A decade in the top job gives Bill food for thought

Bill Cowling, show director of the Great Yorkshire Show at the Yorkshire Agricultural Society.
Bill Cowling, show director of the Great Yorkshire Show at the Yorkshire Agricultural Society.
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THE YEAR 2005 was a big one for farmer Bill Cowling. Decades after showing his dairy cattle at the Great Yorkshire Show (GYS) in Harrogate for the first time, he was appointed as the highly successful event’s show director.

It is a role that Mr Cowling, who still farms near Harrogate. has relished but it is one he is stepping away from at the end of this year’s show on July 14-16, after a decade’s service in the top job.

Beneath the smart bowler hat remains a character who passionately believes in a bright future for farming. This week he gave his observations on the health of the industry - and he pulled no punches.

How much has farming changed in the last decade?

“There have been changes that have occurred over the past ten years and looking from ten years ago to now, some of them have been quite dramatic.

“We used to produce milk at home - we have been out of it for 12 or 13 years now - and when we were in milk it was always ‘jam tomorrow’ (a never fulfilled promise).

“There have been one or two peaks of hope over the last ten years but generally speaking the trend has been that the farmer has to put more and more money and effort into investing into the infrastructure and the livestock, and the rewards have steadily seemed to diminish and I think it’s so sad. It’s one of the staple parts of our industry and it’s under so much pressure.

“It’s fashionable to blame the supermarkets for everything, they have a part to play obviously, but on the other hand they are only part of the industry and part of the problem in that respect. It’s difficult to see their reasoning in using milk as a loss leader but on the other hand the marketplace is bigger than just that and it just seems that the world industry is under so much pressure.”

Should we rethink how dairy farmers are paid for their milk?

“You would think that would be so. It seems to be very difficult to work globally in agriculture, but it is in any commodity. You only have to look at coal and these collieries that are closing in South Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire. They are only closing because they are bringing coal halfway round the world for less money than they can get it out of the ground a few miles from where you end up using it. It can’t be right.”

Can we use this current dairy crisis to forge a better future for the sector?

“You would certainly hope so. It would be a sad day for the UK if we don’t produce a good percentage of our own dairy product. Someone else will produce it for us if we want them to, there’s no doubt about that, but it’d be very sad.

“Selling milk at such low cost is negative. I think a great percentage of consumers would pay a market price for milk, if asked to do so. I don’t think they expect it to be something that gets less and less every time they go to the supermarket, cheaper than it was before; it’s not realistic.

“Going back ten years, comparing milk with other products of a similar ilk, even water, the difference is just silly. Milk is a wonderful food product that we are underselling.”

Why did you leave dairy farming?

“We would have needed to spend quite a lot on the infrastructure of the buildings, the parlour, the dairy. Really, we should have been milking more cows than we were. Say we were milking 100 cows, the necessity was that we needed to be milking more than that. So that needed great investment, and I used to do a lot of the milking myself and when it became clear I was going to be spending a greater deal of time here at the showground the family decision was that they didn’t particularly want to continue on with that side of farming. We went into beef and sheep, which we had been in, but on a much smaller scale.”

Has the decline in the dairy industry been noticeable at the GYS?

“It hasn’t been as noticeable over the last decade. When I first started being involved in the show, showing dairy cattle in the late 60s/early 70s, stewarding in the cattle section at that time, there would be at least 50 per cent, maybe even 100 per cent, more dairy entries than there are now. Most of the bottom sheds at the show were full of dairy cattle and gradually they have shrunk a little bit.

“In my time as show director I think dairy cattle entries have remained pretty steady, and I am hopeful that people preaching doom and gloom that nobody will show dairy cows at this year’s show because of the state of the industry... that’s not the feedback I’m getting from exhibitors.

“For the pedigree breeders it’s a shop window for them and that’s no different, in fact you probably need a shop window more in the bad times than you do in the good times.”

How do you rate the health of the beef and sheep sectors?

“Generally speaking there have been the odd little blips downwards but generally the trade has been quite sustainable for beef cattle and the same with sheep, and again, I think it’s very much a world market because people are eating more meat in the developing world. Some of the countries that traditionally centres loads and loads of beef - and have almost dumped it on us in the past - have a market nearer home now. They have less cattle as well, some of the South American countries, so there is less meat of that sort coming here.

“We have had a few positives for the beef industry: horsemeat, although it’s a big furore, you would possibly think it’s bad publicity for farming and I think in truth it wasn’t. It was good for farming because it illustrated some of the things we are trying to get across to the consumer. You want to know where your food is coming from and it very much illustrated that in many cases we didn’t.

