What Farmers REALLY Think…

The driving idea behind Just Farmers is to get more diverse farming voices heard in the mainstream media, because I don’t think we hear from enough individual farmers.

There are the industry representatives – organisations like the National Farmers Union and Soil Association – whose job is to speak with one voice, in unity. They get heard. And there’s a small pool of individuals on Twitter – battle-hardened keyboard warriors – who get annoyed about ‘farmer bashing’ in the media. They get heard because they make lots of noise. And I’m not knocking them. We need those guys.

But I travel around the country talking to one farmer at a time. Quietly. Behind the scenes. Without an audience. And you very quickly realise there is no such thing as a ‘typical farmer’. They are as wonderfully diverse, eclectic and contradictory as the rest of us. In fact, I am yet to meet two farmers who share the exact same philosophy on the biggest challenge of our time: How to Produce Food While Protecting the Environment. They all follow their own path, tailored to their own farm, built around a multitude of personal experiences with the land.

The conversations and debates farmers have among themselves are endlessly fascinating and with a level of practical depth the non-farming public is simply missing out on. The really interesting stuff is just flying over our heads. The amount of times I’ve sat at a farmer’s kitchen table and heard myself saying: “I’ve never thought of it like that before” or, “why don’t I ever hear about that?”

My mission with Just Farmers is to give the general public, and fellow journalists and programme makers, an insight into those conversations and bring these intelligent voices forward, from the grassroots of our countryside.

I have recently started pulling together farmers’ reactions to big stories in the news – things like Brexit and the badger cull. Today, (Monday, October 28th) the British Guild of Agricultural Journalists published the results of its ComRes survey, which questioned more than 2,000 British adults about food and farming post-Brexit. I wanted to share with you some of the responses farmers shared with me. They are all part of my Just Farmers project, which means they speak from the heart and on behalf of themselves – no one else.

P1190813

Richard Heady

Arable, beef and sheep, Buckinghamshire

I find the results very heartening. It’s too easy to presume that the British public are unengaged with where their food comes from and do not appreciate the farmers role in managing the countryside, whereas these results suggest otherwise.

Q1. UK farmers should receive financial support from the taxpayer to ensure a continued supply of food produced by British farmers post-Brexit

Response: I am stunned that the majority of adults believe that we should receive Government payments in return for British food security. Suggesting to me that people value their British food supplies more than I would have ever believed.

Q3: A UK farmer’s primary purpose should be to produce food, rather than carry out environmental work

As more people believe that the main role of the British farmer is food production, this should definitely be the key subject on the Agriculture Bill, whilst not underestimating the value that is put on our environmental work, which should also feature heavily in future bills.

Q5: The Government should ensure all imported food meets the same environmental and animal welfare standards as food produced in the UK

It surely cannot be ignored that 85% (the highest percentage of all featured questions) of people believe that food should not be imported of a quality, environmental or welfare standard lower than what could legally be produced in the UK. I am so pleased that, to a large extent, there is agreement on this and that we can all see the importance of the integrity and clarity in the varying food production standards of imported goods.

Q6: A climate change levy should be charged on food with a higher carbon footprint, with the proceeds spent on encouraging carbon-friendly farming methods

Whilst I am not totally against a carbon levy on goods depending on their production methods, I am very wary that, for instance, all British beef is not produced equal. There would have to be many tiers of levies on beef alone: extensive grass-fed beef will have a very different carbon footprint to intensive indoor rearing based on imported feeds, whilst at the moment they are all sold under the same label on supermarket shelves.

Q7: New plant-breeding technologies, such as genetically modified and gene-edited crops, should be used in the UK to grow food

I find the support for modern plant breeding method such as GM really surprising, especially with greater backing from younger people. There could be some exciting opportunities ahead if decision makers listen to the British public.

Q8: The public has adequate access to the UK countryside in terms of rights of way and footpaths

This suggests to me that although the British countryside has a great network of rights of way, it is not inclusive enough for the urban public. We could do more to welcome urban residents into the countryside and make this network more accessible with free car parks, better signage, marketing and modern technology to guide people through our wonderful countryside.

Q9: I am proud of the British countryside and the rural communities which sustain it

To feel appreciated is a wonderful thing. Too often we can’t hear the positive comments over the noise of discontent.

