David Handley Western Daily Press Column


DAVID HANDLEY WESTERN DAILY PRESS AUGUST 17

Shame and disgrace are about to be heaped on the name of Handley, as things stand.

Unless I can provide a vital piece of evidence I face being ejected from the Red Tractor accreditation scheme to which I have been persuaded it is in my best interests to subscribe for some years now.

In view of the recent history of failures by companies who proudly fly the flag and brand their goods with it you may by now be asking yourself of which heinous breach of the regulations I have been guilty. Keeping my animals short of feed? Allowing them to go lame or generally failing to give them adequate veterinary care?

None of the above, I am happy to say. No, my failure relates to the absence of a piece of paper certifying that my milking machinery is all up to scratch. It is, because I’ve had it inspected and checked. But I haven’t yet been sent a written clean bill of health for it.

And because I can’t produce that I have been put on 28 days’ notice of being de-Red Tractored. I am confident it will turn up in time and I fully accept that he Red tractor organisation must take a firm line with individuals like me because rules are rules and if people don’t adhere to them then the whole scheme is at risk of losing all credibility.

Though perhaps to that should be added ‘depending on how big your company is, of course’.

If it happens to be called Moy Park then clearly there is another set of rules, however. One which says that you will not be instantly removed from the scheme even if thousands of chickens are allowed to die during a heatwave, so throwing into question Red Tractor’s entire validity as a badge denoting high animal welfare standards.

And another which says that even if video footage is released showing birds being raised in the most appalling conditions of squalor at three other of your units then you will only be temporarily suspended from the scheme while you are given time to clean up your act.

And a third which says that should you be called Moy Park and have such devastating bad luck befall you as to unwittingly allow chickens to die from heat exhaustion then Red Tractor will immediately assume the rule of defence Counsel, arguing on your behalf that that could happen to anyone, particularly during a heatwave.

Meanwhile telling the world that it has a ‘zero-tolerance’ attitude to such things, a statement which, under the circumstances, not only exposes Red Tractor to universal ridicule but is so much at odds with the facts s to make it appear an utter lie.

As is the case when it claims to have ‘robust processes in place to carefully monitor the conditions for our birds’. Well, they might be ‘in place’ – but they clearly weren’t being exercised here.

Meanwhile I must assume that, equally, Red Tractor has similar robust processes in place to ensure every dairy farmer is using a milking machine which has been comprehensively inspected to ensure it is working properly – though the fact that the cows stand at one end and milk still appears from the other end could be accepted in any court of law as circumstantial evidence that mine is.

And if, when requested, I am unable to produce within the stated period of 28 days the required documentation to support that evidence then indeed I must expect to be sanctioned according to a ‘zero-tolerance attitude’.

You might well take the view, having read all the foregoing, that Red Tractor operates dual standards: one for the small business, another for the bigger players in the game. I could not possibly comment.

ends





10/8/2019

I was recently invited to attend a meeting in the in the northwest where the issue of Brexit was the sole item on the agenda. It was a very private affair with a total of only 12 people present, but very interesting individuals they turned out to be.

They were nearly all European, came from eight different countries, and were there as a result of having asked to meet like-minded people to discuss the UK leaving the EU.

As you can imagine I was quite sceptical; surely these people were more concerned that the UK should not be leaving the EU, but it was the complete opposite. In fact the representatives from three countries - Spain, Italy and Greece – made it quite clear they could not wait for the UK to leave as it would set a precedent which would give them the opportunity to jump ship as well.

This is all very interesting when you consider we are consistently being told that 27 countries do not want the UK to leave the EU. Here were people from those 27 countries saying the complete opposite. What actually is going on here and who actually is telling us the full - and above all truthful - story about Brexit?

One of the tales being peddled by the NFU, the FUW and others is that if we leave with no deal our sheep market will collapse because of tariffs. But according to those attending the meeting a deal will be struck. And on the sheep issue it was very interesting to hear the view of one of our biggest importers of lamb. The French representative made it very clear indeed that his country needs our lamb because it cannot be produced in the same quantity and to the same quality over there.

Equally it was fascinating to learn that Labour politicians, some former prime ministers, even some farmer representatives have been travelling Europe using their influence to try to stop Brexit - a disgraceful situation that the majority of us in this country are completely unaware of.

The second day of the event was every more intriguing when I met a number of Irish individuals. Never have I met such angry people. They repeatedly told us that the UK had no right to distort their market and influence the impact on their agriculture exports.

My point to them was very clear: why should we protect the Irish farmer whose products undercut our own in our supermarkets? They also tried to use the Peace Process as a red herring, warning it would be threatened by a hard border.

Yet our other European friends were very clear: as far as they were concerned, there was no need for a backstop and there was no need for any hard border. The Irish stance was an example of scaremongering by those in the EU who cannot afford for the UK to leave.

Much more was discussed over those two days but I can assure everyone when I came out from that meeting there were three words ringing in my ears: lies, lies and lies - peddled by those in the UK still trying to stop Brexit for ever, despite the peoples' majority vote.

DAVID HANDLEY COLUMN WESTERN DAILY PRESS JULY 20

Everyone who farms livestock is fully aware of the old saying that if you don’t look after their animals they won’t look after you.

I have always taken the view that it’s the best bit of advice going and one that a farmer only ignores at his or her peril.

So I look after my dairy herd and make sure I check their condition, not once a day but several times a day. In fact they routinely pass in front of my eyes four times a day when they come in for milking and are let out again, and that’s quite apart from the other visits I make to them when they are grazing.

I think I am doing a pretty good job. My vet agrees. The only issue he has raised with me is that perhaps two of them may need some adjustment in their diet. Otherwise they are fine.

But not, it seems, for everyone. I have just had the rule run over me and my operation by the assessor who decides whether I qualify for ‘farm assurance’ status and can therefore proudly stand behind the Red tractor banner with the best of them.

What I have been pulled up on is the fact that I do not keep written mobility and condition records. These are not yet enforceable under the scheme – but I have reason to suspect they soon may be. Of course what no-one from Red Tractor will be able to do is to actually justify the keeping of such records when I already keep a four-times-a-day check on my animals and (see my opening sentence) intervene immediately if I suspect a problem.

The only thing that will be achieved by keeping written records will be the creation of more work for the assessor; more forms for him to sit down and read through and check; one more task to help fill his required nine-to-five working day. And let’s suppose I decided to cook up a completely bogus set of records. How would he even know?

His other gripe was that there are ‘only’ myself and my wife on the farm to do the job of administering routine drugs and that we haven’t been properly ‘trained’. I dare say we could be. I am sure we could both take the day off work and drive 150 miles or so and pay a couple of hundred pounds to attend some course on correct drug administration and come back with a certificate to pin on the parlour wall for the cows to read. But would that make us any more competent at the job than we currently are, both having done it for more than 50 years?

When the Red Tractor scheme was launched the president of the NFU (under whose wing it actually operates) was Ben Gill who told us all how vital it was going to be in supplying the nation with safe, wholesome food which consumers could buy with confidence while, equally, bringing more prosperous times for farmers.

What I see now is an organisation riddled with pointless bureaucracy (I understand another tier of inspectors is in place to check on the assessors.

I see, equally an organisation which appears to operate dual standards: one for the soft-target, small producers like me and another for the industrial giants such as Moy Park, over whose portals the Red Tractor flag proudly flies.

I still don’t believe consumers understand what the Red Tractor is all about, though if they had seen the recent footage captured undercover at Moy Park they might well believe it is a seal of approval for stinking, squalid poultry houses where chickens will be lucky to survive their miserably short allotted span. And here I have to ask two pertinent questions: if Assured Foods was aware of conditions at this plant why did it not intervene? And if it wasn’t aware, why not?

As to the immeasurable benefits the scheme would deliver for farmers my only reward for stumping up another £800 to be assessed on my qualification for it has been a £12,000 drop in my income from milk last year.

ends


FARMING JULY 6 DAVID HANDLEY COLUMN

No farmer – or member of the general public – could have failed to be sickened by the appalling scenes activists filmed inside a Moy Park factory farm recently.

Few of us are going to buy chicken again, I suspect, without examining the label very closely indeed.

And what makes this whole episode even more sickening is that Moy Park is a company over whose front door the Red Tractor flag proudly flutters as a signal to consumers that all is well within.

After all what is the fundamental message of the Red Tractor movement? According to its website: “Red Tractor is a world leading farm and food assurance scheme that provides traceable, safe food. It’s an easy signpost for consumers looking for British food and drink that they can trust.”

What sort of image does that conjure up in the mind of the shopper? Certainly not one of reeking, overcrowded poultry sheds where chickens suffer skin burns as they scrabble for food during their short and extremely miserable lives.

Not a bit of it. It suggests that the birds are kept in first-class accommodation with a choice of diet and a bedtime story every night.

Of course the excuses are already pouring out as to how this particular unit was allowed to operate under the radar, but we have heard them all before. Many times. The indisputable fact is that had proper, independent and unannounced inspections been carried to ensure Red Tractor standards were being adhered to this situation would never have been allowed to develop. As it turns out they weren’t, and not for the first time there are red faces round at Red Tractor headquarters, accompanied by a lot of bluster.

Yet this episode only underlines the misgivings a lot of us have had for years of the value of Red Tractor, in particular the organisation’s ability to deliver on its promises.

Some two years after it was launched a poll off shoppers revealed only a small percentage knew what the Red Tractor stood for (or at least was meant to stand for). I doubt many more could recite any part of its mission statement now.

But it has developed a knee-jerk culture among consumers: if it’s got a Red Tractor on it it must be OK and they can buy it with confidence without the merest concern that they might (as in this case) be in the process of being cruelly deceived.

To an extent in this case that we should be demanding resignations at the very top of the Red Tractor organisation and, equally, at its overseeing body the NFU – though as a matter of policy the NFU never puts its hand up and admits it’s failed in some way.

And on a wider front I am beginning to wonder what real purpose any of these schemes really serve. Take, for instance, Farm Assurance. In order to continue comply with the demands of that scheme I am to have an inspector crawling all over my farm for the privilege of which I have to hand over £800. It will then (bring some unforeseen disaster) be announced to the world that I am a supplier of superior, welfare-friendly beef which the public can buy with confidence.

But what has Farm Assurance actually done for me? The only change in my fortunes has been a negative one; a five pence a litre drop in my milk price over the last twelve months.

Meanwhile a friend of mine, who is not Farm Assured, sells his beef direct to independent butchers, hotels and restaurants and actually achieves a higher price for it than I can get.

He doesn’t need inspections and he doesn’t have to pay £800 to some remote, faceless organisation for a bit of paper which says his meat is good and to fit to eat. It’s his customers who decide that.

Which of us is getting it right?

ends


FARMING JUNE 29 DAVID HANDLEY COLUMN

Now the very last time I mentioned Christine Tacon, the Groceries Code Adjudicator, in this column I got into a bit of trouble.

It was when I suggested that it was because of her previous association with the Co-op that that particular retailer got off with little more than a light slap after being caught indulging in some very sharp practice towards its suppliers.

There was quite an uproar. All sorts of people went to considerable lengths to tell me that Ms Tacon was utterly impartial in all her dealings with the grocery trade and was above any kind of favouritism and impervious to any attempt to influence her.

So be it. I am, as always, content to accept the word of those who believe they know better than me if it makes them happy.

But what are we to make of the latest turn of events? What are we to deduce from two recent announcements: the one of last week to the effect that the Government was appealing for views on Ms Tacon’s effectiveness, shortly followed by her own confirming that she is to step down next year after seven years in the post?

You see, if I were a real cynic I might take the view that – given the deafening absence of any overwhelming praise for Ms Tacon’s work – she has decided to jump before being pushed. But I am not a real cynic.

