On more than fifty of my rural visits, ranging from the Isles of Scilly to the Isle of Islay, via Wales, Cumbria, Thurso and the Cotswolds, and many points in between, the issues arising from falling commodity prices, rising input costs and a strong pound have been a constant refrain, as have worries over the possibility of delays to farm payments.
There is no question in my mind that farming and rural communities are under immense pressure, to an extent perhaps unprecedented in my lifetime. In a fast moving, global economy, no sector can be immune to rapid changes, whether good or bad, but it is all too easy to overlook, or perhaps merely to forget, just how much we depend on our family farmers, and the extent to which their fortunes and those of rural communities are directly linked. England alone, for instance, has almost half a million registered rural businesses, with a turnover of £369 billion. Across the UK, the farming and food sectors employ 3.5 million people.
Despite these huge numbers, it is clear to me that the rural economy is largely invisible to many people. So it is perhaps worth spelling out, especially to those who – whether by choice or necessity – live largely urban lifestyles, that we rely on farmers to make a huge contribution to our nation’s food security, environment and prosperity. And in all three respects we live in an increasingly uncertain world. That is why we need to do everything we can to keep our farmers farming, and our agricultural land in good, productive and environmentally-friendly condition. There is simply too much at stake to do anything else.
The problem, of course, is that the most pressing issues facing our farmers are global in nature. So policy-based solutions are hard to find and harder still to implement. That is why it is so important to engage the power of consumers. On a sufficient scale the purchasing decisions of individuals can and do change markets.
Those of us who care enough about the grave situation facing our farmers and rural communities really can help by buying British food whenever we can. In doing so, we are also more likely to be getting fresh, high quality produce from a known and trusted source, offering good value for money. It seems to me that the key is to make it as easy as possible for people to know when they are buying British – and why that is a good choice. So labelling is important, as indeed it is when looking at ingredients. We often look for the good things that have been put in, rather than the bad things that have been left out, such as cereal fillers, salt and artificial colouring and flavours.
There is also a huge amount that can be done to help farmers, both individually and collectively, to succeed in these difficult times. My Prince’s Countryside Fund has distributed more than £6 million in grants and emergency funding in its first five years, benefitting more than 160,000 people living and working in the rural areas of this country. In rural communities our funding has supported local transport schemes and village pubs, developed business units and set up village shops. To help find the 60,000 new entrants who will be needed to sustain agriculture over the next decade, we have offered training and apprenticeship programmes and given more than 18,000 children access to farms and the chance to learn about farming in schools. There have also been numerous grants to help improve the viability of farming in areas which have been facing particular difficulty, such as those in the Somerset Moors and Levels which have been hit so badly by flooding.
A challenge which is of increasing interest to The Fund is improving digital and IT skills. This is an uncomfortable area for many, and it is no surprise that a third of rural businesses lack even basic online skills. This, together with the continued lack of rural connectivity in some areas, can place them at a significant disadvantage. To give just one example, a grant from The Fund has enabled the Tinder Foundation to establish six Digital Advice Hubs, delivering one-to-one training and advice to 240 rural businesses – building both skills and the all-important confidence to use them.
The Fund also manages my Dairy Initiative, in partnership with the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, to take practical action to improve the resilience of the UK’s dairy supply chain. Any traditional family dairy farmer with a milk herd of less than 200 cows and operating on standard contract terms can join. The programme involves benchmarking of farm production costs, knowledge-sharing through a local network and participation in a range of technical workshops, including a course with the intriguing title of ‘Managing Your Bank Manager’, which for some reason seems to be very popular!
My most recent experience of the Initiative came in September when I visited Wensleydale Creamery, at Hawes in West Yorkshire, which employs 230 people and supports 45 local dairy farmers. This business is the lifeblood of the local community, providing £11 million a year to the local economy. The cheeses are all handmade using local milk from cows grazing on the limestone pasture of the Dales, and they are simply delicious!
I much enjoyed meeting a number of farmers who have been involved with the Dairy Initiative and hearing from them about the range of ways in which it has helped them to be more competitive in the current environment. It was clear that the practical assistance provided by the Initiative is important, but also that the less tangible benefits can make a real difference, such as the ability to develop and extend networks, increasing confidence and bringing a shared sense of optimism in difficult times.
This Initiative is now in its fourth year and the positive feedback I heard in Wensleydale has been matched across the country, with the vast majority of the two hundred farmers involved saying that they have implemented positive changes on their farms as a result. Operating in six regions, the plan now is to try and reach a further one hundred dairy farmers in the next year.
