We are less than 60 per cent self sufficient in food production

THE rain came last week and saved the day. Well over half an inch, with showers this last weekend adding to that, and really doing some good. The grass is responding, and I hope it will mean a slightly heavier second cut of silage, and of course more grazing for both the cows and young-stock.

The maize will have benefitted enormously, and at Tillington and Milford the canopy has now closed, as the rows all meet up, which will create the micro climate below, capturing any rain and not allowing it to evaporate so easily.

The rain has certainly freshened things up a great deal, and I hope that now we are into the European monsoon period, the weather will remain unsettled with more rain for at least a while longer.

With Wimbledon and Glastonbury coming up, there is every chance of it raining again. Having behaved itself reasonably well for many weeks, the Anaerobic Digester has run into some quite serious trouble.

The gearboxes on the larger of the two feeders which feed the plant with muck, grass silage and maize silage have broken. This has meant that we only have the small feeder available to us, and we have been running split shifts in order to keep it full of food as it needs loading every five hours or so. It looks as if the gearboxes were installed back to front, running the 90 degree crown wheel and pinion in a direction which it was not designed to take the loading!

We are now into agriculture show season, and I visited the South of England Show last week, at Ardingly. It’s an opportunity to catch up with local farmers, get our message across to the consumer and general public, admire the animals and produce on show, and to talk to politicians who visit.

We had visits from both Caroline Spelman (Secretary of State) and her Labour party shadow Mary Creagh, and we took full advantage of the time with them both to discuss and press home the concerns and fears of local farmers on issues such as bovine TB, supply chains, seasonal workers and so on.

These meetings are always interesting, as they allow local farmers to speak frankly in a private environment, and as we are all at the show, it is less formal and more relaxed.

The WI Conference took place in Liverpool last week, and they decided to throw out their resolution against ‘factory farming’, and not continue with a vote on an issue which is surrounded by myths and misconceptions. It was a clear victory for common sense, but an object lesson in how easily these words are banded about, and how difficult it can be to counter them.

Luckily for us the WI has enough sense to realise that emotional language does not help when dealing with complex issues, and adding pressure to British farmers, whilst the danger of importing even more food, much of it to lower standard, would be a spectacular own goal.

I think for us as a farming industry, the work starts now. The WI motion was countered by a huge effort from NFU members, who attended more than 100 WI branch meetings, to talk about the way we farm, the dangers of the motion, and how we rise to the challenge of feeding an estimated 70 million people in this country by 2030. Investment and technology is going to be a big part of reaching that challenge, which is of course to not only produce more food, but to impact less on the environment and increase animal welfare.

I saw this from the outset as an opportunity to communicate effectively with the WI .We now need to do it with the general public. Given that we are less than 60 per cent self sufficient in food production as a country, and that this is likely to drop to nearer 50 per cent in the future, we must continue to tackle myths about livestock farming, engaging in the debate about how British farming and British farmers can meet the food production challenge.

We must get the message across that we will continue, regardless of scale, to work to world class welfare and environmental standards, delivering a whole range of high quality, affordable food to the British consumer.

Over the last week or so, the importance of good communication has been highlighted in that a BBC survey showed that there is still a majority in this country against a badger cull.

The survey of 1,000 people revealed that two thirds were against, and that the percentages were the same both in town and country. Given that the focus of the questions were on culling badgers rather than tackling the disease, and that there was no scientific background given, I am encouraged that a third of all the people surveyed reacted positively.

It does show how much more we all have to do in order to get the facts and the real message across, but it is moving in the right direction as more and more people realise that this terrible disease cannot be allowed to spread across the rest of the country.

Natural England’s figures have revealed that more land than ever before is now helping to halt the decline in farmland bird population. 375,000 acres of land are now providing vital winter food and wildlife habitats. This is done largely through the environmental stewardship schemes which now involve 57,000 farmers in England. Farmers of course do a lot more for wildlife, which is unrecorded, but benefits everyone.

The recent Natural Environment White paper published by Defra last week is another sign that things are at last getting on the right track.

As farmers we have been bombarded with accusations of environmental degradation over the years, and now at last we see food production taking its rightful place.

It has always been about balance, with farmers reacting in the past to government signals, only to be castigated for damage done as environment took priority over food production once everyone had plentiful supply of top quality affordable food.

Now that we are importing almost half the food we eat in a fast changing and increasingly unstable world, food production matters.

Let’s be clear, This White paper is not about producing less in order to impact less, it’s about producing more while impacting less. 

The food security challenge demands that we produce more; even on this tiny island we need to play our part. The White Paper acknowledges that. It explicitly talks about the Government’s goal of increasing food production.

And it talks about bringing government, industry and environmental players together to work out how we can do that at the same time as improving the environment. That’s a great step forward, and I look forward to being part of it.

As farmers we’re completely reliant on the quality of our soils and plentiful and clean water supplies. If we don’t have those we can’t farm, it’s as simple as that.

But if the recent Foresight Report into food and farming tells us anything it’s that a healthy environment is just one part of the story. Protecting and enhancing it must not be at the expense of food production, and sometimes that will mean difficult trade-offs.