Neither do I really understand whether the Government is seeking views on her personal effectiveness or the effectiveness of the actual post, no matter who the current incumbent is. All I can say is that I were in Government I would take the view that there were far better ways of wasting money than by employing a Groceries Code Adjudicator if the person holding the post wasn’t going to be capable of whipping the supermarket sector into line.

Which Christine Tacon clearly hasn’t. Neither I nor any other farmer I talk to can discern any improvement in the trading climate between supermarkets and their suppliers. Indeed the fact that the Co-op was content to keep stitching up some of its suppliers several years after she had been appointed speaks for itself.

From this side of the farm gate the picture remains the same of retailers using their overwhelming market muscle to coerce and control those lower down the food chain; and of suppliers taking the view that if you are dealing with a supermarket you should do so in anticipation of being shafted because then you won’t be too disappointed when it happens.

We are never going to improve on this situation and forge fairer relationships between supermarkets and suppliers until we follow the French example and do it through laws placing strict limits on discounting, setting minimum profit margins that must be achieved and banning the sale of goods for less than the cost of production.

We certainly aren’t going to do it by employing a high-profile, low-achieving poodle in place of a proper watchdog.

Still, I bet when she goes Ms Tacon will be given a massive send-off by a very appreciative retail sector together with a framed copy of her achievements – a list as long as that of the days when Boris Johnson hasn’t been caught telling porkies.

If I were a real cynic I might let my mind wander to the matter of which of the retailers will be offering Ms Tacon her next employment. But I’m not, so I won’t.

ends


FARMING JUNE 8 DAVID HANDLEY COLUMN

We are into the agricultural show season and not a single event will take place, from the largest to the smallest one-day fair, without the virtues of great British food being promoted.

Showgoers will be able to gorge themselves on the very finest fare and will probably fill their shopping bags with more to eat at home. They may even pick up producers’ details with a view to buying more online at a later date.

But once outside the showground they will find themselves back in the familiar, depressing landscape where food is marketed not on the basis of quality but of price.

For a few brief hours they will have inhabited another world where quality is everything and price is a secondary consideration; where the emphasis is on eating less but eating better.

Yet what do they encounter on their normal weekly – or daily - shopping trips? Plenty of supermarkets proclaiming themselves proud to be supporting British farmers and inviting the punters through the doors to sample the best food and drink this country can offer – only to confront them with temptation in the form of rival imported products being knocked out and heavily promoted at far cheaper prices.

In many instances those imports are if not actually co-mingled then displayed sufficiently close to home-produced equivalents to increase the likelihood of shoppers either deciding to go for the cheaper option or selecting it unwittingly.

And what are they paying for? Produce from countries whose farmers and growers are subject to far less stringent controls, from animal welfare to basic hygiene, than the UK’s. Where producers don’t have to bear the burden of regulation costs or the compulsory levies we see disappearing into a black hole every month.

The same imported products find their way into processed foods – which keeps their cost down too – and which are now being peddled in frightening quantities: foods which I for one would never be happy to eat but which millions of people in this country feed their children on a daily basis.

As each succeeding study emerges highlighting the potential risks of -eating too much of the stuff I become very seriously concerned about the gigantic health problems we may be storing up for the current generation of under-20s, many of whom have been fed an unremitting diet of cheap, highly-processed food since they were weaned.

But of course it suits the Government entirely for food to remain cheap. It keeps people happy. And anyway the less they spend on food, which doesn’t attract VAT, then the more they have to spend on goods and services which do - and the happier they are round at the Treasury.

We have a Government which is nakedly and shamefully operating double standards: very good at trumpeting the benefits of British produce but in reality loading our farmers up with so many costs that they cannot compete with the inferior imports which continue pouring into this country by the thousands of tons and account for a steadily growing proportion of our national diet.

If the Government was serious about getting the nation to eat more healthily and sensibly it would change its own procurement policies for areas such as the health and education services to favour British produce. It would change the national curriculum to put not merely food technology but hands-on cooking back on the agenda so that the rising generation at least will have a chance of making it beyond 50 without developing some chronic condition because they will be able to make sensible informed choices about what they buy, prepare and eat.

But while all those millions of pounds of VAT receipts continue to rattle into the Treasury’s coffers ministers, it seems, are happy to allow the national diet to be based on burgers, pizzas, and sugar-laden fizzy drinks.

ends


FARMING JUNE 1 DAVID HANDLEY COLUMN

Farmers’ markets? A brilliant concept. The best marketing strategy the farming industry could ever hope for – and it was all started from scratch by a small but far-sighted group in Bath.

The network of markets that that early initiative spawned has achieved far more than merely providing sections – though by no means all – of the public with access to wholesome, safe and traceable food. It has also started to reconstruct bridges between farmers and consumers – bridges which had progressively weakened and then all but collapsed as our food production became ever more industrialised.

And it’s all been achieved without the use of ridiculously expensive consultants, which to what you seem to have to employ for every single project you propose these days.

So I am a huge admirer of farmers’ markets. But they also make me envious. Envious of those allotment occupiers and smallholders who simply pile their produce in the van every week and take it to the market to sell to their trusting clientele.

‘Trusting’ because the shoppers do have an innate trust of the sellers: they are after all supplying them with products of high quality and reliability, so what’s not to trust?

Oddly, that is precisely what farmers are doing, only on a far larger scale. But, unlike the farmers’ markets suppliers, we cannot simply go into a garden centre and come out with armfuls of every type of fertiliser, every sort of pesticide and every variety of herbicide known to man, use what we want and simply keep the rest in the garden shed or on a shelf in the garage.

When it comes to that kind of thing we are so tightly controlled it’s sometimes difficult to breathe. We have to have licences to use this, permits to use that, lockable stores to contain anything remotely noxious. We are tested and inspected every inch of the way.

Yet what makes us any different – apart, as I said, from the scale on which we operate – from the people who stand behind the stalls at the farmers’ markets and whose freedom from such onerous controls and regulations is what I really envy?

All we have done is to make the mistake of falling into the hands of Government and EU regulators who incomes and employment depend, it seems, on how much they can screw out of us for issuing consents and tightly controlling our every use of every last drop of farm chemical.

There may be unscrupulous operators lurking in the murkier recesses of the farming world who will be heavy-handed with the pesticides, knowing full well that by the time their produce is mixed up with everyone else’s in the giant Magimix of the food processing sector nothing will ever be traced back to them.

But I suggest they are a tiny minority; that it is the responsibility of the processing sector to carry out its own tests to make sure absolutely everything it buys is safe and wholesome; and that the rest of us who are farming responsibly, as we have always done, are being made to pay a too-high price for their activities.

David Handley is chairman of Farmers for Action.


FARMING MAY 11 DAVID HANDLEY COLUMN

This is by way of sounding an alarm call. I’d had a persistent and mildly irritating cough for a couple of weeks but like most people so afflicted tended not to worry about it too much and kept telling myself it would clear up and eventually go away.

It didn’t. So I made an appointment with the doctor, turned up, had a blood test and was informed that I had developed type two diabetes to a degree where I was almost a candidate for a hospital bed.

My father had the same condition and on that basis I suppose I should really have been keeping a closer eye on myself. But if you are a farmer you know how it is: there are so many demands on your time and so many things to be done that concerns about one’s own health tend to get relegated to a point where they really don’t register at all.

My condition can be managed and I fully intend and expect to be functioning normally soon. But the episode has brought me up somewhat short.

We hear an awful lot about farmers’ mental health these days: the depression than can be brought on by long hours of solitary working, money worries, and the fear of a very public business failure.

Support organisations are working overtime to help hundreds of farmers caught up in conditions like these – and I suggest this would have been a far worthier issue for the NFU president to have dedicated her London marathon appearance to rather than the business of sending yet more aid to Africa.

But good physical health is just as important to a farmer if he is to carry on working efficiently and profitably.

My old and much-missed friend Derek Mead realised how many farmers were labouring under health problems, either because they didn’t realise how seriously unwell they were or because there simply wasn’t time to travel into town to see a doctor.

That’s why he initiated the idea of a medical unit at Sedgemoor Auction Centre – a project commendably taken to fruition by his family. Run in conjunction with the NHS it allows not merely farmers but all those who work with them, such as hauliers, to drop in for a quick MOT while they are attending the market. It’s a brilliant concept and one which, I understand, is already achieving excellent results in identifying problems at an early stage.

But given the scale of mental health problems now being experienced across the farming community; given the fact that since we are having to work even harder to achieve the same prices we were getting 20 years ago and the additional demands that places on our time; and given the fact that there are probably dozens like me with undiagnosed physical health issues I believe every major auction centre should adopt Derek’s idea.

If a farmer literally hasn’t got the time to go to the NHS for help then we should be taking the NHS to the farmer.

ends


DAVID HANDLEY FARMING COLUMN

WESTERN DAILY PRESS MAY 4

Now here’s a challenging question: who runs the countryside? Not the farmers – though they should be. Not the Government, certainly – even though it might think it is. No: increasingly it looks as though the countryside is being micro-managed by an unholy alliance of wildlife charities.

With, as it emerged this week, the undeclared but obvious tacit support of Natural England backing them up.

Increasingly rural areas – and that encompasses all farmland – are coming under the influence of a group of organisations whose leaders may have very impressive academic qualifications but whose collective experience of the realities of farming and rural life could be summarised on a postage stamp.

Not that this absence of hands-on knowledge and experience appears to offer any obstacle, particularly when it comes to mapping out future policies for food and farming in the UK. When all the talk is of rewilding, re-establishing hay meadows, allowing nature to take over and set the agenda.

All very commendable, I’m sure. But practicable on a relatively small offshore European island with limited supplies of farmable land? I’m not so sure. In fact I’m certain it is not the way we need to be going when I read a report from a panel of respected international scientists that unless we can increase food production by 50 per cent over the next 30 years the world is going to starve.

The problem is that no-one listens to common sense any more. The greatest reservoir of common sense in this country resides within the farming community, whose members have to draw on immense amounts of it all the time or they will simply go out of business.

That common sense used to be drip-fed into Ministers’ ears in the days when we had a proper Farming Minister part of whose brief was to undertake regular pilgrimages round the country to take soundings from grass roots farmers, the better to arrive at sensible policy decisions.

That process was halted under Labour and has never been revived. Now we have an NFU which only claims to be communicating with Government but clearly isn’t and, hence, a vacuum at the top which is being exploited by wildlife charities seeking to dupe Michael Gove into adopting their own countryside agendas.

The business of the ban on shooting corvids is a classic case: farmers are well aware of the problems they face from pest species and should be left to deal with it in the most expeditious manner possible.

Instead, a single legal challenge from a small pressure group has seen Gove leaping onto a chair like a maiden aunt who has just spotted a mouse in the pantry then attempting to appease everyone’s wrathby putting in place bureaucracy which will theoretically allow farmers to controlpests but make it much more difficult for them to do so and which – if it’s anything like Defra’s other systems – won’t work properly anyway, merely adding to the farmers already intolerable burden of frustration with Government departments.

How the anti-farmer Defra staff must be celebrating this week at yet another spanner in the works, another stick through the spokes, and another subtly-disguised little piece of sabotage successfully carried out.

And how the reputation of a ramshackle Government led by a bunch of third-rate no-hopers has plummeted still further in farmers’ eyes.


DAVID HANDLEY WESTERN DAILY PRESS COLUMN APRIL 13

Like most dairy farmers in this country I get a regular delivery of specialist magazines through the post.

Like most dairy farmers in this country, I suspect, I rarely bother to read them. There is, after all, work to be done.

But out of curiously I did sit down and start leafing through two which dropped through the door last week. Each ran to some 80 pages. And intriguingly, on nearly every page I found an opinion penned by a nutritionist or some other breed of consultant or ‘expert’ (and I use the word cautiously) or someone from the NFU telling me how to produce more milk for less money.

