SAVING A PRECIOUS CULTURE
HRH Prince Charles
27 December 2002, pp. 10-11.
I AM enormously touched to have been voted the Farm Personality of the Year; it is certainly a great surprise and means an enormous amount to me.
But, if I might say so, I think the award should really go to all those farmers who have battled on despite the crippling problems they face and who remain determined to maintain their way of life and care for the land they love.
Even before the horrors of foot-and-mouth, the farming community has been suffering real hardship in recent years. BSE, Classical Swine Fever and the weakest agricultural returns and rates of farm employment since the 1930s have led to farmers having among the lowest incomes in the land.
I have heard stories of desperate hardship and anxiety, but I have also witnessed examples of extraordinary courage and determination which I happen to think are one of the true hallmarks of country people, particularly farmers.
What has also been clear to me is that there is a real gulf between those who live in our towns and cities and those in the countryside. It is to help bridge that gap, to make people more aware of what is going on in the countryside and of the threat to the people who live and work in it, that I have been doing what I can to draw attention to issues which the farming community faces.
It is said that agriculture is no different from any other industry which has had to go through a process of so-called restructuring. I happen to believe that this shows a lack of understanding about the role of agriculture.
The fundamental difference is that the countryside is not a factory; it makes up 70% of the land mass in this small island of ours and we depend on farmers to look after it and to produce the very stuff of life -- our food.
It is simply not possible to stop farming and hope that by some miracle the landscape will stay tended, the hedges cut and the grass grazed. And this management is an all-year-round operation which can only be done by people with skill and a deep knowledge of the land. If it were to stop, there would be a heavy price to pay.
During F&M, many people heard for the first time about hefted flocks and the difficulties of re-establishing them once they have been removed. I believe that farmers are hefted people, particularly the family farmers who have cared for their land from one generation to another.
They are integral threads in the complex tapestry of rural Britain. Unstitch those threads and the ancient tapestry - our precious countryside, with all its cultural heritage - will lose its traditional character and the beauty which attracts so many people from the towns, and from overseas, to visit it. The continuity of wisdom, management and experience, passed down through generations, is irreplaceable. These are not skills which can be recreated or reinvented. Lose them and we lose a large part of our collective memory, and a countryside which helps to define us as a nation.
We also risk losing the ability to be relatively self-sufficient in food and, as we are all acutely aware at the moment, situations can change in the world very unexpectedly. There could come a day when the UK might be forced to rely on its own food again and so I strongly believe that this country must retain the ability to grow its own food.
To do otherwise is, to me, sheer folly. It is something which I think retailers need to consider as a matter of urgency. Continuity and accessibility of supply are of the utmost importance to them with the increased risks from terrorism and instability overseas; they need a strong British agriculture too.
I know that many people are giving considerable thought to the future of agriculture and I am pleased that the government seems to have embraced many of the Curry Commission's findings in its recently published Strategy for Sustainable Farming and Food.
I hope that this will make a contribution towards creating the foundation for a secure future for British farming. After all, our farmers are some of the best in the world and we have some of the finest conditions in which to produce the highest quality produce, particularly livestock fed on proper British grass.
Part of our success in achieving this lies in finding ways to add value to the food we produce, focusing on quality and differentiation rather than the relentless pursuit of quantity. Our farmers, with their special skills and experience, are uniquely well placed to produce for niche markets. Rare and native breeds, speciality regional foods and, of course, organic farming are real opportunities which, if taken, could make a difference to the future of British agriculture in an uncertain world.
But what has particularly struck me during my recent meetings with farmers is that even though the F&M outbreak ended 10 months ago and there is a real desire to keep going, the pressures on farmers remain constant.
I recently visited a wonderful organisation in Co Durham called the Upper Teesdale Agricultural Support Service (UTASS). It began as a few volunteers helping farmers with paperwork, but when F&M broke out it became a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week operation with a much larger, though mostly voluntary, staff.
When I was talking to some of the farmers who use UTASS, I was struck by the fact that they feel all the joy has gone from farming. They explained that they were not in it to make a fortune; they genuinely love the way of life, but the ever-growing pressures from regulations and bureaucracy are making it pretty intolerable.
