By Rosewood Farm, Jul 16 2018 12:11AM
‘How do we make #farmingwithnature sexy?’ was the question posed by Beki & David of The Horned Beef Company on the ‘Farmers of the UK’ Twitter account last week. It’s not a new question, it has been rumbling around the farming world for some time now as we face the growing dual problems of a difficulty in finding farm staff and the average age of farmers steadily creeping upwards.
The farming press is doing it’s best to paper over the cracks with regular features of smiling young farmers now appearing in the Farmers Guardian with quotes such as ‘it’s hard work but it’s worth it’, but the truth is that it increasingly isn’t worth it. Farming isn’t sexy, it’s not even vaguely attractive to most young (and many older) people today.
There are some material problems in farming and the rural community that stand in the way for both new entrants to the industry and established farmers, but more about those later. First I want to discuss a much bigger issue - that farming has an image problem. No, I’m not talking about the rosy picture painted by supermarkets in their marketing making it looks better than it is, nor am I talking about the critics of farming painting a much darker picture. The problem comes from within the farming industry itself.
Farmers often see themselves as resilient and independant but the industry has more than it’s fair share of depression and suicide. Under increasing pressure to do more for less, market volatility and buyers contracts make it harder than ever for farmers to make a living, but few feel secure enough to be able to speak up. Of course farmers will talk to each other about the weather and the workload, but when they do it’s usually just an opportunity to demonstrate how well you are coping with the situation, not a genuine desire to talk about how you’re feeling. Even when we do come together we’re self-isolating within the social context and as a result mental health problems are rife in the countryside. Farming also comes out tops on rates of physical injury and death, doubling up to be the riskiest business to be in both mentally and physically.
For workers the hours are becoming less unsociable and more unworkable, particularly in the dairy sector. As herd sizes grow roles become harder to fill when staff are expected to start earlier and finish late. This puts further pressure on the available workforce with very few young families able to commit to such roles even with a desire to be working in farming. It’s almost Victorian.
So far so bad, it’s not sounding very sexy!
Often technology is blamed for our society becoming less social but the beauty of social media, and particularly Twitter, within farming is that it sparks conversations between people who may never meet in real life but who share the same interests, be that Curlews or combines. Of course there are no guarantees, as you can still hide behind a computer or a phone screen and pretend, but at the same time talking to someone in a similar situation who you know less well is often easier than talking to those closest to you.
So, getting back to the question of how to making farming, particularly farming with nature, sexy? I said at the time;
That response raised a few laughs, but I was serious. I think within that summary I covered all the basic problems of our mental, physical and emotional well being within farming today.
The housing crisis
The Campaign To Protect Rural England says that nearly half of rural households are going to be aged 65 or over by 2039 - we are facing the same problem within rural demographics as we are in the farm workforce. They put this down to a lack of genuinely affordable housing, as I touched upon in a recent blog, housing prices in the Yorkshire Ings have risen sharply whilst wages have remained constant. Many of the houses available locally consist of either smaller properties have been extended or new builds that are too big to start with, putting prices out of range of young people in local employment.
Here at Rosewood we have faced our own issues with housing as there was no farmhouse with the land when we moved here in 2002. A planning policy exists whereby you are allowed to build new properties on farms in the open countryside providing you can satisfy both a functional and a financial test. This involves proving that you a) need to live on site and b) that you have sufficient income to be able to afford to live here, in order to protect the countryside from unsuitable development. The irony is that, in most cases, the only way to meet both these tests is to establish an intensive livestock unit!
In his blog, Miles King recently criticised the Government’s relaxation of the planning laws so that “now you can convert an office into a residential flat without planning permission.” resulting in “Lots of low quality housing”. When our own farm office ticking over the 10 year mark at the end of last year it became eligible to be converted into a dwelling, without a requirement to fulfil the financial need - an absolute lifeline for nature friendly farming. However the planning system could still be significantly improved by recognising the value of non-financial benefits to be gained for allowing appropriate & genuinely affordable rural homes.
It wasn’t until the permission came through from the local council that I realised just how much the lack of a permanent home had affected me over the years. I suddenly felt that a huge pressure had been lifted and I was finally able to talk more about the real reasons that nature friendly farming is starting out on the back foot.
So, I’ve fairly comprehensively picked apart why farming with nature isn’t sexy, but the question was how do we make it so? How do we ensure that young rural folk have a roof over their heads, the money to live and the time to take care of the environment & yet still have enough spare to enjoy both intimacy & family time?
We can waste our time blaming the next generation for not wanting to work hard or for little money, but in doing so we ignore the fact that the goalposts have moved and many young people simply can’t afford to live in the countryside with what’s available to them.
I was lucky enough to meet a wonderful kindred spirit in Natalie who cares passionately for the Ings and it’s wildlife. Nat brought a new perspective and valuable fresh ideas to the area - without her insight we would not have introduced Corncrake Friendly Mowing, nor the identity of what is the Yorkshire Ings itself - a legacy of love and care for this special landscape.
The recent breakdown of my marriage has made me think again about the troubles that farming & wildlife are both facing right now. It’s important that we, working on the front line of conservation, actively engage with and inspire others to care and do something about the declines in both our traditional farming and wildlife. However, our ability to care for nature is not improved by ignoring our own well-being and that of those around us.
Farming & the countryside remains a (relatively) popular for school leavers, with rural colleges expanding, but even 20 years ago, when I was at college, I spoke to an examiner who admitted that we were giving kids false hope as suitable jobs simply weren’t there in the countryside, and it hasn’t got any better today. Many graduates go on to non-countryside related employment, losing the skills we have carefully trained people in.
We cannot rely upon an initial attraction to maintain the long term relationships that are vital for the future of our countryside. It may only take a small amount of investment to keep England’s only natural population of breeding Corncrakes in the Ings, but no amount of money will fill that void when they have gone and to re-establish a breeding population would be both expensive and not guaranteed work. And rural people are no different - we all need suitable habitat maintaining to enable us to stay.
Our problems don’t go away by keeping quiet about them and the public will not support us to do better if we keep insisting that all is well.
As we discuss the future of farm & nature funding we seem to be trying to tackle the symptoms rather than the root cause. The truth is that there are already many passionate young people out there in both conservation and farming who do still think the profession is sexy - they are simply lacking the ability to afford to do it.
Conservation shares many of the same problems with work & housing - the whole of the nature friendly sector shouldn’t need to rely upon the drive and passion of low-paid people and volunteers.
Rather than tackling rural funding problems for housing, farming, conservation and social care separately, perhaps it’s time for a more holistic approach. Let’s not subsidise industry, let’s subsidise people and ensure that those who want to provide all those ‘public goods’ that the market is unwilling or unable to support can do so. This is why I am increasingly thinking that the key to a truly sustainable future lies in a Basic Income for all.
Providing a more secure income would not only benefit farmers directly, but would also allow a more sustainable workforce to exist within the countryside. The current benefits system for out of work people actively discourages the taking on of short term and seasonal work, as well as pushing them towards a more urban centres. Finally, more financial security within urban areas could enable more people to seek out and support both nature and better food, further boosting the rural economy - what's not to love?
If we value people more they will work to produce the food and wildlife that we crave. Now that’s what I call sexy; Nature-Friendly Farming!