Either by feeding this rather than that, or growing this fodder crop rather than a less nutritious one, or tweaking the cows’ management routine in some way or other.

All of it, every single word, nothing more than an exercise in tinkering at the edges. Trying to fine-tune systems which most of us – through years of practical experience rather than as a result of having gone to university – considered we had already fine-tuned to racing pitch some years ago when things began to get really tight in the industry.

But nowhere was there a single mention of the fundamental problem which is continuing to throw a vast shadow over the whole dairy sector: the fact that despite the wholesale milk price rising steadily the price to the farmer continues to fall.

My own has dropped six pence a litre over the last five months so I am back at 26 pence a litre – the price I was being paid in 1995. In other words despite more than 20 years campaigning by Farmers for Action we are no better off: in fact in historical cost terms we are worse off because 26 pence in 1995 would be 49 pence now.

And never do we hear a plausible reason for our prices being cut. The processors certainly can’t claim there is too much milk around. I have spoken to three tanker drivers who all tell me the same story- that when they are delivering to third-party processors their phones are ringing all the time asking them how far they have got and when they expect to arrive. One off my consignments was recently bulked up with others and trucked directly off to London because a small processor there was desperate for supplies.

Hardly a picture of an over-supplied market.

The assorted experts need to come clean and admit that the reason we aren’t making enough money from milk isn’t because we haven’t maximised our feeding or played the right kind of music in the milking parlour, it’s because we aren’t being paid enough. There is no other explanation.

There was yet another scientific endorsement for milk this week with an eminent nutritionist labelling it the best food source available to us, yet here we are discounting it to the point where it’s being retailed more cheaply than bottled water.

Of course if Michael Oakes, the UK dairy board chairman, was doing his (well-remunerated) job properly he would be calling the processors to account and demanding full, written explanations as to how they can be jacking us the wholesale milk price while paying their suppliers less and less.

Don’t hold your breath. The last time anyone at the NFU did their job properly milk was still being collected in churns.

ends


DAVID HANDLEY'S COMMENTS

WESTERN DAILY PRESS COLUMN FARMING COLUMN APRIL 6

I remember an old friend saying at the time it was created that the post of Groceries Code Adjudicator would turn out to be a waste of time, effort and money. And so it has proved to be.

Christine Tacon has managed to achieve and maintain a remarkably low profile since she got the job. And far from what we were promised – that the adjudicator would be a sharp-toothed watchdog which would keep snapping at the heels of the supermarkets until they were brought into line – she has distinguished herself by taking a policy line which must have the supermarkets rubbing their hands with glee.

Let’s look at one of the few cases where she actually appears to have been doing her job correctly – her turning over of the Co-op to discover all sorts of unsavoury and unethical practices going on.

Her investigation found that the Co-op had failed to provide reasonable notice to suppliers of decisions to de-list products, and varied supply agreements unilaterally.

In so doing, said Tacon, the retailer had clearly breached the Groceries Supply Code of Practice on two counts. She also found weaknesses in its training, policies and processes for buyers, as well as poor functioning of IT systems.

In other words the Co-op had been guilty of the very sorts of practices in dealing with its suppliers which had led to the original creation of the adjudicator’s post.

It had been caught red-handed. Bang to rights. Guilty as charged. Surely, then, a case for an exemplary fine to send shivers down the spines of other supermarkets by making them realise what swingeing penalties they would face if they, too, were caught unfairly wielding their power to screw suppliers.

Not a bit of it. The Co-op has merely been ordered to pay £1.3 million to cover the costs of the investigation – the sort of penalty that is hardly going to create a massive hole in its finances.

Perhaps Ms Tacon took into account the fact that the Co-op had already refunded £650,000 to suppliers. But that was merely a further admission of guilt and was money that was rightfully the suppliers’ anyway.

No, the Co-op has walked away from this encounter with barely a bruise when it should have been hung out to dry. Farmers and growers will look on this case and despair because they now realise that little the adjudicator can or will do is going to effectively penalise the retailers, into whose tills, of course, pour the largest share of the food industry’s takings.

If Ms Tacon cannot wield a bigger stick than this then she is indeed a waste of time. In fact unless the powers of the incumbent are beefed up considerably so the retailers genuinely respect it and abide by the rules then I see no point in maintaining the position at all.

I don’t, of course, wish to see Ms Tacon thrown out of work. But I am sure her considerable talents will soon open a door to another lucrative posting somewhere. And if all else failed she could try asking for a job from her former employers – the Co-op.


FARMING MARCH 16 DAVID HANDLEY COLUMN

The Co-op, I see, has started to take a very close interest in farming, specifically as carried on by those producers who supply it.

To the extent that it is now demanding details of all the inputs that are used in the production of the foodstuffs it buys and retails.

I have no idea what kind of yardstick it intends applying: which inputs it will deem acceptable and which not.

But what I do know is that once the up-and-coming Co-op starts scrutinising farms to this extent the rest of the supermarket sector will soon be following its example like a pack of baying hounds.

At which point farmers – who for the last nine years have been repeatedly promised a reduction in the excessive burden of inspection and checking – will find themselves lumbered with even more onerous obligations to prove that what they are growing or raising isn’t going to result in the nation being exterminated.

If we had anything like a decent farming organisation in this country the alarm bells would already be ringing and the public would be being made aware of what a nonsensical idea this is.

But since we haven’t got such an organisation then we should, as individuals, be taking this matter up with Christine Tacon, the so-called Groceries Code Adjudicator, who as far as I can see does little if anything to justify her very generous salary.

We should be making the case that since we are supposed to be ‘partners’ in the food chain with the retailers then we should have a right to exercise the same level of scrutiny over their activities.

That should extend to having access to their accounts to find out quite how much they are marking up the produce for which they pay farmers such ludicrously low prices. Crucially, it should also enable us to verify the origin and production standards of fruit and vegetables sold under the label of the many fantasy farms the retailers have created in order to give bog-standard goods a spurious provenance, thus enabling them to ease up the retail price by a few pence.

If retailers are to be allowed to examine farming systems in such minute detail then the same facility should be extended to farmers when it comes to their activities. We should be inquiring into such thing as pay and conditions of staff and how limited-hours contracts are used to reduce sick and holiday pay obligations.

I imagine there are all sorts of murky corners to be explored in the supermarket sector. I imagine, equally, that any attempt at exploration would be robustly opposed, probably on the all-purpose ground of commercial confidentiality.

Farmers, on the other hand, will have no option but to comply with the Co-op’s demands if they wish to remain listed as suppliers. As always the idea of food chain ‘partnership’ lacks the vital adjective ‘equal’.

ends


FARMING MARCH 9 DAVID HANDLEY COLUMN

Well, we’ve just about got through another winter, spring is finally and definitely in the air, and we should be looking forward with renewed optimism.

There is plenty to be optimistic about. We have 66 million hungry mouths on our doorstep, there is a growing consumer trend towards buying British and local and we have the expertise and the enthusiasm to develop and advance what is already a world-class farming industry.

Why, then I wonder, is the NFU so keen to tell us all that Brexit will mean the end of the world as we know it, that British farms will be visited by decay and dereliction and the whole British food market will be engulfed by a tsunami of cheap imports from every third-rate food producer on the face of the planet?

Why? Because the NFU cannot see beyond the mechanism of subsidy. It cannot conceive of any kind of farming being possible once the life-supporting flow of EU cash is turned off. Life without the dollop of dosh delivered under the name of the single payment is unthinkable.

The problem with the NFU is that it is run by too many people farming 10,000 acres or more and for whom EU payments have been the key to a featherbedded existence for the last four decades.

With income on that scale cushioning their businesses they have become fat, complacent and lazy. If they have displayed any hunger it has been for higher and high payments.

Meanwhile among the ranks of the small and medium farmers there has been a real hunger for change, improvement and innovation. For adding value. For farming smarter and more efficiently. For sweating the assets. Because those are the only routes to better profitability.

Those are precisely the principles we should be instilling in the up and coming generation of new entrants to the industry. We need to ensure they display the same hunger for doing things even better than we have.

Above all they need to be acting like proper businessmen – because at the end of the day that’s what they are.

No other business sector in this country is bailed out to the tune of £3 billion a year – and if anyone were to suggest it should be there would be an enormous outcry.

What Brexit is going to do it to make a lot of consumers realise to what extent they have been indirectly subsidising farmers’ income all these years.I can’t really judge what their reaction will be. But my suspicion is that they will demand that the support mechanism is phased out as soon as possible.

So it should be. As I said previously, we have the enthusiasm and the expertise to farm successfully.So let’s all get on and do it – and show the rest of Europe how it can be achieved

ends


FARMING FEBRUARY 16 DAVID HANDLEY COLUMN

The time came round for the annual routine of having my cows’ hoofs trimmed and tidied up and the expert who was doing it remarked on what good condition they were in.

He was also very surprised to learn that one of them was 15, another 16 and a third 17. Particularly in view of the fact that he had recently visited a large, intensively-run unit where he had seen fourth-milkers – in other words, six-year old cows – which were (to use his exact word) ‘finished’.

Simply worked too hard and too long to have any more mileage in them. Destined, obviously, for an early departure.

And that led me, not for the first time, to wonder where the dairy industry is heading as some people engage in what appear to be desperate tactics to chase those ever-elusive profits.

Dairy farmers are, of course, trapped. They are powerless because of the noose placed around their necks by the processors who tighten it and slacken it at will. Recently it’s been tightened relentlessly with farmers now expected to survive on a milk price that is six pence a litre lower than it was a few months ago.

And this at a time when feed prices are relentlessly moving in the other direction, leading to additional costs which we are presumably expected to ‘absorb’.

The answer – so the ‘expert’ opinion has it – is to industrialise production to take advantage of the economies of scale and to work the cows harder, almost as if they were robots.

Of course those doling out this advice have never farmed themselves – or if they have they have had such undistinguished careers that they have been rewarded with a sinecure at the AHDB.

Because for any farmer who genuinely cares about his animals and wishes to provide them with the highest possible standards of welfare factory farming – and there’s no better term for it – is utterly unthinkable.

On the surface of it cows in a 1,000-head unit may look all right. But in truth what sort of life have they had if they are deemed to be knackered at the age of six?

Statistics like this merely play into the hands of the animal rights extremists with the result that all dairy farmers are tarred with the same brush, public opinion is whipped up against us and thousands of children are denied the dairy products their diets not only should but must contain if they are to develop properly and avoid falling prey to osteoporosis before they are 40.

It is an impossible situation for any traditional dairy farmer to find himself in. And when you analyse it only the processors are to blame for creating it. But I wish anyone the best of luck if they determine to write to Muller or Arla and ask them to pay more money so the cows can have a better life.

And when, in all the debates that rage over farm welfare, do you ever hear the name of the dairy processors mentioned? In the eyes of the public and the campaigners they - despite the fact that thanks to them thousands of cows’ lives are being needlessly shortened – remain shadowy figures in the background.

They don’t have to face the harassment ‘Project Calf’ is threatening. They won’t be demonised. They are content to remain cowering behind the parapet counting their millions while leaving the farmers to stand up and suffer the assault.

ends


FARMING FEBRUARY 9 DAVID HANDLEY COLUMN

Funny how history repeats itself. Twenty years ago milk prices were down, feed costs were up, we were being deluged with masses of pointless and useless advice about how to get more efficient and competitive and the NFU was sitting on its hands and doing nothing to help us.

So together with Richard Haddock, the much-missed Derek Mead and Rhys Parry I set up Farmers For Action as an alternative, proactive, campaigning organisation which all the country’s disgruntled farmers (and there were, as we knew, thousands of them) could get behind.

We had plenty of support. We had pledges of all kinds. When we organised demonstrations and blockades farmers would turn out by the score to stand with us. But as to building a membership list with the critical mass necessary to create a step change in the way farmers’ views were represented and promoted well, that proved something more of a challenge.

