Listening to a cricket Test commentary recently – we all have our failings – I heard a batsman criticised for “slipping into his own bubble”. That is, concentrating only on his own performance, regardless of the rest of the team or the state of the game.
Pausing only to reflect that Geoff Boycott, one of the most self-obsessed batsman ever to play, has now, as a commentator, re-cast his history as good old Geoff the team player so there’s hope for us all, I recognised again the risk for every farmer of slipping into their own bubble.
It’s inevitable, especially when times are tough, that we will ignore the broader picture because our thoughts and efforts are concentrated on what is best for our business and how farming seems to us. Endless nose to the grindstone is not the best position for thinking that the opinion of the outside world doesn’t matter or that what goes on there should be for our benefit.
That’s why farmers in general, like religious fundamentalists, tend to think they always know best about what is best for farming and can never understand why the rest of the world doesn’t see the subject in the same light.
As always, the forward-thinking, ever looking for new methods and potential new markets, think outside the box, or in this case, bubble.
The rest of us need to do the same and see how we’re viewed from the outside. The recent case of milk was a good example as it became clear that to most major supermarkets, it does not matter where their milk comes from as long as it comes at the price they and processors are prepared to pay.
The claim by British dairy farmers that many of them will go out of business unless price cuts are reinstated was ignored and not seen as relevant. Dairy farmers see themselves as a vital cog in getting milk to supermarket shelves; processors and supermarkets don’t. They know that those who stay in business will keep more cows and try to squeeze more milk from each.
Processors and supermarkets also see that milk production in Europe as a whole was up 2.2 per cent last year and up worldwide by three per cent. New Zealand production was up 10 per cent and in Argentina, not usually thought of as a milk producing country but becoming more important, output was up 12 per cent.
In both countries, and others, climate makes milk production much easier at lower cost than Britain. With surplus milk in Europe and the world and modern transport methods improving all the time, supermarkets clearly think they don’t have to rely on British dairy farmers for supplies.
Or take the green belt, seen as sacrosanct by farmers. In the same way as most hill farmers object as a matter of course to an increase in tree planting, any suggestion of more houses being built on what is now farmland are objected to on principle – although not necessarily always by farmers with land to sell for housing.
So it was interesting to see recent comments by Emma Duncan, deputy editor of the Economist – a business and politics magazine that, among other things, is a dedicated opponent of Europe’s common agricultural policy – about the need to relax green belt rules on housing for the good of the country as a whole.
She said that in spite of protests by farmers over the years about the horror of losing farm land to builders, “only about eight per cent of Britain is developed – less than some other European countries. The great majority of our land is countryside and the great majority of that is farmland. That, in my view, is where the problem lies”.
She went on: “If our countryside were pullulating with biodiversity, I would have more sympathy with the idea that building on an extra one per cent or so would destroy an invaluable part of our natural heritage. But most of it is covered in 1,000-acre fields of oilseed rape and cereal crops fertilised by chemicals and subsidies.”
You wouldn’t mistake that exaggeration for a farmer thinking inside his bubble. Half a century of pouring billions of taxpayers’ cash into the CAP, she said, has produced a countryside that has as much relationship to nature as a stock cube does to a chicken.
She went on: “The notion that this dismal monoculture represents a public value good enough not just to lay claims to vast quantities of public money, but also to deprive Britons of decent housing is risible.”
So, she concluded, relax green belt rules and scrap farming subsidies.
A thought for livestock farmers was provided recently by former MP, now best-selling author of his political diaries, Chris Mullin, when asked what he would do if he ruled the world. He said: “I’d wave a wand and turn us all into vegetarians and dismantle the entire grisly apparatus of the meat industry. If we didn’t have to feed millions of livestock there would be far more for human beings to eat.”
There are millions of people outside farming who don’t think the way we do and have to be taken seriously.