http://www.sunday-times.co.uk/news/pages/sti/2001/08/26/stimazmaz03045.html

August 26 2001 SUNDAY TIMES MAGAZINE

British farming has given us BSE, swine fever and, now, foot and mouth. So should we care if the latest crisis kills it off? Special investigation by Richard Girling. Photograph by Peter Marlow

 

 

 

DEAD MEAT

 

 

Outside Charing Cross station the Metropolitan police are advertising for information about a woman's torso they've dragged from the river. Around a corner, homeless smackheads barely out of their childhoods are appealing for 'spare change'. The warming air, rising in lazy thermals over the shop fronts, carries with it a perfect imprint of the city, etched in urine. Of course, to remark on any of this is as naive as noticing fresh roadkill in a Norfolk lane. It marks you out as an inginu. And yet...

 

Ten minutes later I am on the sunlit balcony of a gentleman's club off Whitehall, enjoying lofty views of the Embankment Gardens, Big Ben and the Thames. In the lounge, MPs and bearers of ancient titles fold back their crosswords and sip their chablis. The man who rises to greet me is different from the others only in that he has a self-made look about him: sleek, carefully groomed, wearing a suit that he has obviously not inherited from his father. In his hand he clasps a sheaf of notes, the skeletal framework of a private lecture that will take him an hour and a half to run through. Subject: how to save rural England from ruin.

 

The irony is that this bastion of old-moneyed privilege is none other than the Farmers Club. And here, over freshly brewed coffee, barely two blocks from the kind of human debasement that no Middle English villager could even begin to imagine, we sit talking about rural poverty. About injustice. About the need for light to shine in the cavernous dark of urban incomprehension. About the very survival of rural England. Pass the begging bowl? Pass the sick bag, more like. And yet...

 

There is nothing sentimental in what my companion has to say; no hint of special pleading. Mark Hill is a partner in Deloitte & Touche, the big-hitting international accountancy firm. Even last autumn, months before foot and mouth disease struck, he had noted that UK farm incomes over the previous year had dropped by 28%, and that net income "Farmers were as warmly insulated against economic chill as a lamb in a fold" from an average family farm had fallen in five years from a comfortable #80,000 to an unsurvivable #8,000. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) agreed. Farm incomes, it said, were at their lowest ebb for more than 30 years.

 

The Royal Agricultural Society, too, had spoken of 'cataclysmic change'. And Hill himself had written with masterful understatement: 'Our farming clients,' he said, 'are clearly facing some very tough decisions.'

 

With foot and mouth squeezing the life out of the countryside, the decisions are getting tougher by the day. In Devon on this very same spring morning, the last of the great funeral pyres is being built, stiffened corpses slotted into place like a huge, obscene parody of a dry-stone wall. In the same beleaguered county, four farmers' wives have begged the police to remove their husbands' shotguns. Pig farmers have been dropping on average #7 on every animal they sell. Sheep and poultry men have concluded that they have no more chance of long-term survival than chair bodgers or wheelwrights. Nationwide, 2.98m sheep and 576,000 cattle have been culled so far. British farming is staring into the pit. And yet...

 

Hill is not playing for sympathy - you'd find more sentimentality in a professional sniper. No: the case for the countryside does not rest on nostalgia. Or on compassion for bankrupt farmers and their suffering children. Or on any anxiety to save the corncrake. What will make or break rural England is the same thing that makes or breaks us all - market economics. Indeed, Hill scarcely talks about farmers at all. In the jargon of his cold-eyed trade, he speaks of 'primary producers'.

 

The trouble is, in the vacuum-packed, halogen-lit world of all-night supermarkets and microwave suppers, when the only thing with mud on it is the family hatchback, the primary producers are as remote as pollinating bees. Who needs them, anyway?

 

In a global economy where anything can be imported from anywhere - chicken from Brazil, pork from Poland, beans from Kenya - production will always gravitate to wherever it is cheapest. And cheapest is rarely going to mean British.