We still get told what a great job we are going. Barely a week goes by without either an email or a phone call encouraging me to keep fighting on because I am doing and saying all the right things for British farming. But we are still woefully short of members which, ultimately, shackles and manacles us when it comes to doing anything more effective.

Run the reel forwards 20 years and where are we? The milk price is down (by a ruinous six pence in a matter of a few months); feed costs are up; there’s a constant deluge of unwanted and useless technical advice from the AHDB and the best the NFU can come up with is to declare this month to be ‘Febudairy’ – an inept PR exercise whose only merit is to challenge Gwyn Jones’s ridiculous dairy industry ‘code of conduct’ for the title of the stupidest idea the NU has ever produced.

And what do I hear of now? The formation of a new farming union to be called, simply, The Farmers Union. A haven for all those (and there are thousands of them) who are dissatisfied, disillusioned and generally disgusted by the NFU’s lack of leadership.

I have been approached by those leading it (who include at least one former NFU insider). I have offered advice, wished them luck. I have told them I admire their determination and their enthusiasm – which is only to be expected from people in their 30s. I applaud their aims, one of which is to create a replacement food assurance scheme for the Red Tractor, which consumers still don’t understand, which has failed to deliver any of the promised benefits for farmers and which is now effectively lying on its side in the ditch, all four tyres blown, the cylinder head shattered and out of fuel.

The Farmers’ Union has, apparently, some 1600 members already –though has still to bank 1600 subscriptions. And this is where the crunch comes. Now they have set out their stall the leaders must concentrate on building a real, effective membership base and on getting those subscriptions paid so that its members have a real sense of ownership and common purpose.

Achieve that and they will have the fuel to power their campaigns and they will have created a really solid base on which to build a credible, viable and effective alternative to the clapped-out and worthless NFU.

Fail to achieve it and in 20 years’ time they could be looking at history repeating itself all over again.

ends


FARMING JANUARY 19 DAVID HANDLEY COLUMN

Those of you who can cast your minds back to the Soviet era will recall the name of Pravda, the official publication of the Communist party which became synonymous with the presentation of what the Trump administration would today describe as ‘alternative facts’.

The word Pravda means ‘truth’ - though you were always well-advised to add mentally ‘though not as we know it’ when considering anything it announced.

It was famous for shouting the odds about the staggering success of civil engineering schemes, the output of tractor factories and the massive production records of collective farms, painting a picture of the USSR as a thriving, world-beating economy when the truth was it was throwing up shoddy construction projects and turning out machinery which came ready clapped-out while most of the population was struggling to survive on an appalling diet.

I didn’t follow it closely but I have no doubt that it would have managed even to turn the Chernobyl disaster into a triumph by trumpeting how well the evacuation plans worked.

Pravda crossed my mind the other day when through my letterbox dropped the publication Climb Aboard, the official propaganda sheet of Red Tractor Assurance.

My goodness me: once I glanced at the headline on the front page I thought all the industry’s troubles were over. All our birthdays and Christmases had obviously come at once.

What was this? Around 1.4 million more shoppers buying Red Tractor foods? Alas, not quite. As I picked it up and the text swam into focus its true message became clear: ‘1.4m more shoppers intend to trade up to Red tractor’. Not quite the same thing, as you will doubtless agree - but here the news was, presented as though the purchases had already been made and the extra dosh was in the farmers’ pockets.

Let me just give you the real nub of the story: ‘The number of primary shoppers who say they will trade up and buy Red Tractor food instead of cheaper alternatives has jumped by around 1.4 million following the assurance scheme’s autumn advertising campaign’.

Yes: that’s it. The whole edifice of this story has been constructed on a piece of market research. An exercise which – perhaps I can put it this way – has a strong whiff of the farmyard about it. After all a market researcher might decide to call me tomorrow and ask about my holiday plans and I could well respond – just to get them off my back – that I intend to spend six weeks in the Caribbean this summer, while knowing full well that I’ll probably get no more than a day at the Royal Welsh.

This is, of course, the latest attempt by Red Tractor Assurance to talk up its credentials (and to justify the money spent on the advertising campaign) when every farmer knows what an undistinguished track record it has had as a marketing tool – mainly because most shoppers have been totally ignorant as to what the Red Tractor stands for.

Personally I lost faith in the whole project years ago when I heard an NFU official acknowledging that the Red Tractor could be applied to imported foods as long as they had been produced to British standards, which was enough, my book, to turn it into a completely futile brand.

Perhaps I am being unduly cynical. Perhaps I should listen to the words of the messiah himself, Red Tractor chief executive Jim Moseley, who hailed the findings of the market research as ‘fantastic’ because as well as the ‘spike in purchasing intent’ the number of shoppers associating the logo with ‘traceable food from farmers to pack’ (pack? – his words, not mine) has nearly doubled to 62 per cent.

Now this sort of blather is fine. It’s just what you need to explain to the readers how successful an obviously expensive campaign has been, especially if you need to justify not only its cost but your own salary and indeed the survival of a deeply flawed promotional operation.

But put the hard facts under a microscope and they don’t add up to a row of beans. And until that ‘intent’ is translated into hard cash tinkling into the tills and on to the producers’ bank accounts this story will remain nothing more than a tale of smoke and mirrors – but one of which Pravda would have been proud.

ends


FARMING DECEMBER 22 DAVID HANDLEY COLUMN

“Are you ready for Christmas?”A question that is mechanically trotted out as some kind of greeting at this time of the year, generally by people who are serving you in shops and actually have not the slightest interest in whether you are or are not ready.

It will be followed after next Tuesday with the equally obligatory inquiry as to whether I had had a good Christmas, again by people to whom the standard of celebrations in the Handley household is really of not the least concern but who would presumably be offended if I were to politely inform them that it was, actually, none of their business. Not that I ever would, of course, however tempting it might appear.

But from scanning the world from my perspective we are indeed ready for Christmas. Butchers’ order books have generally been as full as ever and Christmas food and drink has been pouring into the shops (sometimes to be displayed a little prematurely) for weeks now.

In fact the stores are awash as usual with mounds of seasonal vegetables. No-one is going to short. Fair enough, prices are slightly higher than last year because we are still experiencing the aftershock of the drought. But British growers have brought in the crops.

Which is slightly odd if you can cast your mind back a few months to what Minette Batters from the NFU was telling us, which was that there would be such a stampede out of the UK by foreign nationals that there wouldn’t be enough labour to get the stuff in from the field. There would be shortages. Shelves would be empty. (She didn’t go quite so far as to forecast civil unrest ensuing as a result but the hints were heavy enough).

And here we are about to celebrate Christmas exactly as usual. And I have yet to encounter a single grower telling me he’s been unable to get vegetables picked,

As this will be my last column of the year perhaps I should be casting my mind forward to what I should like to see in 2019. First and foremost is a speedy conclusion to the Brexit business, the longest-running Whitehall farce of modern times and which, sadly, has driven a wedge through the heart of the nation to create a rift which will take a very, very long time to heal.

We should be appalled, absolutely appalled, if someone were to quantify what this affair has cost UK plc because I cannot bring to mind any issue which has shoved so much other Government business off the daily agenda since we were embroiled in World War Two – not that I was around then.

The cost in Government legal work has gone off the scale and that’s only one aspect of the civil service man-hours which have been squandered as a result of a misguided exercise in letting the people have their say.

We elect politicians to speak for us and it’s at that level all the debate over our membership of the EU should have stopped.

I won’t go on: I will merely reflect on how much money a country which is finding it so difficult to make the state’s financial ends meet at the end of the year and where health, education and public transport are all in need of life-saving investment has wantonly chucked away on this issue.

That’s it. I’ll stop now or else I’ll be accused of perpetuating the tedious debate. A Happy Christmas to you all, and don’t forget to recycle your Christmas trees and wrapping paper – but not on my land.

ends


FARMING DECEMBER 15 DAVID HANDLEY COLUMN

A farmer near here had an illuminating experience while combining earlier this year. The machine developed a problem and stopped mid-row.

So with most of his crop still to cut the farmer rang the dealer who supplied the machine and to his relief an engineer was with him within a fairly short space of time.

He proceeded to plug his laptop into the machine’s computer and quickly announced he had diagnosed the problem, which lay with some malfunctioning of the sieves.

He continued to pore over his laptop for half an hour or so and then abruptly announced that the fault had been rectified. This somewhat astonished the farmer who pointed out that he hadn’t actually seen him do anything.

He hadn’t needed to, said the technician: it was a software problem and it had been sorted out remotely - from Mannheim

The very concept of a system that is capable of repairing a machine from a distance of 650 miles would, of course, be the stuff of science fiction to our grandfathers. As, for that matter, would be the fact that,thanks to geosynchronous satellites overhead, fertiliser applications can been targeted down to the last square metre of a field using the results of the previous year’s harvest as data.

It is all quite bewildering, and clearly we should be giving daily thanks that technological advances have taken so much of the guesswork and drudgery out of modern farming.

But there is a dark side to all this. For the farm machinery market is now controlled by three major multinationals, all of them exerting an invisible iron grip on every facet of our industry. The machines they produce and sell now meet the highest specifications of reliability though in most cases the purchaser is persuaded to take out a seven-year warranty.

If a buyer chooses not to take this option shorter and cheaper warranties are, of course available. But woe betide any owner who then finds things going wrong. Spare parts are indeed available. But most of the companies which sell them have themselves been bought up (even though their names may not reveal it) by the big three manufacturers and operate what is pretty much a monopoly.

And such is the complexity of modern farm machines that the days when farmers or the local engineering company could carry out repairs are all but over.

Fair enough, should the local engineering company wish to work on a particular brand of machine it can acquire the appropriate diagnostic software to load into its computer. But it will cost it upwards of £10,000. And software, as we all know, has to be renewed regularly.

The more likely outcome for a farmer with a machinery problem now will be a visit by one of the approved suppliers’ technicians and a bill for fitting something as simple as a two-inch section of pipe which can easily top £500.

Suddenly it becomes easy to see what a trap farmers have been lured into with generous discounts and special offers and all the other sales gimmicks the manufacturers use to shift their stock – knowing as they do so that the actual value of the sale will inevitably increase over the life of the machine.

And while we are on the subject of money there is also, a more sinister side to all this, as many farmers who have bought thanks to payment plans have discovered. There is one such near here who during a temporary cashflow shortage missed an instalment.

One morning he went out to begin work only to find his tractor wouldn’t start. Cursing, he got down and climbed into the cab of the reserve machine. That wouldn’t start either. Somewhat perplexed he rang the dealer to be told the problem was a simple one: he was in arrears with his payment plan therefore his machines had been remotely disabled until he came up with the cash.

This, surely, is an unhealthy state of affairs. Major machinery dealers appear to have the farming industry in a technological stranglehold, and one from which there is no escape.

A matter into which, you might have thought, Neil Parish’s Efra select committee should be inquiring - though perhaps Neil prefers to continue dealing with softer targets.

ends


FARMING NOVEMBER 24 DAVID HANDLEY COLUMN

We had a delivery of cardboard last week, and quite a large one. We hadn’t ordered it but it turned up anyway, dumped in one of our field entrances.

Clearly someone couldn’t be bothered to drive all the way to the recycling centre – or more likely didn’t want to pay the ‘trade waste’ charges they would have incurred if they turned up in a van and began emptying it.

So one of David Handley’s fields, it was decided, would do just as well.

I didn’t have any use for the cardboard, naturally, so I did what any farmer would do under the circumstances: I phoned the local council and asked if there was any chance they would remove it for me.

Why certainly, they said – at a price. I pointed out the cardboard wasn’t from my farm and it had been dumped there by an unknown third party, but that argument was waved away. I was asking the council to remove something from my land, by virtue of it being on my land I had effectively become the owner of it, so I would have to pay.

