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Isn’t it time we stopped feeling sorry for farmers?

PUBLISHED: 10:54 08 August 2018 | UPDATED: 11:21 08 August 2018

Matching tyres and pressures achieves efficient weight support and traction. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Matching tyres and pressures achieves efficient weight support and traction. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto

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James Marston says it’s time to stop the sympathy for our farmers

I don’t want to go to Portugal – I’ve been to the third world.

It’s an old joke, and probably, in this day and age one of those inappropriate ones that will have certain types, who like to dictate what we think, up in arms about what you can and can’t say.

I generally laugh in the face of political correctness. Mostly because it attempts to infringe freedom of speech.

And this week I am going to use that freedom to talk about a subject in a way some of you might not like very much – the subject is farming.

It seems to me there is a strong and longstanding sympathy for farmers – or what is now, popularly called, the “farming community”. And I sometimes wonder if this longstanding sympathy is, a little, unfounded.

The other week we reported that: “East Anglian farmers look set to be counting the cost as the combine harvesters roll into action this month.”

Speaking at a recent summit NFU President Minette Batters said, as she welcomed government help for the sector, “Today’s summit was a wake-up call to government and policy makers about the importance of British food production and the critical need to manage the volatility that comes with it.”

This might be the case but we perhaps should ask why the tax payer must help “manage the volatility”? Why can’t the farming community, which is already heavily subsidised in a variety of ways, have a loss making year every now and again? Other industries do. Indeed that’s what capitalism is – it is that very volatility across all sectors that makes the theory of money work.

The outstretched hand of the farmer pleading for help should, perhaps be seen within a wider context of spectacular and near-continual land price rises in recent years and the simple fact that market forces and history suggests that lower crop yields are invariably offset against higher prices anyway.

We don’t even know yet the full picture of this year’s harvest and the farmers are asking for and getting state help.

The farming lobby never fails to remind us that British food production is important – that without them we would starve – and while this has some credence, it isn’t the whole picture.

At varying times, since the end of the 17th century, we have consistently imported between 40 and 60 per cent of our food – even through both World Wars. Conversely UK food and drink exports rose by 5.5 per cent in the first quarter of 2018.

No one is denying the agricultural sector has a role in feeding the nation, but perhaps it is time to reflect that farming itself is an historically cosseted industry that is today significantly more efficient and may no longer require the historic subsidies it once relied on?

Agriculture has changed; industrial post-war farming techniques have wreaked havoc on our land and our rural environment in the name of intensive production. Automation has and will continue to replace intensive labour. And we are beginning to change our view of the hitherto accepted wisdom that production is paramount.

I note with interest the Payment by Results pilot is being extended across Norfolk and Suffolk and, according to the environment secretary Mr Gove “marks a shift in how we think about rewarding farmers for their work. This approach signals how we see the future of farm payments, where farmers deliver public goods for the environment which we all enjoy.”

Farming is rarely meritocratic – it is, by and large, an inherited way of life – which often comes with a comfortable lifestyle that most can only dream of.

It might be a stereotype but stereotypes can often conceal a deeper truth and it is a shame so many farmers seem to moan and complain about their plight.

As Suffolk poet George Crabbe said: “Our farmers round, well pleased with constant gain, Like other farmers, flourish and complain.”

We don’t “manage the volatility” of plenty of other industries. I suspect this is due to the agricultural sector’s ability to punch above its weight at Westminster and this is, perhaps, simply because of another stereotype – the romantic stereotype of the grumpy-but-clubbable-rosy-cheeked-rotund farmer that persists in our cultural memory.

But that memory is fading and profitable farming isn’t a right that comes along with land ownership – it is the icing on the cake – and while farming might be a special case that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t take the rough with the smooth, at least once in a while.

Do you agree with James? Write to him at james.marston@archant.co.uk

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