David Handley Western Daily Press Column

30/9/2017

FARMING SEPTEMBER 30 DAVID HANDLEY COLUMN


I’m taking a day off next week and going down to the Dairy Event, one of those shows which are supposed to serve several purposes: showcasing the best of the region’s livestock and its most skilled and dedicated producers; providing a day out for farmers; and in theory at least sending them home better-informed and better-equipped to meet the daily challenge of making a penny profit.

It’s the event which every other person in the dairy industry drives to in their top-of-the range car and stands around in their best suit trying hard not to make the farmers look too shabby, while the farmers park their mud-spattered, time-expired transport and shamble around either sporting fleeces or boiler suits conspicuously branded with the logos of their feed or machinery suppliers or in the sort of vintage waxed jacket whose last job appears to have been lining the dog basket.

Mind you, there is no shortage of advice on offer to them. There are the machinery salesmen handing out glossy brochures and spinning them tales of how they can become more efficient, profitable and even attractive to women if they only invest £100,000 or so in the latest bit of kit.

There will be the banks whose oily staff will explain what a good idea it is to borrow more money to pay off borrowings – and there won’t be a merest sight of the attack dogs they employ to write the heavy letters when the payments fall behind.

There will be the accountants ready to talk about cash flow and the consultants who have never set foot in a field in their lives telling us how to screw additional and more profitable milk out of a cow.

The reptile section will be home to the dairy processors, all keen to grab our business now milk is short though not so keen to discuss the ways they have arbitrarily and unfeelingly slashed prices when the market has been in surplus.

And who knows? There might even be an AHDB stand – unmanned and empty but with the flag overhead still proudly flying the logo: Busy Doing Nothing.

All in all there will so much being freely dispensed in the way of coffee, biscuits, sandwiches and booze that a canny farmer who knows how to nod and smile and look interested can graze his way round the stands while collecting an armful of brochures (always creates the right impression, that) and thus avoid having to buy any of the overpriced food on offer. The brochures can be dumped in the bin on the way out.

But what I defy anyone to find is any of these hangers-on who are prepared to admit that dairy farming has never been in a more miserable, degraded situation than it is today; that without the least shred of collective muscle or effective leadership farmers are entirely at the mercy of the rest of the chain; and that the only income they are receiving or can hope to receive in return for working60 or more hours a week is the small change left from the retail price once everyone else has taken their cut.

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9/9/2017

FARMING SEPTEMBER 9 DAVID HANDLEY COLUMN

There are times when I wonder if farmers are the only people left in the real world.

One such moment occurred last week as I read about the professor of experimental psychology at Oxford who suggested hanging wind-chimes in the kitchen could be the secret to encouraging ‘fussy’ children to eat their greens.

The man in question is Charles Spence who has in the past worked for chef Heston Blumenthal helping him create some of his more bizarre recipes.

I’m not sure whether he is now working for the UK’s vegetable growers or the National Federation of Wind-Chime Manufacturers. Either way I have rarely heard such nonsense as is suggestion that by using wind-chimes to add ‘sonic seasoning’ parents can overcome their offspring’s aversion to Brussels sprouts and other bitter-tasting vegetables.

It’s quite extraordinary that a highly-paid academic can occupy his life with such pointless activity, especially when all he can come up with is some suggested way of treating the symptoms, rather than the cause, of the problem.

Apparently he was spurred to apply his mind to the issue by a survey of 2,000 adults which revealed their biggest food phobia as a child was sprouts, followed by cabbage, peas and broccoli.

Quite apart from the fact that I have yet to encounter a pea with the least hint of bitterness this study is somewhat outdated anyway because the sprouts those people ate as children are not the sprouts you will buy today. Why? Because growers have spent years breeding the bitterness out of sprouts and making them more palatable, precisely because fewer people were eating them.

The modern sprout is almost sweet-tasting compared with what we were eating – and being made to eat, I might add – when we were young.

The reason so many children in this country don’t like green vegetables is linked to the sugar-rich diet they have been brought up on. If you have been fed bland, sweetened baby food and then been weaned onto your parents’ diet rich in hidden sugar (tucked away in baked beans and a host of processed foods) as well as being given sweets, fizzy drinks and ice cream as a treat then your tastebuds are going to get a nasty shock the first time they encounter the flavour of a brassica.

We have most unhealthy children in Europe with high levels of obesity and dental decay and in many cases, even more worryingly, a strong aversion to anything resembling a healthy diet.

On the continent baby foods (often no more than pureed versions of adult meals) contain vegetables like spinach and broccoli, so that children get acquainted with the pleasure of eating slightly bitter-tasting foods as well as sweet ones and by the time they get to the school dinner tables are more than up for the healthy ingredients such as lentils, cabbage, chicory and indeed Brussels sprouts that are routinely served.

The UK food industry’s profit-chasing tactics of pumping as much sugar as possible into foods has left us with a terrible legacy and in so many cases a level of opposition to healthy alternatives which is not only irrational but which can border on the violent, as Jamie Oliver discovered with his crusade to improve school catering.

