We all know that farming is going to change. The question is not when but how it will change. The Agriculture Bill and the Environment Bill both set out a direction of travel towards a more sustainable form of farming. As always, the big question is who is going to pay for it.
Anna Hill of Farming Today asked her interviewees on Saturday 18 May 2019 why the public should care about these changes. Emily Norton, Head of Rural Research at Savills, answered in this way: “There’s a classic saying, we need a doctor once a year, a lawyer once in a lifetime, but we need a farmer three times a day.”
As a start along this particular road, we hope you will listen to a series of podcasts we have made with local farmers and rural business owners in conjunction with Greenslade Taylor Hunt, the land agents, and Folk2Folk, the peer-to-peer lender.
Sally and Roger Maynard farm 260 acres in East Devon and describe why and how they have diversified their farming operations over the years. The “why” is the simple part – the continual pressure to reduce farm prices, particularly dairy products. The “how” is more difficult and, in their podcasts [part one and part two], Sally and Roger discuss the important business principles that they consider have been key to their success.
John Coles describes how he diversified his farming operations into the meat trade, qualifying as a slaughterman and establishing a low throughput abattoir on his farm. There were 20 such abattoirs when he started, now only four remain. In his podcast [click here], John describes how he rears, slaughters, butchers, retails and cooks his own meat at East Hill Pride Farm Shop, near Sidmouth. If we really are concerned about traceability and shorter supply chains, then we need to support John Coles’ business to ensure small abattoirs survive, despite the overly prescriptive approach of the Food Standards Agency.
Steve Williams and Pete Woodham-Kay started a charcuterie business just over four years ago in Steve’s garage. They now have an industrial unit with the equipment required to cure their sustainably produced meat, using “only salt and natural Exe and Clyst Valley air”. They are not farmers, but you will hear in their podcasts [part one and part two] how they translate their concerns about animal welfare into a very high quality product. It’s all about treating animals with respect. They sell their products not only through their restaurant in Topsham and their pub, the Globe in Lympstone, but also through delis throughout the South West, including Darts Farm.
Professor Michael Lee, director in charge of Rothamsted at North Wyke, Oakhampton, talks about ruminants and the work he is carrying out at North Wyke to improve pastures. In his podcasts [part one and part two], he talks about the importance of animal fats in our diet. We should be eating red meat of higher quality, but less of it and drinking milk of higher quality and more of it if we are to avoid a public health crisis. Michael’s comments on the current fads for nut and oat juices are particularly interesting.
Catherine Broomfield is a farmer in East Devon and writes on farming and rural matters for the farming and national press. She and Professor Tim Lang take a particularly damning view of current food supply chains and the economic control exerted by the big manufacturers, processors and supermarkets, forcing farmers to produce more for less money. Like Professor Michael Lee, they consider the current system is broken and has to be replaced for both environmental and public health reasons. In her podcasts [part one and part two], Catherine sets out the thinking behind the Agriculture Bill and why we will lose our soil if we do not reform farming practices as a matter of urgency.
Andrew Parr is the chairman of, and the fifth generation involved, in the family business of oak bark tanning in East Devon. Indeed, it is the only oak bark tannery left in the UK, let alone Devon where a century and a half ago there were 200 such tanneries. In his podcast [click here], he describes the tanning process, which is a long one, sourcing hides locally and using only lime and water to cure them. The finished product is of the highest quality, which he sells into the bespoke shoe and saddlery markets in this country and to the top fashion houses in Italy, France and world-wide. His is a fascinating story, showing how the steep decline in traditional rural skills has affected rural communities.
All six interviewees are committed to the highest standards of animal welfare and quality products. More importantly, all six consider that, provided farming and food production systems are integrated within, and form part of, the overall environmental management, there will be opportunities to enhance and grow farming operations and related rural businesses. In addition, the Government will need to commit to fairer farm prices in order to plan, on a long term basis, to improve soil fertility by sequestering carbon. These policies have to be “joined up” to work for the benefit of us all.