Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The farmer- an endangered species?

Hill Top Farm by David Knowlton
Hill Top Farm

The farmers need to know that they are valued. The story about the sheep being culled and low prices for crops is likely to pass many by and yet it is an indication that things are not right.I am very fond of my food and interested in where it comes from, add to that a passion about fibre and sheep, living in the countryside and I am at a loss to grasp what is going on and how we can help the situation.

A lot of DH's friends have tried to make a living as farmers and a large proportion have either retrained in other trades ( plumbers) or their marriages have broken up due to financial pressures. Statistically too, I understand that the suicide rate amongst farmers is higher than average.

I grew up in a city, with a lot of concrete and parks and yet was unaware that milk came from cows. We did have independent shops in which you could purchase food of which you could trace its origin, local food prevailed and there was a pride in farmers. My childhood holidays were spent on a dairy farm in Germany where I loved helping out , sitting on the tractor and learning about what grew where. Over the years we have seen small shops disappear and supermarkets take their place for our convenience.

2 years ago, the WI campaigned to raise awareness of the price difference between the price paid in the shops and the price paid to the farmer. This was followed by a marked exodus of dairy farmers, as I understand mostly those who rented farms and were faced with higher interest payments against lower income. Farmer's wives went out to work to earn extra money and many farmer's families live a poor existence. Others may look rich in land that gets sold off to produce more housing estates. Gradually, the land that produces food and sustains us is changing.

Again, does it matter?

Not if you want to continue shopping in supermarkets, if you want to depend on other countries supplying our resources and not it you are comfortable with what is going on.
Personallly I have found it inconvenient to stop shopping in supermarkets and to search out local suppliers, farmers markets and to change my eating habits to a more local scene and yet, at this harvest time when we are thankful for the harvest and for a variety of reasons, tins of baked beans and tomatoes are brought up as thanksgiving offerings, I shudder somewhere.........

A very sad picture emerges in my mind of hens in cages waiting for their food to be be dropped in, so they can lay an egg in cramped conditions...what is the difference between them and us? How long before we are in small cages, go out to work to earn money to provide our basic foods because they are imported from far away?

At harvest time, go out and seek out a farmer, wave to him when he is on his tractor, buy him a drink in your local pub, make a point of telling him/her that you appreciate what he is doing. Ask questions, find out what is happening in his world. Winter is a long time, a lean time this year for many farmers in isolation, if we cannot change the immediate picture, let us at least reach out and show them we care about them and the work they do.


Podchef said...

I posted this rant to Facebook as well:

The current attitudes towards farmers--real farmers who husband their livestock, muck out their own barns and grow and harvest crops for direct sale--in the industrialized world is appalling. The Global Governing Bodies go out of their way to support/bolster/aid third world farmers, while many in our own nations are poorer--or in government approved debt--and in worse ways.

Historically farmers are the dangerous ones. We control our food supply, we are politically active, we own land--or control it in some way. Governments are always trying to do in their farmers in some short sighted attempt at control. Usually it fails--Thank God--but in our present case, it looks like in the UK and US, at least, they are getting it right--Government by corporation. Those same corporations which now also supply us our food, our clothing, our houses and pretty much tell 90% of us how to think.

We are in a totalitarian dictatorship--globally--served up at the altar of convenience. It is appalling to me that the light lambs will be destroyed because there is no market for them. It isn't convenient to sell them, or market them to the public. It is easier and will keep the majority of people--but not those dangerous intellectuals, the farmers--happy, to just dispose of the problem. A problem, which as usual, has been created by government. Globalism, the scourge of the new world order. If the UK didn't import so much Kiwi Lamb--through trade agreements and the like--this would all be less of an issue. If pig headed politicians would have vaccinated for FMD, and been sensible about blue tongue--this would not have been an issue and the taxpayers would have had a far less heavy bill--now for FMD culls AND light lamb culls.

The other end of the stick points at the farmers themselves. I was dumbfounded as I listened to Farming Today a few days ago to hear one farmer tally up what it cost him to raise sheep. There was no profit, only loss, even in a good year. I could list any number of things he was doing wrong, but first and foremost was his feeding situation. He was buying in feed. There isn't, or shouldn't be, any reason to do this--both sun and grass are free and raise beautiful lamb. Also , he was complacent about supermarket pricing. That's wrong. That is the problem. Farmer's in a group need to dictate the price they need to live, not the "Free market", not the Supermarket chains who seek any advantage to buy low, sell high. The public needs to be made more aware of lamb, and pork. What it costs to raise, how it is treated and why it shouldn't be cheap.