It gives me great heart to see that the majority of people think that we and our rural communities are taking good care of the British countryside. The countryside is our job, our residence, our food, our drink, our friends and our life. Never undervalued by many farmers like myself.

Richard’s profile: https://www.justfarmers.org/profiles/1090fcb1bdbe15b14514f62951dd66f8

JustFarmersSummer-376Sheena Horner

Chilli grower, Dumfries and Galloway

I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised when I read the survey results. We seem to read nothing but negativity around farming currently. It was therefore heartening to see that the British public supports us, but there is still work to be done by us that produce food. As although the results were supportive there is definitely some areas that we can work harder in especially in educating the general public on our share of profits from the food we produce.

Sheena’s profile: https://www.justfarmers.org/profiles/3dd888e264d74b3b8bd9146215f06d9b

Kate Daniels

Kate Daniels

Smallholder, Worcestershire

These survey results come both as a pleasant surprise and as confirmation of a suspicion I have held for a while.  The questions that relate to British farmers and farming methods suggest an overwhelming majority of the public support our industry. This is far from the impression we get from the British media which seems quite disconnected from mainstream views.

I welcome the opportunity to reform farming subsidies that Brexit presents, but agree strongly with the majority of survey respondents that carefully planned support should be provided to areas of the industry that will be significantly impacted. We cannot afford to lose knowledge and infrastructure that we will need in future, and as such targeted support to (for example) upland sheep farmers, and the marts and abattoirs on which they depend would be a sensible strategic intervention, as would phased withdrawal of subsidies that relate solely to ownership of land.

I am extremely heartened that the survey respondents understand the importance of ensuring a level playing field between UK regulation and import standards and hope that future governments and trade negotiators take note.

The analysis of willingness to pay more for food produced to higher welfare standards is interesting. It’s a complex issue balancing food budgets and ethics when people have a family to feed. My instinct (as founder of an on-farm butchery) is people report more willingness to pay than is borne out by their actual behaviour. It’s about finding a level that people find acceptable.

I hope that more work can be done in this area, finding points of broad consensus that we can build on as we move forward (if we ever do move forward) into a post Brexit world.

Kate’s profile: https://www.justfarmers.org/profiles/25e06cfcd36da19b4c5f165e698d0fa1

P1180081George Young

Arable, Essex

My biggest concern in this survey is this: 46% of 18 to 24-year-olds believe that GM and GE technologies should be used to produce food in the UK. This is an example of an age group who have been led to believe that there is always a quick, scientific fix to a problem. There is a fix, but the necessary fix to reverse climate change is to pursue an ecological farming model – yes, this model will still more than adequately feed the world, even with 10 billion people living on it. Messing with elements of nature we don’t understand to facilitate the prevalence of a broken, unecological system of farming will only aid to speed up the decimation of global ecological systems.  This is turn will lead to the speedier collapse of civilisation as we know it.

George’s profile: https://www.justfarmers.org/profiles/5993b8c080216bc5007d7c86f6c669c1

P1170873 (2)Hefin Jones

Beef, Carmarthenshire, West Wales

Q1. UK farmers should receive financial support from the taxpayer to ensure a continued supply of food produced by British farmers post-Brexit

Response: There needs to be campaigns to educate the public about the advantages of food grown and produced in the UK, and regionally, compared with what might be imported in the event of a no deal Brexit. Product alignment and food miles need to be explained and stressed.

Q2: A UK farmer’s primary purpose should be to produce food, rather than carry out environmental work

Response: As far as I’m concerned, this is a ‘non question’. It’s irresponsible to divorce food production and environmental stewardship. They are intertwined.

Q4: UK farmers receive a fair share of profit made by retailers on the food they produce

Response: This demonstrates the broken relationship between the British population and food. Food production is a livelihood. Farming needs to move away from a position of reliance on support payments, and a fair profit is the lifeblood of businesses.

Q5: I would buy food that I know is produced to lower animal welfare standards if it was cheaper than food produced to a high standard of animal welfare

Response: People need to put this principle into practice when electing representatives. Having your cake and eating it comes to mind, as food, sadly is not a stand-alone commodity in global trade. Keywords are ‘US trade deal’, ‘price at point of purchase’.

