Farmers don't want your sympathy – they want your support, says Norfolk farmer Kit Papworth
PUBLISHED: 06:00 15 August 2018 | UPDATED: 08:06 15 August 2018
In response to last week’s opinion column about whether people should feel sorry for farmers, Norfolk farmer KIT PAPWORTH says his industry wants consumer support, not public sympathy.
I have never met a farmer who wanted to be felt sorry for. No one does.
I am proud of the industry I work in and mostly we produce good quality food which is safe, nutritious, traceable and affordable.
In his opinion column last week, James Marston suggested that it was time we stopped feeling sorry for farmers, and that farmers should stop our “outstretched hand pleading for help”. I don’t think anyone does feel sorry for us as an industry.
If you do, then there is no need. Please sympathise with us when the weather plays its hand against us, like the record snowfall in March and drought in June and July, and thank us when we pull you from a snow drift or clear your road or just provide some produce for the harvest service, cut the dangerous hedges in the village or top the village green for the fete.
All of this is done because we are part of the community – the mostly rural community in which we and our friends, colleagues, families, staff, suppliers, neighbours and customers live and work. We mostly expect no payment for this.
We can only do this if farming is fundamentally profitable. If we cannot sell the food we produce for more than it costs us then these things cannot be done. Neither can leaving field margins, fallow fields, uncultivated headlands and wildflower meadows. Because that would be like asking a factory to leave a line not running or a supermarket with an empty aisle.
Occasionally, the weather events are so extreme that we may need legislative help, such as irrigation or slurry spreading derogations.
The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was set up after the war to ensure that Europe had a reliable supply of cheap food. It did that so effectively that these days we are moving away from direct support for farmers for payment to farmers for providing “public money for public goods”.
Many farmers are already in countryside stewardship schemes for which they accept money, not for producing food, but for delivering environmental benefit instead. This enhances the environment, improves habitats and prevents pollution. Arguably this is reversing the damage done in ignorance in the rush to produce cheaper food.
That cheap food has been a direct result of the CAP is undeniable. Food represents a smaller proportion of our weekly shopping basket than ever before and we import 40% of the food we eat, much of it from the EU.
In order for farms to be consistently profitable in a post-Brexit era, food prices will need to rise or financial support for farmers will need to continue at present levels. That is because the farming industry annually only makes as much money as the support it receives.
Without support from government, many farms would be bankrupt. Politicians do not appear be prepared to lose control of food production and the rules that surround it and are not prepared to let the industry restructure radically in a short, sharp shock.
There is precedent here. The New Zealand government stopped support for their farmers in 1984. Land values plummeted, thousands of animals were killed, and many farmers took their own lives. I have no wish to see a return to direct support and strongly believe that we need to run a farm as a business, but the reality is that many farms cannot survive without support.
And that support is spent within the local economy, in wages, retailers and suppliers and other local businesses, keeping the wheels of the rural economy turning.
So please don’t feel sorry for farmers. Support us by buying British produce wherever you buy your food. Take the opportunity to visit a farm and see the amazing work being done to enhance the environment and produce world class food.
Remember that when you are a little inconvenienced by snow or rain or a heatwave, that weather is affecting every farm business. Every single day.
n Kit Papworth is a director of L F Papworth, a contract farming company based at Felmingham, near North Walsham.