Sarah Todd: Now the nation needs champion for our farmers

Who can be the Boris Johnson of farming?
Who can be the Boris Johnson of farming?
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FORGET panicking politicians and sharp-suited sceptics, farmers are the one group of people the rest of the country should take their lead from.

Our sons of the soil are used
to playing the long game. They turn a cow out with the bull in the summer months and won’t
get a calf until well into the following year. That’s if they are lucky.

Same with sowing a field of wheat. Or any crop. Or pretty much anything a farmer does. It’s all about the future. They have profitable years and they have poor years. Bad weather or disease can make harvest a disaster.

Look at the dairy farmers that aren’t making any money at the moment. Most don’t get out; they know that if they manage to hang in there better times will (hopefully) come.

Then there are the beef farmers who had to ride the storms of BSE and foot and mouth. They didn’t all throw the towel in. Neither did the pig producers.

As sure as eggs is eggs, life in farming goes on. Swinging from the good years – when new milking parlous have been built and perhaps the odd old tractor replaced – to the hard times when the costs of production aren’t even covered. From season to season, year to year, generations of farmers have learned to take the rough with the smooth.

Perhaps it was fatigue after the all-night stint, but the BBC’s veteran broadcaster David Dimbleby didn’t seem to take a moment to take in Britain’s referendum decision. It was straight on with “what ifs” about what happens next.

It’s long been an irritation that Britain no longer has a Minister of Agriculture – perhaps that’s something we can now put right? – but its next best thing, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Elizabeth Truss, spoke sense when she said: “The British people have spoken. We must now put our shoulder to the wheel and ensure we leave the EU in the best way for Britain.”

Well said.

Top of the list will be coming up with the first British Agricultural Policy for 40 years. The National Farmers’ Union, which in my mind never really reflected what grassroots farmers were saying in the run-up to this referendum, needs to really step up to the plate now.

Agriculture must not be left on the back foot by this historic vote. It has the best produce and the highest welfare standards in the world. It’s just got to get its act together and shout about them.

Just as the Prime Minister recognised in such a dignified way the country required, farming now needs a new captain to steer the ship. It needs a champion.

To be honest, I can’t – without looking it up – name the president of the NFU or any of the recent holders of Liz Truss’s job. That’s saying something, isn’t it?

The industry needs its very own Boris. Could Farming Minister George Eustice be a candidate? He’s from a farming family and, unlike his boss Truss, voted to leave.

The Red Tractor logo campaign, which through labelling lets consumers know that meat has been reared in Britain with traceability, animal welfare and care for the environment, has done a damned fine job. It now needs some of the top brains and bright young things in the industry to take marketing Britain’s farming future to the next level.

The president of the Country Landowners’ Association (CLA), Ross Murray (can’t pretend his name was known either) was quick to speak positively about the opportunity Brexit gives to exploit new global markets. Also to “reduce the red tape that stifles” farmers in the day-to-day running of their businesses.

Reading more, I like the cut of this chap Murray’s jib. He immediately called for an early guarantee that “the support that is currently provided to UK farmers and the wider economy through the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) will continue unbroken and unchanged until at least the end of December 2020”.

Meanwhile, the NFU is having an extraordinary meeting of its council, or governing body, next Friday to talk about it all. A week’s a long time.

The union’s former chief economist, Sean Rickard, did comment – but to
say the decision to leave is “seriously bad news” for British farmers. In my mind the organisation needs to turn the tables and start looking at the positive.

All credit to the Tenant Farmers’ Association (TFA). Its chief executive, George Dunn, was straight onto the “high levels of both wisdom and diplomacy” now needed. He cited volatility in world markets, adapting to climate change, new technology, dealing with animal diseases, the use and development of pesticides and other farm chemicals and securing food and environmental security as key themes.

Looking at farmers as a breed that are used to playing the long game, they don’t think of themselves when they plant a tree or a new hedgerow. It’s all about the next generation …

In the meantime, there’s heart to be taken from the fact that
the Farmers’ Weekly was yesterday tweeting about “how to calibrate your slug pellet spreader”. Life – especially a country life – goes on.

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