Q6: The public has adequate access to the UK countryside in terms of rights of way and footpaths

Response: Public footpaths crossing farmland and farmyards pose a disease threat. There should be wholesale review to ensure they don’t cross farmyards where machinery is operated, and where there are far more vehicular movements than in the past. Livestock worrying, crop damage, and unhindered access to farmyards for potentially criminal activities are concerning issues.

Hefin’s profile: https://www.justfarmers.org/profiles/8fc73618a0aeddb54bfb1cf966f94627

P1190899William Barber

Arable and poultry (broilers), Norfolk

Having read the survey my overwhelming view is that the public are more inclined to say the “right” thing when they are being interviewed by a pollster but then to do the exact opposite when they come to actual reality. For example, although a net 62% might agree that farmers have an important role in generating renewable electricity – you try applying for a wind turbine near their house!!! You will get a very different response. Again, they might say they agree that imported food should have the same standards as UK produced food or say they are prepared to pay more for food produced to higher welfare standards, however, when they are alone with their trolley they simply buy the cheapest. Aldi and Lidl are not expanding because they have wonderful customer service – it is because they are cheap and the other Big 4 are desperately trying to copy them. The most worrying result is that the numbers agreeing and disagreeing regarding gene-editing and GMO are even. Firstly the question is duplicitous as by lumping genetically modified and gene-editing together in the same question it means that the question framer has fallen into the same trap as the media and simply does not understand that these are two very different processes, and worryingly the message from the Daily Mail etc in regarding all such methods as “Frankenstein” foods is registering with the public. I believe gene-editing will allow us to produce enough food for our growing population using less, chemicals, water and other inputs which is ultimately what the public wants and needs.

William’s profile: https://www.justfarmers.org/profiles/645b6bf49546d76f656abab37078d24d

P1170808Charles Goadby

Dairy, Warwickshire

I am proud to be a farmer, of what I do as a British farmer, and the high standards we maintain, be it food production, renewables or our care and guardianship of our countryside and environment.

To me, this survey shows that the British public want our farmers to maintain that high quality of welfare and environmental work that we strive to do. They want farmers to get a fair deal and be encouraged to continue with this, and if anything, improve our standards and efficiency. Farmers are giving the public what they are demanding. We are delivering. Any future post-Brexit government needs to stand side by side with our farmers and our countryside and let US FARMERS continue to deliver. Let us maintain and improve our standards. Give the public what they want and deserve. Let’s not sell ourselves down the river or become a bargaining tool in a political trade deal.

“When a man’s stomach is full it makes no difference whether he is rich or poor”: Euripides.

Charles’ profile:

https://www.justfarmers.org/profiles/55bcdf76d6c5165c0b1cf9f1841d58fc

P1180946Tim Dobson

Goats, Cheshire

Farmers need to look forward to life beyond Brexit.  We can produce food and drink to some of the highest standards in the world, environmental benefits such as public access and carbon friendly farming, green energy from wind and solar. We have the ability to successfully diversify our businesses with a large urban customer base keen to support us.

Farmers need to be fleet of foot in the coming years.  We must run profitable businesses, be prepared to change and not just do what we have always done. Subsidies should not support badly run farms. Poor farms should be allowed to fail.

Farms outside the UK also produce good quality foods to high standards.  Our marketing needs to consist of more than just sticking a Union Jack on the packaging.

The opportunities are there, we need to take them.

Tim’s profile: https://www.justfarmers.org/profiles/aaf8ead65b6bc6f425d86813fe1e68c5

P1180445Robert Thornhill

Dairy, Derbyshire

It is encouraging to see support for the good work agriculture is doing for the UK, both in terms of food production, environmental care and renewable energy production. There are some interesting differences between urban and rural responses on some statements, clearly influenced by proximity to farming and allied businesses. The most interesting statistic for me is the one that shows the younger respondents appear to be slightly more likely to purchase food produced to lower welfare standards if it is cheaper. This may purely be a financial decision rather than being directly concerned with welfare standards, but I would expect a survey to produce a more welfare-friendly response than when actually shopping.

Rob’s profile: https://www.justfarmers.org/profiles/3f30760fe469b6d07ec0d4da4806248a

P1170688Stephen Ware

Poultry and horticulture, Herefordshire

We have no choice but to ride the Brexit wave and wait to see where it washes us up!

