“You youngsters like things big,” the old dear in the back of the taxi said to me yesterday morning, sucking in her cheeks. “We prefer small things – small businesses, small farms.
“Whole villages will be ripped up to make way for those giant diary farms, it’s disgusting. I hope the resolution gets passed.”
I’d thought it was going to be a fairly despairing day after it started off like this. I’d arrived in Liverpool for the Women’s Institute AGM to hear whether the organisation was going to pass a resolution which would in effect lead to the WI campaigning against so-called ‘factory farms’.
“This meeting abhors the practice of factory farming particularly large animals such as pigs and cows,” the resolution said.
“[It] urges H.M. Government to ensure planning permission is not granted for such projects.”
Tough stuff from a group of ladies who I always assumed just got themselves involved in jam-making and singing Jerusalem – which the 4500 members at the Liverpool Echo Arena did do – and very nicely, I might add:
I should probably point out at this juncture that I’m not actually pro- or anti-large-scale farming. I’ve visited a 10,000 indoor dairy unit in the US which made me cringe because – while its hygiene and welfare was impeccable – it felt clinical and like a factory. But I’ve been to another which was so airy, pleasant and homely that I would’ve preferred shacking up there than in my flat in London.
On the same front, I’ve seen some dodgy small-scale, family farms which I wouldn’t feel particularly happy knowing the foodI consume came from them.
(You might be happy to know that no splinters were sustained during that moment of fence-sitting).
My issue with the resolution was its inflammatory language, and the fact that few of the women I spoke to at the AGM yesterday rarely had any clue about what they were supposed to be voting on.
Like my taxi friend, several of them had got completely the wrong stick about the reality of the state UK agriculture, while one woman admitted she didn’t really feel happy about voting on it because she didn’t understand it.
Luckily, it turned out that the majority of the 4500 ladies at the AGM didn’t feel comfortable casting their vote either way, and the lovely members of the WI made history by refusing to vote on the resolution.
The farming industry has got off pretty lightly this time, but that doesn’t mean it can just sit back and relax now.
Judging by the amount of feeling in the audience and the debate that’s raged on for the last few months, this isn’t a subject the WI is going to let drop.
The organisation’s chairwoman said the resolution’s collapse should mark the start of an open debate about largescale farming, and past experience has shown when the WI’s 200,000+ members get behind something, they can really generate attention and make changes. I really wouldn’t be surprised if this resolution popped up at next year’s AGM, albeit in a differently-worded way.
Farming’s really got to make an effort now to engage with both the WI and with pressure groups – some of whom are being very vocal with messages which are often based more on emotion than truth. Regardless of the outcome, the future of UK agriculture should be based on facts, and not on the thoughts of ill-informed ladies in the back of cabs.
When I was on holiday in Florida a couple of years ago, I managed to convince my friends to pull our hire car over so I could stop off to take some photos of an orange grove.
Not being farmer-types, they had a bit of a whinge about the delay. They couldn’t have cared less about orange harvesting and just wanted to hot-foot it to our hotel so they could kick back on a lilo with a mojito and a slab of key-lime pie.
Turns out if I did the same thing this year, they might well have had a valid reason for moaning – I could’ve got us locked up.
This bill has just been introduced by the Florida senate. You can read all detail if you click the link, but in essence it says:
A person who enters a farm or other property where legitimate agriculture operations are being conducted without the written consent of the owner (or a representative), commits a felony of the first degree
A person who photographs, video records, or otherwise produces images or pictorial records, digital or otherwise, at or of a farm or other property where legitimate agriculture operations are being conducted without the written consent of the owner (or a representative) commits a felony of the first degree
So that’s a first degree felony for photographing a farm, regardless of whether you’re actually trespassing or standing on a road peering over a fence.
A first degree felony which, as helpfully defined by law blog The Volokh Conspiracy, is the highest degree felony other than capital crimes and ‘life felonies’, which carry a mandatory minimum of 25 years in prison.
Farmers in the UK often complain about rights of access and people wandering across their land, but this seems a tad extreme to me.
Anyway, being too scared to share the offending orange grove photo with you in fear of being banged up, I’ve had to illustrate this post with a different picture of my Florida trip. Just be thankful it wasn’t me in a bikini.
I managed to hold it together until the stereo started blaring out “Where’s your sausage gone?” to the tune of ‘Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep’.
It was at that point – stood outside Downing Street in front of a 16ft, shiny, hovering sausage – that I collapsed onto the floor in hysterical laughter.
You have to hand it to the pig industry – they certainly have a sense of humour.
At a time when producers are leaving the industry in droves thanks to spiralling input costs and appalling returns from retailers and processors, they went for comedy to make a very serious point.
