David Handley is farming columnist in the leading S/West newspaper, Western Daily Press
15 July 2017
I’m taking a day off next week and going down to the Dairy Event, one of those shows which are supposed to serve several purposes: showcasing the best of the region’s livestock and its most skilled and dedicated producers; providing a day out for farmers; and in theory at least sending them home better-informed and better-equipped to meet the daily challenge of making a penny profit.
It’s the event which every other person in the dairy industry drives to in their top-of-the range car and stands around in their best suit trying hard not to make the farmers look too shabby, while the farmers park their mud-spattered, time-expired transport and shamble around either sporting fleeces or boiler suits conspicuously branded with the logos of their feed or machinery suppliers or in the sort of vintage waxed jacket whose last job appears to have been lining the dog basket.
Mind you, there is no shortage of advice on offer to them. There are the machinery salesmen handing out glossy brochures and spinning them tales of how they can become more efficient, profitable and even attractive to women if they only invest £100,000 or so in the latest bit of kit.
There will be the banks whose oily staff will explain what a good idea it is to borrow more money to pay off borrowings – and there won’t be a merest sight of the attack dogs they employ to write the heavy letters when the payments fall behind.
There will be the accountants ready to talk about cash flow and the consultants who have never set foot in a field in their lives telling us how to screw additional and more profitable milk out of a cow.
The reptile section will be home to the dairy processors, all keen to grab our business now milk is short though not so keen to discuss the ways they have arbitrarily and unfeelingly slashed prices when the market has been in surplus.
And who knows? There might even be an AHDB stand – unmanned and empty but with the flag overhead still proudly flying the logo: Busy Doing Nothing.
All in all there will so much being freely dispensed in the way of coffee, biscuits, sandwiches and booze that a canny farmer who knows how to nod and smile and look interested can graze his way round the stands while collecting an armful of brochures (always creates the right impression, that) and thus avoid having to buy any of the overpriced food on offer. The brochures can be dumped in the bin on the way out.
But what I defy anyone to find is any of these hangers-on who are prepared to admit that dairy farming has never been in a more miserable, degraded situation than it is today; that without the least shred of collective muscle or effective leadership farmers are entirely at the mercy of the rest of the chain; and that the only income they are receiving or can hope to receive in return for working 60 or more hours a week is the small change left from the retail price once everyone else has taken their cut.
There are times when I wonder if farmers are the only people left in the real world.
One such moment occurred last week as I read about the professor of experimental psychology at Oxford who suggested hanging wind-chimes in the kitchen could be the secret to encouraging ‘fussy’ children to eat their greens.
The man in question is Charles Spence who has in the past worked for chef Heston Blumenthal helping him create some of his more bizarre recipes.
I’m not sure whether he is now working for the UK’s vegetable growers or the National Federation of Wind-Chime Manufacturers. Either way I have rarely heard such nonsense as is suggestion that by using wind-chimes to add ‘sonic seasoning’ parents can overcome their offspring’s aversion to Brussels sprouts and other bitter-tasting vegetables.
It’s quite extraordinary that a highly-paid academic can occupy his life with such pointless activity, especially when all he can come up with is some suggested way of treating the symptoms, rather than the cause, of the problem.
Apparently he was spurred to apply his mind to the issue by a survey of 2,000 adults which revealed their biggest food phobia as a child was sprouts, followed by cabbage, peas and broccoli.
Quite apart from the fact that I have yet to encounter a pea with the least hint of bitterness this study is somewhat outdated anyway because the sprouts those people ate as children are not the sprouts you will buy today. Why? Because growers have spent years breeding the bitterness out of sprouts and making them more palatable, precisely because fewer people were eating them.
The modern sprout is almost sweet-tasting compared with what we were eating – and being made to eat, I might add – when we were young.
The reason so many children in this country don’t like green vegetables is linked to the sugar-rich diet they have been brought up on. If you have been fed bland, sweetened baby food and then been weaned onto your parents’ diet rich in hidden sugar (tucked away in baked beans and a host of processed foods) as well as being given sweets, fizzy drinks and ice cream as a treat then your tastebuds are going to get a nasty shock the first time they encounter the flavour of a brassica.
We have most unhealthy children in Europe with high levels of obesity and dental decay and in many cases, even more worryingly, a strong aversion to anything resembling a healthy diet.