This merely adds an additional layer to the already huge levels of risk.

Long term commitments on planting or stocking cannot be rationalised against the fickle politicians, consumers and weather, though the nation still needs to be fed.

Yet as an industry that cannot react quickly to potential upsides of Brexit, we stand the risk of being sold down the river in some hastily negotiated trade agreements.

I always regard surveys with a degree of caution as we need to observe actions rather than words. It is highly encouraging that the sentiment of nation appears to back farming and the countryside but we have yet to see the general public take responsibility for themselves in terms of health and their actions which effect wider issues such as climate.

Fundamentally there is still a huge void between growing and consuming food which is currently filled by corporate intermediaries.

Farmers are great at stoically working hard with great ingenuity in a harsh low margin environment. They respond diligently to political policy and the demands of corporate raiders. The latter could be symptomatic of what farmers do badly, engaging with the consumer. This is easier said than done when you are on your own on Christmas morning struggling to repair a frozen ventilation system, you couldn’t be further away from the public’s consciousness despite feeling that all the effort

justifies higher margins and less interference along the food chain.

Backed into a corner but possibly liberated from the shackles of European agricultural policy, can we as an industry utilise modern communication platforms to establish dialogue and translate the publics convictions into behaviours that suit both needs?

But one certainty remains, this is all hypothetical unless we have a meaningful and supportive long-term view on agricultural policy from the politicians.

Stephen’s profile: https://www.justfarmers.org/profiles/9e1d636484cb9d1728de3c86b05e9fce

 

P1180114Daniel Brown

Free range eggs and arable, Suffolk

I was surprised to see the public broadly agreeing that farmers should continue to be subsidised. I would have thought that the public would be less sympathetic than that, though it may have helped that the question was slightly loaded in implying that food could run short without subsidies?

I’m pleased to see how positive the responses were especially on the question of imported foods meeting our standards. But will the public follow through with their good intentions when retailers present food of a lower standard at an attractive price? I think this would need to be enshrined in law rather than relying on the goodwill of retailers and the public. I think the response to the last question is a case of saying what they think they should say, rather than what they will do!

But overall a very encouraging set of results, reflecting the public’s appreciation of the hard work farmers put in to balance environmental responsibility, producing food and hopefully making a profit.

Daniel’s profile: https://www.justfarmers.org/profiles/85e8e88139e2ca7ed652c87649afe934

P1170598Fraser Jones

Dairy, Powys, Mid-Wales

Overall, I felt the results of the survey were very predictable, but I am always cautious when reading survey results as I don’t believe they are that robust. What people say when being surveyed and what the reality is are two completely different things, although I do believe that generally the British public are supportive of farmers as the results show.

I think farmers are failing in educating the public on what we do and how we produce food and it annoys me that we don’t do more to educate people in the inner cities and towns rather than constantly preaching to the mostly converted in the rural areas.

To me as a farmer I think we should produce as much as we can in the most efficient way whilst working to enhance the environment which can easily go hand in hand.

Regarding subsidies it’s important that the public realise subsidies are allowing cheap food for the consumer so actually the farm subsidies are an indirect subsidy for the end consumers. For me I would rather see a proper price for the food we produce and the high standards we work to that enhances the environment and welfare and scrap the subsidies. The public have become too reliant on cheap food and as a % of their weekly income it has continually gone down and the cost of producing it has gone up, which is leaving an unsustainable model going forward.

Fraser’s profile: https://www.justfarmers.org/profiles/973565317e00c88e711abb95eb5a9908

P1180641 (4)Mark Bowyer

Fresh produce (herbs and leafy salads), Surrey

A few thoughts, mostly my own, but from a fresh produce perspective:

  • UK food is the 4th cheapest (in terms of % of spending) in the world, and significantly cheaper than European.
  • The UK is around 63% self-sufficient in terms of food security. I believe a large amount of this is because of desire to import something that is ‘out of season’ or not suitable to be grown in the UK.
  • The UK will be capable of feeding its own people post-Brexit, but the price of food may have to increase, and the seasonality and range of products may also be reduced.
  • A modest increase in food price would make a significant impact on the need for subsidies in the fresh produce sector.
  • This increase in profitability could create environmental pressures which would have to be addressed.
  • Support to help businesses change would probably be as beneficial as subsidies.
  • Access to new technology (GM, robotics etc) should be able to drive the efficiencies to help replace the loss of ‘cheap labour’.
  • Industry support will be crucial to maintain the ‘British food’ standards, in terms of welfare and perceived quality.
  • UK agriculture has a key role in combating climate change and leading in research and technologies. However, what can be done at home will not have an impact on the global effects of climate change. It can, however, be the pioneer to develop techniques that could reduce CO2 emissions whilst still feeding a growing worldwide population.

