Storm Ophelia recently reminded people of how fragile our modern way of life is. Take away our electricity and gone is our entertainment; as batteries run dry our communications crumble; and even hot water for tea becomes scarce. Of course, many have faced real difficulties but too few will appreciate just how fraught it is to be faced with having to water, feed and milk farm animals.
Farming is a tough profession to follow, one that falls to those with a calling and a love of the land. But still one wonders, just why do farmers do it when the rewards nowadays offer meagre recompense for the farmer’s efforts?
My memories of farming go back to when I was three. I spent my summer days in the farm lorry carting grain or in the Landrover checking our International TD crawler drivers contract ploughing around the neighbourhood. They are remembered as halcyon days? As I now look back I appreciate that farmers were better rewarded then; it was an era when people knew who fed them during the Second War and then, post-war, ensured that they again became well-fed. How times have changed.
Later, the 80’s were about joining the 10-tonne club. It was a time when it was all about yields per hectare and per head. It was an era when farmers adopted technology with alacrity. It was about and adding yet more input so long as the extra yield outweighed the unit cost.
I noticed early in my farming career, courtesy of those same crawler drivers, that we had started to isolate our decision-making from the soils. They were becoming no more than a ‘growing medium’ as plant growth became all about chemistry and the feeding of crops with ‘artificials’. It was also about the time when the soil scientist became extinct. As with our domestic cookery, everything be it plant or animas was being fed out of a bag, can or bottle.
In the 90s as a farm business economist, I began to clearly see how more per hectare or head was causing a decline in the real price of agricultural commodities. It was about two percent per annum and it mirrored a similar increase in ‘productivity’; farmers were producing more and being paid less. They were being a little too successful at feeding a population, growing as it was.
As output prices fell, farmers produced yet more. They adopted more technology to do so. Farm incomes were in decline but it was the start of the happy times for those who supplied farm inputs.
At the other end of the supply chain, we were witnessing the rise of the supermarkets. Faced with abundance, the power was with their buyers. As early as 25 years ago we were warning farmers that they needed to become more market focused but, alas, they chose to grow yet more. It was easier to focus within one’s own farm gate and to leave the adding of value and the retailing to others. A few farmer-owned entities around Europe managed to hold their own but the 1990s and the Noughties saw farmers lose their power within the supply chains. The lucky farmers were those who had visionary representation and leadership but it was unfortunately all too rare.
As farming lost its influence within the food supply chain, it became noticeable that few outside of farming were interested in farming as an investment. Those in the finance world knew a long-term price decline when they saw it. Farming was the sunset industry as the dot-coms emerged. Property also offered far simpler, faster and greater returns.
It took the combination of a rare upturn in food prices combined with the global property price collapse in the late Noughties to change the City’s perception of agriculture. The finance world first, unfortunately, chose to dabble big time in sovereign bonds but they eventually cottoned on that food was the new gold, nobody was making any more land and the global population was going to grow ever greater.
Did these new investors in food production even understand ‘farming’ as they brought an over-simplified approach to the business. It was about acquiring land for its inevitable capital gain, using simple, near-to-mono-culture farming systems and parachuting in the knowledge required. The human resources needed were abundant, albeit that they might have to migrate, and, frankly, nobody needed much training; after all peasants are farmers so there cannot be much to it.
Hence, we are now at a point where little trading power lies with the family farm. It is about corporate profits before and after the farm gate and from ‘industrial agriculture’. The ‘family farmer’ has been reduced to be a minion to serve others; squeezed at either end and out-competed by the scale of ‘industrial agriculture’. It is becoming evident that the latter rarely pays the full cost of the resources it uses or for the externalities that it creates, but that is a story for another day.
Farmers have chased their tails for decades to provide an abundance and, consequentially, seen themselves become of little concern to an increasingly corpulent food consumer. And the consumers who do care where their food comes from have moved on to issues like food production’s environmental footprint. And one could even suggest that animal welfare is now of greater importance than the welfare of those who labour to produce our food.
Far from being appreciated for working through the toughest of conditions to feed an increasingly urban population, farmers are viewed as those who are destroying our environment. For years they have strove to produce more; albeit few of us ever appreciated the full extent of the externalities that would come with doing so. Mitigating them is now our greatest farming challenge. Just how many among our C21st population realize that without the farmers’ successes, they would still be spending a large proportion of their income on food? It was this that allowed the consumption boom, the growth in property markets and the rise in living standards. In contrast, the farmer who started off driving the band wagon, was relegated to the back seat and then thrown in the boot as others realized that there was money to be made from food; it was just not to reward the farmer.
For how much longer will we find volunteers to provide the farming cog for our food systems? Nowadays, others derive the rewards from what the farmer produces; albeit they still expect the farmer to provide so much of the supply-chain’s capital. The pressures on farming are such that the industry’s demographics are increasingly fragile. Can family farming, a model that has served us well for centuries, be fully replaced by a corporate-owned industrial agriculture that places profits first?
Will industrial agriculture ever even produce the required profits in marginal regions and where property ownership rebuffs its scaling up? Will businesses monitored by accountants, managed by executives and staffed by the less willing to deliver a resilient food system through thick and thin? Will it ever be dynamic and innovative enough to address the challenges ahead of us, not least when the industrialization of agriculture is at the core of many of the problems we face? I think not.
To lose family farming is to break the vital link between food production and the farmers love of the land, their animals and their way of life? Ultimately, the foundation of a resilient food system are resilient people who are willing to face up to whatever challenges are thrown at them; and there will be many, be they climatic or otherwise. Although we may be told that it is the agri-food industry that feeds the world, it does not, feeding the world will remain the bailiwick of the farming family which is connected to its own land. To think otherwise is folly.