The Three Counties Agricultural Society

It was exactly 400 year ago, in 1606, that the phrase “has-been” first entered the English language. It describes, of course, a person or thing that was once famous, important, admired or good at something, but is no longer any of these.

Well some people would have us believe that farming is a has-been industry. Indeed the only farms some people seem to want to talk about are wind farms.

The result – on top of the real regulatory and financial pressures facing the industry in 2006 – is a damaging lack of self-esteem among farmers who feel themselves under constant attack - from environmentalists, animal rights activists, supermarkets, politicians and government.

Puzzled and confused by conflicting and ever-changing messages and demands, many are feeling angry and isolated.

The hunting ban may not have been the most important issue for the business of farming, but it symbolised what many in the countryside saw as a complete lack of understanding of the rhythms and customs of rural England and Wales. And symbols do matter.

Indeed, one demoralised local farmer sent me a shrewdly written but profoundly satirical “Opinion” piece from the 12th May edition of Farmers’ Weekly, giving a mischievous, fictional but not totally implausible insight into what the government and society really thought about farming.

In it the former DEFRA Secretary of State, Margaret Beckett was quoted as branding farming, “unnecessary, antiquated and deeply unpopular,” and going on to say that, in future “food production will not be tolerated.”

The text of her speech, it was claimed, led the Prime Minister to express surprise that we still produced food at all, and The Daily Mail to praise the initiative to ban farming, asking on its front page, “Will eating British food give you cancer, make you obese and reduce house prices?”

A protest by farmer’s groups in Hyde Park, involving the scattering of seeds, was apparently broken up by the Metropolitan Police, who reassured the public that all the seeds had been removed by experts and the public could now enter the park safely “without any danger of food growing near them.”

My only worry about the letter from the farmer is that I think he actually believed the undelivered speech existed, that the comments had been made, the Daily Mail article had been published and that the events described had taken place. The joke had backfired because it was almost credible.

But we know that farming is no “has-been” industry.

A more affluent country can afford to ask farmers to give a higher priority to environmental issues. There is no harm in that – after all sensible and well-framed environmental policies can only benefit farming, by helping them to do what the vast majority take such pleasure in doing, as they have for so long – caring for the countryside.

But there will be no farmers to adopt sound environmental policies unless they can produce food people want to buy at a price that suits both producer and consumer.

In the past there were large numbers of farms and farm labourers producing food for a diversity of outlets. Now, with the ongoing consolidation of land and herds and a massive reduction in the range of outlets, there may be fewer farms and farmers, but what they do is still of real economic significance.

British agriculture provides much of the raw materials for the rest of the food sector - wholesaling, retailing, manufacturing, and catering. The whole UK agri-food sector was worth £78.2 billion in 2004 – a huge slice of the national economy.

That agri-food sector provided around 3.8 million jobs last year, more than one in seven of all jobs in the UK. Of these 3.8 million jobs, more than half a million were in agriculture itself.

Yes, we can import some of our food. Climate change has not yet made banana or tea plantations viable in the UK, and affluent British consumers foolishly reject the notion of seasonality in favour of year-round availability of fruit and vegetables. But UK self-sufficiency in food is still around 60 per cent for all food, with much higher levels for indigenous food. British agriculture is providing a vast amount of the food and drink consumed by 60 million people.

Perhaps most surprisingly, the food sector that is underpinned by British farming accounts for 15% of the total manufacturing sector and is the single largest manufacturing sector in the UK.

This large British food industry, a crucial part of our nation’s economy, part service, part manufacturing, is and can remain underpinned by British food production by British farmers - but only if farmers respond in a sensitive but business-like way to their opportunities. A globalised world means no one has the automatic right to produce anything. Government and farmers will both have to be fleet of foot if British farming is to prosper as it should.

It’s not just about food. Other markets for British farmers look set to emerge too. Sensible government policies on bio-fuels could steadily expand the market for fuel crops – whether in road vehicles or power stations.

After all, this would only return us to the relatively recent past, when something like a third of all farm land was used for fuel crops – hay and oats for horses.

So the challenge to politicians and ministers is to give heart to farmers and to create the conditions in which they can succeed. Disasters like the mishandling of Foot and Mouth, the incompetence of the Rural Payments Agency and the growing scourge of Bovine TB do nothing to help.

Unnecessary bureaucracy is the enemy of all enterprises, especially farming enterprises. I have so far tactfully avoided any reference to polytunnels but I enjoyed what Jeremy Clarkson wrote about them in the Sunday Times last week when he explained, why, as he put it,

“… farmers have bubble-wrapped the countryside; it’s the only way to survive when you’ve been bubble-wrapped yourself, by a hundred miles of red tape.”

We must trumpet the importance – strategic, economic and yes, environmental, of British farming and give it new heart to face the challenges of the future.

Our three counties have some of the finest food producers in the country – and the countryside they manage for us is magnificent.

So it’s good to report that this year’s show gives us many good reasons to be cheerful.

The cattle entries are twenty per cent up and are now above their pre foot & mouth levels. And the Jerseys are back! The equine entries are 11% up on last year and now stand at twice their pre foot & mouth levels. All told, over 5,000 animals will be exhibited.

I confess to be especially looking forward to Rare Breeds day on Sunday and to seeing the Angora Goats, being judged about now.

Isn’t it good to see county shows like ours growing again as they reflect a changing rural economy?

The Society is also vigorously pursuing its educational and charitable objectives. It now has an education officer and development programmes for teachers from all three counties. That too is reflected at this year’s show, with a science technology marquee in conjunction with the University of Worcester and competitions for schools to get a greater understanding of rural life. Do visit the Black Pear Bistro, run by catering students from the three counties, if you get a chance. It’s another aspect of the society’s educational mission.

Because I believe so passionately that farming is no has-been industry, because I believe British food can remain the underpinning of a vast service and manufacturing industry, because I believe that the needs and achievements of rural England should both be championed, because I believe there need be no unbridgeable divide between town and country, and because the Three Counties Agricultural Society demonstrates so effectively its belief in these things, I regard it as a real privilege to be your President this year.

The next three days give us all a magnificent opportunity to speak up with confidence for British farming and the food it produces.

Thank you – and to all the competitors and exhibitors – good luck!

Back to Speeches