On the ground, at the sharp end, nose to the grindstone, whatever we care to call it, when your attention is focused on the short term aim of staying in business and/or providing for a family it can be difficult to pause and think about the long term future of farming.
Lousy weather, fluctuating product prices, crop diseases, animal ailments and arbitrary government and European Union decisions make pondering on what things will be like in ten or 20 years time a luxury.
All we can be sure of is that the past half century of dramatic changes in farming could well be repeated. The size and complexity, not to mention prices, of machinery on view at last week’s Border Union show compared with the virtual Dinky toys we used in the 1960s was one indication of how much has changed.
A survey of how many visitors were farm staff would also have been revealing. The bigger machinery, fewer farms equals fewer staff and fewer farmers arithmetic adds up inexorably. At first glance the ritual of the livestock judging ring has not changed, nor have some farming tweed and cap fashions, but a comparison of last Saturday’s sheep and cattle champions with those of 1965, say, would show how much improvement there has been in spite of rearguard action by traditionalists.
In a way, everyone involved with or at the show with its more than 200 years of history is a traditionalist. It reminds of us times past as well as present. The question is how much the farming industry it is based on must continue to change in future. The answer according to economist Sean Rickard is ‘a lot.’
I hadn’t seen or heard much of Mr Rickard in recent years, but the independent specialist on the economics of food and farming has not changed his views. In a recent article in the Times he said that global food demand will rise by at least 60% by mid-century while production of that will increasingly be challenged by scarcer supplies of land and water and the effect of climate change.
Previously poor populations will demand more meat and dairy products. Grain production must increase, but yields seem to have hit a plateau while on a world scale soil erosion and urbanisation reduce where it can be grown.
The answer he said is intensification, new technology, precision farming, more investment in crop and animal breeding and a positive attitude towards innovation. He admits, rightly, that the chances of change to EU policies for farming soon are slim. Public, or at least activist group, responses to intensive dairying and pig farms and genetically modified crops suggest he’s right. Most of us still like to think of farming as represented at the Border Union show last weekend, and as we remember it from previous years, not Mr Rickard’s theory of a high-tech future.