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14 February 2000

Farmers: why you should care

The farming crisis clears the way for more greed and pollution, argues Graham Bowley

By Graham Bowley

“They kick you when you’re down!” my dad, who is a farmer, one of a dying breed, said to me one day this month. He was standing, arms-akimbo, in one of his cowsheds. A new-born calf, covered in slimy afterbirth, lay in the straw at his feet.

He was unhappy because the calf was male, which meant it was worthless. Within a couple of weeks the poor animal would be shot and burnt – that’s what happens on British farms these days, where a crazy sort of economics has taken hold. Because the government says he must, my dad sends two calves to the furnace every week.

This crazy economics is putting farmers out of business. My father was despairing because, after a long struggle, he’s thinking of surrendering to what seems the inevitable by selling up and moving out.

“We can’t go on,” he told me. After 60 years, the family farm, which was started by my grandfather and was to be continued by my brother, will be closed. The animals will be auctioned off and the land probably sold to one of the county’s rich grain barons who seem to be the only ones making farming (or their version of it) pay these days. If we’re lucky, we’d sell it for building. We had one of those gloomy family meetings around the kitchen table in the farmhouse. Down the years, this was where all the decisions about the farm were made; but now we talked about selling.

Sadly, we’re not alone. “There’s going to be an avalanche of farms going bust,” the land agent who had come to assess our fields solemnly predicted.

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The final, fatal blow seems to have been the recent collapse in milk prices paid by the supermarkets and by the big milk processors to which most farmers sell their milk nowadays. Prices have slowly been ratcheted down from 22p a litre a year ago to as low as 15p a litre now.

This is crippling dairy farmers like my father. And the results are not hard to see: take a short trip around farms in our area, the once agriculturally rich Midlands, and you’ll find any number of deserted farmyards, as farmers have sold their cows, or sheep or pigs, and “diversified”, as Tony Blair would have them do, into other pursuits like keeping horses for city-dwellers. These places are like graveyards. The only sound I could hear was the trilling of a horse-rider’s mobile phone.

Elsewhere, the evidence of change is more tragic: one of our neighbours, who was being forced out of his farm by the bankers, went into his barn one morning last summer and shot himself dead with his twelve-bore. He was renting his farm – because they lack assets, tenant farmers are the ones the banks move on first. Now the small, family-owned farms are feeling the hot breath of their bank managers too.

So, it’s tough out there in the countryside. Should the rest of Britain care? After all, haven’t farmers guzzled up zillions of pounds of subsidies over recent decades? If market forces so dictate, shouldn’t they do the decent thing and simply go?

The unmistakeable cry of the countryside is that Britain should truly care. Many farmers believe it’s not straight-forward market forces that are behind their downfall. They believe that they are victims of a wicked abuse of market power by colluding supermarkets and the supermarkets’ middlemen, the big milk and meat processors. They are screaming foul that supermarkets are using muscle to ratchet down the prices of milk and meats paid to farmers. With nowhere else to go – there are only a handful of processors and most small rural cattle markets have closed down – farmers say they’ve had no alternative but to play along.

Anti-supermarket feeling in the countryside is running high, as is anti-government feeling. As they watch the countryside die around them and the nefarious supermarkets take it over, farmers feel abandoned and betrayed by a government many of them suspect would be quite happy to see them go. They are despairing that Blair has balked at his duty to fight the UK countryside’s corner in Europe, especially against the wicked French. That’s why Nick Brown, the agriculture minister, got chocolate eclaired and why Blair was booed on his West Country walkabout.

Maybe the farmers’ plight is inevitable – as is the fate of every sector of the economy from Lancashire weavers to small shopkeepers to coalminers when the powerful forces of capitalism roll over them. Many people, in any case, feel little sympathy for the men and women who, in their view, douse the countryside in herbicides and pesticides, who rip out hedgerows, and embrace GM crops and factory farming.

But even if farmers have no more claim to special protected status than anybody else, what is happening is still a human tragedy. People’s lives are being destroyed. A way of life is coming to an end, and not just for the few per cent of the population who still work the land. Our countryside will change. Not all farmers will go out of business: if the present crisis leads to the triumph of the large-scale, then more hedgerows, not fewer, will be ripped out, more small fields will make way for intensively farmed prairies, herds of cows will become even larger, the pressure on the animals greater. The big will become bigger, the rich richer. Our landscape will die.

My father knows all his cows by name. He cares for them personally. They are his life’s work. He knows their families – their mothers and their sisters. He knows each field. He knows the hundreds of villagers to whose doorsteps for 40 years, until two years ago when it became unprofitable, he delivered bottles of milk every morning. (Some old villagers still ring up, asking where their milk is.)

That intimacy of connection, between a family and the land and the community, will die with the small farm. Is that what we want?

The writer is a former “Financial Times” journalist, now living in Toronto

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