Farming industry must change to meet new realities

On our local high street last week, I passed a woman in her seventies talking to a man about the same age.

The good old days werent always really that good. Picture: Fox Photos/Getty Images
The good old days werent always really that good. Picture: Fox Photos/Getty Images

She said: “I always preferred the old money.”

He replied: “Aye, you knew where you were with pounds, shillings and pence, and you could buy more.”

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And there, I thought, you have it. In a democracy – the worst possible system of government, except for all the others – they were as entitled to their opinion as any other eligible voter and to hanker after a currency that disappeared more than 40 years ago.

As were the two older ladies I saw on TV, when asked which way they had voted: “Oh, out,” they chorused. “We remember the good old days.”

Ah, those good old days of Spam and rationing and the humiliation of Suez and Britain losing an empire and its place in the world; the 1970s of the three-day week, power cuts, strikes and galloping inflation.

And we had better weather. What a rubbish month June past was. Compare it with those glorious summers of 1975 and 1976. In 1976 from 23 June we had 15 consecutive days of temperatures above 32C – which is, of course, 90 Fahrenheit for those who prefer old money. The nation took its collective shirt off and sizzled. Great hay was made.

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Unfortunately, grain crops shrivelled and roots and vegetables were tiny. Yields were desperately low, although compensated by rocketing prices. How good those old days were.

Not as good, of course, as the 1950s or the 1940s when we had a global war during which an estimated 40 million died or the Depression of the 1930s. Or the wonderful 1914-18 war.

How much has this to do with farming? Well, traditionally farming was always more valued and reaped higher profits in wartime as importing food became more difficult. I’m old enough to remember local NFU meetings where that was trotted out, that another war would bring the public to its senses – and concentrate their minds on where they should be spending their money rather than on, I quote, “booze, baccy and bingo”.

The odd thing is that in the recent EU referendum many more farmers than expected voted out, helping produce a result that surprised me.

I was in good company. It also surprised the bookies – still offering four to one on Remain on polling day – plus David Cameron and Boris Johnson.

The internal political turmoil continues at every level: no-one knows what will happen in Scotland, extrication from the EU will take years and no-one can wipe the sneer from Nigel Farage’s face.

But the result stands. Farmers who voted Leave or Remain are in the same boat now. Perhaps farmers who voted Leave had reached the same stage as voters on low incomes or no incomes from depressed areas such as Sunderland or England’s east coast towns who thought: “Well, things can’t be any worse outside the EU than they are in.”

As far as farming subsidies are concerned, I think they can. There is no way a government faced with NHS, education and transport problems is going to keep up the present EU subsidy level to farmers.

But this could be farming’s chance to stand on its own feet. This could be the New Zealand moment. NZ removed farming subsidies overnight more than 30 years ago. After the initial shock, farming recovered. Poorer farmers went out of business, the better and best survived and found new markets.

We have always been told since that there is no comparison between NZ farming and us and that subsidies are essential to keep UK farming afloat, particularly beef and sheep.

I think we’re going to find out if that is true. Beef and sheep farmers particularly must try to do what poultry, pig and vegetable farmers have done – come in to the real, unsubsidised, world and sink or swim.

I believe that farming, and life, outside the EU will not be as good as the Leave campaign claimed. But it also won’t be as bad as Remain forecast. Farming has changed dramatically since the good old days, but farmers must change even faster in future. It’s their only chance.