The Fragility of Farming…Protest and…see what happens

A Future of Farming-FarmStart!

Its early March 2024 and you’d have had to be walking around with your eyes closed and fingers in your ears not to have heard about the No Farmers, No Food campaign that has brought Welsh farmers onto the streets over the last month.

This is the biggest collective protest by Welsh farmers in a lifetime, perhaps ever, with the potential for positive change to Welsh land use…but it could also be a flash in the pan and another dawning of hope that comes to nothing.

Since the Second World War British farming has been a precarious occupation with outside influences dictating farming policy. Initially the order was for farmers to produce as much food as possible, so we could become be self-sufficient as a nation, and then, as the globalisation took hold, what we were told to farm changed to meet the demands of the international market.

Sometimes our orders came from London, sometimes Brussels and sometimes the courts as multinational companies tried to force nations to sell their GM seeds and carcinogenic pesticides. And each time farming communities tried to adapt, changing what we were doing, diversifying, taking out hedgerows, putting them back, trying different crops, doing whatever we could to come out profitable at the end.

In the 1980s, many of us took out crippling bank loans when we were told to expand our production, and many of us lost our homes when the times grew leaner and supermarkets abandoned us, importing cheaper, lower quality food from elsewhere.

Many farmers embraced regenerative farming practices, going organic or reducing the stocking numbers as they witness the downside of what highly intensive farming could be. But the majority of us were already caught in the system of producing food as cheaply as possible, meeting supermarket demands and suffering in the process. It didn’t help as big biotech infiltrated our unions, and the literature we read endlessly talked up the possibilities they had to offer, playing down the often disastrous consequences of their technologies.

And through all these times farmers relied on grants and subsidies to stay viable. Our nation expects cheap food, the media told us, and then, when we were paid less than it costs to produce the food, the media scorned us for expecting handouts, forgetting the fact that supermarkets and processors take a bigger bite of the pie than we do.

The latest protests have come as a reaction to the WAG’s new post-Brexit Sustainable Farming Policy (SFP), which could, protesters say, cost Welsh farming dearly. One bone of contention is the stipulation that all farmers have to plant trees on 10% of the land on which we had previously produced food. Planting trees, WAG say, would help us meet our national environmental goals. This could cost many farmers their livelihood, protesters say. But, as always, there is more the story than that.

No Farmers, No Food has brought many farmers together, but it is also in danger of splitting the power that a collective farming force might have. The group’s convener, James Melville, is Corwall-based, non-farming ‘social media commentator’ who denies climate change and with it undermines a lot of good in the SFP by drawing focus to a narrow section of it.

Most farmers are proud custodians of their land and livestock. We want to see the best for both. Many farmers have been campaigning for changes to our systems for decades, trying to improve farming opportunities for the long term. Well coordinated, the current protests could easily focus on that, without doing a huge amount of potential damage to the environment in the process.

We could focus on the question of how it can be cheaper to buy New Zealand lamb in a Haverfordwest supermarket, than it is to buy Welsh lamb? How is it that our farming practices have brought about a 60% reduction in farmland birds since the 1970s? How is it that the drive for cheap eggs has permitted so many industrial poultry units in Powys that the River Wye is suffocating with green algae blooms directly linked the poultry production?

Many of these poultry units are jointly owned by Cargill, an American food business who, in 2001, were sued for polluting two lakes in Oklahoma. It is clear that even being fined $7.5million, has not persuaded them to alter their profit ahead of all else approach to life.

Learning from the mess of globalisation and the power and influence that profit-driven multinational corporations have, could give Welsh Farming a major advantage. We could adapt what we are doing to benefit farming communities now and give the long term security that we have never had.

Everyone needs to play a part in reducing our carbon footprint, and good farming practice already does this through good grassland management, sequestering carbon beneath the soil. We do not need a choice of trees or grassland. Well managed, they can coexist, boosting biodiversity and improving the environment in the process.

In Pembrokeshire, the expanding regenerative seaweed farms also offer means of additional food production and carbon sequestration off our coastline. Car y Mor, for example, is expanding with more staff and growing market month on month.

We have a lot to be excited about in our small scale, community orientated enterprises. Our resilience is strong, and it always has been. We are an innovative people. Working together our communities can thrive.

Ffynnone Community Resilience, in north east Pembrokeshire, is one good example of how a thriving community can be built. In late 2019 through a series of in-person and on-line People’s Assemblies, we asked the community what do we should do to build local resilience in the face of climate breakdown. Answers were numerous and varied, but there was a definite concern about food security, which only increased during lockdown when it became apparent how fragile the supermarkets systems were. Four years on, there are now four community gardens in the Ffynnone patch. GRWP resilience has helped set up many more around Pembrokeshire, with more in the pipeline too.

On one of the Ffynnone gardens, based at Clynfyw Care Farm in Abercych, Wales’s first FarmStart Scheme is due to be launched on Good Friday (29th March). This new project will support people who want to become farmers and growers. The scheme provides the space, infrastructure and support they need to effectively produce food and establish a thriving business. At a time when many farmers are leaving the industry and it is so hard for new entrants to join, schemes like this are a shining beacon of what can happen, if we want it to. Schemes like this could be rolled out across Wales, supporting existing agricultural businesses and reinvigorating our farming communities with new ideas and opportunities.

Pembrokeshire is a county of dynamic, passionate people. Our proud history of standing up to injustice runs back centuries and we can shape our farming future, and that of Wales as a whole, by forming consensus around how we, as a county and as a nation, want our farmland to look.

Do we want to feed ourselves, shortening food chains and reducing our carbon footprint in the process? Post-Brexit, how do we adapt to manage the reduce workforce? Should we embrace robots to replace people? Should we embrace the industrialisation of our farming, permitting our small farms be absorbed into bigger ones to form mega-farms? Through economies of scale that might help us produce ‘cheaper’ food, but if small is beautiful, what do we lose at the same time? And when the average age of UK farmers being 59 and over 40% of farmers are over 65, how do we encourage younger people into farming. It has always been a precarious industry, but never more than now.

Could community growing and FarmStart schemes be an answer?


Image from Farmers Weekly 1/3/24  Robert Melen/Alamy Stock Photo