On the continent baby foods (often no more than pureed versions of adult meals) contain vegetables like spinach and broccoli, so that children get acquainted with the pleasure of eating slightly bitter-tasting foods as well as sweet ones and by the time they get to the school dinner tables are more than up for the healthy ingredients such as lentils, cabbage, chicory and indeed Brussels sprouts that are routinely served.
The UK food industry’s profit-chasing tactics of pumping as much sugar as possible into foods has left us with a terrible legacy and in so many cases a level of opposition to healthy alternatives which is not only irrational but which can border on the violent, as Jamie Oliver discovered with his crusade to improve school catering.
This is the problem academic minds should be concentrating on solving. And it will take something rather more imaginative than hanging up a set of wind-chimes from the pound store to do so.
I’ve just had a glossy, 50-page, lavishly-produced booklet through the post, courtesy of Red Tractor Assurance.
When I have nothing better to do I will sit down and read it - though at first glance I can’t see a time coming within the next 20 years when there won’t be better things to do. Like polishing the number plate on the tractor, or checking the cat for fleas.
I was sent it because I am, apparently, a member of the Red Tractor Assurance Scheme though frankly, for all the good that that has done me I might as well be a member of my local WI. At least I could have learned flower arranging.
Anyway, its purpose apparently, is to inform me that every three years a team of farmers, retailers, vets and other industry “experts” (my quotation marks, not theirs) meets to review farm standards and ensure they come up to what the consumers want and expect.
All very commendable. Even though, as the covering letter goes on to explain, the newly-revised standards are going to require some people to change the way they run their farms.
I’m sure that won’t be a problem. Farmers, after all have plenty of time on their hands these days. And they are always ready to welcome with overflowing enthusiasm suggestion from non-farmers, such as vets, retailers and the all-important consultants (most of who based on personal experience, I wouldn’t consult about the time of day) on how to run their businesses more efficiently, more profitably and with all due attention paid to welfare.
Quite what the reaction would be if I marched into my local branch of Tesco, told the manager he was doing it all wrong and produced my own detailed plan for running his store I’m not sure. Any more than I can say how my vet would react if I wrote to him and told him he needed to run his business in line with customer expectations so here was a list of improvements.
As to the suggestions for reinforcing the assurance criteria I am confused. Advice to the effect that silage must be stored so as not to cause pollution and that a permanent supply of clean water should be provided via clean troughs would seem utterly superfluous.
But I am now told I have to carry out risk assessments of watercourses and non-target species before putting down rat bait. I should have a map of the farm showing where all the buildings are – presumably in case I forget. And I must neither tether my cattle all year round nor use anything but non-abrasive material for halters. Well if I did tether them all year round I wouldn’t be able to get them into the parlour. And what do they think I use for halters – barbed wire?
When the Red Tractor scheme was launched and we were all invited along we listened to the then Prime Minister telling us what a wonderful thing it would be and what fantastic benefits we would draw from it once we signed up to and abided by the assurance rules.
Twenty years down the line I’m still waiting. Large sections of the public still don’t know what the Red Tractor means – or if they do that it can be applied to imported food if produced to British standards - and as a marketing tool it is about as effective as sticking the smiley face of Count Dracula on a packet of black pudding.
Meanwhile after 20 years of doing damn-all Red Tractor Assurance has become yet another quango occupied by the “experts” who know less about farming than the people they are dictating their wonderful standards to.
I have a message for its new chief executive, Jim Moseley. Welcome to the gravy train. First class accommodation is at the front.
I’ve been up in the north this week trying to bring some sort of cohesion to the campaign to eradicate TB. My only conclusion on reaching home again was that I might as well not have bothered.
Not only did the sessions I have with farmers up there fail to agree on a consensual approach, the opinions and attitudes I experienced made me even more doubtful that we are going to get to grips any time soon with the worst animal health epidemic we have had in this country for decades.
From my observations it seems no MP is prepared to stand up and demand swifter and more comprehensive action to eradicate diseased badgers because they are all fearful of the backlash that will generate from the pro-badger section of the population.
