Who’d be a farmer? Not me, perhaps. The problem with farming, in this small part of North Wales at least, is that so much of it is out of our hands. We seem to live and die by the will of the gods, governments and Tesco.
BSE, foot and mouth, bird flu, blue tongue; all of them have affected or will potentially affect our farm’s profitability. But none of these problems, as far as I can see, were of our doing. The foot and mouth scare did not affect us directly but the restrictions on movements and more importantly the loss in consumer confidence affected the profits of every beef farmer. But I’d argue that the problem was in now way a result of mismanagement by us or any other small farmer. Indeed, the strain of Foot and Mouth found at a Surrey Farm in 2007 was a strain used in vaccines and not usually found in animals. It was a strain that was being used at nearby Institute for Animal Health however. But no connection has been proved of course.
The emergence of BSE or mad cow disease has been attributed to British cattle feed producers using animal bi products in their feed, or nuts as we call them. 5 years ago I’m not sure I’d have been certain what an animal byproduct was let alone whether it was in the nuts we were giving our cows every winter. We buy cattle feed from the local agricultural suppliers and have done for decades. There’s a choice of two different brands, one in a green bag, one in a brown bag. That’s it, no ‘without animal bi products’ option, no ‘will not cause BSE’ option. As small farmers are we really expected to research the practices of the feed producers and how they manufacture their products? To date 179,000 cattle have been infected and 4.4 million slaughtered. Variant CJD has killed 163 people in Britain, and 37 elsewhere. “Brown bag or green bag Mr. Small Farmer?”
The bluetongue virus is the latest terror on the horizon. Down to global warming and migrating midges this time. But don’t worry, the kind people at the Institute of Animal Health in Surrey are working on a vaccine. God help us.
And what ever happened to bird flu. I thought H5N1 was going to kill us all. Perhaps the tabloids will get back to reporting the immanent extinction of the human race once the latest episode of Big Brother is over. But is bird flu our fault? Other than training our two chickens to run for cover if they see migrating geese what else were we supposed to do? In case you are worried however, the feared pandemic is now less likely than previously believed. It’s because our glycans are umbrella shaped and not cone shaped apparently. But I guess that doesn’t sell newspapers.
The small farmer is also vulnerable to the wills and whimsies of our leaders in Brussels. Our farm depends on subsidies. Naturally, there are many arguments against these hand outs and I often find it hard to justify receiving them. The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was born out of our insecurities following the Second World War and I guess the initial principles set out at that time still make sense.
1. to increase productivity, by promoting technical progress and ensuring the optimum use of the factors of production, in particular labour;
2. to ensure a fair standard of living for the agricultural Community;
3. to stabilise markets;
4. to secure availability of supplies;
5. to provide consumers with food at reasonable prices.
1957 Treaty of Rome
We’ve experienced subsidies based on production, livestock count, fixed price and quotas, acreage, environmental land management, specific improvement projects and so on. All carefully thought out no doubt, but it’s the inconsistency which is unbearable. The current system, ‘single farm payment’, offers a fixed amount of cash based on historic figures of livestock and land made in 2005. But this structure is due to be revised in 2013 making it very difficult to make any long term financial decisions and investments.
As small farmers in the UK it’s also questionable how much we actually benefit from these subsidies. The excellent farmsubsidy.org website reports how in the UK, 80% of payments go to the top 28% of farmers. A little better than the average EU 80-20 split. These figures look even worse from the other end of the scale where the bottom 70% of farmers share just 8% of the money. Added to this the UK only receives 9% of EU CAP spending compared to France’s 22% and Germany and Spain’s 13% each. If you consider that these large farms in other European countries are our competitors, perhaps we’d be better off with out the subsidies. But it’s like a drug, we’re addicted, we flinch at the inclinations of our dealer and the thought of going cold turkey terrifies us.
Then there’s Tescos. I know Sir Terry Leahy, Tesco’s chief executive isn’t evil. I’m sure he has good and high morals. As does the boss of Asda, Morissons and Safway no doubt. But it’s the corporate domination of our food supply that I object to. No matter what their advertising slogans might say, their overriding responsibility is to their shareholders. Faceless investment organizations and pension funds, who in turn are only interested in the bottom line. “From where should we buy our products?” “How much should we pay our suppliers?” “What production methods should we insist on?” Their answers depend on how the bottom line is affected.
Some would argue that it’s up to the consumer to influence these decisions. To stop buying chickens that have been bred in appalling conditions or lamb that’s been flown from the other side of the world or meat produced in countries where health and safety is non existent. But the problem is we’ve been persuaded that food is a commodity, and the cheaper the better. We’ve been brainwashed by these corporations that price is the most important consideration when shopping for food. Every tv ad, billboard and flyer shouts out, “look how cheap our food is!”, “shop here for less!” etc. We don’t have this same preoccupation with other goods like cars, clothes or televisions however. Here, excellence is often an important consideration. Yet surely nothing influences our quality of life more than our health. And nothing influences our health more than the food we eat. I’m not preaching from on high by the way. I too tend to search out the cheapest food in the supermarket, have grown used to spending less than £3 for a chicken. And yet I just spent a small fortune on expensive sun glasses. What’s that about?
Perhaps we’d be more discerning if we knew exactly where our food came from, how it was produced and by whom. But again the dominance of supermarkets at the expense of smaller independent retailers has put a huge barrier between supplier and consumer. Unfortunately I’m skeptical of the various labels that have been devised to reassure us. Free range, organic, farm assured etc. What I’d really like is to know is that my tomatoes were grown by John and packed by his daughter Carys at their farm near where my cousin lives. And that the pork I eat was reared and butchered at Hill Top Farm near that hotel where we stayed last year. Things like that, but the corporate ethos and mass selling of the food we eat make this type of relationship impossible.
And my conclusion? No matter how hard we work, no matter how well we run our farm, no matter what decisions we make, ultimately, the gods, government and Tesco will decide our fate. But while they ponder, I will keep walking the fields, keep looking up at the mountains and down to the sea. Every day I will count my blessings that I live on a farm.