UK farmers on the brink

I SHALL be cooking cauliflower tonight. At least, a good few florets of the venerable vegetable will be in the curry I'll be serving to guests.

Aidan Semmens

I SHALL be cooking cauliflower tonight. At least, a good few florets of the venerable vegetable will be in the curry I'll be serving to guests.

And if the recipe is my own adaptation of an Indian original, the cauli (and the meat with it) will be as local as I can get.

Unlike some of the more exotic veg the TV chefs and the supermarkets have introduced us to in recent years, caulis grow particularly well here.


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Well, OK, they flourish best of all in the chalky soils of Kent and Hertfordshire rather than the sand and clay of Suffolk.

But it makes no sense whatsoever to be importing inferior varieties from Thailand or Guatemala.

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No sense, that is, for the quality of food on your plate.

No sense for the welfare of the planet (think of the air miles, the refrigeration and unnecessary plastic shrink-wrapping).

No sense for the lives of the far-flung growers. They would be so much better employed producing food for themselves and their local markets.

Certainly no sense at all for farmers here, who find themselves preposterously unable to compete for price with veg flown half round the world.

Which is why today organisers of the Real Food Festival have been holding a “cauliflower funeral” outside one of London's giant Tesco stores.

Because, of course, it is Tesco and the other big supermarket chains that have distorted the market so disastrously.

Their bosses are the only ones who see sense in exploiting farmers in poorer lands while squeezing their British counterparts to the point of giving up.

The sense they see is on the bottom line of their own cash accounts. Even there it may be a shortsighted view.

Richard Hurst of the National Farmers' Union points out that his members have a bottom line of their own to consider too.

“We estimate that each grower has been making a loss of between £400 and £500 per acre,” he said. “If they don't have a good year this year it could be the end of the British cauliflower.”

So how much would that matter?

Well, caulis don't seem to be quite the family favourites now that they were when I was a nipper.

This is partly due, no doubt, to the rise and rise of the competing broccoli. How much, I wonder, is it also a result of the supermarkets' relentless drive for “cheapness” (which they call, outrageously, “value”) at the expense of taste and quality? How many people, used as we have become to frozen food, have forgotten - or, worse, never realised - how tasty fresh cauliflower can be? Or how good for you (apparently, as well as being rich in vitamin C, they're a defence against cancer)?

Of course, it's not all just about cauliflowers.

Organiser Phillip Lowery explains the point of today's cauli funeral: “It's a metaphor for what's happening across the food sector.

“If the supermarkets refuse to pay the right prices, the producers will go out of business. Today cauliflower, tomorrow pigs.”

That's where the matter really does come home to Suffolk in a big way. Imagine Suffolk without pigs.

We're extremely fortunate here to be able to eat high-quality pork and bacon that has been reared locally, out-of-doors, in healthy surroundings. And, while we're at it, to help maintain a few old breeds like the Gloucester old spot and the Essex saddleback.

That's what you're missing out on if you go for pre-packaged so-called “value”.

And in the process you're helping drive pigs, and pig-farmers, to the cliff edge.

At present prices, UK farmers lose about £26 a pig. No wonder 95 per cent of them are said to be thinking of jacking it all in.

The Real Food Festival is at Earls Court in west London from today until Sunday. For more information see www.realfoodfestival.co.uk - and sign the Save the Cauliflower petition while you're there.

CHRISTMAS 1914, the friendly meeting of troops in the no-man's-land between British and German trenches, is one of history's most famous football games. Less well-known is a similar episode of the same war.

A British Tommy, badly injured in a raid, lay groaning between the lines for a full day before a party of his mates crept out in the dark to drag him back to relative safety.

Rather than firing at them, a German officer stood up in his trench to yell: “Carry him!”

Which the relieved soldiers duly did, their way lit by flares sent up for the purpose from the German trench. The next day, the two sides resumed firing at each other.

It's a telling little episode which speaks volumes for the common humanity of the men on both sides - and the uncommon inhumanity of war itself.

It is told by a character in RC Sherriff's Journey's End, playing this week at the Colchester Mercury Theatre.

Though presented as drama, the play is based on letters Sherriff himself sent home from the front in 1916-17. And I don't doubt for a moment that the tale of the rescued Tommy is true.

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