The Prince of Wales recorded a message for The Oxford Farming Conference and the message was aired today at their conference. The conference is in its 67th year and is held at Oxford University Examination Schools.
The mission of the conference is to inform, challenge and inspire the farm to food supply chain. Speakers are leaders in their fields of science and technology, policy, innovation and farming.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I must say am particularly sorry I cannot be with you in person this afternoon and that, instead, you have to put up with this virtual, but at least carbon-friendly, form of communication. Frankly, I did not want to pass up the opportunity of contributing to the Oxford Farming Conference by introducing your debate on this year’s Conference Research Report. That's because it asks such an important question “What do U.K. farmers deliver to society?” Having read it, I can only commend it to you. It demonstrates beyond any doubt just how industrious farmers are and just how fundamental your contribution is to society as a whole and I do congratulate the authors.
Now, I am sure that your thoughts this week have been focussed on the economics of farming. The effects of the terrible weather last Summer and then the damaging flooding before Christmas, combined with the remorseless increase in so many costs, is putting huge pressure on farm businesses everywhere, and especially the smaller, family farms. So even before we begin to think about the hidden benefits which farming offers to society, we need I think to agree that first and foremost, farmers have to make a living. Now, you will all be pleased to know that I have resisted the temptation for now! - to make a speech about the transformational change I believe we need in order to make our food systems genuinely sustainable so that we can feed as many as possible of the world’s over-burgeoning and unsustainable population. Instead, today, I just want to focus on farming’s hidden benefits to society. And in a world when it seems that only things with a price tag have any value, that isn’t easy.
Well, I have long believed that farming plays a crucial role in society. The clue, as they say, is in the title “Agri-culture.” A word made up of two words. Yes, it is about the land, but it is also about the culture that those who work on the land create not least a landscape which is the product of countless generations of farmers who have laboured on the land, from the uplands of Cumbria to the Downs of Sussex; from the Fens of East Anglia to the hills of Wales; from the Western Isles of Scotland to the Channel Islands. Today, as never before, the countryside has become a place where those who live in towns and cities come to recharge their batteries, to find spiritual peace in a world which can seem overwhelmingly noisy and frenetic.
Interestingly, when I was setting up my Prince’s Countryside Fund two years ago, an advertising agency did some research into how suburban consumers viewed the countryside. It was fascinating. An overwhelming majority revealed a real emotional and personal engagement with it. They saw it as a place where they could escape from the stresses of their daily lives and they placed huge value on the infrastructure in other words, the buildings, the villages, even the gates. That sense of place matters to people. Is it not quite revealing that the B.B.C.’s Countryfile programme has become so tremendously popular? Ever since they moved it to its prime-time slot on a Sunday night, it has become one of their most successful television programmes with over seven million viewers a week. There is evidently a thirst for the countryside and for the culture it represents.
What matters, though, is we all recognize that this culture and the sense of place rural landscapes create are not something fixed in aspic. They are alive and have to be kept alive and vibrant. You can only do that if you have a care for the well-being of rural communities. Indeed, the very idea of a vibrant rural community without farming is as ridiculous as the notion that you can have a vibrant railway network without any trains! It is the people and what they do that creates the beating heart of our countryside the vitality that comes from the busy village shop and pub, a thriving school, from the Church and W.I and so on and so form. It comes from the tractors in the fields, the skilled work of the stonewallers and hedgelayers, the livestock, the growing crops and the landscape’s biodiversity now so much under threat from a combination of climate change, diseases of every kind and also insensitive development - which is absolutely fundamental to sustainable farming and to the economy. All of these elements make up a living, breathing countryside which is as precious as any ancient cathedral. This is why everything must be focussed on making sure that farmers are able to keep on farming in a way that provides them with a decent living, and that they do it while working with Nature and not against her.
Now, I am hugely encouraged that the restorative, health and educational values of farming are beginning to be recognized. As your report suggests, Care Farms are bringing to vulnerable people a sense of well-being and self-worth which many have never experienced before. The connection with animals, with the soil and with Nature can have the most profound impact. This is why I have long held a particular admiration for the immense value of school farms. Apart from the importance of reconnecting young people with Nature, the soil and where their food actually comes from, they can give to children of every ability an experience of growing and an understanding of farming which will serve them throughout their lives, especially when they begin to make decisions as consumers. For those students who struggle academically, the school farm can often be the lifeline that keeps them in education. Time and again I have seen how those who struggle with books often have a real talent with animals and for gardening. So instead of being a failure, they shine. And I know there are countless farms around the country that welcome children and the wider public to learn more about what they are doing. I have seen for myself the impact this can have and how it can provide a long term investment in terms of helping society as a whole to appreciate properly agriculture’s crucial role in producing food for the nation.
Well, I don’t think you need me to stress how hugely important this is. Never since the Second World War has food security and our ultimate dependence on the health and integrity of natural systems been of greater significance.
For too long in the West, I am afraid, we have enjoyed something of a consumer's holiday. Food above all else has been seen as a cheap commodity to which little value is attached. But there will be no food security if the world goes on prevaricating and postponing the kind of global action needed to tackle accelerating climate change, unsustainable population growth without regard to finite natural resources, violent and unusual extremes of weather and the catastrophic likelihood of a global temperature rise of four degrees centigrade by later this century, as stressed in a recent World Bank report. Failure to tackle this immense and urgent challenge will merely ensure a glut of headless chickens... Thus we all have to realize that food does not simply appear on our plates as a matter of course. As never before, it is a gift to be treasured, and therefore the people who produce this resource should be prized above all others and supported in ways that enable them to carry on doing what they do in as durable and resilient a way as possible.
Perhaps this lack of appreciation for food and the skills involved in producing it is why farming currently ranks as one of the least desirable career destinations for young people. Despite there being such an array of fulfilling roles for people of all types and abilities, and the fact that, unlike most sectors at the moment, agriculture is “hiring,” there is simply not enough quality talent entering the market to address all the challenges we face to produce more with less over the coming years. This is something that the “Bright Crop” initiative, developed by my Rural Action Programme at Business in the Community, is hoping to address and I can only hope that there will be an opportunity during the conference for you to find out more about how you can support this initiative.
So, the importance of retaining talent in farming is one of the reasons why I have a particular anxiety for those family farmers who produce food from our upland areas where the challenges of topography and the weather are some of the most extreme. The skills these indigenous farmers have cannot be learned from books or in a laboratory. It is as if they are hefted people, just as their sheep are hefted, with their know-how almost embedded in their genes! So if we lose this farming heritage, we lose the ability to farm a large proportion of this country and the capacity to use land with a unique capability to capture carbon and store water. All that knowledge will go and it cannot just be recreated. And with such an uncertain economic future, such a loss would be an act of utter folly.
This is the real reason I started my Countryside Fund. With the help of leading companies, I wanted to find ways of ensuring a secure future for the most vulnerable farming and rural communities, wherever they may be. I am delighted that, so far, we have helped over 20,000 people and spent nearly £2 million on fifty projects - everything from creating hill farm apprenticeships in the Cumbrian Fells and North York Moors to supporting the abattoir on the Isle of Mull. I was determined, when I set up the Fund, to help protect what I believe is a national asset of incalculable value one that, as I say, once lost, can never be recreated. I pray that this report will raise awareness of the profound cultural, educational and spiritual value which farming brings to society. It can only help realise in peoples’ minds the crucial role farming plays in producing the food the country needs and thereby shoring up our food security, and substantially supporting human well-being. Farming sustains life and is the very foundation of a healthy civilization. I know that you will have a fascinating afternoon and I much look forward to receiving a report of your deliberations.