Opinion: Politicians need to champion, not chastise, farmers

With conference season in full swing the “buzzword bingo” cards are fervently being marked.

For those not familiar with buzzword bingo, it’s a game you play with a handful of other conference delegates where you all choose five or 10 key phrases you predict that you will hear during the presentations – the winner being the first to tick off all their list.

It is usually considered bad form to leap up shouting “full house”, but it has been known.

See also: Time to tread carefully over political volcano

In contrast one of the most memorable speeches I ever heard at a conference was about 10 years ago by a US secretary of state for Agriculture.

As he strode into the hall he was flanked by an entourage of security heavies who stayed close-by during the speech, slightly unnerving the audience under their watchful glare.

The bulges under their jackets weren’t just muscles. No one was going to leap up and shout “full house” during that speech. 

Guy Smith comes from a mixed family farm on the north-east Essex coast

But what I really liked about this USDA man was the way he talked up the importance of farmers and the achievements of agriculture.

One line I particularly liked was his observation that the hard work of one farmer meant 99 non-farmers didn’t have to worry about ever going hungry. 

Compare and contrast

I’m not easily sucked in by cheap praise from politicians, but I remember thinking: “This guy really is on the side of the farmer.” What brought this into even sharper context was that, after the USDA man had left the podium, we had his Defra equivalent.

In contrast, she gave a speech that seemed to concentrate on the environmental problems farming needed to face up to and how the CAP was a bad policy.

It was enough to make you feel like emigrating. And now, 10 years later, I find myself in conference halls listening to Michael Gove. I’ll say no more on that.

Surely, if ever there was a time in Britain to build positive bridges between government and the farming industry it is now.

For a generation, our government department has been a delivery arm and regulator for policy devised in Brussels.

Often that policy was shaped in spite of the views of the British government, rather than because of them.

Consequently, the CAP was often viewed in London as an alien policy to be delivered without much enthusiasm or ownership. 

But now is a moment for change that must be seized on by all sides. Clearly it would be naive to expect Defra to forgo all its regulatory roles, but surely now is the time it can also become our industry’s champion.

From now on agricultural policy will be written in the UK, for the UK. It is a chance for all sides to own that policy and be part of the same vision.

Central to that should be how we feed our nation with wholesome food, produced primarily from our own resources, while giving a fair return to the farmer.

Meeting our needs

The nightmare alternative is how, as a result of Brexit, we can meet most of our food needs by scouring the world for the cheapest food produced to the cheapest standards.

We desperately need a department that properly understands agriculture. We need a department peopled by staff who have actually been out onto farms.

Above all, we need a department that engenders a sense of trust among farmers.

Let’s be clear, this is a two-way street. If government reaches out the hand of partnership to the farming community, then we must be prepared to forget the past and grasp it.

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