About a third of the rest of the country’s farmers want to rely on vaccination even though that is a complete hit-and-miss approach (generally with more miss than hit); a third are happy to sit back and let the Government get on with shooting everything in sight claiming - with the NFU – that it’s the only option; and another third wants to start coming at the problem from another direction by targeting only diseased setts and gassing their occupants.
Meanwhile the Scots appear to be totally in denial about having TB at all, even though they clearly have.
I went up there hoping that in the face of a still-growing menace from bovine TB farmers could for once sit down and formulate a policy which would take a rather more intelligent approach than mass slaughtering – a method which is by no means guaranteed to remove every diseased animal though is pretty well guaranteed to perturb local populations leading to diseased badgers moving into previously clean zones.
Unfortunately all I got were several hours of claim, counter-claim, argument, counter-argument and a generally chaotic exchange of views. The only agreement achieved was one to carry on disagreeing.
This, of course, will all be music to the ears of the badger groups who, while one can diametrically disagree with their views, have at least held together a united front as far as policy and campaigning goes.
They have definitely still got the upper hand in the propaganda war, too, mainly because there is so little opposition.
The Government has never properly explained to the public why badger numbers have to be reduced – and there is no doubt the initiative has to come from the Government rather than the NFU which most people apart from farmers have never heard of, so low has its profile become.
No wonder, with the constant drip of half-truths and downright untruths from the badger-lovers, a large majority of the public show more sympathy for badgers than they do for farmers.
And the longer disagreement reigns within the farming community the more that trend will gather pace – and the more TB will outrun the current piecemeal attempts to eradicate it.
For all the up to date articles from David Handley
FARMING JANUARY 7 DAVID HANDLEY COLUMN
I’d like to wish all farmers a Happy New Year – with the added hope that 2018 didn’t get off to the kind of chaotic start that it did where I live.
My first call came around midnight from one of my neighbours, the owner of more than 100 prime dairy cows, many of them in calf and which, unsurprisingly, had not taken too kindly to a massive fireworks display that was in progress on a neighbouring property.
The result was the inevitable stampede with some of the animals ending up down the road and some across my neighbour’s lawns, the operation to round them all up and calm them all down taking quite a sizeable chunk out of the early hours of January 1.
Hours later, in daylight, another neighbour called. He had discovered three of his cows chewing on the plastic remains of Chinese lanterns which had floated across his fields after being launched from a party somewhere upwind.
Even more chilling was the spotting of yet another of these pointless devices in one of his stores: thankfully for him its flame had gone out before it had had a chance to set anything alight.
Sky lanterns have been plaguing British farmers for probably 20 years now and they remain as big a threat as ever, from the farmers’ perspective. But not, apparently, from the ministerial perspective, which is why George Eustice has refused to listen to the farming and countryside community’s calls for them to be banned.
Why, he told the House of Commons, such a measure would be disproportionate, given that the risks they posed to animals and the environment were ‘relatively minor’.
Statistically speaking they may be. But statistics aren’t going to help the dairy farmer whose cows ingest the remains of lanterns or who is woken by a glow in the middle of the night and finds his winter hay roaring up in smoke.
Instead our Farming Minister is relying on a new (and entirely voluntary) ‘safety code of practice’ whose rules (he claims) will help ensure sky lanterns are “safe, biodegradable and sold responsibly”.
There’s more:"People are becoming more aware of the dangers of sky lanterns and how to reduce the risk of causing damage” he has asserted.
Let me tell him one thing: there is no such thing as a ‘safe’ sky lantern. And every dairy farmer in the country will be able to offer a view on how effective voluntary codes are given that it was a voluntary code drawn up by former NFU dairy board chairman Gwyn Jones that was going to cure all the ills of the dairy sector.
Didn’t he do well? Not since Chamberlain came back from Munich has such a worthless document been waved around.
I am starting to ask myself whether George Eustice genuinely is the Farming Minister or whether he has been quietly shuffled into a new post as Minister for Second Home Owners – the people who are generally responsible for sky lanterns and firework displays, arrogantly and selfishly indulging in such pleasures without a thought as to the safety of animals or farmers’ property, yet who still expect farmers to go on toiling away so they can buy their food as cheaply as possible.
We don’t need a code covering the use of sky lanterns; we need a code for second home owners laying out some basic guidelines as to how to behave in the countryside and explaining that, contrary to what they might think, it is a working environment - not a vast adventure playground for the well-heeled city-dweller.
