Tomorrow, like every Friday, I will receive my regular Farmers Weekly through the post. Occasionally I get the time to read it cover to cover. Sometimes it takes me a couple of days. Mostly however I will dip in and out of the pages (as I do with other magazines and papers) as the week goes on. Farmers Weekly is generally regarded as the go to publication for the farming community (often the only one farmers will actually read). It contains information about rural and farming news, views, crop and livestock reports, price analyses and machinery and land sales. Founded in 1934, when a copy set you back just 2d, its circulation has dropped in number since its early days, but is still an important platform for voices in agriculture.
One of those voices is that of its current editor, Philip Clarke. Recently, and understandably, the editorial has been fixated on the implications of Brexit. It seems that every think tank or relevant NGO you can think of is publishing a report outlining its perspective on the future of agriculture and land management in the UK. Defra secretary Michael Gove has seemed to play to the interests of both the so-called ‘green’ NGOs and the farming community, although perhaps more the former, or at least that is what Farmers Weekly seems to think. In last week’s issue of FW Philip Clarke stated that ‘the time has come for farmers to speak up’. Agriculture makes a significant contribution to rural life, and indeed directly (but mostly indirectly) to the wider economy. Clarke suggested to his readers that they need to personally pressure their MPs by writing letters and emails and visiting them during their surgery hours, giving their own views of how farming and the environment might benefit in the future if certain reforms were made. What do farmers need and want to be able to farm better and conserve the British landscape for the future? A new agriculture bill could be on the table as soon as the end of this year and the discussions that civil servants and politicians are having now and over the next few months will influence the content and shape of that bill.
Personally I am glad that the sounds Gove has been making so far would suggest a greener direction to a future British agricultural policy, but this must not come at the expense of holding back productivity and rural entrepreneurship. Further it must be relevant to local places and not have a one size fits all approach. It must also not encourage even more red tape, which seems to come hand in hand with environmental schemes. It is perfectly possible, as many organic farmers have shown, to be a rural entrepreneur and care for the environment. The voices of these farmers and others, who are highly successful in all areas of their work need to be heard.
Representative membership organisations need to continue to raise their voices and agri-journalists should also demonstrate responsible journalism and keep the issues in the spotlight. The content on tomorrow’s FW will no doubt be on the lips of many farmers next week. However, it obviously helps if farmers’ voices come from farmers directly. In reality, especially at this time of year, it might be difficult for large numbers of farmers to contact their MPs, but we are at a time when it is vital they do. Despite the great efforts of farmers on social media, some of whom have huge followings, as well as social media campaigns such as the current #Farm24 campaign, this is probably not enough. Farmers, and not just the usual suspects, need to speak to politicians directly.
Whatever policy is created is going to be complicated; by its very nature, farming and the environment are complex entities. However, it mustn’t be one-sided. Farmers are going to be the people who implement it and live at the front line of the decisions taken by policy makers in the next couple of years. Without a farming voice from farmers, the policy is less likely to take their views into account. The result will be years of bemoaning a policy that isn’t fit for purpose. We will be much better off if farmers agree with the direction of policy in the first place.