I am not, of course, the only farmer to have gone through this kind of experience. Hundreds of us do every year thanks to a set of mis-applied policies which are supposed to be protecting the environment – except that the people who drew these policies up clearly didn’t have the sense to think them through.

Everyone is encouraged to recycle to reduce the unsustainable amount of rubbish going to landfill. That’s fine. But the recycling model has got skewed thanks to local authorities who run the various waste partnerships selectively introducing charges.

Some sites now charge people to dump hard core – one of the most obviously re-usable waste products. And if you are a tradesman then you are immediately singled out: you can clearly afford to pay to get rid of your waste - and pay you do. Handsomely. On top of the business rates you have already paid.

Which is why the cheaper option of farmland is chosen so often. After all, with so few police now out and about in the countryside there’s little chance of being caught, particularly after dark. And even if one is, the fine one can expect if taken to court is derisorily small compared with what has been saved by by-passing the recycling centre.

This is the point where local authorities have to stop and realise that the recycling policies as currently applied aren’t as environmentally-friendly as they are made out to be. They are actually causing environmental damage on a massive scale – all as a result of those authorities cunningly using the recycling sector to generate income.

Recycling services should be offered free to all, as household waste collections are. But on the other side of the coin penalties for fly-tipping indeed to be massively increased, both to deter those who think nothing of dumping vanloads of waste in the country – and to end the manifestly unjust situation where farmers and landowners have to pick up the tab as a result of them doing so.

ends


FARMING NOVEMBER 17 DAVID HANDLEY COLUMN

There is little more depressing than to read that a young person has taken their life because of bullying either at school or in some other sphere.

The papers have been full of such cases lately though suggesting – as is so often the case – that it is purely an urban problem.

It isn’t. Children in rural areas are just as likely to be bullied at school for whatever reason, often because they come from low-income families and simply can’t afford the latest phone, the latest clothes.

The particularly unpleasant aspect of bullying, of course, is the situation where children can gang up against one individual, using the security which membership of the gang gives them to push weaker or disadvantaged children to the very edge and sometimes right over it.

But where and how do young people like this acquire this mind set, this notion that somehow pushing someone around and making fun of them is acceptable?

I’m afraid for the answer to that we have to look to the wider social environment and then step back a little in history to when Margaret Thatcher said that anyone over 30 who still travelled on a bus was a failure.

That statement was just one extract from the Thatcher doctrine which measured your success in life by the size of your wage packet and the way its contents were ostentatiously revealed through the sort of car you drive, the clothes you wore, the expensive holidays you took.

That dogma might have inspired a whole generation of aspirational haves. But it also created an underclass of have-nots. And the haves began to take it for granted that if you drove a flash car and could bank a five-figure bonus at Christmas then that entitled to look down on the have nots and, yes, bully them: a culture which rapidly permeated the world of work and in many cases has remained there indelibly.

Bullying – at least to judge from the biography of Philip Green - is regarded in some places as a legitimate tool in running a business. No wonder that so many overworked, overstressed and humiliated employees eventually decide they can’t take any more and quit their jobs. No wonder so many are driven so far they resort to suicide.

And this depressing culture extends right into the farming world. For the last 20 years while I have been occupying myself with the affairs of Farmers For Action I have been subjected to bullying. Every time I had said or done something to upset the farming establishment the phone calls have started, warning me off, telling me not to overstep the line, rock the boat. The calls have often come from senior and (for some reason respected) figures in the farming world right up to those who wear the big hats at the NFU. They have frequently been abusive, sometimes threatening.

Because I believe in the rightness of what I am doing to try to improve the lot of the average farmer they haven’t deflected me by a single degree. They haven’t intimidated me – though they have made me despise even more the people on the other end of the line who obviously believe this is an acceptable way to carry on.

Bullying hasn’t had the slightest effect on me. But I fully understand how someone less sure of themselves, without the same resilience that I have – and without the same support from colleagues that I have experienced – would soon start to weaken and eventually give in.

I understand now how the bullying culture has spread to children and I also realise how we are going to tackle the issue: not by targeting children who don’t know any better but by expunging the bullying culture from the society which has turned them out like that.

ends

DAVID HANDLEY COLUMN WESTERN DAILY PRESS

OCTOBER 20

Another game shooting season is getting into its swing and, as inevitably as a shot bird drops out of the sky, the anti-shooting lobby will soon be racking up the protests and the propaganda.

And I, for one, will hardly be surprised. Because the more shooting has moved away from being a day out for a landowner and his friends to becoming a hugely commercialised industry catering for the corporate entertainment market the more difficult it has become to defend it.

The concept of shooting only what one could eat has, of course, long since disappeared. But we are now into a world of utterly crazy economics where shooters who may have spentthousands on a day’s sport take home a handful of birds which have effectively cost them hundreds of pounds each while hundreds of birds which have been shot in the name of sport are dumped because there is no obvious market for them.

Little wonder, then, that in an age when so many thousands of families have become regular clients of their local food banks the antis can hold up shooting as an activity that is morally unacceptable on so many levels.

This needn’t be the case if those who run the shoots replaced their arrogance with imagination.

Here’s the situation: we have on the one hand a large section of the population which is need of an affordable source of protein for its diet and on the other hand an infinitely smaller section of the population which is allowing precisely that commodity to go to waste by the week. And the two could be brought together to everyone’s benefit.

You only have to look at what can be charged for a brace of pheasants in a country butcher’s shop and what the same thing could cost you in central London to see there is potentially plenty of money in the market.

Achieving it will initially require ridding game meat of its elitist image, which is largely a hangover from the days when if you were caught taking a pheasant you could expect to see out your days in one of the less hospitable bits of Australia.

Then there needs to be some investment to set up operations to process game birds into ready meals, or terrines or sausages, because the proportion of shot birds which are fit to be presented to be cooked whole is relatively low: people don’t want to buy something which looks as though it’s been run over by a tractor and self-respecting butchers won’t want anything of the kind of their shelves.

And finally we need some investment into sound and sensible marketing and branding to convince the punters that they are being offered wholesome foods at affordable prices.

We need to get a move on with this idea because the argument that game shooting supports jobs in the countryside is being repeatedly held up to the light and found to be full of holes, especially when one does the analysis on a birds-per-job basis.

And with the party which at least claims to support the countryside under so much pressure at Westminster, and with many of its members finding it more and more difficult to defend the excesses of the larger shoots, being able to demonstrate and deliver positive benefits for the wider population may prove the one thing that saves shooting from the heavy and highly unwelcome hand of harsh regulation.

David Handley is Chairman of Farmers For Action


DAVID HANDLEY - WESTERN DAILY PRESS COLUMN

SEPTEMBER 29

You can’t tell me we haven’t got a proper food and drink culture in the country.

Just look at what we are celebrating this year: Sandwich Week, Tomato Week, International Carrot Day, British Beef Week, Great British Pea Week, National Cherry Day, World Egg Day, Apple Day and UK Sausage Week.

And there are many more. All of them providing wonderful opportunities for PR companies to get very rich very quick with frothy press releases and celebrity endorsements and media packs all designed to raise the profile of a particular commodity.

And the retailers happily fall into line: after all there is a prospect of a few quid to be made by joining the bandwagon. And the stores are piled with the featured items. And when most consumers don’t take a blind bit of notice because they may not fancy eating that particular product that particular day the unsold surplus will be remaindered and knocked out under yellow labels for the rest of the week like the discounted Christmas crackers in the middle of January.

And not for the first time I ask myself who is supposed to benefit from all this highly-contrived promotion? Because I have yet to hear farmers rubbing their hands with delight at all the extra carrots or peas they have sold.

There is no evidence to show anyone (apart from the PR companies) does particularly well out of a marketing concept which has now saturated the calendar to such as extent as to render itself almost totally meaningless.

On the other hand - and like a lot of farmers - I am starting to feel slightly patronised. The whole matter of food production is now being trivialised into some form of public entertainment in which the realities of the industry –that farmers are now rarely paid enough for what they work seven days a week to produce – are simply not talked about.

This represents yet another of the many failings of the AHDB which compulsorily relieves farmers of £6 million a year, part of it (ostensibly) going towards promoting British farm produce.

Staging some kind of pantomime at a supermarket with staff dressed in giant tomato or carrot suits does not, in my book, add up to effective food promotion.

An as to British Farming Week, as far as those of us working the land are concerned every week is a farming week It’s what we do. So what actual relevance does this hugely-contrived event have for us?

If the AHDB had put is energies into talking food unawareness at its roots by targeting young people; to make sure they were taught teaching about food production and nutrition rather than learning how to ‘design’ pizzas; by sending farmers into schools to talk about what they do; then we wouldn’t need to try to belatedly educate the adult population about what they should be eating – or stage these pointless charades as a way of doing so.

But no, yet again the AHDB has failed those it whose money it is spending. And the best bit of news I have heard for a long time is that we should soon have the option of withdrawing our financial support for a failing - and failed - organisation.

David Handley is Chairman of Farmers For Action

15/9/2018

DAVID HANDLEY WESTERN DAILY PRESS COLUMN

15/9/2018

If you read the story of the great banking collapse of 10 years ago you will be amazed at the degree of stupidity exhibited by those who were handling billions of pounds of unfortunate investors’ money.

How entire banking empires were built on foundations of sand and only remained upright as long as hundreds of thousands of people kept up their mortgage payments. And how, when it gradually became clear that those people had been mis-sold mortgages they couldn’t afford and they began to default that the entire pyramid just collapsed.

I was put in mind of this catastrophe recently when I read of the hundreds and hundreds of dairy cows being sent for slaughter as a result of the drought and the consequent shortage of fodder.

Farmers who haven’t been able to afford to pay the inflated prices a shortened market is demanding have been refused extended credit by their bank managers and told to sell the herds instead.

I have to declare bluntly that I have little sympathy for them. Because they have brought this situation on themselves through a combination of greed and stubbornness. Greed that has driven them to chase higher and higher profits by keeping more and more cows on acreages that can only support the numbers as long as everything that God sends arrives on schedule – including rainfall.

Once that facility was withdrawn this year hundreds of farmers found themselves (in financial terms) dangerously over-exposed: trapped between spiralling costs and inadequate returns from a market now almost totally controlled by supermarkets. And the only logical step has been – as the banks have pointed out – to get rid of the source of the problem: the excess cows.

Now, it may seem bizarre to anyone outside the industry that dairy farmers are divesting themselves of their only real assets. But anyone who has been observing the dairy sector for the last 30 years will conclude this was the inevitable outcome.

It’s quite a remarkable story. We had an army of dairy farmers who collectively controlled the supply of a commodity which the nation cannot do without, either in its raw form or (to borrow another banking term) derivatives such as butter and cheese. As sole suppliers of this commodity the farmers thus held all the aces.

And had the sector not been riven by greed, jealously and obstinacy they would have found ways of coming together to form a single selling co-operative (perfectly permissible under EU law as the examples in other countries demonstrate) to retain control over the market, and fix prices to give themselves an adequate return without having to work both cows and land harder and harder and leaving themselves dangerously exposed to the unpredictable whims of the climate.

Instead they allowed their ranks to become fragmented and power to slip through their hands and be ceded to the supermarkets with the result that most have ended up in conditions not unlike slavery, only worse. Slaves, after all, got paid nothing: many dairy farmers are now having to pay out to stay in business.

Meanwhile Minette Batters – who has not yet, I see, perfected the technique of walking on water that was expected of her – can do no more than parade upand down outside Defra wringing her hands and complaining that Michael Gove’s promises to do ‘whatever it takes’ to help farmers out of their crisis have not been delivered on.

Wild politicians’ promises like that, Minette, are on a par with ‘the cheque’s in the post’. Welcome (finally) to the real world.