FARMING DECEMBER 30 DAVID HANDLEY COLUMN
I hope you all had a very enjoyable and relaxing Christmas. I’d also like to think that many of you had what I would refer to as a traditional Christmas featuring plenty of nourishing, home-cooked food.
Sadly, I fear, for thousand upon thousands of our children Christmas dinner – and indeed every meal they ate over the festivities – would have consisted of what could have been bought ready-prepared (and even pre-cooked) in a box or a packet at the supermarket.
You might have thought even those families who don’t cook much during the course of the year because they say it’s either too difficult or too time-consuming or even – as I have heard - too expensive (and I would take issue with anyone on those points) would want to make an effort at Christmas to ensure what arrived on the table was freshly-picked, bought, prepared and cooked. In fact the opposite appears to happen: Christmas seems to be the time to buy even greater quantities of pre-prepared foods.
I can understand –just – resorting to the freezer cabinets for so-called party foods which may beyond the capabilities of many people to produce (though have they even tried?) but when I see pre-made stuffing, Yorkshire puddings and even gravy on sale my heart really sinks.
The last generation to get others to cook for them on such a scale were the Victorians. In the 19th century most middle-class families kept servants – but they also kept control of the family diet. Today millions of people are not merely content to allow others to cook for them they entrust them to deliver wholesome, nourishing food. It rarely if ever, seems to occur to them that labour costs must then figure in the calculations when arriving at a retail price and since they are fixed by law then in order to come in under the retailer’s ceiling then economies often have to be made elsewhere – usually in the quality of ingredients and in what the primary producer is paid.
What is undeniable is that our ridiculous and frankly lazy over-reliance on convenience foods has bequeathed us the most obese and unhealthiest children in Europe – and I dread to think what problems and costs they are laying down for the future health service.
Children are literally being poisoned by additives and by huge amounts of hidden salt, sugar and fat and the real tragedy is that as the third generation born into a world of cheap convenience food eating everything – even Christmas dinner – from a bag or a packet appears perfectly normal to them.
What hope has a child got when they are sent off to school with a bag of crisps, a chocolate bar and a sweet fizzy drink to consume on the way in lieu of breakfast? It’s been recognised for centuries that a proper breakfast is necessary at the start of the day yet thousands of families here are now denying their children that very thing.
I read recently of the success of breakfast clubs in schools in some of the more deprived parts of the capital which offer children a decent, balanced meal once they arrive at school. The results are spectacular in terms of improved behaviour and academic performance – to say nothing of the dietary benefits.
But what really shocked me was that many of these operations are having to be financed by charitable donations: a throwback to the days before nationalised health and education services when the better-off would donate to workhouses, alms houses and poor houses in order that the inmates could have a decent meal now and then.
If I have one aim for 2018 it is to campaign as energetically as I can for a better deal for our children on the food front. To help them understand where food comes from and how it is produced. To enable more of them to eat real food, and to learn how to source it and cook it.
And I would urge all farmers – who still produce 60 per cent of everything we eat – to put whatever pressure they can on their MPs to ensure the Government starts to look outside its affluent, Westminster bubble, wakes up to the seriousness of this situation and the horrific problems we are building up further down the line - and determines to turn it into a national issue. And urgently.
Happy New Year.
FARMING DECEMBER 9 DAVID HANDLEY COLUMN
The way things stand it looks very much as though the NFU will get its first woman president in the New Year.
The odds are shortening as all the money goes on Wiltshire’s Minette Batters being elected at the annual meeting. Assuming she runs true to form and ends up sitting in the big chair I wish her a long and successful tenure and all the luck in the world dealing with the challenges that are just over the horizon.
Equally I trust that those who will be casting their votes for her in the election will be doing so because of who she is and what they believe her to be capable of, rather than merely because they think it would somehow improve the NFU’s image to have a woman in charge.
My own view is that it is entirely appropriate to have a woman running what is by any measure a male-dominated organisation. Because at last the NFU will be acknowledging the role women play in keeping the machinery of British agriculture turning smoothly and efficiently.
There are, in fact, very few farms which could operate successfully were it not for the contribution of the farmers’ wives. In addition to bringing up families they invariably put in hours of work – much, if not all of it, unpaid – and in most cases I know they carry out the all-important task of doing the books.