 

So why shouldn't food follow industries that have gone the same way - steel and coal, for example? Why not let the foreigners, with their pool of cheap labour, get on with the dirty business of growing and breeding, while we - employing brains rather than brawn - import cheap raw materials and convert them into expensive manufactured foods with huge profit margins? If farmers are going to the wall, why not let them go? The chicken tikka masala will keep on coming just the same.

 

The changing social order - the loss of farm jobs and the colonisation of villages by middle-class boarders who have no understanding of agriculture - has meant that many farmers already feel displaced. '[They] often feel marginalised within the rural community, leading to a belief that farming operates in a hostile environment,' says the Royal Agricultural Society.

 

Yet farmers over the years have grown accustomed to unpopularity. They have been accused of systematically abusing, polluting and disfiguring the countryside; of resisting public access; of antipathy to wildlife; of cruelty to chickens, turkeys, veal calves and sows; of lacking any sign of gratitude for decades of public subsidy; for gracelessly taking public money and then slamming the gate in our face. Above all, they are blamed for the cost-cutting, disease-spreading habits that brought us salmonella, BSE and foot and mouth disease. Bankruptcy? It's too good for them. Farmers, of all people, should realise they can only reap what they sow. And yet...

 

The trouble is that, in literal terms, they know this only too well. When it comes to wringing the last bushel of grain from a hectare of wheat, or the last drop of milk from a cow, they are very, very good at what they do. Their productivity has been going up for decades. In 1945 a hectare of wheat produced 2.6 tonnes of grain. Last summer it produced 8.01. In 1945 the UK had 2.7m dairy cows. By last year the number had fallen to 2.1m, yet the overall yield had nearly doubled - from 8.1 billion litres of milk in 1945 to 14 billion in 2000.

 

But here's the catch. As productivity climbs remorselessly towards the ceiling, so the profitability graph plunges towards the floor. It is the unyielding cycle of market economics - supply and demand. The more farmers produce, the greater the supply, the lower the prices and the less they earn. Earning less, they can only maintain their incomes by growing yet more. And so the cycle continues.

 

The more efficiently they work, the worse they suffer. And this explains a lot. You begin to see why corners have been cut. Why space-wasting hedges and copses have been bulldozed. Why growth-promoting chemicals have been pumped into everything from chickens to barley. Why the entire landscape has been wrestled to its knees in forced obeisance to the gods of maximum yield.

 

T o make sense of the mess we're in, we have to look back to the 1939-45 war. From the historical record emerges a picture of such smock-and-pitchfork quaintness that it seems closer to Merrie England than the age of the internet. In 1939 there were still 1.5m working horses on UK farms, and only 6,000 tractors. There were no barley barons or chicken kings. No notion even that farmers had a responsibility to 'feed the nation'. Sixty per cent of the farmed landscape was still under grass. 'Most farm incomes came from growing oats and hay for horses,' says Hill. 'There were very few arable fields but a lot of livestock, and a lot of land devoted to horse production.'

 

There was no particular need to grow food because, like the imperious Victorians who had shaped our attitudes, we'd been able to import all we needed from the empire.

 

When war came, Hitler could hardly have caused more trauma to the English landscape if he'd bombed the fields directly. With U-boats stalking the sea, importing food was no longer an option. If we wanted to eat, we'd have to grow our own. The Spitfire would take the glory, but in terms of self-preservation the most important weapon was the plough.

 

By converting grazing land to arable, even in 1939 you could raise the food value from 100,000 calories per acre to over 2m - in other words, you could feed 20 times as many people. To speed the plough, the government wielded the tool that would see us not only through the war but right through the rest of the 20th century: the production subsidy. For every acre of grass a farmer ploughed, the government would pay #2, which was approximately double the actual cost. More than that: it would pay him a guaranteed price for his crop. If the market price fell below the guarantee, then the government would make up the deficit. This was the price to the nation of wartime self-sufficiency.

