The National Trust is trying to start what it calls an “interesting experiment” to help people become more involved in farming and where much of their food comes from.
If the attempt by the organisation – the England and Wales one, not the NTS – to sign up more than 6,500 of us at £30 a head for MyFarm is successful, the experiment will start later this year with those signed up taking the decisions on which crops to grow, how many livestock of which type to keep, how they should be managed, and so on for a 1,200 acre farm owned by the National Trust in Cambridgeshire.
Anyone who has been involved in a farming partnership of any kind with several people involved in decision-making will, I’m sure, wish well an attempt involving several thousand.
Care will be taken, however, to prevent, for example, animal rights groups hijacking the experiment. The farm’s professional managers will have the right to veto voters’ decisions that might affect its profitability or organic status.
Several “conventional” farmers have pointed out that any attempt to make the public more aware of where its food comes from should be based on a farm representing the vast majority of UK farms that are not organic. Now where have we heard that argument before?
Fiona Reynolds, director-general of the National Trust, said the idea had been inspired by surveys that indicated that under-30s in particular had little idea of the origins of the food they buy.
One survey found that 26 per cent of those asked thought bacon came from sheep and 29 per cent that oats grow on trees. Ms Reynolds found that extremely worrying.
I think slightly worrying is nearer the mark, and not at all surprising, when well over 90 per cent of the British population has no links at all with farming and the majority rely on pre-packed and ready-made meals.
And if surveys still produce results like those, it doesn’t say much for the interactive Facebook game Farmville where players manage a virtual farm, growing and harvesting crops and raising livestock. Running a farm like that certainly takes the drudgery out of it, but seems to do little to enlighten the players about the real world. That helps confirm my belief that the closer anyone is to their computer, the further they get from reality.
The most frightening statistic I noted from Ms Reynolds’ description of the experiment was that the National Trust owns more than 250,000 hectares of Britain. Its own attempts to run that land by committee don’t bode well for attempts to manage a this farm with up to 10,000 participants.
We shall see if it gets started and decision-making moves on from which crops to grow to how many livestock to keep and how they should be treated. Should lambs and pigs be castrated? How heavily stocked should poultry be, while staying within established free-range, organic, limits? Should badgers be shot to prevent cattle contacting tuberculosis? What can be done to protect hedgerows?
There’s a pattern to those probable questions which suggests that whether or not participants in the experiment end up with more idea of where some of their food comes from, we’re not talking about main-line farm production in Britain with food to help feed a population expected to top 70 million by 2050.
That production comes from increasingly large-scale farming operations whether it is herds of several thousand sows producing up to half a million pigs a year, potato growers with 1,000 acres and more, dairy herds of several hundred cows, co-operatives handling a million tonnes of grain or a single grower producing a year-round supply to supermarkets of 60,000 tonnes of parsnips.
In a world where everyone wants to eat, but the majority of us, by preference or necessity, try to do so as economically as possible, does it matter how many of us know exactly where that food comes from? If we really cared, no one would eat mass-produced chicken in any form.
In appealing for people to sign up, Ms Reynolds said: “If the success of Farmville, with more than 62 million users worldwide, is anything to go by, the internet is the perfect platform [to involve people with farming]. What’s different about MyFarm is that it’s real. By fostering a close connection with farming and giving people a role beyond what they put in their shopping basket, MyFarm will provide a deeper understanding of where our food comes from and strengthen our relationship with the land beneath our feet.”
Want to bet?