I could not be more pleased to be here today to open The Royal Show. I was due here last year performing the same function, but all of you know only too well the horrors of 2001 which saw the end of The Royal Show and just about every other agricultural show and rural activity.
They were dark days for so many farmers, their families and many more in the wider rural community - and I know that for far too many the tragedy of Foot and Mouth proved the last straw and that, sadly, they have left farming.
But what I have found remarkable as I have travelled the country meeting farmers is that so many, despite the difficulties, have shown the most astonishing resilience and fortitude to carry on.
And I am sure that this is, in large part, due to those who helped see them through those dark days, and so I do just want to pay a particular tribute to the wonderfully selfless people involved in the rural charities who did so much to help those affected.
The Royal Agricultural Society of England played an especially important role, of course, through the Arthur Rank Centre and the Addington Fund. I came here at the height of the outbreak and saw the ARC team in action and it was both impressive and deeply moving - so I am delighted that the Addington Fund has remained in existence to deal with the continuing aftermath of FMD and that it has plans to expand its activities.
An enormous debt is owed to all the charities, to those who worked for them and also to the armed forces - to whom I shall be paying a special tribute in a moment - who played such a vital role in last year's tragic events.
But today, Ladies and Gentlemen, is, I hope, much more about looking to the future. All our energy must now be put into turning around farming's fortunes by working together to find a new way forward for British agriculture to flourish. We have a better chance to do this than ever before, but it is going to take courage, vision and determination.
Earlier this year, as you know, the Food and Farming Commission published its report. I would just like to pay a warm tribute to Don Curry and his team who produced what I happen to think is a report of real merit which understands the importance of farming to this country and the crucial link that binds together agriculture, tourism and the entire rural community.
The theme of the Curry Report was reconnection - reconnection of farming with the market and with the environment, and reconnection of society with farming and the land, and with the joys and benefits of good, nutritious food - which I happen to think many British farmers are particularly good at producing!
And you don't need me to tell you, because I know you are under no illusions, but despite the enormous goodwill and, indeed, generosity shown by so many urban dwellers to farmers during Foot and Mouth, there is a real gulf of understanding between those who live in the countryside and those who live in towns and cities.
It is of the greatest possible importance that we find a way to bridge that gulf and to open people's eyes to the fact that the countryside is only as beautiful as it is because of the care and management of generations of farmers.
One of the main difficulties which the agricultural community faces is that the current system of production subsidies does not enjoy widespread public acceptability.
The Curry Report recognised this and concluded that there should be a move away from production support. I know that this has been greeted with alarm by some and I, for one, understand those fears.
But the idea is not to turn farmers into nothing more than glorified park keepers, nor is it to remove from farmers a much-needed income support. The proposal is to shift that support, gradually, to encourage a different sort of farming, in just the same way that so many inducements from Government and Europe since the war have encouraged farmers to manage the land more intensively.
This shift must surely be the right way forward to ensure a reasonable livelihood for our farmers - especially for the smaller, family farm in the uplands and the more marginal areas on which we depend to maintain the culture and traditions which are so much a part of what makes our countryside as special as it is.
So we have to encourage new priorities to help farmers add value to their products by focussing on quality and differentiation, rather than the relentless pursuit of quantity.
The UK may have difficulty competing with the mass food producers, like the bread baskets of America and Central Europe, but what we do produce even for the mainstream market can be of a superior quality and service, and give assurances on standards which are important to the British consumer.
Our farmers are uniquely well-placed to produce for niche markets, too. Rare and native breeds have a particular role to play and I speak as the Patron of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust and of the Welsh Black Cattle Society and as the new Patron of the Sussex Cattle Society.
Specialty regional foods are equally important. As Patron of the Specialist Cheesemakers Association, and having seen so many of these largely farm-based companies, I know of their potential for making farming profitable.
And, of course, organic farming has its place too - well you would have been disappointed if I had not mentioned it! Whatever the short term difficulties which are being faced by organic dairy farmers - and they are very real indeed, as they are for conventional dairy farmers - I remain convinced that organic farming is a way forward for some farmers, and I maintain that it is a more sustainable form of husbandry in terms of the long term health of the soil, plants and animals.
Supermarkets are forever saying that they cannot find sufficient quantities of organic produce to meet the demand and it seems to me utterly crazy that this food is imported when a substantial proportion of it could so easily be produced in this country.
