What do rural communities think about East Anglia’s farming industry?

Shoppers looking at vegetables on display at a farm shop. Photo: Chris Radburn/PA Wire

Shoppers looking at vegetables on display at a farm shop. Photo: Chris Radburn/PA Wire - Credit: PA

A detailed snapshot of the rural community's concerns and questions about the farming industry emerged from a village forum designed to improve the public's understanding of agriculture.

Farmers faced questions from an inquiring 70-strong audience at the Old School Hall in Fulmodeston, near Fakenham, at a meeting organised by the Barney, Fulmodeston and Thursford Food Production Club.

The panel included: William Runciman (WR) of Croxton Farm, Fulmodeston, a family farm with arable crops and beef cattle; William Hepworth-Smith (WHS), manager of Lord Hastings' organic enterprise at Grange Farm in Barney; Victoria Cushing (VC) of Brook Hill Farm, Thursford, which includes an intensive pig unit; and Tom Dye (TD) of Green Farm, Saxlingham, who, as managing director of Albanwise Farming, is responsible for the management of nearly 20,000 acres of arable land in Norfolk and Yorkshire.

Q: Farm workers are working such long hours that they don't see their families. I know of one farm where seven out of the 10 tractor drivers are divorced. Are we losing these young men to these long shifts?

VC: As a farmer's wife I can say it is very hard and farmers do work long hours, but it does depend on the time of year. If you marry a farmer you do marry that life and your are naive if you think it is going to be anything other than unpredictable.

WHS: Anyone who gets into this industry needs to know that this is what it is. It is full-on, 12 hours a day minimum through busy periods, seven days a week, and they have got to go into it with their eyes open. That does not make it right, but that is where we are.

Q: Why can't you have more people working on farms?

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TD: Social impact on our staff is something that worries me on a daily basis. We work to roughly one man per 1,000 acres, and there are seasonal work patterns that we have to manage. Being exposed to global commodity prices means a continual downward pressure on price and, if we want to be sustainable business, it is the cost of production that needs to come down.

It is not just labour. Every aspect has to be looked at with close scrutiny. The economics of the job mean that we have to be as frugal as we can.

Q: You talk about the economy but, as farmers who claim to look after the countryside, what you are doing is looking after your own pockets as you are driven by a bank manager rather than the ethics of the countryside. Can you honestly say that you are supporting the countryside and the people who are living in it?

VC: I like the idea of everyone in the village working on the farm, but nowadays we just don't need that level of people with the machinery we have and the way it is run. We are a small family farm, and I probably do 40 or 50 invoices every month for companies based around Fakenham. Although we look like a small farmer that's 40 or 50 local business who we are spending money with us. To say farmers don't really look after the countryside is so absolutely wrong of 95pc of farmers, because they love their land and they know where the barn owls are and when the cowslips come out. They know every inch of their land and to say they don't get out to support the countryside is wrong. It is a managed landscape, and farmers do care about what they do.

Q: I keep reading that pig farmers are losing £10 per pig, but where I live there are thousands of them. Has someone got it wrong?

WHS: The agricultural industry is known for its peaks and troughs, no matter what commodity you deal in. Pigs are not subsidised and you will have two years of boom and 18 months of bust. When you get boom you save, and when you get bust you have to hunker down and get through it.

WR: As a director of a livestock marketing company, for the last two or three years not one of those pigs has made a profit. It is just a case of minimising losses. They are just sucking capital out of the business every day.

Q We, the public, need food to eat, and you produce that food. You appear to have the whip hand, so why can't you get a better deal from the retailers?

TD: If you look at a global map and then look at England we are just a pencil point, and we are trading with global commodities. One single negotiating voice against multinationals will not be able to convince them on price. They will just go and buy it from Argentina or China.

Q: We have heard a lot about globalisation and the supermarkets dictating the prices. So do you think we as consumers should be educated more about how we as a country produce our food, so we can make more educated choices?

TD: The typical population would not be aware of the standards applied in growing their food. So how do we get to those urban populations? There is the NFU, CLA and the Tenant Farmers Association. They should be getting together with the RSPB and RSPCA if you want to educate the people who are going to buy your products en masse. We pay our levies to lots of different people – so why not combine those levies and buy some TV advertising? That is the best way to influence people.

WHS: We like to have lots of schoolchildren round. We sent letters to 40 schools asking them if they wanted to come and have a tractor and trailer ride, and look at the animals. We had four responses. I am not blaming the schools. They have got financial constraints and the biggest one is transport.

Q: We've heard a lot about commodity-driven commercial agro-chemical farming, but would an organic eco-agricultural system be a better way of feeding the world?

TD: I think there are a huge amount of positives to come from organic methods of production. There are some very, very good cultural methods from which the conventional farmers could learn. But I don't believe that eco-friendly organic production on its own is the answer to feeding the world. But I question all the time whether outright conventional farming is the answer to all our prayers, because it costs a lot of money.

WHS: I would never knock a conventional farmer for doing what they do. Post-war, the whole farming industry has been driven towards increasing production. Could we feed the world with organic farming? I think we could, with a lot of thought. Food waste is horrendous in this country, and we need to cut out that wastage.

WR: I don't think we could feed the world organically. But we have made massive efforts to reduce the amount of agro-chemicals we use. We have reduced the volume, and the number of active ingredients, and the training of the people using them has improved no end. I prefer not to make a difference between conventional and organic, when they are all moving closer together.

Q: With so many crops being grown for biofuels, is it OK to use premium quality land to grow materials for energy?

TD: There is no right or wrong answer to what provides our energy. The shorter term view is that it is a commercial and economic decision. It is a case of who will spend the most for what we are growing. But as a member of the public I do wonder when one of the stronger politicians will wake up to this moral debate of food versus fuel.

Q: Do you see a role for GM crops in the UK?

TD: I don't have a view either way. I would like to think we could use it as a tool in the box, but we have got enough oversupply in the market at the moment. There are other parts of the world that could use GM quite valuably for disease tolerance or insect resistance. I wish that we had science as the answer to that question, but the problem is that it is the green lobby and rhetoric that close the debate, and not science.

WR: Man has been genetically-modifying plants since the beginning of time. And there are lots of places where genetic modification has been used. They are using marker genes all the time which are very closely related to GM. As a farmer, if you want to be a GM country, I am quite happy to produce GM crops for you.

WHS: I don't think it is a great idea in the UK. I'm uneasy with it. Nature has a way of catching you out. If you create a plant that is resistant to rust, the rust might go somewhere else. I just find it all a bit scary and I don't think there is any need for it.

Q: Do you think farmers are better off in or out of the EU?

TD: As a member of the public, and as a farmer, we have not got enough information to make a proper decision yet. Ask any of the two politicians in Defra who are at loggerheads with each other, and you won't get a simple answer. As a member of the public I am not ready to make decision, but as a member of the farming community I am just about off the fence that we should stay in.

WHS: No-one really knows the implications of coming out of Europe. I cannot help but think that if someone in Belgium wants to buy something we produce in the UK, then they will buy it. When the EU was set up, it was set up as a trade agreement. It was not there to control what we did. That is my biggest bug-bear, that we have capitulated to so much EU rubbish.

Our support might stop, and perhaps the consumer would have to pay a bit more for their food. I don't know enough to say whether we will be better or worse off but, either way, I would come out tomorrow.