Sarah Todd: Farmers’ votes will speak louder than their words

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SOMEBODY stuck a sign up on our land during the last election. We hadn’t met the candidate, they hadn’t asked permission and – more importantly – we didn’t like the idea of advertising any political preference to the rest of the world; or at the very least the local village.

That billboard had a good innings. After being rived up from the roadside field it went on for a good few years in a new incarnation, stopping a stray spring under an old mattress.

The incident sprang – forgive the bad pun – to mind as the march of hoardings gathers pace across our county’s farmland in the countdown to the 2015 election.

In the modern world, where anybody and everybody seems to be spilling their guts on the most personal of subjects, the farming fraternity is probably one of the last sector of the population not to be airing its washing, dirty or not, in public.

Be it the trade at livestock market, corn yields or prices, it’s unlikely you’ll get anything more than “fair to middling” from most of an agricultural persuasion. Hear all, see all and say nowt is a saying that sums up the outlook of many a farming family.

In spite of this seemingly genetic reluctance of farmers to put their heads above the parapet and speak out, the National Farmers’ Union has managed to take the bull by the horns and put together a manifesto of what the industry wants from the next Government.

It’s all very worthy. Investing for growth, protecting animal and plant health, securing knowledge and technology, building fair, safe and secure food chains and caring for our countryside.

Like so many Government departments, agriculture has had a gutful of the bland leading the bland. Faceless suit after faceless suit; many with no clear connection or interest in the industry. It’s sad that somewhere along the line the job appears to have been downgraded. We no longer have a “Minister” of Agriculture but a less senior sounding “Defra Secretary”.

There seems to be a Countryfile-style “everything’s wonderful and, by the way, we are all going for a lovely walk – after eating some organic lamb” perception of farming. Most farmers don’t have rare breeds, write blogs or run a farm shop – they are up to their welly tops in muck dealing with animals that have a lifetime ambition to die.

With the price of land, many are asset-rich but cash-poor. The public could well be forgiven for thinking farmers are wealthy; but the reality is that they will only ever have any brass if they throw the towel in and sell up.

While political parties argue over whether or not they would ban the badger cull – Labour would, the Tories wouldn’t – the worries from the real farmhouse kitchens (not those gracing the country retreats of politicians but the ones with a half-dead lamb warming in the bottom oven of the Aga) are simpler.

Behind the debate between rival political parties about headline-grabbing agricultural issues like the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) are more down-to-earth concerns. Farming families worry about things like whether their children will be able to afford to stay in the area where they have grown up.

Labour promises a minimum wage for agricultural workers. All well and good, but how many farms these days have any staff? Many used to have a couple of men, with more help coming in at busy times such as harvest and hay making. Our over-generous benefits system has put a stop to the kind of casual workers that used to be up for a bit of ad-hoc hard graft. There are plenty of farms out there with two or even three generations still toiling away; no hope of retirement on the horizon.

Fair price for produce is a big concern. Livestock goes to the abattoir to be killed for the supermarkets and there is such a gaping chasm between what the farmer gets and the price charged at the checkout. We all know about the devaluing of milk. Supermarket wars shouldn’t be played out with people’s livelihoods.

All would agree, surely, that British food should be served in our prisons, schools and to our Armed Forces? Certainly in the Houses of Parliament. Sounds like something Nigel Farage would raise a pint to.

That real farmhouse kitchen we were talking about is more likely to be full of paperwork than home baking. Passports for animals, movement and medicine records and computers trying – and failing – to get onto the Rural Payments Agency website. Talking of computers; too many country areas still struggle with broadband connection. Encouragingly, 88 per cent of the UK public think farming is important to the economy.

So, farmers are going to play their part in the final election result. There are 37 rural marginal seats in England alone and – whether they allow their prospective Parliamentary candidates to put up billboards or not – the way farmers vote on May 7 is going to make a difference.

Sarah Todd is a former editor of Yorkshire Life magazine. She is a farmer’s daughter, mother and journalist specialising in country life.