Farming - Past, Present and its Future

On an evening fraught with bad news in the media concerning the implications of a petrol protest, growing by the hour more threatening, we met to listen to Derek Loweth from the National Farmers Union who proved such an able mixer of facts with anecdotes that we were truly diverted from our worries to hear about agriculture, farmers and tractors.

His first point was indeed valid - things in his world have changed very fast - and will continue to do so; adapting to change more than most as the business of feeding our population flits from one method, fad or political initiative to another. No longer does a government seek help from agriculture to meet a balance of payments problem - thanks to North Sea Oil. Now the influence of 'going into Europe' has shown a serious difference in interpretation of the rules, which work more to end disadvantage than elsewhere. World Trade Agreements have inflicted damage to our farming communities - halving the price of a ton of wheat offered to the market.

The local are has some 350 farms - a mix of 'hobby' farmers, retired people farming in a small way, and the largest farm hereabouts which covers 1,500 acres. Mostly the land is used for arable crops. Over the last 25 years lettuce and tomatoes have vanished, along with the cultivation of wallflowers, once a large crop in this area. In a local village, Armitage, where once 17 family farms were economically sound, only one remains. Of the farms we still have in the County, only three still rear pigs, two raise chickens and two produce eggs. The changes have gone on very quietly - but steadily - whilst the buildings remain and have undergone change of use the livestock is no more.

Arable farmers grow wheat, barley, oil seed rape, potatoes and sugar boot. European rules control the prices - whatever the costs of production. Very few dairy farmers are left; as farmers now mostly nearing 50 years of age contemplate the financial returns for very long hours of hard work few young farmers want to face the uncertain future and rapidly rising land prices; quite apart from other less demanding jobs which do not require an investment of 3,000 per acre in land at the outset.

Interestingly there are now more horses in our fields than at the end of the First World War. Paddocks of 3-4 acres are sought for a child's horse - but such land use sours the soil, making it hard to cultivate afterwards. Another factor discouraging land use for growing cabbage, broccoli or salad crops - formerly grown in vast amounts in the fields around Shenstone, Footherley and Aldridge - is the modern taste for eating pasta or rice instead of 'green stuff'. There may however be a future fro diversification into oil-type crops with a commercial future.

With the arrival of the B.S.E. panic some two years ago prices for beef plummeted after enormous damage caused by less than accurate facts headlined in the media. The consequent tagging, recording and passport procedures put a very heavy bureaucratic load onto farming. The loss of the Lichfield Auction Centre, followed by the demise of the Fradley Livestock Market, caused further problems.

The current evolutionary changes happen faster nowadays and arguing with Supermarkets presents another set of obstacles to local growers and producers. The established agricultural firm of Burgess' was tempted to sell its site to a Supermarket but its out-of-town replacement centre hasn't succeeded and the local Ford tractor outlet is also due to close. Poor farmers don't buy new machinery.

The Birmingham Northern Relief Road, though desperately needed, takes ore land out of production and puts pressure onto neighbouring farmers, as does the Wall Island Leisure Complex. We now have some of the best agricultural land in this area being lost for building homes, hotels and roads. The hotels and caterers have created a demand for uniform sized cuts of meat - for serving identical meals - which our farmers haven't geared up to supply but other countries have.

Where once every village had a Young Farmers' Club there are now just eight left in the County and the College of Agriculture now turns out horticultural or horse specialists rather than agricultural students. There is a shortage of young people looking for work as casual farm labourers - even though machines have taken over much of the work, people are needed to use them - and we are now having to recruit labour for seasonal jobs from China, Poland and South Africa; and foreign students come in to pick strawberries.

In spite of all this we still produce the best and most food per head of our population. The effect of buying and selling in Euros brings no help from our Government comparable to that offered under a European monetary compensation allowance to farmers across the Channel. Most of our local farmers are small ones with farmer tenants and owner-occupiers using contract workers for jobs like hedging, baling and picking. Successful crops are now parsnips and sprouts - both readily sold to Supermarkets.

As traditional farming has declined paperwork has increased and in many cases requires full-time secretarial help - particularly as the Common Agricultural Policy rules and regulations are strictly adhered to in our country; unlike others! As the Americans demand the death of subsidies elsewhere, they give their own farmers huge amounts of help and cheap fuel.

We are justly proud of the high standard of animal welfare on our farms and well-treated animals certainly sell well. Rural wildlife has seen a tremendous increase in the numbers of magpies, jays, sparrow-hawks, badgers, rats, mice and foxes - and the recent appearance of a red-kite over Cannock Wood has caused much excitement.

On the topic of genetically modified foods, our own seed strains have already been improved over about twenty years to give many advantages in terms of better health and crop levels - whereas in China acres and acres have been given over to these experimental crops.

After such a detailed and fascinating review of the scene, internationally, nationally and locally, we were left with a lot to think about - some good, positive and reassuring, some less so - but, for better of for worse this is now farming today. Thank you Derek Loweth for providing such a well thought out and delivered presentation.

Brenda Towlson
September 2000