Comment: From producer to plate, few consumers see a connection

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AS PART of a vow made around the turn of the year to get out and about more, I found myself in congenial company at the weekend.

Before going further, I should add my decision was conditional on this being in non-farming company.

This was not turning my back on the profession in which I had spent my life, rather it was a challenge to seek broader horizons, as the farming community is notorious for being, let us say, somewhat introverted.

Not surprisingly, the informal discussion commenced with the weather, which even in non-farming company appears to be the starter for ten. The general consensus was that the weather was “bad” and tales were told of getting wet going to the office or having to drive through flooded roads.

The state of the national economy came up. “Bad” was again the universal view, accompanied by forecasts of doom and gloom which if true would last well beyond my lifespan.

Then, for some reason, the lady next to me moved the chat onto the price of food. “Rocketed” was her description of how much more she was having to pay and this assessment was greeted with nods of agreement.

Now, I had kept mum while the weather was being discussed as it seemed beyond the comprehension of most that some professions actually had to work throughout the “bad” weather.

However, I could not keep quiet when the company failed to see any great connection between the weather and the price of food.

In their non-farming eyes, food was something that was on the shop shelves and there was no link between some poor sod ploutering about in the mud gathering in the raw produce of the food stacked up for sale.

I linked the two conversational strands and added the comment that food now only took about one tenth of the family income whereas a couple of generations ago, it accounted for about one third. So food was still cheap.

Thinking I had said enough, I retired to silence but the question came, “what about this CAP thing?”

Now, two evenings previously, I had listened to NFU Scotland president, Nigel Miller, give a one hour resumé of the latest position on the Common Agricultural Policy. It would have been much longer, he said, but he recognised most folks wanted home the same evening.

I thought my non-farming company might not want even 60 minutes on the machinations or language used in the current talks. The Irish tunnel sounds much more exotic than it is, being just a delaying tactic for change.
Explaining Brussels-born words and phrases such as equivalence and environmental focus areas would kill any party stone dead, I reckoned.

Although I sensed there was a deal of Euroscepticism in the room, I also mentioned the CAP was still the only pan-European policy.

I mentioned that the CAP was born when Europeans still had memories of post-Second World War hunger and the supply of good, healthy, cheap food was a priority. I volunteered that since then no-one had gone hungry, it could be considered a success.

What about the butter mountains and wine lakes, asked an old buffer who had just woken up as if they were still a feature of the European landscape.

He did not seem to be sturdy enough to be around in a couple of decades’ time when food supplies might be short, so I limited myself to assuring him there were no such food surpluses now.

However, farmers get loads of money someone else suggested, and so I took the tack from EU agricultural commissioner Dacian Ciolos and said that the public had a managed landscape and other environmental benefits besides, and that was part of the deal in getting taxpayers’ money.

They seemed unimpressed by that, taking the countryside and their access to it for granted and from there the conversation drifted into areas where I had little to contribute.

As I drove home, I pondered on the evening. The price of food is important but all else in farming terms is well down the agenda whether it is the weather or the details of the next CAP.

In moving out of my comfort zone I also thought of the truth identified by Robert Burns, who said a long time ago “to see ourselves as ithers see us”.