“On the sheep side, I think the prospects are good. The price has been quite good and sustainable for the last ten years. One of our main suppliers into the marketplace has been New Zealand - they have plunged into milk in a massive way so have lost a lot of sheep. They are going into the Chinese market, both with lamb but also with milk, which is being produced on land that they were producing sheep on, so in both ways that’s benefitting us in that the market is going to another place. The Chinese and the Asian market is absolutely huge and until their economy started to improve they weren’t able to buy the product. Now they can and that’s taking pressure off us.”

There are fewer livestock markets than there were ten years ago. What has this meant for farmers?

“There are many less livestock markets. A lot in the Yorkshire area have relocated to a bigger site out-of-town but the losers have been smaller local markets that have gone completely. It’s sad in a way but communications and transport facilities for livestock have improved so it isn’t such a big job. You don’t have to walk the cattle or the sheep to the market these days. Bigger, better facilities are better for the buyers and better for the sellers, but it’s sad when some of the smaller markets go.

“Quite a lot of smaller markets came under pressure from Foot and Mouth and some didn’t reopen, some reopened but not for very long, so that was a catalyst that finished a few more off but it’s a very difficult operation to run successfully. Commission rates tend to be quite low, the market is quite an expensive thing to run and the pressure is on from certain aspects of the meat trade that prefer not to use cattle markets and prefer to buy direct. We are perhaps seeing that if there isn’t a very competitive market in place the big buyers can rule the price.”

Do livestock markets and shows still have a key social role to play?

“It shouldn’t be underestimated. It can be a very lonely existence can farming these days. A lot of farmers where 25-30 years ago there were four or five people working on their farm, there is just the family now or just the farmer on his own - it’s nice to talk to people sometimes! People like to go to market to compare their product. If you can make top price at the market and your beef sells a bit better than you were expecting; and it’s the same as going to a show, it’s wonderful - and if you don’t win then maybe you think, well, I’ll just have to do that a bit better for next time.”

How is it that the GYS and other local shows have continued to grow?

“It isn’t a secret - they are agricultural shows and the clue is in the name, they should stay agricultural. There are some, not particularly those local shows in Yorkshire, most of those are very good at being agricultural, some of the larger county and national shows have gone down a different route. Short-term gain perhaps but in almost all cases the long-term prognosis has been bad. People go to a show and they want shopping opportunities, they want clothes shops, motor cars, tractors and the implements and that sort of thing, they want to see the livestock - there should be a mix. A lot of our one-day shows in this area do it very well, they are really good shows, and of course without them, you don’t have such as the GYS.”

Has there been a big shift in the public’s perception of farming in the last decade?

“I think there has. The support for British agriculture and horticulture gets greater, almost by the day. People want to know more about their food. We get food scares and we’ve had food scares for 50 years. People have got used to hearing about them and are making up their own minds. I think people like to know, as much as they can, how their food is produced. That’s very positive for us. I think the consumer is more supportive of British agriculture and horticulture than it has ever been. People are certainly looking for locally produced British produce.

“We have at the showground here the local shop, Fodder, which is locally and regionally produced produce, mostly, and the interest in that and people coming in and asking, and it’s not only that we sell meat to other local butchers and they say people come in and they want to know where the meat has come from and how it’s been reared, and that’s wonderful. And the supermarkets are spotting this and nearly all of them now have a section where they give a bit more history about the food and they’re not doing it for fun, they are doing it because people are asking more questions.”

Where do you stand on badger culling?

“We are very lucky in the Yorkshire region that we are not affected. TB is such a problem in certain parts of the country. I don’t know any more than I read in the paper but I’m convinced in my own mind that the people who say that the badger cull is the right thing to do - the vets, the farmers in the area - they are saying it has a remarkable effect. Apparently in Ireland, where they are a bit further down the road than we are, the effects have been quite dramatic in helping to control TB.”

Should the hunting ban stay?

“I think it’s part of the fabric of the countryside. I was sorry to see the Act introduced in the first place because I think some of the things were misrepresented. My view is that the Act will not be repealed in the short term. As it is, I think there are more important political things that will take place. I think the status quo will remain. But I think we are in a better place, the Government seems to be listening to both sides of the debate.”

Are we too resistant to change in the countryside?

“There is a great temptation to just pickle the countryside as it was in the times of Downton Abbey. We don’t want masses of ugly buildings in these picturesque areas but I’m absolutely certain that the pressure to maintain the environment as it was 50-100 years ago has too great a sway on planning decisions and decisions of people to set up businesses in the rural community. If we don’t get businesses in these communities, they will fade away, there’s no doubt.”

What are the prospects for young people coming into agriculture now?

“I am an optimist and I do think there is a good future for farming and rural life generally. As farmers we have got to produce the product that the consumer wants and we have to produce it at a price that people can afford to buy it and I think we can do that. To support this, a vibrant rural economy, you’re going to have to have infrastructure in place.”