Most farmers are not natural administrators; had they wanted to manage paper, they would have chosen to work in an office. Their skills are with the land and with stock; they work all hours of the day and night and in every sort of weather, and they rarely complain. Obviously, there have to be regulations and consumers want the reassurance that these should bring. But the mountain of paper which even the smallest farmer faces today is a real problem -- and a way needs to be found to help them deal with it more effectively.
I mention consumers because I see them as the most important link in the food chain and more could be done to encourage them to play their part in the revival of British agriculture. Every retailer will tell you that it is to consumer demand that they respond.
So we need initiatives which allow consumers to make a genuine and informed choice about what they are buying. We must have clear branding for British food - and I mean proper British food. In other words, grown or bred here, not just processed and packaged.
And wouldn't it be a step forward if the labelling on imported food was just as clear?
There is, I think, a strong case for educating our children better about where their food comes from. That is why I am such a passionate advocate for school farms, which are the only likely way in which children can come to understand about nature, the cycle of the seasons and how things grow.
I knew from my visits to school farms, particularly Oathall Community College in Elaywards Heath, how valuable this learning experience can be. The farm is used to enhance the teaching of core subjects such as maths, economics, geography, business studies and art. And this type of education also helps to develop a wider understanding of the links between what we eat and our overall health.
However, consumers are not simply those who shop in supermarkets. Our public bodies buy enormous quantities of food. Just imagine the amount of food purchased by our hospitals, armed forces, local government, schools and universities. What an impact it would make on the viability of the British farmer if each was to buy "British" and, preferably, buy "local".
I have been told that EU tendering rules mean that it is impossible to specify the type of food you wish to buy under contracts which are worth over a certain amount.
However, the University of Wales, of which I am chancellor, has recently completed an excellent piece of work showing that there are perfectly legal mechanisms to avoid this particular problem, which are often employed by many of our European partners who understand, perhaps rather better than us, the value of good quality, home-produced food.
Something else that many European countries do better than us is to co-operate. There are some examples already in this country of co-operatives which really make a difference.
Indeed, there is a particularly successful one operating in Bradninch on the Duchy of Cornwall estate in Devon. But you only have to look across the Channel to France, Denmark, Sweden and Holland to see the fuller role which co-operatives can play.
I cannot bear to see our farmers losing out when we could be doing the same thing. It may be a machinery ring, or a co-operative to buy seeds or to enhance marketing and branding. Whichever form it takes, I am convinced that this way of working could help by creating an economy of scale, cutting costs and increasing the influence of farmers in the food chain.
I am also struck that in the USA there is a far more fertile environment for co-operatives, which encourages them to flourish there too. For example, there are government-funded university centres for co-operatives, a farm credit bank system and loan guarantees for co-operatives who wish to invest. Inevitably, much store is being set on the success of the new English Farming and Food Partnerships.
One of the highlights of this year for me has been my presidency of the National Federation of Young Farmers' Clubs. I derive enormous enjoyment and encouragement from meeting members as I travel round the country and talk to them about their views on the future of agriculture.
To my great delight, they tend to have a determined commitment to farming and do want to stay in it. They are clearly prepared to try fresh ideas. Only the other day I visited a particularly enterprising Young Farmer in Monmouthshire who has set up a goat-milking operation to supply a local cheesemaker.
But Young Farmers inevitably have worries, too. Perhaps the greatest of these is finding somewhere to live, even if they have land to farm. This is a problem which is exacerbated by the fact that we have not yet found a way to allow farmers who wish to retire to do so with dignity and security. I know that this is a difficult problem, but it is one which looms large, particularly for tenant farmers.
As so many people grapple with the difficulties of agriculture, perhaps above all else our ambition should be for farmers to receive a reasonable margin on the food they produce. That is the only way that farmers, particularly smaller family farms which are the backbone of so much of rural Britain, can survive.
We must remember that agriculture is exactly that -- a culture and a way of life. It is something precious and irreplaceable, and I, for one, will continue to do all I can to support it.