David Handley is Chairman of Farmers For Action

DAVID HANDLEY COLUMN WESTERN DAILY PRESS JULY 28

We ought all to be grateful for small mercies - and in that category I include particularly parliamentary recesses. And I suspect there are few of us in the farming community who haven’t welcomed the current one after having had a bellyful of seeing so-called respectable and responsible politicians fighting like rats in a sack over the issue of Brexit.

I don’t have a lot of time for politicians generally but I do follow their debates fairly closely, and I cannot recall ever witnessing quite such a sustained and nauseating display of sniping, back-stabbing, double-dealing, treachery and downright dishonesty as we have been subjected to over the last few months.

A stranger arriving from another planet would find it hard to comprehend a form of governance which conducts itself like a combination of a bear pit and a den of criminals.

What kind of example, we have to ask ourselves, is it setting for the rest of the country if those in the highest public office conduct themselves with all the restraint, politeness and decorum normally associated with the Black Friday sale at Primark?

But what grieves me particularly is the way that a decision which the country as a whole took two years ago is still being challenged and undermined in ways which are threatening to destroy completely any remaining shreds of trust we may still have in those who are paid –and paid well – to represent us.

The Brexit issue was handed over to the country to decide on the understanding that whichever way the vote went, the Government would interpret it as the will of the people and act accordingly.

I attended and spoke at many of the Brexit campaign meetings and what impressed me on so many occasions was the enthusiasm displayed by younger farmers for cutting our ties to Brussels.

Why should they feel that way? Because they had seen their parents struggling with nonsensical bureaucracy drafted by people with no practical experience of farming, only of framing rules to control it. They had seen their stress levels rise to unsupportable heights as they tried to operate within regulations apparently designed to stifle, rather than encourage, innovation, diversity and lateral thinking.

And they had seen them reduced to relying on subsidies - like Victorian paupers going through the humiliating ritual of the soup kitchen - rather than on what the market paid them in order to keep their farms going.

Younger farmers want an end to all this. They are quite prepared to be weaned off subsidies while the retail market and consumers adjust to paying them higher but fairer prices for their produce.They are ready to unleash ideas, creativity and energy to transform British agriculture and bring a new dynamism to the sector.

This enormous pool of talent and enthusiasm is still there, ready to be tapped to create a new and far more prosperous farming model – though one which continues to deliver the safest and highest-quality food to the British consumer.

All this represents the great potential benefit to the farming industry in 70 years – and one we must not allow our fractious, self-serving politicians to throw away.

David Handley is Chairman of Farmers For Action



WESTERN DAILY PRESS FARMING JULY 21

Two items in the news caught my attention this week – but I may be the one of the few people who saw the connection between them.

It has been Farm Safety Week again: an opportunity for the so-called leaders of our industry to wring their hands over the appalling toll of agricultural deaths and injuries and to use some shoddy little public relations event to assure the farming community they are doing all they can to make things better.

Then we had the long-awaited review of the way the industry is regulated, with an interim report published by Dame Glenys Stacey, who chairs the Farm Inspection and Regulation Review.

It doesn’t pull any punches, suggesting that farmers and regulators alike ‘are exasperated by the demands of regulation, which are unduly precise and inflexible’ and pointing out that some 150,000 farm inspections are carried out every year by multiple agencies.

And here is the link. Can you see it? Well it’s plain enough to me, because I firmly believe that the vast majority of the accidents on UK farms are down to carelessness resulting from distraction or stress caused by the enormous amount of regulation to which our industry is now subjected.

Thanks to the far-reaching tentacles of the EU British farming is now micro-managed on an impossibly detailed scale.

Farmers now live in fear of losing their sanity so straitjacketed are they ina web of regulations drawn up by Eurocrats for the sole purpose of providing work for themselves and others and who have, by and large, as much experience and knowledge of practical farming as I have of walking on the surface of the moon.

The burden has been steadily accumulating for years, with each regulation being carefully pored over by our own civil servants and assiduously platinum-plated with no thought as to the practicalities of how it will be complied with out in a muddy field.

And who has sat back and let it all happen?Why the very farming leaders who pull out a handkerchief and wipe away a tear every time Farm Safety Week rolls round. I have in my mind an image of Meurig Raymond signing the yellow welly which is the farm safety symbol: about the most pointless gesture anyone could make. And, sadly, Minette Batters is following the same, well-worn path.

Neither the NFU nor any of the other farming organisations has ever mounted a proper campaign to stop the proliferation of regulation, to point out to the bureaucrats how unreasonable are the demands they are making on farmers – and, most importantly how the stress caused by a totally unreasonable regulatory burdens is contributing to carelessness and carelessness to death and injury.

I am delighted the regulation review team sees with Brexit a chance to simplify the regulatory framework to adopt a more common sense –based approach, to whittle farm inspections down and have them carried out by a single field force backed up by new technology to ensure compliance.

We are a long way, of course, from seeing this becoming a reality. Because the way things work there will have to be a final report, recommendations to MPs, draft legislation, widespread consultation, interminable parliamentary debates and then a vote before anything is passed into law - and that’s without factoring in the inbuilt resistance of the civil service which regards the reduction in regulation as a threat to the jobs of its members and thus looks on such a move in the way turkeys view Christmas.

But something absolutely has to be done. Because the current situation has contributed to an appalling toll of death and injury among honest, conscientious, hard-working farmers. We cannot, must not allow that to continue.

David Handley is Chairman of Farmers For Action


30/6/2018


23/6/2018

I don’t have much time for the BBC’s Countryfile. In fact, I don’t have any time. I have long since tired of its simpering presenters talking down to me and presenting their view of what goes on in the countryside in the same manner they might adopt when talking to a class of slightly deaf five-year-olds.

Equally, most of the farmers I know share my opinion –or hold an even stronger one. The problem is for a lot of people, in fact for a great many people, Countryfile is their only window on the world outside the urban spaces. Not only that, they believe every word of what it tells them as though the text had just been brought down from the mountain on freshly-engraved stone tablets.

So from that we can assume that a large section of the population now accepts the fact that the writing is on the wall for the country’s small and medium farms – and the writing spells ‘closure’. Because that was the message delivered by one interviewee I happened to see the other evening. Delivered, moreover, without challenge.

The person in question proudly wore his waistcoat emblazoned with the AHDB logo so we know which official lobby he is part of, though the initials won’t mean much to the average man in the street who has little idea what AHDB stands for (unlike farmers, who know what the AHDB is but who are still trying to work out what it’s actually for).

So the inference is that farms have to get bigger because bigger is better. Scale up, drive out those costs, bump up the margins.

I just pose one question: who among all these large-scale farmers is going to have the job of looking after the countryside?Who is going to manage Wales? Who is going to maintain the tricky balance between conservation and agriculture that makes Exmoor and Dartmoor what they are?

What about the wildlife?Because let’s get one thing clear: the wildlife oases in this country aren’t on the massive, intensively-farmed holdings the size of half a county, they exist predominantly on small and medium farms where their management is part of the general routine.

I cannot see the public being at all happy at the prospect of an army of environmental managers (which is essentially what so many smaller farmers are) being driven off the land, because it doesn’t take an Einstein to work out that the only cost-effective way to manage wildlife in this countryside is to pay the farmer to do it, because the state wouldn’t be able to afford its own dedicated workforce.

And as we wave goodbye to small and medium farmers we can also wave goodbye to a host of individual food and drink products which comes off them and which, after several decades of effort, has finally given us a specialist food sector we can be justly proud of.

Let’s turn the argument round: why should we have to sacrifice all that, to put many of our most cherished landscapes art risk merely because the food chain won’t pay farmers what they need to carry on operating in the traditional way they always have?

Why should we jeopardise the whole future of our countryside just so that Tesco, Sainsburys, Morrisons and the rest can continue racking up the profits?

That, I would suggest, is the real question Countryfile should be asking.

David Handley is chairman of Farmers For Action.


DAVID HANDLEY COLUMN WESTERN DAILY PRESS

JUNE 2

If you ask me whether enough is being done to promote British farm produce you will get a very short answer: ‘No’.

We have one of the finest ranges of home-produced food and drink in the world yet the rest of the world knows precious little about it. (Well, the Chinese might know something because Owen Paterson and Liz Truss found it overwhelmingly important to lead trade delegations there, though the only result, it seems, of the Chinese being told how good British pork was has been their decision to erect vast, multi-storey blocks of pigsties the size of hotels in order to rack up their own production.)

But otherwise we have made only a tiny impression on the vast global market that exists for quality food and drink.

And meanwhile getting our own consumers to appreciate the fact that they live in a country which allows them instant access to the best, tastiest and safest meat and drink on the face of the planet has been a nightmarish task as incomes have been squeezed in the last 10 years and the supermarkets have continued to promote cheap (and inferior) imported alternatives.

Awareness and demand for British products is growing among consumers though this, I would suggest, is purely down to the exposure television has been offering to farmers and growers and the chefs who promote and work with what comes off the land, rather than any Government-led initiative.

But there’s still a long way to go: 77 per cent of people surveyed think it’s important to support British farmers and 60 per cent say they try to buy British. But price is still what dominates buying habits: less than half say they would be prepared to pay more for British food.

So I am extremely glad that there is to be an Efra Select Committee inquiry into the way British produce is promoted – a move which may have the effect also of reminding Michael Gove that (as Somerset farmers stressed this week) food production itself could also be described as one of the ‘public goods’ he wants to see farming deliver after Brexit.

I hope the inquiry will also afford the chance to examine the role of the AHDB in promoting home-produced food and drink because I and many other farmers regard its board members as being cast in the same mould as Snow White’s dwarfs: busy doing nothing.

Some £60 million of farmers’ levy payments disappear into the AHDB black hole every year and I defy anyone to tell me precisely what benefits farmers see in return.

Farmers have until June 8th to submit their views to the Efra committee about how they believe food promotion is or isn’t working and what they believe could be done to improve it.

This is a rare chance for us all to register our views and have a say on a system which, many of us believe, is failing to hit the target and failing to delivery any kind of value for money or indeed improved prosperity for farmers. Anyone can submit a comment by logging on to www.parliament.uk – and I would urge everyone to do so.

ends

David Handley is Chairman of Farmers For Action


FARMING MAY 26 DAVID HANDLEY COLUMN

One of these days I’m going to get a shock. One of these days a politician will stand up and say something complimentary about British farming.

But it won’t be this week, clearly. This week has seen yet another round of farmer-bashing at the highest levels of Government.

Farmers – if Michael Gove is to be believed – are wicked polluters who are poisoning the very air we breathe and are to be made subject to s tricter and tighter limits on ammonia emissions under government plans to improve UK air quality.

Well, when you’ve just suffered the embarrassment of being referred to the European courts for failing to meet new national standards for air quality it’s useful to be able to divert people’s attention by pointing the finger of blame elsewhere.

And where better than at the farming community, the softest of all targets and the most obvious one since large sections of the population are already convinced that farming is a mucky business anyway.

But what particularly got up my nose – apart from another display of toadying to ministers by Neil Parish, of whom we once had high expectations – was the suggestion that farmers have somehow been playing fast and loose when it comes to observing anti-pollution controls.

And it didn’t take long for this inference to work its way through to the anti-farmer BBC, whose news website boldly informed the public that farmers ‘have largely evaded pollution controls so far’, adding ever so smugly that ‘they will be told to buy new equipment to reduce airborne ammonia from slurry’.

The BBC’s journalists should really stop believing everything they see on Countryfile. Environmental pollution is already tightly controlled on farms. It has been since the Environment Agency’s clampdown on slurry storage to protect water courses and the introduction of the Nitrate Vulnerable Zone controls.

There may have been some accidental breaches of the regulations but very, very few farmers have deliberately flouted them because of the eye-watering penalties they can incur.

