Sarah Todd: Virtual cows can never be a substitute for the real thing at market

THERE'S been debate in the farming press about the future of livestock markets. More specifically, the idea of them becoming electronic – resulting in there being no need for actual animals to pass through the sale ring.

The chap who started the debate, farmer and former National Farmers' Union vice-president Paul Temple, says quite simply that auctions are an important part of how farmers do business "but live animals just do not belong at them in the 21st century".

He advocates instead the idea of auction houses employing a fieldsman who would visit farms to assess the animals and make sure nothing gets entered into the auction unless it meets a required standard. Mr Temple quite rightly points to the phenomenon of eBay, where millions of people buy and sell via their computer.

Not qualified to wade into the intricacies of the debate, it simply strikes me as being a final nail in the coffin of that one last social outlet of farmers – the weekly market. Just a few weeks ago I met my father, a farmer, in town. "Come to the farmers' club," he joked, and we had a bacon sandwich at a table with others who were also chewing the cud about what had been happening since the last mart.

There's one thing for sure, the pub wouldn't have had any customers that day if it hadn't been for the farmers. Most of them were also getting the odd bit of shopping for their wives while they were out. A newspaper here, some veg from the greengrocers over there. So those businesses stand to lose out too from farmers not coming to town.

Some will say there could still be a central gathering where people congregate to do their electronic buying but it wouldn't be the same. Animals aren't like the majority of online auction items. They're living, breathing things. You really do have to see them in the flesh. When they arrive at market you can take note whether they cough, if they've got runny noses, if they look a bit poor, if the bloke that's brought them looks shifty.

Many arrive at market in small trailers and leave in large lorries. Would the big buyers be happy to send their trucks down farm lanes to buy Farmer Bloggs's odd heifer? Or would they stick to the same large farms that can supply capacity loads every time? The consequence would be the disappearance of small farms. Large enterprises (hand-in-glove with the supermarkets) would take over the countryside. The members of the unofficial farmers' clubs that take place on market days the length and breadth of the country should now stand up and be counted. Don't let yourselves get swept away. Bartering, doing deals, stockmanship – knowing a good 'un from a bad 'un –are your unique skills and the places where you practise them should remain as they are, traditional, sociable and a vital part of the rural economy.

CW 22/1/11