Apart from anything else, we need to do more to promote local food initiatives. Consider the effect on farming incomes, for instance, if there was a public procurement policy which meant that , whenever possible, public bodies had to buy local, fresh food.
But the changes that need to happen in agriculture are dependent on far more than just the farming community. The retailers, the processors, the catering companies, Government and, of course, the general public too, all have an important role to play.
I am convinced that it is essential for farmers to collaborate more to balance the undoubted might of the processors and the retailers and to ensure the farmer's voice is better heard, and I could not be more pleased that there seems to be some real movement now on this front.
But this is not the only answer to improving the relations between the top and the bottom of the food chain.
While some of the retailers and catering companies have begun to make genuine progress in their food-buying policies - and they should be congratulated for this - there is no doubt that some of their practices still cause anxiety amongst the farming community.
There is a real sense that the farmer is not receiving a fair deal. Both the retailer and the processor can pass their costs back down the line to maintain or increase their margin. But the farmer cannot do this. He is bottom of the pile and he is the one taking the bulk of the risks. And on top of all this, the farmer has to contend with the weather as we are so vividly reminded today!
Average farm incomes are around £5,200 - these are some of the lowest incomes in the economy and farmers are simply not earning a reasonable margin on what they produce. Too many are living on their savings and cannot afford the necessary investment.
The reality is that some 85 per cent of our food is purchased from supermarkets. So if we want our farmers to have a realistic future then a new relationship has to be built with the retailers, the caterers and the processors and I am hopeful that the Curry Commission's proposals for closer links between all parts of the food chain, and a shorter, more efficient food chain, will begin to make the difference that is so desperately needed
I have to say that it is utterly incredible to me that farming - the basic industry of mankind - can be in such a state of crisis as it is today. It is an indicator of a society that takes its food for granted and, as I am sure all of you can testify, it shows how frighteningly detached too many people have become from the reality of how it is produced.
That is why the customer has to recognise that he, or she, is the final part of the equation - and a vital one. As every retailer will tell you, it is consumer demand to which they respond. And so the consumer needs to be made more aware that the seemingly endless desire for convenience and the lowest possible price has a direct impact, like it or not, on the producer.
Of course, I understand only too well that price matters a great deal for many families in this country. But there is a real cost involved in cheap food to the countryside, to those who live and work there and to animal welfare.
And, Ladies and Gentlemen, let us remember that the line between too much food and too little is very thin indeed. This country must retain the ability to grow its own food. Situations can change in the world unexpectedly and there could easily come a day when the UK might be reduced to relying on its own resources once again. So let us not sacrifice long-term security for short-term convenience.
As I suspect you realise, I could speak on this subject for a long time. The British countryside and those who live and work in it are of deep concern to me. Why? Because, if I may use a rural analogy that became only too apparent during the FMD crisis when hefted flocks were being slaughtered in Cumbria, Wales, and The Cheviots, the family farms that make up the intricate tapestry of our landscape are dependent upon "hefted" people. Lose them and you lose an irreplaceable part of our collective memory.
That is why I shall continue to do all I can to preserve the things which make the countryside so special and make it work: be that "The Pub is the Hub", the local abattoir, farmers' markets or the family farm.
Business in the Community, of which I am President, is working hard in all these areas and I am enormously grateful to Sir Peter Davis, Chief Executive of Sainsbury's, for his chairmanship of its Rural Action Programme. And I know that the Royal Agricultural Society is developing plans for a National Rural Enterprise Centre to bring together all parts of the rural and agricultural community to secure a long-term future for the countryside.
I wish them well in this endeavour - it certainly could not come at a more important time.
My Presidency of the National Federation of Young Farmers' Clubs gives me a special insight into the concerns and ambitions of the younger generation. These young people are skilled and determined, but we need to do more to encourage young blood into agriculture. And one way in which we could do this is by finding a way to allow those who wish to retire to do so with dignity and security.
Ladies and Gentlemen:, if I had to leave you with one thought it is that agri-culture is exactly that. A culture and a way of life - it is not simply "just another industry". It is something precious which we must defend.
I could not be more pleased to be here today to celebrate the very best of British livestock and British husbandry. That is the foundation of everything that will keep living communities within our unique countryside so that people born and bred there can have an economic future.
I pray with all my heart that the future for farming will be brighter and that, above all, the farming community, and all that it stands for, is supported, protected and cherished. It now gives me the greatest possible pleasure to declare the 2002 Royal Show open.