So for Michael Gove to wheel out a new set of benchmarks and immediately denigrate farmers for failing to attain them is the cheapest shot imaginable – though not a surprising one.

As to farmers being told to buy new equipment I just hope there will be some kind of government grant available, because to expect small dairy farms to invest in costly new kit with incomes at their present depressed level and profits virtually undetectable will only have one possible outcome – a further surge in exits from the sector.

I note the initial targets – and this is the only bright spot in this whole sad saga - will be the farms at the top end of the scale, the mega-units that have been created in an attempt to bring unit costs down and make milk production at least marginally profitable.

They are the ones, of course, whose emissions have been the highest. But that has only come about and they have only been created as a result of successive governments allowing supermarkets to take over and run British food policy and protect their profits at the expense of everyone else’s.

Small and medium family farms do not create the same kind of environmental nuisance nor contribute markedly to the national problem.

But to suggest to politicians that the current and apparently unacceptable situation is largely down to their own inept performances over the years would not, I fear, be met with anything other than blustering denials. Even though it’s a fact.

ends



FARMING APRIL 28 DAVID HANDLEY COLUMN

WESTERN DAILY PRESS

If you encountered an organisation which forced you to hand over a substantial amount of money towards its running costs every year yet denied you any kind of say in how the collected cash was spent you might think there was something seriously wrong with it.

You would be correct. But such an organisation really exists in the shape of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board. And farmers are becoming increasingly angry and frustrated at the way it continues to suck levy money out of their pockets while refusing them the merest shred of democratic right to influence its activities.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that barely a week passes without more complaints being levelled at this great Defra offshoot which spends around £20 million a year - roughly a third of all the levy money it pockets – on staff salaries, is run by a chief executive who earns more than the Prime Minister but whose benefits to the industry it purports to serve are so small they are virtually immeasurable.

Not that the AHDB would agree with that, of course. Listen to its version of events and it is delivering massive support to British farmers, signposting the way to the sunlit uplands of real profitability.

But like all mirages, with every step along the road this vision appears as distant as ever, if not more distant than ever given the way farming’s fortunes have nosedived in the last few years.

It’s hardly surprising the National Sheep Association has now joined the chorus of protest at what it sees as a monumental waste of money, given the way the AHDB is failing miserably to promote any of its members’ products.

Indeed, promotion would appear to be the last thing the AHDB has on its agenda, particularly in view of the latest, negative report from one of its in-house ‘experts’ who claims, apparently, that even if we produce everything to the most exacting standards demanded by our overseas customers there is no guarantee that mere British branding is going to win us any significant success in the export market – a clear case of throwing in the towel even before the fight has started.

The AHDB claims, in so many words, to be some national centre of expertise. But take a look at those sitting around the boardroom table and you will hardly be impressed by their track records. What so many them do have in common is that they used to sit around the NFU board table when the chairman Peter Kendall was at the controls. Indeed that seems to be the primary qualification for joining the AHDB’s inner sanctum: when I applied for a vacancy on its dairy board I was turned down of the grounds of ‘lack of experience’. I have been in dairy farming all my working life but evidently that isn’t long enough – though I fail to see how I could have acquired any more experience within that particular time frame.

How long it will be before general disquiet about the AHDB reaches the ears of Michael Gove – or indeed whether he will do anything about it – is anyone’s guess.

On the other hand the only farming organisation he is known to talk to is the NFU. And the NFU is unlikely to complain about its neighbour at Stoneleigh because it is run by people who are keeping their eyes peeled for the next well-remunerated sinecure to the advertised by the AHDB so they, too, can follow the well-trodden path through the revolving door.

Meanwhile £60 million spent instead on educating the next generation about where their food comes from, how it is produced and how to cook it would, I am convinced, deliver far more benefits to British farmers than the AHDB will ever be capable of.

David Handley is chairman of Farmers For Action.

ends


FARMING MARCH 31 DAVID HANDLEY COLUMN

I had one of my regular trips back to my native Cornwall this week and was forced once again to reflect that it is no longer the county I knew and grew up in.

Barely a village still looks the way it did then. Between them the planners and the second-home owners have brought about massive changes – changes which in some cases have bleached all the character and distinctiveness out of settlements which were once noted for their individual charm and attraction.

Very few ancient settlements have not been scarred beyond recognition with sprawling ranks of new homes – in many cases built as a result of the owners of large estates turning perfectly good fields over to housing to relieve their temporary cash shortages.

Village after village announces itself with rows of identical, white-painted houses crammed as closely together as the planning regulations and human decency will allow.

Meanwhile all the old, traditional homes they surround will stand empty most of the year because they have been bought for week-end and holiday retreats, the relentless scramble for them pushing market prices way beyond the reach of most young couples.

Cornwall, of course, isn’t the only county to have suffered like this: neighbouring Devon is almost as badly affected. But wherever these changes are happening I find it impossible to understand why the authorities are so ready to sacrifice the food-producing resource represented by a field rather than applying themselves a little more enthusiastically to identifying and using brownfield sites to meet national housing targets.

So many villages are now suffering from the same ‘doughnut’ effect as larger towns: an encircling belt of housing estates with virtually nothing happening in the centre because the local shop has had to close for lack of trade and – in many cases – the pub has gone for the same reason.

I knew where I was going to find all the second-home owners this Easter week-end: in one other of the large supermarkets, spending money which, apart from paying the wages of a couple of dozen part-time staff would be electronically whisked out of the region as soon as it was rung up at the till.

I see Defra has been criticised by the Lords for failing to fulfil its obligations to the rural community, and what has been allowed to happen to local communities in the South West is just one example.

If the department had been doing its job it would have intervened to ensure a proper, sustainable balance between permanent and second homes and local authorities would have been able to use business rates paid by the multiple retailers to relieve the financial pressure on traditional village shops and keep them trading.

The more the rate of house building is allowed to race away, the morewe allow featureless estates which could have been transplanted from the Midlands or the Home Counties to be plonked on prominent hilltop sites the more we risk losing the unique character of the South

FARMING FEBRUARY 3 DAVID HANDLEY COLUMN

I’m a fairly easy-going sort of bloke who believes everyone has a right to hold and express an opinion, even if it isn’t one I necessarily agree with.

And on that basis I’ve usually taken a fairly relaxed view of vegans. It is, I have always felt, entirely their business if they choose to turn their backs on the kind of diet humans have been eating for at least 10,000 years.

It’s a matter for them if – despite the warnings of successive scientific studies into human nutrition – they want to bring their children up on a diet of dairy substitutes which don’t provide the necessary levels of calcium or indeed iodine and which put the offspring at risk of early onset osteoporosis, though personally I wouldn’t inflict that on a dog or a cat.

I can even, in the interests of free speech, tolerate a moderate degree of their zealous campaigning – even when that campaigning specifically targets farmers who are doing no more than their utmost to keep the nation fed.

But we have reached the point where the vegans have crossed the line between being a lifestyle lobby and being an ethical terrorist group. And it is time all of us – particularly the authorities – said enough is enough.

The vegans’ vicious, misguided and subversive campaigning has now taken a far more sinister turn with the issuing of death threats against the families of specific farmers. All of course, organised from behind the defences of social media which far too many people believe somehow make them untouchable.

Well I have news for the vegans: the last time I checked the law a threat or offer of violence was classed as a criminal offence if accompanied by an apparent ability to cause the harm, which the vegans are clearly claiming.

So we have moved from a stage where vegans can be regarded as nothing more harmless than a deluded but well-intentioned fringe group to one where farmers are genuinely being put in fear of their safety by them. And that absolutely must not be allowed to continue.

What we are seeing, of course, is the real purpose of the militant vegans which is to destroy livestock farming worldwide – a philosophy which completely blanks out the environmental evidence that it is cereal and arable production which has a far more detrimental effect on soil quality and natural habitats than traditional livestock rearing, because giving meat production credit for anything must, of course, be resisted.

Not that the vegans aren’t happy to borrow the carnivores’ terminology for the substitute foods they force on their unfortunate children: the vegan ‘burgers’, the vegan ‘sausages’ the almond ‘milk’ whose only similarity to nutritionally-rich proper milk is in the colour.

But on the face of it a meat-free diet has the ability to turn a standard-model human being into someone with a warped personality, an irrational hate of anyone who doesn’t share their beliefs and a psychopathic tendency to punish them with violence.

Not a nice kind of person at all, in fact. Pass me some more (proper) bacon, please.

ends


FARMING JANUARY 7 DAVID HANDLEY COLUMN

I’d like to wish all farmers a Happy New Year – with the added hope that 2018 didn’t get off to the kind of chaotic start that it did where I live.

My first call came around midnight from one of my neighbours, the owner of more than 100 prime dairy cows, many of them in calf and which, unsurprisingly, had not taken too kindly to a massive fireworks display that was in progress on a neighbouring property.

The result was the inevitable stampede with some of the animals ending up down the road and some across my neighbour’s lawns, the operation to round them all up and calm them all down taking quite a sizeable chunk out of the early hours of January 1.

Hours later, in daylight, another neighbour called. He had discovered three of his cows chewing on the plastic remains of Chinese lanterns which had floated across his fields after being launched from a party somewhere upwind.

Even more chilling was the spotting of yet another of these pointless devices in one of his stores: thankfully for him its flame had gone out before it had had a chance to set anything alight.

Sky lanterns have been plaguing British farmers for probably 20 years now and they remain as big a threat as ever, from the farmers’ perspective. But not, apparently, from the ministerial perspective, which is why George Eustice has refused to listen to the farming and countryside community’s calls for them to be banned.

Why, he told the House of Commons, such a measure would be disproportionate, given that the risks they posed to animals and the environment were ‘relatively minor’.

Statistically speaking they may be. But statistics aren’t going to help the dairy farmer whose cows ingest the remains of lanterns or who is woken by a glow in the middle of the night and finds his winter hay roaring up in smoke.

Instead our Farming Minister is relying on a new (and entirely voluntary) ‘safety code of practice’ whose rules (he claims) will help ensure sky lanterns are “safe, biodegradable and sold responsibly”.

There’s more:"People are becoming more aware of the dangers of sky lanterns and how to reduce the risk of causing damage” he has asserted.

Let me tell him one thing: there is no such thing as a ‘safe’ sky lantern. And every dairy farmer in the country will be able to offer a view on how effective voluntary codes are given that it was a voluntary code drawn up by former NFU dairy board chairman Gwyn Jones that was going to cure all the ills of the dairy sector.

Didn’t he do well? Not since Chamberlain came back from Munich has such a worthless document been waved around.

I am starting to ask myself whether George Eustice genuinely is the Farming Minister or whether he has been quietly shuffled into a new post as Minister for Second Home Owners – the people who are generally responsible for sky lanterns and firework displays, arrogantly and selfishly indulging in such pleasures without a thought as to the safety of animals or farmers’ property, yet who still expect farmers to go on toiling away so they can buy their food as cheaply as possible.

We don’t need a code covering the use of sky lanterns; we need a code for second home owners laying out some basic guidelines as to how to behave in the countryside and explaining that, contrary to what they might think, it is a working environment - not a vast adventure playground for the well-heeled city-dweller.

ends


FARMING DECEMBER 30 DAVID HANDLEY COLUMN

I hope you all had a very enjoyable and relaxing Christmas. I’d also like to think that many of you had what I would refer to as a traditional Christmas featuring plenty of nourishing, home-cooked food.

Sadly, I fear, for thousand upon thousands of our children Christmas dinner – and indeed every meal they ate over the festivities – would have consisted of what could have been bought ready-prepared (and even pre-cooked) in a box or a packet at the supermarket.

You might have thought even those families who don’t cook much during the course of the year because they say it’s either too difficult or too time-consuming or even – as I have heard - too expensive (and I would take issue with anyone on those points) would want to make an effort at Christmas to ensure what arrived on the table was freshly-picked, bought, prepared and cooked. In fact the opposite appears to happen: Christmas seems to be the time to buy even greater quantities of pre-prepared foods.

