Farming Insight: The Quiet Death of British Farming (part 2)
15:22 07 April 2014
Entrepreneur and organic farmer WILLIAM KENDALL argues that the debate over the future of farm policy is dominated by small interest groups and a fear of the alternatives. Here he sets out why he believes attempting to use ‘every inch’ of British farmland to produce commodities like wheat is a wasted opportunity.
Last year I risked friendships and more by suggesting in this newspaper that British farming might be heading in the wrong direction and that we were about to lose something very valuable.
A surprising number of my farming friends are still speaking to me, some even said they agreed with a few bits and the ones who give me a wide berth do not seem to have increased significantly in number. I finished by suggesting that everybody should become more involved with the debate over the future of farming both in the UK and the wider world. Unlike other industries, farming provides us with an essential resource and also occupies most of our landmass.
The industry receives £billions of taxpayer support every year and yet the wider population has little say in how this money is spent. The greatest internal debate so far has been around how much money should be allocated to the current system of farming and how much should go into measures which would support more environmental and social improvements and economic diversification. I suspect that these latter categories would be more popular with generous taxpayers but they currently receive only a tiny proportion from the big European agricultural pot. This situation has to be unsustainable.
I promised last time to highlight some of the positive stories which show that change is happening even if it’s at too slow a pace. Before doing that I am going to risk further annoying my fellow farmers. Those trying to hang on to the longstanding post-war farm policy are promoting a myth that Britain’s farmland needs to be used to feed a hungry planet. There are many starving millions in the world but most, like the tragic Syrians, are hungry because of political instability. Britain has not even fed itself for several centuries and its role in world agricultural production is almost irrelevant. Of course our farmland should be used for producing good food but any industry which relies on handouts to survive should at least also try to deliver what suits the taxpayer.
They seem to want good healthy food from an identifiable source, they want a landscape which is attractive and full of wildlife and they want a rural economy which contributes to the good of the wider country with new jobs and valuable services. Our part of East Anglia scores better than many on these counts but poor policy means that much of our farming is not achieving these benefits.
In fact, coastal Suffolk is seeing a strengthening local food economy which provides exactly the sort of food which the wider public says it wants as well the jobs and other services. It might be unfair to single out individual heroes but perhaps we can use the dairy industry as an example. Although once most farms around here had a dairy enterprise, this is not the best dairy country. Hard to believe right now but it’s too dry.
As most herds in the area have been sold, three families have decided to buck the trend by investing in processing their milk so that they can break away from the downward margin spiral of producing a commodity. The Strachans of Rendham distribute their wonderful range of Marybelle products throughout the region. The Salisbury family at Creeting St Mary found that a herd sale was the catalyst for the start of their thriving Suffolk Farmhouse Cheese enterprise, and the Crickmores of Bungay now make Baron Bigod with their raw milk which tastes better than any Brie I can remember and I used to live in that part of France.
Our obsession with using every inch of British farmland to produce commodities like wheat is a wasted opportunity. We do need wheat but not in these quantities. It is a very inefficient crop to grow anyway. We could be encouraged to use some land for other purposes. Where do we stand on solar panels in fields? Muddled thinking allows us to grow energy crops even when there are some well highlighted downsides, but then not to generate energy on farmland. I respect the right of anybody to object to blots on the landscape but not to raise the argument that it is a waste of good growing land. We need food but we need other forms of energy too. It all ultimately comes from sunlight. Wheat converts the sunlight’s energy at about 2% efficiency whereas solar panels do the same at ten times that rate.
Last month I tramped through ankle deep water on a large farm in Sussex as clouds of rare wading birds rose over my head. The owner is criticised by farming neighbours because he has allowed his previously unprofitable farm to re-wild and flood in winter. It may produce less food but it is now home to much more wildlife and to more jobs in the redundant buildings. Meanwhile the former fields are flooded with the same rainwater which might otherwise be swamping homes downstream. Nearby, on the South Downs, a landowner has chosen to use his subsidies to reduce cereal production on what is anyway poor land to save endangered farmland birds like the grey partridge, skylark and corn bunting. The project has had great success.
Many of the farmers I mentioned in my last article, who are on the verge of giving it all up, would welcome a wider range of opportunities, especially if these looked like they won favour with their non-farming neighbours - anything which takes them out of the grim process of trying to make a return from growing mere commodities. Unfortunately the debate over the future of farm policy is dominated by small interest groups and a fear of the alternatives. As a farmer I would really suffer if the taxpayer withdrew his financial support but I long for the time when, rather than today’s measly 12%, all subsidies were directed into schemes which clearly benefit the wider public and not just those who happen to own the land.
William Kendall is the entrepreneur behind brands such as New Covent Garden Soup Company and Green & Black’s. He farms in Suffolk and Bedfordshire and is an advisor to farming businesses elsewhere in the UK.