This is the problem academic minds should be concentrating on solving. And it will take something rather more imaginative than hanging up a set of wind-chimes from the pound store to do so.

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6/9/2017 Jim Moseley’s CEO Red Tractor response in today’s Western Daily Press to David Handley’s FFA recent comment on Red Tractor  Assurance.

Apologies for quality but no link available.




2/9/2017

FARMING SEPTEMBER 2 DAVID HANDLEY COLUMN

I’ve just had a glossy, 50-page, lavishly-produced booklet through the post, courtesy of Red Tractor Assurance.

When I have nothing better to do I will sit down and read it - though at first glance I can’t see a time coming within the next 20 years when there won’t be better things to do. Like polishing the number plate on the tractor, or checking the cat for fleas.

I was sent it because I am, apparently, a member of the Red Tractor Assurance Scheme though frankly, for all the good that that has done me I might as well be a member of my local WI. At least I could have learned flower arranging.

Anyway, its purpose apparently, is to inform me that every three years a team of farmers, retailers, vets and other industry “experts” (my quotation marks, not theirs) meets to review farm standards and ensure they come up to what the consumers want and expect.

All very commendable. Even though, as the covering letter goes on to explain, the newly-revised standards are going to require some people to change the way they run their farms.

I’m sure that won’t be a problem. Farmers, after all have plenty of time on their hands these days.And they are always ready to welcome with overflowing enthusiasm suggestion from non-farmers, such as vets, retailers and the all-important consultants (most of who based on personal experience, I wouldn’t consult about the time of day) on how to run their businesses more efficiently, more profitably and with all due attention paid to welfare.

Quite what the reaction would be if I marched into my local branch of Tesco, told the manager he was doing it all wrong and produced my own detailed plan for running his store I’m not sure. Any more than I can say how my vet would react if I wrote to him and told him he needed to run his business in line with customer expectations so here was a list of improvements.

As to the suggestions for reinforcing the assurance criteria I am confused. Advice to the effect that silage must be stored so as not to cause pollution and that a permanent supply of clean water should be provided via clean troughs would seem utterly superfluous.

But I am now told I have to carry out risk assessments of watercourses and non-target species before putting down rat bait. I should have a map of the farm showing where all the buildings are – presumably in case I forget. And I must neither tether my cattle all year round nor use anything but non-abrasive material for halters. Well if I did tether them all year round I wouldn’t be able to get them into the parlour. And what do they think I use for halters – barbed wire?

When the Red Tractor scheme was launched and we were all invited along we listened to the then Prime Minister telling us what a wonderful thing it would be and what fantastic benefits we would draw from it once we signed up to and abided by the assurance rules.

Twenty years down the line I’m still waiting. Large sections of the public still don’t know what the Red Tractor means – or if they do that it can be applied to imported food if produced to British standards - and as a marketing tool it is about as effective as sticking the smiley face of Count Dracula on a packet of black pudding.

Meanwhile after 20 years of doing damn-all Red Tractor Assurance has become yet another quango occupied by the “experts” who know less about farming than the people they are dictating their wonderful standards to.

I have a message for its new chief executive, Jim Moseley. Welcome to the gravy train. First class accommodation is at the front.

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12/8/2017

FARMING AUGUST 12 DAVID HANDLEY COLUMN

Everywhere I go the talk seems to centre on the same subject: subsidies.

Every farmer I meet seems to be asking the same questions: are we going to get the same levels of subsidy support once we are standing on our own outside the EU tent? Should we really have voted to leave? Aren’t we going to be reduced to the level of poor relations while our competitors on the mainland continue to enjoy generous taxpayer support?

I suggest farmers extend the scope of their reading beyond the columns of market prices or the reviews of the latest shiny tractors and look at what is happening in Europe where negotiations are taking place as to what level of farm support there should be within the community from 2020 onwards.

And the message already coming out is that whatever aid there is for agriculture it will be nothing like the present level because there isn’t going to be enough money in the budget. Continental farmers are going to have to be weaned off the kind of support which has seen 100 billion euros shovelled into the pockets of French farmers alone in the last decade.

Consumers who have been the beneficiaries of supermarket price wars are going to be presented with the reality: food prices have been kept artificially low but only at the expense of farmers being kept on starvation incomes and the failure of hundreds of small and medium-sized businesses in the food chain, unable to draw enough profit from their activities to survive.

Which, of course, is precisely what has been happening here. Fortunately for us we shall be able to do something about it without first having to reach an agreement with more than two dozen other countries. We shall be able to act independently, decisively and without any of the lengthy horse-trading that accompanies any such reforms in Europe as politicians attempt to protect so many national interests.

But reform there will have to be. We need to reshape British agriculture so that farmers get off the tractor seat and start properly marketing what they produce.

Now when I, or other people like Richard Haddock, suggest such a thing we are branded as radicals babbling about a dream world that is never going to become a reality. What I say is this: it is going to happen sooner or later because sooner or later taxpayers are going to revolt against the notion of farmers existing on hand-outs when every other business sector in the country stands on its own two feet.

That dream world could become a reality within the space of five years so we might as well start making the first moves now while we still have a chance to influence the way it will look, instead of having the politicians’ preferred model imposed on us.