I can understand –just – resorting to the freezer cabinets for so-called party foods which may beyond the capabilities of many people to produce (though have they even tried?) but when I see pre-made stuffing, Yorkshire puddings and even gravy on sale my heart really sinks.

The last generation to get others to cook for them on such a scale were the Victorians. In the 19th century most middle-class families kept servants – but they also kept control of the family diet. Today millions of people are not merely content to allow others to cook for them they entrust them to deliver wholesome, nourishing food. It rarely if ever, seems to occur to them that labour costs must then figure in the calculations when arriving at a retail price and since they are fixed by law then in order to come in under the retailer’s ceiling then economies often have to be made elsewhere – usually in the quality of ingredients and in what the primary producer is paid.

What is undeniable is that our ridiculous and frankly lazy over-reliance on convenience foods has bequeathed us the most obese and unhealthiest children in Europe – and I dread to think what problems and costs they are laying down for the future health service.

Children are literally being poisoned by additives and by huge amounts of hidden salt, sugar and fat and the real tragedy is that as the third generation born into a world of cheap convenience food eating everything – even Christmas dinner – from a bag or a packet appears perfectly normal to them.

What hope has a child got when they are sent off to school with a bag of crisps, a chocolate bar and a sweet fizzy drink to consume on the way in lieu of breakfast? It’s been recognised for centuries that a proper breakfast is necessary at the start of the day yet thousands of families here are now denying their children that very thing.

I read recently of the success of breakfast clubs in schools in some of the more deprived parts of the capital which offer children a decent, balanced meal once they arrive at school. The results are spectacular in terms of improved behaviour and academic performance – to say nothing of the dietary benefits.

But what really shocked me was that many of these operations are having to be financed by charitable donations: a throwback to the days before nationalised health and education services when the better-off would donate to workhouses, alms houses and poor houses in order that the inmates could have a decent meal now and then.

If I have one aim for 2018 it is to campaign as energetically as I can for a better deal for our children on the food front. To help them understand where food comes from and how it is produced. To enable more of them to eat real food, and to learn how to source it and cook it.

And I would urge all farmers – who still produce 60 per cent of everything we eat – to put whatever pressure they can on their MPs to ensure the Government starts to look outside its affluent, Westminster bubble, wakes up to the seriousness of this situation and the horrific problems we are building up further down the line - and determines to turn it into a national issue. And urgently.

Happy New Year.


FARMING DECEMBER 9 DAVID HANDLEY COLUMN

The way things stand it looks very much as though the NFU will get its first woman president in the New Year.

The odds are shortening as all the money goes on Wiltshire’s Minette Batters being elected at the annual meeting. Assuming she runs true to form and ends up sitting in the big chair I wish her a long and successful tenure and all the luck in the world dealing with the challenges that are just over the horizon.

Equally I trust that those who will be casting their votes for her in the election will be doing so because of who she is and what they believe her to be capable of, rather than merely because they think it would somehow improve the NFU’s image to have a woman in charge.

My own view is that it is entirely appropriate to have a woman running what is by any measure a male-dominated organisation. Because at last the NFU will be acknowledging the role women play in keeping the machinery of British agriculture turning smoothly and efficiently.

There are, in fact, very few farms which could operate successfully were it not for the contribution of the farmers’ wives. In addition to bringing up families they invariably put in hours of work – much, if not all of it, unpaid – and in most cases I know they carry out the all-important task of doing the books.

Very little of this input has been recognised. There have, of course, been the high-profile campaigning organisations such as Women in Pigs, which have done invaluable work in promoting British food.

There was, until last year, the Women’s Farming Union which did a brilliant job in beating the drum for British farming and raising the profile of women working in the industry. The fact that it disbanded after 37 years was regrettable but it happened for the right reason - because it had helped women engage in politics and agricultural organisations far more than they were than at the time it was set up.

That greater involvement has now brought us to the brink of a new era for theNFU – and one I sincerely hope sees it start to change from a largely ineffectual old men’s club to something more dynamic which is going to be able to engage with the wider public and push food and farming issues much higher up the agenda of public debate – a rightful position given that we still produce 60 per cent of what this nation eats and are being encouraged to increase that percentage considerably post-Brexit.

I hope Minette Batters makes a success of the job and more than that I hope she can inspire other women in farming to follow her example – as long as they can find the time between driving the children to school, doing the milking, cooking the meals, cleaning the house and dealing with the accountant.

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FARMING DECEMBER 2 

I never thought I should walk away from a British agricultural show feeling ashamed. But that was precisely my mood after visiting the Welsh Winter Fair this week.

Because what I saw there made me question how many more horrors we are going to produce in the name of livestock ‘improvement’.

Agricultural shows were established in the first place, of course, as forums where farmers could exchange experience and expertise and admire the achievements of those at the very top of their game.

But if the animals I saw this week represent some sort of pinnacle then I’m glad I’m only one of the farming also-rans.

I remember how farmers shuddered when the first Belgian Blues arrived here: grotesquely over-muscled and almost too weighty for their own legs to support them.

But where the Belgian Blues led the British livestock industry appears to have followed them. This week I saw the sheep industry’s answer to the Belgian Blue: Beltex sheep with massive muscles dwarfing spindly legs and tiny heads. And there was barely an exhibit in the cattle classes that didn’t look equally disproportioned.

Who can find such animals attractive? Only those, I would argue, who can’t look at an animal without pound signs flashing in front of their eyes. I know precisely how we have got to this distasteful stage. It’s all about maximising returns, making the animals work harder for the farmer, improving killing-out percentages. All the kind of propaganda the consultants and the has-beens who run the AHDB have been pumping out for years.

But if farmers who have been blindly following their advice were to stop for a moment, draw breath and look around they might just ask themselves where the issue of animal welfare fits into all this.

Well I can tell them. From where I am standing animal welfare has become a secondary consideration. And my concern is that a large section of the public may well soon be driven to the same conclusion.

Many people in this country find the whole notion of pedigree dog breeding distasteful, particularly when animals end up with protruding eyes or breathing difficulties. It can only, surely, be a matter of time before the organisations and influential individuals who have led the campaign against canine cruelty turn their attention to pedigree farm animals. And it will hardly be feasible to cover up the evidence because they will only have to visit the nearest agricultural event to find it being proudly displayed.

And what will happen then? When it comes to dogs the public has a clear remedy: to simply stop buying from pedigree breeders.

But the economic impact of consumers applying the same rule to the livestock industry could be catastrophic. And any farmers trying to delude themselves that it won’t have any effect should just cast their minds back to what happened when supermarkets were caught adulterating their ‘beef’ burgers with horse meat. Their sales collapsed.

Someone is bound to say that in writing this I am running the risk of starting a hare running, that welfare groups will start taking a far closer interest into how we now produce so-called champion livestock, perhaps even demanding high-welfare certification for all meat.

So be it. I sincerely believe there is much to be investigated. And if the outcome is a measurable improvement in on-farm welfare then I shall consider it a job well done. And my conscience, I can assure you, will be entirely clear.

David Handley is chairman of Farmers For Action.

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FARMING NOVEMBER 11 DAVID HANDLEY COLUMN

When the wind’s blowing a couple of points north of east where I live I occasionally pick up the sound of wailing coming from the Stoneleigh direction. It is – inevitably - the NFU bleating about some issue or other.

Lately, I notice, the issue being raised is that of dogs attacking livestock – a matter which has achieved some rather unwelcome prominence this year.

The number of sheep attacks – I won’t use that pointless phrase ‘sheep-worrying’ because a dead sheep is rather more than ‘worried’ – is showing an arming tendency to rise steadily.

Some of the cases, doubtless, are down to the feral classes who deliberately turn their dogs out to run wild with never a thought or care as to the consequences.

But other incidents I have read about have involved people one would normally consider to be responsible dog owners whose animals have got out of their control and whose natural instincts have then taken over.

To suffer a livestock attack is a dreadful experience for any farmer. Encountering the gruesome evidence and dealing with the aftermath is only the first stage in a long and painful process of evaluating and making insurance claims. And even if the insurance pay-out is adequate, even if the dog owner is prosecuted and ordered to pay compensation, money alone cannot heal the feelings of distress and anger that animals that one has raised and cared for have died in such circumstances as that.

It’s emotional factors like this which can build up and prey so heavily on so many farmers’ minds.

As I said, the NFU is now indulging in some serious hand-wringing on the issue. But it’s all too late. The NFU and farmers have been forced onto the back foot.

The time to have intervened and acted was when Labour were drafting the Countryside and Rights of Way legislation which threw open some six million acres of the UK to walkers and their dogs and delivered the subliminal message that the countryside was suddenly one giant playground.

Farming organisations should have leapt on this to ensure that the message about dogs and livestock was delivered loud and clear to temper the government’s euphoric declaration of a general ‘right to roam’.

Unfortunately they didn’t, which why they are now attempting to close the stable door to the sound of hooves clattering into the distance andflinging money at an ineffectual publicity campaign which is unlikely to make a scrap of difference to the situation.

The only remedy is an overhaul of the law to increase the minimum penalty for dog attacks so that those who cause them are really hammered, subjected to such punitive fines (with jail terms for repeat offences) that neither they nor anyone else will be tempted to let a dog off its lead anywhere near a field of sheep.

David Handley is chairman of Farmers For Action.

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FARMING NOVEMBER 4 DAVID HANDLEY COLUMN

Sometimes I despair. I really despair. I get to wondering whether some farmers actually manage to wake up in the morning or whether they just sleep-walk all day.

Because, surely, only someone who hasn’t got their brain into gear is going to leave a road so heavily carpeted in mud that it becomes a hazard to motorists.

Surely only someone who is totally unthinking can fail to see the risks that will result from such a situation, risks which are now turning into hard statistics as traffic on and off muddy fields builds up at this time of the year and the number of cars coming to grief on muddied roads starts to climb alarmingly.

I have seen token attempts to mitigate the inherent dangers mud-covered roads present to ordinary drivers – drivers who for the most part, of course,have no experience of driving anywhere other than on well-maintained Tarmac and for whom negotiating mud is totally unknown territory.

I have seen pathetic little ‘mud on road’ signs scrawled in felt tip on a bit of old cardboard and stuck up in the hedge. A woefully inadequate warning and one which, I must warn you, would provide no form of defence were a mishap on a mud-covered road to result in a farmer being sued for damage to a car or, indeed, its occupants.

What farmers have to realise are two things: firstly that they have a duty to clear up any mess they have caused as quickly and as effectively as possible; and secondly that any failure to do so is merely going to lead to further downgrading of farmers’ public image.

This I am afraid, is already pretty tarnished. The public, by and large, doesn’t read the farming press or the specialised farming pages which portray pretty much the correct picture. They tend to believe what they see and hear from the media which rarely portray farmers as the heroes who get up before dawn to make sure there is food on the nation’s tables and tend instead to concentrate on animal welfare issues, subsidies and the farming smells which apparently make life so unbearable for town-dwellers who decide to move to the countryside to live.

In other words we are already struggling with an image problem, and that’s a situation which is hardly going to be helped by people being too tired or unthinking to scrape a road clean of the several inches of mud which will guarantee that the first car round the corner ploughs into a hedge or a telegraph pole.

We’re coming up fast to maize harvesting where there is likely to be even more farm traffic on and off the highway and I would just appeal for farmers – all farmers – to have a bit of thought and consideration for other road users and make sure as little trace as possible of their tractor journeys is left to present a danger.

We might not be able to clean up farming’s image, given the way all the odds are stacked against us. But it is certainly within our power to clean up after ourselves.

David Handley is chairman of Farmers For Action.

ends

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.

ends

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.

ends





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.

ends




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.



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