At least, I hope they were trying to be funny.
Anyway, it certainly succeeded in being one of my more surreal days as a journalist. When I was at university learning the finer points of media law so I’d be able to bring down governments without getting done for libel, I thought I could only dream of being shouted at by Christine Hamilton for not wearing any gloves on a freezing day in March. Or asking the chief executive of the British Pig Executive in all seriousness how big his sausage was.
Much like the country’s pig producers, if I didn’t laugh, I’d cry…
Had I not chosen a career path which had taken me down a bizarre route into a niche avenue of journalism, I would have like to have become a proper writer on a national newspaper. Like John Pilger, perhaps. Or Jay Rayner.
Y’know, Jay Rayner. The one who’s the stunt double for Marco Pierre White on those Knorr stockcube adverts?
You must know him – he’s that restaurant critic with over 17,000 followers on Twitter, the Observer column and his own slot on the One Show at 7 o’clock on Fridays?
The Jewish one who didn’t go to Oxbridge and lives in Brixton?
Yes, that’s him.
Anyway, it turns out Jay is in Birmingham to speak at the NFU conference today. Hopefully he’ll whip up the audience into a frenzy over his views on organics, food security and the (lack of) meaningful policy changes the coalition government’s made to enhance UK agriculture since it came to power. Or he might just give us some anecdotes of when he met the president. Or the pope. Or whoever it was.
Pig-tail pulling aside, I actually had quite an interesting chat with Jay in the NFU conference bar last night. Once I’d got past his insults, it was nice to see there’s someone with a national media profile who actually understands and supports British agriculture.
It’s even better that he’s a proper journalist, with a real notebook and everything. Fingers crossed he takes good notes and feels inclined to share his thoughts with more people in the real world.
With no general election on the immediate horizon, union president Peter Kendall in the hot seat for another year and a DEFRA team widely seen as sympathetic towards farming, I was all prepared for a Caroline Spelman/NFU love-in.
Only it didn’t quite work out like that.
With his sleeves rolled-up to show he really meant business, Peter took to the conference stage and spent a couple of minutes praising Cazza and her team’s efforts to cut agricultural red tape, tackle bovine TB and protect research and development from budgets cuts.
But like a cat playing with a mouse before chomping its head off, Peter swiftly launched into attack over DEFRA’s lack of direction and it’s failure to have a proper plan for the future of food production in the UK.
Rising grain costs, low meat and milk prices, CAP reform and the country’s increasing reliance on food imports meant agriculture was facing huge challenges which needed urgent and immediate action, he said.
Cazza got up and tried to ease the tension, pleading the ‘I’m one of you’ line by mentioning her NFU credentials no less than three times. NFU credentials, I might add, that reach back to the year I was born.
Like a school girl who’d had a telling off, she attempted to coyly tilt her head and smile her way out of the situation, claiming the government had its head screwed on over farming and had got a food plan in the shape of the Food 2030 strategy.
So that’ll be the same Food 2030 strategy that was written by the Labour government then, Cazza? The same strategy that features your predecessor?
Oh, and Gordon Brown?
Something tells me we won’t be seeing any of the current DEFRA lot brandishing a copy of that any time soon.
Cazza may have expected the honeymoon period with the industry to continue for a bit longer, but after nine months in office, farmers are expecting to see some action pretty soon. Let’s just hope her department’s upcoming TB and red tape announcements don’t give them grounds for divorce.
I promise to blog about the Soil Association conference properly at some point (I’ll be putting my ranting hat on – be warned), but in the meantime I thought I’d share this with you.
One of the rather nice perks of going to the SA conference is the conference goodie bag. As the event is sponsored by chocolate company Green and Blacks, the freebies usually consist of something cocoa-related.
While I was slightly disappointed the big box in the bag was actually a lump of tofu and not a giant block of choccy, I was pretty pleased that there was a rather smashing Green and Blacks recipe book in there.
I spent a good few hours over the weekend drooling over what my housemate Alex has now termed ‘The Chocolate Porn Book’ before plumping on making some ginger and chocolate cupcakes.
Sound nice, eh? I donned my apron, got out my Le Creuset bake-ware (I’m really a middle-class, middle-aged house wife trapped in a twenty-something’s body) and got cracking.
And very pretty the cakes turned out too.
Pleased with the results, I proudly took my organic, chocolately delicacies to FW Towers today so my FW chums could share in my Soil Association conference spoils.
“Chewy,” said Mr Poultry. “And viscous.”
That’s the last time I’m taking my baking to work.
If I was living in Queensland I’d be starting to wonder who I’d annoyed.
After much of the southern part of the state was declared a disaster zone earlier last month thanks to some of the worst flooding ever seen, northern Queensland is now facing it’s own disaster – Cyclone Yasi.