We have to break the current mould where UK food policy is run by a cabal of supermarkets and the majority of our milk industry controlled by overseas-based processors. We have to start co-operating and effectively marketing our fantastic food and drink through shortened and more profitable food chains.

We shouldn’t wait for anyone else to do it. The NFU hasn’t the first clue about marketing; Government agencies are bloated and useless. Farmers have to organise, to come together to take collective control of strategic chunks of the market so they can one again be price makers rather than price takers – to quote the much-missed Derek Mead.

Had we done this 20 years ago we wouldn’t need to rely on subsidies by now: the money could be put into the holiday fund instead.

And we need to revolutionise British farming for another very good reason: to attract the next generation into the industry. Because as things stand offering a young person the chance to give up a well-paid job in an office or a factory and come back and take over the family farm so they can spend 20 years losing money like their father before them doesn’t look like a particularly good deal.

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10/8/2017

FARMING AUGUST 5 DAVID HANDLEY COLUMN

I’ve been up in the north this week trying to bring some sort of cohesion to the campaign to eradicate TB. My only conclusion on reaching home again was that I might as well not have bothered.

Not only did the sessions I have with farmers up there fail to agree on a consensual approach, the opinions and attitudes I experienced made me even more doubtful that we are going to get to grips any time soon with the worst animal health epidemic we have had in this country for decades.

From my observations it seems no MP is prepared to stand up and demand swifter and more comprehensive action to eradicate diseased badgers because they are all fearful of the backlash that will generate from the pro-badger section of the population.

About a third of the rest of the country’s farmers want to rely on vaccination even though that is a complete hit-and-miss approach (generally with more miss than hit); a third are happy to sit back and let the Government get on with shooting everything in sight claiming - with the NFU – that it’s the only option; and another third wants to start coming at the problem from another direction by targeting only diseased setts and gassing their occupants.

Meanwhile the Scots appear to be totally in denial about having TB at all, even though they clearly have.

I went up there hoping that in the face of a still-growing menace from bovine TB farmers could for once sit down and formulate a policy which would take a rather more intelligent approach than mass slaughtering – a method which is by no means guaranteed to remove every diseased animal though is pretty well guaranteed to perturb local populations leading to diseased badgers moving into previously clean zones.

Unfortunately all I got were several hours of claim, counter-claim, argument, counter-argument and a generally chaotic exchange of views. The only agreement achieved was one to carry on disagreeing.

This, of course, will all be music to the ears of the badger groups who, while one can diametrically disagree with their views, have at least held together a united front as far as policy and campaigning goes.

They have definitely still got the upper hand in the propaganda war, too, mainly because there is so little opposition.

The Government has never properly explained to the public why badger numbers have to be reduced – and there is no doubt the initiative has to come from the Government rather than the NFU which most people apart from farmers have never heard of, so low has its profile become.

No wonder, with the constant drip of half-truths and downright untruths from the badger-lovers, a large majority of the public show more sympathy for badgers than they do for farmers.

And the longer disagreement reigns within the farming community the more that trend will gather pace – and the more TB will outrun the current piecemeal attempts to eradicate it.

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I read another depressing statistic from the world of education earlier this week,

It appears that two-fifths of primary school pupils in England have failed to meet the expected standard in reading, writing and mathematics.

Naturally, teachers have been quick to claim the figures only show a partial picture and inevitably there were those who were only waiting to lay the blame for this on insufficient Government funding for education – though I have to ask myself whether even if we doubled the education budget we would end up with a better standard of teaching, which is where the root of the problem appears to lie.

But it’s not so much one statistical snapshot that concerns me as a general picture, one which shows how little children are being taught about food, where it comes from, And improve children’s knowledge of rural affairs is an occasional talk by someone from the NFU – which is hardly going to inspire anyone.

So it’s hardly surprising that every so often surveys come out revealing teenage pupils’ frightening lack of understanding about where their food comes from.

Thousands of children believe cheese is produced from plants.And thousands refuse to believe that milk is squeezed from a cow’s udder or that an egg appears from the back end of a hen – and are revolted that this is the case.

This is a dreadful state of affairs when we have not merely one of the most advanced farming systems in the world but when the quality of food produced on those farms is without parallel.

The countryside represents a huge classroom offering a grounding in any number of subjects, all of them far more exciting that the standard food technology course which, one teenager complained to me, taught him nothing more inspiring thanhow to design a pizza,

This lack of connection between classroom and countryside does not exist to the same extent in most other countries.

Children in European schools have all the benefits of learning in depth about food and how and where it is produced.British children are left in almost complete ignorance, so it’s little wonder so many are susceptible to the now largely discredited claims for the benefits of dairy-free and vegan diets.

We used to have what was regarded as the finest education system in the world but as the global statistics show we are now well down the league table in terms of measured achievements and outcomes, and teaching about food is one of the areas where we lag behind most.

As a former education secretary Michael Gove should be looking at this situation and applying his mind as to how Defra can help drive new initiatives to push food education further up the agenda.

It would be nice to think he would make this a priority.