Very little of this input has been recognised. There have, of course, been the high-profile campaigning organisations such as Women in Pigs, which have done invaluable work in promoting British food.
There was, until last year, the Women’s Farming Union which did a brilliant job in beating the drum for British farming and raising the profile of women working in the industry. The fact that it disbanded after 37 years was regrettable but it happened for the right reason - because it had helped women engage in politics and agricultural organisations far more than they were than at the time it was set up.
That greater involvement has now brought us to the brink of a new era for theNFU – and one I sincerely hope sees it start to change from a largely ineffectual old men’s club to something more dynamic which is going to be able to engage with the wider public and push food and farming issues much higher up the agenda of public debate – a rightful position given that we still produce 60 per cent of what this nation eats and are being encouraged to increase that percentage considerably post-Brexit.
I hope Minette Batters makes a success of the job and more than that I hope she can inspire other women in farming to follow her example – as long as they can find the time between driving the children to school, doing the milking, cooking the meals, cleaning the house and dealing with the accountant.
FARMING DECEMBER 2
I never thought I should walk away from a British agricultural show feeling ashamed. But that was precisely my mood after visiting the Welsh Winter Fair this week.
Because what I saw there made me question how many more horrors we are going to produce in the name of livestock ‘improvement’.
Agricultural shows were established in the first place, of course, as forums where farmers could exchange experience and expertise and admire the achievements of those at the very top of their game.
But if the animals I saw this week represent some sort of pinnacle then I’m glad I’m only one of the farming also-rans.
I remember how farmers shuddered when the first Belgian Blues arrived here: grotesquely over-muscled and almost too weighty for their own legs to support them.
But where the Belgian Blues led the British livestock industry appears to have followed them. This week I saw the sheep industry’s answer to the Belgian Blue: Beltex sheep with massive muscles dwarfing spindly legs and tiny heads. And there was barely an exhibit in the cattle classes that didn’t look equally disproportioned.
Who can find such animals attractive? Only those, I would argue, who can’t look at an animal without pound signs flashing in front of their eyes. I know precisely how we have got to this distasteful stage. It’s all about maximising returns, making the animals work harder for the farmer, improving killing-out percentages. All the kind of propaganda the consultants and the has-beens who run the AHDB have been pumping out for years.
But if farmers who have been blindly following their advice were to stop for a moment, draw breath and look around they might just ask themselves where the issue of animal welfare fits into all this.
Well I can tell them. From where I am standing animal welfare has become a secondary consideration. And my concern is that a large section of the public may well soon be driven to the same conclusion.
Many people in this country find the whole notion of pedigree dog breeding distasteful, particularly when animals end up with protruding eyes or breathing difficulties. It can only, surely, be a matter of time before the organisations and influential individuals who have led the campaign against canine cruelty turn their attention to pedigree farm animals. And it will hardly be feasible to cover up the evidence because they will only have to visit the nearest agricultural event to find it being proudly displayed.
And what will happen then? When it comes to dogs the public has a clear remedy: to simply stop buying from pedigree breeders.
But the economic impact of consumers applying the same rule to the livestock industry could be catastrophic. And any farmers trying to delude themselves that it won’t have any effect should just cast their minds back to what happened when supermarkets were caught adulterating their ‘beef’ burgers with horse meat. Their sales collapsed.
Someone is bound to say that in writing this I am running the risk of starting a hare running, that welfare groups will start taking a far closer interest into how we now produce so-called champion livestock, perhaps even demanding high-welfare certification for all meat.
So be it. I sincerely believe there is much to be investigated. And if the outcome is a measurable improvement in on-farm welfare then I shall consider it a job well done. And my conscience, I can assure you, will be entirely clear.
David Handley is chairman of Farmers For Action.
FARMING NOVEMBER 11 DAVID HANDLEY COLUMN
When the wind’s blowing a couple of points north of east where I live I occasionally pick up the sound of wailing coming from the Stoneleigh direction. It is – inevitably - the NFU bleating about some issue or other.
Lately, I notice, the issue being raised is that of dogs attacking livestock – a matter which has achieved some rather unwelcome prominence this year.