Mark’s profile: https://www.justfarmers.org/profiles/8390365bc14cdbddfd48188035e9940c

P1180732Patrick Twigger

Pigs and arable, Somerset

Q1. UK farmers should receive financial support from the taxpayer to ensure a continued supply of food produced by British farmers post-Brexit

Subsidies are difficult to justify when making profits.

Q2: Farmers have an important role to play in generating renewable electricity from technologies such as wind turbines and solar panels

Solar panels are playing in important part in farm income, but why is there such hate when an application comes up? Claims that “we (the farmer) have ruined their land”?

Q3: A UK farmer’s primary purpose should be to produce food, rather than carry out environmental work

Produce food or weeds? Growing weeds in an approved scheme guarantees money. But is a 5 to 10 year option long enough to have the desired benefits?

Q4: UK farmers receive a fair share of profit made by retailers on the food they produce

The shopper could put more pressure on retailers to pay a larger proportion to UK produce and less to imports.

Q5: The Government should ensure all imported food meets the same environmental and animal welfare standards as food produced in the UK

Same standards are vital! At the moment we cannot stop some imports under the free movement of goods policy from the EU.

Q6: A climate change levy should be charged on food with a higher carbon footprint, with the proceeds spent on encouraging carbon-friendly farming methods

What number is too high? Some high value crops may not be grown as controlled environment farming could be “priced out”.

Q7: New plant-breeding technologies, such as genetically modified and gene-edited crops, should be used in the UK to grow food

GM must be good if crops could be grown with less fertiliser or water.

Q10: I would buy food that I know is produced to lower animal welfare standards if it was cheaper than food produced to a high standard of animal welfare

People say lower welfare standards should not be purchased, but when there are extra points, supermarket promotions etc then less money spent always wins over welfare.

Patrick’s profile: https://www.justfarmers.org/profiles/1a9554bf9fce61ae48edbd9c9a88103c

P1190167 (2)Sarah James

Free range eggs and beef, Powys, Mid Wales

I think overall this report is very positive for the industry and the general support for themes of the responses bode well for attitudes of consumers. But I hope this in turn will be reflected in the purse when they are shopping?!

The two questions that puzzle and intrigue me the most are those to do with payment and profit share. I wonder if these questions had been delivered in a slightly different way, with different words for ‘financial support’ and ‘share of profit’, the consumer would have come out with a different result? With 62% agreeing we should be supported but only 24% agreeing that we shouldn’t have a share of the profit (this should have been phrased as consistent price or fair price) seems to be a bit of a contradiction, and highlights to me the lack of understanding as to why farmers receive the payment.

The responses to the question should have equated to the consumer wanting us to have a fair price and not need a financial support payment. In my personal opinion this is what most farming businesses would actually prefer.

Sarah’s profile: https://www.justfarmers.org/profiles/751529cb8a90fd65560d5ddca89b660b

JustFarmersSummer-272Ben Mead

Beef (organic and biodynamic), Cornwall.

Surveys are the slacker journalist’s equivalent of highly processed food. Enticingly packaged. Gas flushed. Fatuous. Unsatisfying. Junk.

 Yes, it’s lovely to gather that the great British public generally give us British farmers the thumbs up. Best not to bite the hand that feeds us too hard, eh? Hang on, wasn’t the referendum that launched all this Brexit chaos essentially an Agree/Disagree survey? Look where that got us.  

Have we not slept-walked into a bland, dumbed-down food and newscape? We consume more and more of both, yet data suggests our minds and bodies are increasingly malnourished from all this clutter. Aren’t these the questions we should be asking? Agree or Disagree?

Ben’s profile: https://www.justfarmers.org/profiles/0824122440ca64b6c31e5dc835861da8

 

See? I told you they’d speak from the heart 😉

ENDS//

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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