When I was staying in Innisfail, about an hour south from the state capital of Cairns, my friend Marty talked a lot about Cyclone Larry, a tropical cyclone which hit the region in 2006 and did a huge amount of damage to farms, houses and towns.
It pretty much decimated the banana, paw paw and mango industry, snapping trees at their bases and taking out millions of dollars-worth of crops in a matter of minutes. Many farmers were forced out of business and some of the ones I met were still trying to get back on their feet.
What’s scary is that Cyclone Larry was a category 4 hurricane. The latest one, Yasi, is category 5.
According to meteorologists, storms and winds of up to 160mph are going to hit north-west Queensland for ten hours within the next few hours (from 11am GMT). There will be an hour’s lull as the storm passes over, then another ten hours of storms will follow.
The cyclone – described as the worst in a century - is expected to hit at high tide, causing 7m surges in low-lying areas. It’s so strong it’s expected to move up to 300km inland and force rains southwards across a state which is already saturated. The state’s premier, Anna Bligh, said the cyclone’s impact is going to be more life-threatening “than any experienced in recent generations”. Ten thousand people have moved to shelters, those that haven’t have been told to stay in their homes.
Yasi is predicted to hit the coast very close to Marty’s place, where he farms barramundi with his wife Linda and children Harvey and Emma.
I managed to get hold of Marty on Monday, when he said things were “hectic”. He’s just sent me a text message which says: “It’s starting to blow a bit now”. I assume he’s the master of understatement.
Having spent so long in the region, it’s hard to imagine how the largely wooden, stilted houses are going to stand up to such ferocious winds. Having seen the landscape, I know the majority of crops don’t stand a chance.
Fingers crossed everyone manages to stay safe. Thinking of you.
Some more flood photos, this time from a friend of a friend’s farm near Rockhampton, another of the areas to have taken a battering this week:
Note the pig on the shed roof on this one:
Most of the flood waters have receded now and the clean-up operations are underway. It’s impressive to see on the news shows how much help people are being given – some towns are already looking pretty tidy and there are supplies of fresh food finally making their way in. Unfortunately from pictures like this you get the impression it’s going to take a lot longer for agriculture in the state to recover.
I’ve had a go at describing what the floods are like over in Queensland, but this email I received today from past Nuffield scholar Ronald Thompson gives a better impression of what farmers are going through over in the worst-hit areas.
Ronald farms near Chinchilla, about 300km north-west of Brisbane. Chinchilla was just getting back on its feet after being flooded in December, but this week saw all the clean-up work left in tatters after 7.4 metre flood waters tore through the town. The photo is from the first floods last month.
Hello to all,
This is an update to inform you all of what has happened over the last 3 months and more particularly 3 weeks and 3 days. We are safe, the house is fine and all are well. We have lost 80% of the winter crop and have no summer crop in. It is hard to believe but we have not had enough dry days to get the crop in. We have foregone a great peanut contract and the area that would normally have them has had water over it 6 or8 times in the last 8 weeks.
I have spent the last 10 days cleaning up the floods in Chinchilla and Condamine only to have a flood come through higher than before. Two days ago we had 185mm in under 4 hours which saw our irrigation dam with 1.4m of free board go within 125mm of going over the top. It was frightening, though the by washes handled it. The water behind our house over-topped the house dam and came within 8m of the house. We have lost fences and large areas of soil near the dams, though the zero till has stood up well in comparison to other properties.
At this stage we have lost a years income and the next income will be December from the 2011 wheat crop. Our bank is supporting us though I am nervous about our ability to get through. I have a management job with Origin energy on their properties so at least we can live day to day.
We are so much better off than many friends who have nothing left and have lost friends in the floods. The enormity of all this is worse than anything Queensland has experienced before. In our area roads, bridges and the rail is washed out. There is talk of it costing the state $5 billion, that is a joke, I would but it closer to $50 billion. With in the vicinity of 50000 businesses and people affected it has to be more.
In Chinchilla, our supermarkets have closed their doors due to going broke so there is only a corner shop for 2500 people. There is no food in Chinchilla, Miles, and Roma. There is no infrastructure to get the food to anywhere out here. This means that a massive effort will be needed to feed the people. This is a disaster on a scale that has not ever been seen before. The flow on effect to the economy should but the brakes on any further interest rate rises in the short term.
It is amazing to have endured 10 years of severe drought including 2006 when we had 152mm for the year to this when we had 152mm in 2 hours last Monday! The irony is that the flood may be what finally cripples us. Thank you to all those who have called and the support mentally has been fantastic.
Thanks to Ronald for letting me publish this, and for the loan of the photo.