23 August 2002


British farming has a proud record of looking after the countryside, which needs shouting from the rooftops.

Charles Abel introduces this special arable focus supplement by talking to an Essex grower and farming

commentator who believes all farmers have a duty to get behind the drive to improve the public perception of

farming. Elsewhere in this supplement we look at grain marketing, self-auditing, use of contractors, budgets,

DIY agronomy, 24-hour working and the hardest decision of all… when to get out

FARMINGS detractors have long said the industry does not care about the countryside or the quality of the food it produces.

But that is simply not true and must be countered to prevent untold damage to farmings public image, says Essex arable farmer and farming commentator Guy Smith.

He cites the recent Curry Report into the future of farming as a prime example. "It says farming needs to get reconnected with its market. But I am as connected as I can be. I grow for maltsters and millers. My problem is cheap commodity prices, not market connection. I think at times the Curry Report loses the wood for the trees.

"He also says I damage the countryside and that nutritional standards are getting worse. But neither of those are because of farming. So why havent our farming organisations come out and commented on that?

"I want to see these things rebutted, because messages are important. We need to break the lie – the countryside is not suffering because of farming. But we need to tell people that."

With over 11,000km of hedges and 19m trees planted by farmers since 1990 good work is being done. "It is tough to do those things when the industry is struggling. But despite all the hard work, the image is still largely negative. We do these things, but we dont tell people."

Much of the problem stems from the governments lack of interest in farming, he admits. "Farming now represents less than 1% of the UKs gross domestic product, so politicians are no more interested in farming than they are in hairdressers, who employ more people than farming. They see farming as a burden not an asset."

So it is down to farming to redress the balance. And there is scope for individual farmers to get involved, he insists.

Over recent months Mr Smith has gathered a host of pro-farming facts to help counter negative publicity (see panel). He urges farmers to arm themselves with the facts and fight the industrys corner when they can.

"British farmers are good custodians of the countryside and efficient producers of good value, wholesome food. If the British public is being given the impression that they are not, then shame on us as farmers for failing to correct that wrong impression."

Writing to the newspapers, getting articles in the village magazine, staging farm open days, talking to local groups or simply chatting to non-farming neighbours can all help, he says.

"It might not take very much at all. Suffolk farmer Richard Wrinch is a good example. He got the local paper interested in a wildflower strip on his farm and they ran a picture and caption, which will have done a tremendous job to improve the image of farming."

But Mr Smith acknowledges that farming is suffering emaciation from within. "There are fewer farmers with less time, which means they have less influence on the many local and regional organisations they used to get involved with."

That means there is a very real need for a national public relations unit to fight the case for British agriculture. "The pharmaceuticals industry has one and petrochemicals do, but not agriculture."

A budget needs setting and a dedicated, well-funded unit commissioning to rebrand British agriculture. "This is not something we can fix with baler twine. Getting perceptions to change costs millions.

"But couldnt maybe £1m of the HGCAs £13m annual budget, for example, be better used on this? Developing a clean, caring image for farming is going to be far more important than squeezing the last few percent of productivity out of crop production," Mr Smith concludes. &#42

Green and pleasant land or pesticide polluted prairie? Many consumers live far from the countryside, so only know what they hear. It is time farming countered some of the misconceptions pedaled by detractors, says Guy Smith.


25 reasons for farming pride 4

DIY agronomy lift-off in Hants 6

Time to rethink grain marketing 8

Self-auditing proves progress 14

Challenge your agronomist 17

Getting out – the hardest decision to make of all 18

24-hour working boosts output 20

Budgeting for success 22

Keeping tabs on contractors 26

Edited by Charles Abel

Info sources

The internet is an increasingly popular source of information. So it is important British agriculture has attractive informative web-sites that can explain farming from a farmers point of view, says Mr Smith. He picks out ukagriculture.com as one such site. The brainchild of Hampshire farmer David Uren, it looks at all aspects of farming, from landscape history to farmland conservation and from food production to animal welfare.

1 Food The average person in the UK will eat 50t of food in a lifetime – 5 cows, 1250 chickens, almost 24,000 loaves of bread, just under 4t of lettuce. Farmers meet that demand.

2 Food for health Plentiful wholesome food is helping increase life expectancy by two years every decade. That is 2.4 months every year.

3 Pesticides Today one teaspoon of weedkiller is used per hectare of crop; 20 years ago it took 20kg to do the same job – a 4000-fold reduction. Pesticide use dropped 14% between 1986 and 1996.

4 Registration It takes eight years and 120 tests for a new pesticide to get government approval – more testing than for human medicines.

5 Residues Analytical techniques can detect pesticide residues as tiny as one part in a trillion, equivalent to one second in 32,000 years.