Of course, it isn't just dairy farmers who are in real difficulties at the moment. This is why I asked The Prince’s Countryside Fund to convene a summit of farming help charities, and others in the agricultural sector, at Chatsworth, in Derbyshire, three weeks ago in order to identify the scale of the cash crisis that could hit farm businesses this Winter if farm payments are delayed, on top of the knock-on effect of the drop in commodity prices. We had an interesting discussion and collectively agreed to do more to support the critical frontline work of the four main charities. I am also pleased to say that my Fund will shortly be announcing a new programme, along the lines of my Dairy Initiative, to provide similar support for sheep and beef farmers as well.
I make no apology for seeking to target my own support particularly at small farm businesses. They seem to me to be especially deserving for a number of reasons, not least because they are often family businesses, with all that that means for continuity through the generations, and for the diverse contributions they make to the rural communities of which they are such an important part.
Regardless of which member or members of the family are actively involved in running the farm, their husbands, wives, partners and children help to keep alive schools, shops, pubs, transport, local entertainment, charities and all the other services that rural society needs if it is to thrive. This is especially the case in the so-called Less Favoured Areas and in our National Parks, where the intimate relationship between family farms and everything that maintains the life, backbone and culture of fragile rural communities is a factor that I believe we cannot afford to ignore. To me, this social and cultural dimension of our countryside is as precious as the physical landscape, and currently under even greater threat. This is why I am so keen that all of us who know and love the countryside should take every opportunity to explain the full contribution that family farms make to rural society, whether through school visits, community talks or, indeed, articles such as this, and before it is too late.
More pragmatically, it is also worth noting that unlike the larger, more impersonal enterprises, small farms tend to be the repositories of vital genetic diversity through the breeding of pedigree and native breeds of livestock, and heritage varieties of vegetables, cereals and fruit. So, however ‘efficient’ it may seem, is it really sensible to rely on very small numbers of huge, industrial scale farms, dairies, abattoirs etc. to service vast areas of the country? The old adage of not putting all your eggs in one basket still seems to me to have a lot to recommend it.
There is also, I believe, a sound argument that operating at a smaller and more human scale can bring benefits to the environment, helping to maintain both wildlife and the diverse and distinctive landscapes for which this country is rightly renowned around the world.
I recognise that, inevitably, these are not arguments with which everyone would agree. Indeed, I know many people who would most fundamentally disagree, citing scale, efficiency and competitiveness on world markets to support their case. So I am pleased to say that the University of Exeter has agreed to undertake a piece of research looking in detail at the consequences of not supporting small farms. They will look at the extent and pace of change in the number of small farm businesses, explore the consequences on food production, the rural economy and the countryside if these businesses are not helped to remain viable, and assess the role these smaller farms might play in responding to contemporary challenges. I shall be fascinated to see what this research shows, as I am sure will many others – on all sides of the debate.
Another research programme with which I am involved is already paying dividends and has just been expanded. The Duchy Originals Future Farming Programme is funded by my Charitable Foundation with the Soil Association, Organic Research Centre and Waitrose as partners. It aims to help British farmers identify and adopt practices that improve their productivity in an environmentally sustainable way and without the use of increasingly toxic chemicals, pesticides and herbicides. More than 35 different trials are under way, involving more than 750 farmers and growers, looking at a wide range of topics – ranging from blight-resistant potato varieties to sea water-based plant nutrients, reducing antibiotic use in dairy farming and better control of creeping thistle. This whole programme is made possible through the use of some of the proceeds from the sale of my Duchy Originals brand.
The plan now is to extend this work, under the title of ‘Innovative Farmers’. I am pleased to say that LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming) and Innovation in Agriculture will work with the original partners to make this a reality. Of course, not all of the ideas being tested will work, but providing a framework within which farmers can explore sustainable solutions with their peers, while working with some of the country's top research teams, including Rothamsted Research, Aberystwyth University and Harper Adams, is an exciting opportunity.
The role of science in working with Nature to improve the lot of our farmers in these difficult times is hugely important and I have high hopes for these various initiatives, but at the same time I think we need to be careful not to lose sight of the timeless, cultural dimension to farming – which, of course, provides us with the most interesting and diverse range of regional food – not to mention the long term vitality of rural communities.
In April I visited the Rheged Centre in Penrith and saw a remarkable exhibition of photographs by Ian Lawson entitled ‘Herdwick: A Portrait of Lakeland’. Apart from taking some extraordinarily evocative photographs of this Cumbrian breed of sheep and their shepherds, Ian said this: ‘In a technological age, the life of a Herdwick shepherd can seem anachronistic, but five years spent observing these men and women at work has taught me that this is not so. Theirs is not a life lived out of time, but rather one deeply attuned to the rhythms underpinning our very existence on this planet.’
It seems to me that one of the great challenges we face in today's world is how best to balance efficiency with the all-important cultural and aesthetic aspects of our existence – the things that ultimately make our lives truly worthwhile and provide a sense of meaning and belonging in an uncertain world. This may be considered merely romantic but, to me, our living, breathing, working countryside is one of the great glories of this country. I think we should treasure it, including its people, while we still can.