would add caution to my friend’s opinion that “any system, old or new, can triumph”. 

Justifying bad practice

All too often such an attitude can be used as a means of justification for bad practice. Take, for example, multiple low-rate glyphosate applications to control blackgrass in min-till systems. Or the routine use of pre-harvest Roundup.

Historically, both have been justified. However we now know such practice will ultimately accelerate glyphosate resistance in plants, not to mention public resistance to glyphosate.

As thousands of hectares of arable land will attest, blackgrass doesn’t respond to “let’s do more of the same and expect a different outcome”. Nor will the general public regard it as acceptable.

Twenty years ago, a campaign was started to educate farmers and reduce the incidence of metaldehyde in drinking water. While most farmers changed practice, some arrogantly ignored the advice and continued to spread pellets in high-risk areas and conditions.

Inevitable ban on metaldehyde

It wasn’t until recent years, when the same campaign warned that a ban on metaldehyde was inevitable, that the necessary change was made. Too late. The damage was done. The momentum was for a ban. A small number of farmers’ actions caused damage for the many.

We all know the culprits. Just one tank of red diesel in the pick-up won’t do any harm. Burning a few fertiliser bags when no one is watching doesn’t matter. Using up a couple of old cans of IPU isn’t the end of the world. 

But the consequence of such actions isn’t isolated to their farm and their business – it impacts all farmers. Unless we stand up to those who fail the straight-face test, we will all be penalised.

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