6 Self-sufficiency Farming allows the UK to be 65% self-sufficient in all food and 75% in indigenous foods. The CAP has made the EU almost self-sufficient in all foods, except tropical produce, but only costs 0.6% of the gross domestic product of the EU. By contrast farmers in the US receive 20% more subsidy support than farmers in the EU.

7 Food costs Consumers in the UK spend only 11.2% of income on food, lower than Sweden at 14.6%, France 14.8%, Australia 14.9%, Italy 17.2%, Germany 17.3%, Japan 17.6% and Spain 18.2% (United Nations System of National Accounts).

8 Schemes In England and Wales 1m hectares are in agri-environmental schemes, with 25,000 farmers in long-term participation. Exeter University work shows 92% of farmers have some sort of environmental practice as part of farm management and provide £150m a year-worth of uncompensated maintenance work towards environmental schemes. (McInerry 2000.)

9 Habitat Without pesticides and fertilisers, UK farmers would have to plough up extra land the size of Wales to grow the same amount of food as they do now.

10 Hedges A DETR survey shows no change in the amount of hedge (449,000km) since 1990, pointing out that 10,000km of hedge was planted and 13,000km of derelict hedge brought back into regular management by replanting and coppicing. Farmers have planted or renovated nearly 40,000km of hedgerow during the 1990s and spend more than £16m a year looking after them.

11 Trees Farmers have planted over 87m trees during the past 10 years. Woodland cover in Britain is now twice that of 1920 and 5% more than in 1990.

12 Plants According to the DETR Countryside survey arable field margins are now richer in plant species than previously, with an estimated 13,000ha of cereal field margin in positive wildlife friendly management.

13 Large mammals Badger, otter, deer, rabbit, grey squirrel, fox and mink have all increased in the past 20 years, leaving the English countryside richer in large mammal biodiversity than a hundred years ago.

14 Hares, voles & shrews There are an estimated 75m field voles and 42m shrews in the UK (BMS). A BTO/NCC survey shows no decline in hare numbers in the east (1995-2000).

15 Water In 1992 1.2% of drinking water samples fell below standards; that has declined every year since, dropping to 0.2% in 2000 (DEFRA).

16 Rivers According to the DETR 2000 report there has been a significant improvement in the biological quality of rivers and streams and their habitat corridors in the past 10 years. In 2000 94% of English river length was classified by the EA as good or fair in terms of biological and chemical quality – up 10% on 1990.

17 Wetlands The DETR reported a 27% increase in fen, marsh and swamp from 1990 to 2000. In an NFU survey in 2000 80% of farmers surveyed had taken active steps to conserve wetland habitats on their farms in the past five years. 90% had a wetland landscape or wildlife habitat on their land. There are 230,900 ponds in England and Wales, up 12,200 on 1990.

18 Water use During the 1990s licensed agricultural abstraction declined from 505m litres a day (1990) to 393m litres a day in 1998, with only a fifth used for spray irrigation. That is equivalent to 0.62% of water abstracted.

19 Birds According to RSPB figures, looking at all 139 wild British bird species, there has been a 5% increase overall since 1970.

20 Waterbirds The grey heron has doubled in numbers since the mid-1960s (RSPB). Mallard ducks, greylag geese and mute swans have doubled in numbers since 1975 (BTO). Wader species have increased 100% and wildfowl 60% since 1970 (RSPB).

21 Birds of prey Sparrowhawks have doubled in the past 30 years, as have buzzards, marsh harriers, ospreys, red kite and hobbys. The barn owl has increased in East Anglia since 1990 (HOT).

22 Rare birds The 33 species defined by the RSPB as rare have increased in numbers by 100% since 1970. Many traditional hedgerow and field margin species – such as robin, blackbird, whitethroat, pheasant, pied wagtail, blackcap, chiffchaff, chaffinch, greenfinch, goldfinch, blue tit, long tailed tit, nuthatch and wren – have shown significant increases since 1990 (BTO).

23 Land use Each year in the UK, farmland equal to five times the size of Cambridge (100,000 acres) goes under buildings, roads and leisure area.

24 Added value The wheat in a standard loaf of bread costs just 7p. If the farmer received twice the price for his wheat the miller, baker and retailer could only logically justify a 7p increase in the price of a loaf.

25 Food demand By tomorrow there will be 200,000 extra mouths to feed in the world, a city the size of Birmingham every five days.

*Mr Smiths full list of Farming Facts has been published in the leaflet Get your facts right… 100 points of information in support of modern agriculture, produced in association with Strutt & Parker, the NFU and Arable Farming. To add your comments contact Guy Smith, Wigboro Wick, St Osyth, Essex CO16 8ER, Fax 01255 822050 or e-mail gsmith2692@aol.com

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