Nigel Pulling: Thousands flock to enjoy taste of a vital industry

THIS weekend, the Yorkshire Agricultural Society welcomes thousands of visitors to Countryside Live in Harrogate.

The “little sister” of the Great Yorkshire Show is a chance for young and old alike to enjoy themselves, see the classes for cattle, sheep and horses, sample some of Yorkshire’s finest foods, and perhaps do some shopping.

But Countryside Live, at the Great Yorkshire Showground, is about something much more.

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It’s about giving people an insight into agriculture, the joys and challenges farmers face, and it acts as a reminder of just how important the rural economy is.

Sometimes, it can be easy to forget the journey that our food takes before it arrives in our kitchens or on our dining tables. It’s a journey that involves long hours and hard graft, whatever the weather, for farmers who often work seven days a week to produce food to the highest possible standards.

That hard work and commitment to excellence benefits us all. It gives us healthy, safe and traceable food to eat. And it makes a massive contribution to the economy.

Without agriculture, Yorkshire would be a very different, and much poorer, place. Last year, total income from farming in Yorkshire amounted to £677m, an increase of 12 per cent – or £74m – on 2012. That in itself is a huge contribution to our region’s economy, but if we look a little closer at the figures, the scale of agriculture’s importance becomes even clearer.

Some 67 per cent of Yorkshire’s land is farmed, and our county’s agriculture employs almost 30,000 people. Nationally, farming is worth £220bn, and last year British farmers produced 60 per cent of the nation’s food, which is meeting a real desire on the part of the 86 per cent of the public who want to buy British. These are figures from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. They give a real sense of the key role that farmers play in the life of Britain – and their commitment to the countryside.

The average farm has invested £1.5m in growing or producing food, and imaginative diversification has added £440m to farming’s bottom line, making the sector even more valuable.

Let’s never forget that agriculture stands at the centre of rural communities across Yorkshire. From the Dales and the North Yorkshire Moors, to the Wolds and the Vale of York, farming is the heartbeat of our countryside, supporting jobs in a host of other industries.

And Yorkshire is also at the heart of Britain’s agriculture, not only because it is the largest county. The Great Yorkshire Show, every July, is the country’s premier agricultural event, when our county is the focus of farming nationally, and exhibitors travel from all over Britain.

Those three days are the greatest annual showcase that farming has, but here at the Yorkshire Agricultural Society, we work all year round. We are a charity devoted to championing agriculture, supporting it and always looking for ways to give it the brightest possible future.

We run many events aimed at raising awareness, including workshops for teachers to give them a better knowledge of farming and rural matters.

At Countryside Live today, we are very much looking forward, through our Future Farmers of Yorkshire group, to hosting a debate which puts the challenges and joys of working in the industry in the spotlight. The group brings together younger farmers, vets and industry supporters, and the debate enables us to engage with visitors and perhaps to strip away some of the misconceptions about our industry.

Bringing agriculture and the public together was the aim of Countryside Live when it was founded in 2003 following the trauma of the foot-and-mouth epidemic. Our intention then was to increase knowledge and understanding of agriculture and rural life, and so it remains.

There is a natural affinity between the people of Yorkshire and farmers. It can be seen in the crowds that flock to the Great Yorkshire every summer, and in the increasing numbers coming to Countryside Live – sales of family tickets are up 15 per cent this year, and competitive entries the second highest in the event’s 12-year history.

The reason for the close affinity between farmers and the public is that they share the same concerns about the countryside and the food we eat. Farmers are the guardians and stewards of the countryside all of us so love, caring for it and preserving it.

In recent years, people have become increasingly environmentally aware. The public values the work that farmers do to safeguard our landscape, and there has been a growing commitment to reducing food miles, buying local produce and traceability.

Farmers and the families who eat the food they produce are at one on these issues, as well as on the importance of supporting local businesses and the economy of Yorkshire.

The fields and the farms of Yorkshire give our glorious countryside its character, but they do something more besides. They drive the rural economy that is so vital to all of us who live and work here.

All of us at the Yorkshire Agricultural Society hope the visitors to Countryside Live have a wonderful day out, and that when they go home, they know a bit more about why farming matters so very much to all of us.

• Nigel Pulling is chief executive of Yorkshire Agricultural Society.