Here in the US we don't eat much lamb. What is produced here is a drop in the bucket. Most that is eaten here is imported. Various cuts are impossible to find--only rack and leg are sold. But there is more to an animal than that! Consumers have been duped by marketing. "Buy the high end cuts for that special occasion. . . ." No one markets value. Even lamb shank is expensive here because restaurants have made it trendy. Shoulder, breast, neck--never seen them in shops here. Can't buy them. Marketing and consumer ignorance.

This is rather a long winded way to get to my "solution". Because the farmers who are afflicted with the light lamb cull aren't the ones who sell directly anyway there will be a problem. But, it seems to me that whether it's pork, or lamb--going by the headlines today (it could be chickens tomorrow, and probably will. . . .)--consumers need to be made aware of how to cook various cuts. They need to be made aware of local channels of purchasing farm direct. They need to learn recipes for smaller lambs. They need to learn to pay more and demand more--better quality, flavor, and variety.

Farmers need to find a way to value add to their light lambs--or whatever product they need to make a profit on. Why sell them at 15 quid a head to be destroyed? Couldn't they make 18, or 20, or 25--still far less than they usually get sure, but something--buy marketing locally, or value adding? Hell, if I was faced with the situation, I'd be finding a way to get the lambs slaughtered and into the hands of a local caterer, or throw an on-farm lamb roast style party where people pay to come. Likewise, people need to come forward and demand the farmers products. Where are Ramsay, Oliver, and HFW on this? Why aren't they advocating a way to save these lambs and farmers by eating? Does anyone produce lamb sausage in the UK? Now is the chance for opportunity.

If Jimmy's Farm can weather the current pork debacle, then it should be a model for every forward thinking farmer--the weathering, not his spurious agricultural buffonery. . . . And here is where Hev's Web 2.0 Farming thingy steps in. Social Media/Marketing--networking--Farmer A: Hey I've got 200 light lambs, who'll give me 20 quid a head, how bout 16.50? Farmer B: I'll take 50, and I know a farmer up the road who'll take 70--we have the feed and a market with a cheffy bloke who's doing sausages, and Mediterranean theme dinners. . . . And so it goes.

I am sure things are more complicated than that. Movement restrictions--Consumers and Farmers alike need to demand a Mobile Slaughter unit--which can come to a farm and process animals which are inspected and ready to sell. Anyway, just a few thoughts. Hopefully this may spur others onward.

Farmer Phil said...

Farmers are indeed having a hard time in some quarters but their poor public image is at least in part their own fault. We have failed to keep our customers, the general public up to speed with what we do and why. However, I am convinced that this is recoverable and current trends tend to confirm this in my mind. The increasing demand for food and the competition that energy production may create coupled with the increasing scarcity of water in some areas gives an opportunity to re-establish connections and image. It will be important to take individual responsibility for our farming practices as farmers and to encourage consumers to do likewise in their shopping choices. Farmers are individuals and have individual standards and ethics as are their customers. Social media gives a perfect opportunity for everyone to have their say for minimal cost and effort. This allows the farmer to adjust his or her activities according to customer demand and at the same time allow the customer access to accurate info on production methods and the reasoning behind them.
It is only by this differential marketing, that farmers can overcome some of the political interference that causes so much damage.
I also believe that farmers, by and large are in it for the long game and thus are capable of taking a long term view. The exchange of information by for example social media, will allow quicker improvement of the averages.The market can change very quickly - who foresaw the current wheat market?
I have been very heartened by my own experiences of positive public opinion towards farmers and am looking forward to better times ahead.
Better informed customers will allow marketing thro' all existing routes and no doubt new ones. The supermarkets will do anything for their customers and therefore it is them we should engage with.

Heather Gorringe said...

Heather's draft guide for cheering up farming:
1: Think about the food you are eating - not just the posh restaurant meal on the weekend but the cake in Starbucks and the food in your freezer. Check out the yogurt in your fridge and where its practical start to source it locally and sustainably from farmers.
2: When you do use a supermarket - try to use Waitrose - they are the best at sourcing local sustainable produce from Farmers in LEAF.
3: Blog about it all, blog blog blog. Phone up the Wiggly Podcast and leave a message of support - or a rant 00441981 500930. We'll play it to the world. Come on the show - email me, get involved with this
4: Ask a farmer to come and speak at your school or organise a farm visit. Check out the Year of Food and Farming
5: Get informed - it was the government research place that spread Foot and Mouth and other European countries have Blue Tongue and they dont shut down massive areas of farmland!
6: Grow things of your own (I know a really good mail order company that sells farm produced hedging, veggie seeds - birdfood all sorts...!)
There's a start anyway.