The number of sheep attacks – I won’t use that pointless phrase ‘sheep-worrying’ because a dead sheep is rather more than ‘worried’ – is showing an arming tendency to rise steadily.
Some of the cases, doubtless, are down to the feral classes who deliberately turn their dogs out to run wild with never a thought or care as to the consequences.
But other incidents I have read about have involved people one would normally consider to be responsible dog owners whose animals have got out of their control and whose natural instincts have then taken over.
To suffer a livestock attack is a dreadful experience for any farmer. Encountering the gruesome evidence and dealing with the aftermath is only the first stage in a long and painful process of evaluating and making insurance claims. And even if the insurance pay-out is adequate, even if the dog owner is prosecuted and ordered to pay compensation, money alone cannot heal the feelings of distress and anger that animals that one has raised and cared for have died in such circumstances as that.
It’s emotional factors like this which can build up and prey so heavily on so many farmers’ minds.
As I said, the NFU is now indulging in some serious hand-wringing on the issue. But it’s all too late. The NFU and farmers have been forced onto the back foot.
The time to have intervened and acted was when Labour were drafting the Countryside and Rights of Way legislation which threw open some six million acres of the UK to walkers and their dogs and delivered the subliminal message that the countryside was suddenly one giant playground.
Farming organisations should have leapt on this to ensure that the message about dogs and livestock was delivered loud and clear to temper the government’s euphoric declaration of a general ‘right to roam’.
Unfortunately they didn’t, which why they are now attempting to close the stable door to the sound of hooves clattering into the distance andflinging money at an ineffectual publicity campaign which is unlikely to make a scrap of difference to the situation.
The only remedy is an overhaul of the law to increase the minimum penalty for dog attacks so that those who cause them are really hammered, subjected to such punitive fines (with jail terms for repeat offences) that neither they nor anyone else will be tempted to let a dog off its lead anywhere near a field of sheep.
David Handley is chairman of Farmers For Action.
FARMING NOVEMBER 4 DAVID HANDLEY COLUMN
Sometimes I despair. I really despair. I get to wondering whether some farmers actually manage to wake up in the morning or whether they just sleep-walk all day.
Because, surely, only someone who hasn’t got their brain into gear is going to leave a road so heavily carpeted in mud that it becomes a hazard to motorists.
Surely only someone who is totally unthinking can fail to see the risks that will result from such a situation, risks which are now turning into hard statistics as traffic on and off muddy fields builds up at this time of the year and the number of cars coming to grief on muddied roads starts to climb alarmingly.
I have seen token attempts to mitigate the inherent dangers mud-covered roads present to ordinary drivers – drivers who for the most part, of course,have no experience of driving anywhere other than on well-maintained Tarmac and for whom negotiating mud is totally unknown territory.
I have seen pathetic little ‘mud on road’ signs scrawled in felt tip on a bit of old cardboard and stuck up in the hedge. A woefully inadequate warning and one which, I must warn you, would provide no form of defence were a mishap on a mud-covered road to result in a farmer being sued for damage to a car or, indeed, its occupants.
What farmers have to realise are two things: firstly that they have a duty to clear up any mess they have caused as quickly and as effectively as possible; and secondly that any failure to do so is merely going to lead to further downgrading of farmers’ public image.
This I am afraid, is already pretty tarnished. The public, by and large, doesn’t read the farming press or the specialised farming pages which portray pretty much the correct picture. They tend to believe what they see and hear from the media which rarely portray farmers as the heroes who get up before dawn to make sure there is food on the nation’s tables and tend instead to concentrate on animal welfare issues, subsidies and the farming smells which apparently make life so unbearable for town-dwellers who decide to move to the countryside to live.
In other words we are already struggling with an image problem, and that’s a situation which is hardly going to be helped by people being too tired or unthinking to scrape a road clean of the several inches of mud which will guarantee that the first car round the corner ploughs into a hedge or a telegraph pole.
We’re coming up fast to maize harvesting where there is likely to be even more farm traffic on and off the highway and I would just appeal for farmers – all farmers – to have a bit of thought and consideration for other road users and make sure as little trace as possible of their tractor journeys is left to present a danger.
We might not be able to clean up farming’s image, given the way all the odds are stacked against us. But it is certainly within our power to clean up after ourselves.
David Handley is chairman of Farmers For Action.