And yes, I have a beef with the intensive end of my industry, with its beak-clipping, tail-docking, permanent ‘in-housing’, zero-grazing, nitrogen-spewing, Frankenstein cattle-making, prophylactic antibiotic-dosing ways. Raising of livestock in this fashion is not farming, because it abjures any sense of husbandry. It is senseless, inhumane Fordian food-production of ‘units’. Also, the produce from such factory systems, be it milk, meat or eggs, is tasteless, in every sense. I do, however, have sympathy for the managers — not farmers — of these agri-factories. There is little money, and they are desperate.Reading John Lewis-Stempel's moving piece about farming, I was struck by the last sentence of this little tirade. Lewis-Stempel started his article with a description of shooting a dying sheep and how this started him thinking that we need to change how we farm if livestock farming is to survive. I don't have to share Lewis-Stempel's view of intensive farming to get that, for a lot of UK farmers, it's not a business in any meaningful sense of that word - especially sheep farming.
I remember on a walk near Dent in what is now Cumbria us following the path through a small farmyard where we met a man shearing sheep. Like you do we stopped for a chat and discovered he was doing his own shearing because the cost of employing a professional shearing team meant he'd lose money on every fleece. Even doing the job himself wasn't a guarantee of a return.
This was a man who probably works harder than near everyone you know, hard physical labour in an unforgiving environment to get us products - wool, lamb chops - that we all take for granted (and probably when we look at the cost of that Pure English Wool jumper, is a cause for a little whistle at the price). The average sheep farmer earns about £6,000 a year - way below the minimum wage - from the actual business of rearing, shearing and slaughtering sheep. The whole industry in the UK is only sustained because of working tax credits and government farm support. And since the last round of CAP reforms most of that farm support goes to the landowner - most sheep farmers are tenants.
I wrote a little piece called 'Life on the Farm' inspired by seeing the hill farmers I used to represent as a councillor, mostly old men, none of them rich and all into their seventies working the sorts of hours most of us would consider exploitation - all for a pittance:
The farmer is old. Too old you might say. Having got down from the tractor he stands for a few seconds seemingly oblivious to his similarly old border collie and catches his breath. The next task is to close the field gate - the man is tired and he makes his hand into a fist so as to still the shakes that get worse with each passing day. With the gate closed, the days work is done or will be so long as nothing dies, breaks or falls. Last autumn the fox got into the chicken run and killed all but a handful.
The farmer shuffles slowly to his house. A house with no central heating, a leaky roof and single glazing but where the tenant farmer can't afford to run more than one fire - so he'll stay in his coat to keep warm and anyway he's tough and can cope with a little cold. His wife died a couple of years ago, his daughter's alright as she's a nurse in Sheffield and his son's driving tipper trucks for the big quarry company. The farmer knows nobody will succeed him - as he did to his father - in the tenancy and he frets about the animals.We like to blame a bunch of faceless things for this problem - the government, the supermarkets, international trade, the EU, banks - but the painful truth is that the real problem is us whistling as we see the price. As with so much else we look at the ticket on the shelf or the tag on the hanger and make no connection to the costs involved in getting that product into our hands. So the result - mostly beneficial but sometimes problematic - is intensification, industrialisation and a farming industry that bears no resemblance to the ruddy-faced, bucolic image presented by Countryfile or the collection of celebrity farmers sustained well enough by their media income that the loss making hill farm doesn't matter.
The question of farming and farm standards has, as these things do, arisen in the context of us leaving the EU (with its preference for subsidising landowners over supporting farmers) and entering into a new world of international trade agreements with strange places like the USA. And the chosen battleground of those who didn't want to leave the EU is factory farming - an interesting choice of battle given how much of that industrial livestock production goes on in the EU:
Denmark is a mere 16.5 thousand square miles and produces between 25 to 28 million pigs each year from about 5000 pig farms. For the most part they are kept in what the EU euphemistically calls ‘zero hectare’ farms. Denmark is not alone in this; in France, despite having the largest landmass in the EU, the proportion of pig meat produced by zero hectare farms increased from 31% in 2004 to 64% in 2016, while the proportion of chicken meat rose from 11% to 28% between 2004 and 2016.Yet we are told by trendy London restaurant PRs, by those media-friendly hobby farmers, and of course by the protectionist National Farmers Union, that free trade with the USA in agriculture would mean indulging a host of really bad practices that undermine the standards of UK production. Forgive me if I call bullshit on this one (unless that is the hobby farmers and restaurant PRs want to abolish UK factory farming). Britain produces about 70% of the chicken it eats (nearly 900 million birds since you ask) - I watch the wagons roll into my village every day, their plastic crates rammed with those birds, ready for slaughtering in our little factory:
According to Eurostat, the number of zero hectare farms in the EU grew by 31%, from 164 000 to 214 000 between 2013 and 2016. At a zero hectare farm, animals are kept indoors and are fed with harvested fodder, or a concentrated diet of grain, soy, and other supplements because according to the EU; ‘farms raising granivores (pigs and poultry) do not necessarily need agricultural land’
UK Chicken farms still abide by EU farming regulations. 90% of UK chickens will be raised at the UK’s minimum standard of 19 birds per square meter, the UK Red Tractor Standard. However ‘extensive indoor (barn-reared)’, the lower of the three higher welfare production standards, is only slightly better at 15 birds per square metre. That is three rows of five birds in every square metre. This maybe fine when they are chicks but when fully grown they would be still be unable to turn around. There is no maximum number of birds in a ‘barn raised’ shed and there is no requirement for the birds to spend any time outside the shed. But as they can be slaughtered after eight weeks, this overcrowding may not be for very long.So when people decry US standards on the back of a single documentary and a petition, they ignore the reality of the 'high' UK standards since that would mean confronting those painful truths about our farming set out by Lewis-Stempel in his article. And we aren't going to do this, however much folk like Lewis-Stempel wax lyrical about "Medievalist ethical carnivorism". Partly such views represent the growing conservative bucolia, a postmodernist rejection of city life - more for its whizziness than from disposing of its economic power, but mostly it's a convenient tool for the protectionist to secure support for limits, bans, tariffs and restrictions.
As Lewis-Stempel concluded, "(t)here is little money, and they are desperate." But is this a justification for imposing an idealist and elitist view of farming ("Medievalist ethical carnivorism") on consumers? An approach that, while making little difference to those of us with the means to afford expensive meat, condemns many to a largely meat-free life - not from choice but by the economic cost of protectionism. So far the government has resisted the imposition of essentially arbitrary limitations to choice but the widespread support for protectionism ("we care for animals", "the climate", "environmental protection", "British farmers") still threatens to impose less choice and more cost on the majority of consumers.
If Lewis-Stempel wants to produce wool and lamb in accordance with a somewhat rose-tinted view of how medieval peasants produced these things then that's fine (is that the sound of ironic peasant laughter I hear echoing down the years at the idea that they ate less meat from choice rather than poverty). Make the case, create a market - if you find enough people who'll pay for your myth-made lamb steaks then great. But don't seek to impose these changes on the rest of us, don't seek to regulate cheap food out of existences and stop indulging the NFU and its protectionist mission to enrich its members at the cost of British consumers.