 

But the subsidies, or 'deficiency payments', did not stop when the war ended. World prices could go up and down all they liked, but it was all the same to the farmer: he remained as warmly insulated against economic chill as a lamb in a fold. And so the food family became dysfunctional.

 

The primary producer was so distant from the consumer that he had no interest in what was being charged in the shops.

 

In the countryside after 1945, the only noticeable change was in the focus of the conflict. The battle now was against farming tradition; against the limitations of an ancient technology that had evolved over 10,000 years; against nature itself. What grew when a farmer simply drilled seed into the ground was no longer enough.

 

Where "Shoppers stand convicted of double standards"

once the soil's fertility had been preserved by craftsmanship - by the feeding and cleansing of the land by crop rotation and animal fertiliser - now it was preserved by science.

 

Out went the nursery-book mixed farm with its patchwork of fields and meadows. In came monoculture and boardroom management.

 

Food began as it ended, with packeted convenience - pesticides and growth regulators at one end; microwave dinners at the other.

 

For a while, farm incomes soared. And then came Europe. Deficiency payments were replaced by the bureaucratic, self-confounding paper chase of the European Union's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), with its pounds-per-tonne production subsidies, butter mountains, wine lakes and - last stop on the line to meltdown - set-aside, with farmers being paid to grow weeds.

 

The vicious cycle turned faster and faster. Higher production, lower prices, higher production. The system was no longer feeding the nation; it was feeding itself - feeding upon itself.

 

Even the subsidy system was contradictory. While some farmers were claiming extra payments to remove hedges and ponds, others were paid to put them back again.

 

While Europe fiddled and Maff muddled, the industry burned. Globally, the flames were fanned by economic collapses in Russia and Asia that wobbled the world economy.

 

While demand shrank, the production express went on racing towards the buffers. BSE, meanwhile, had done its bit to make England the last place on Earth from which anyone would buy a farm product - a fatal handicap at a time when world prices were in a prolonged slump.

 

The unavoidable question - was the desecration of the countryside a fair price to pay for 'cheap' food? - increasingly invited a negative response.

 

Swine fever in East Anglia brought yet more horrific images to our screens, until the only truly strong and healthy animal left in the national bestiary was its currency, the indefatigable pound sterling itself.

 

For farmers, it was like being savaged by their own guard dog. The tragedy was that subsidies under the CAP were paid in euros. The high pound depressed the value of their subsidies just as certainly as it had depressed exports and rolled out the red carpet for cheaper imports.

 

The government stepped in with 'agrimonetary' adjustments to bridge the gap, but there were too many holes in the dyke for one finger to plug. By spring last year, UK farming's total income was a mere 35% of what it had been in the mid-1970s.

 

The government's own rural white paper made no bones about it. 'Farming,' it said, 'is going through its most difficult period since the second world war.' Its most difficult period, in other words, since Neolithic settlers arrived 10,000 years ago and found the fields of the future buried beneath a forest.

 

In England alone, farmers and their workers were leaving the industry at the rate of more than 450 a week. The government was urging them to diversify - running bed and breakfasts, restaurants, riding schools, IT consultancies, anything but milk more cows. There was a lot of talk about the need to 'respond to market fluctuations', but not much about 'feeding the nation'.

 

Ely by train is only 75 minutes from London. In spirit, however, it is in a different world. The 'island of eels' stands in a sea of drained fenland where villages cling to the rivers rather than the roads. Rich, well-watered soil yields rich, high-value crops; yet the landscape is littered with wreckage like the route of a beaten army.

 

Everything that hasn't already fallen apart is held together with baler twine, the farmer's substitute for prayer. Gypsyish ponies graze between thistles; lone cows appear on the flood banks; weather-beaten signs optimistically offer eggs. The only hints of prosperity are the ex-farmhouses that have been bought and restored by incomers. Local young people can't afford them, and probably wouldn't want to. 'The dream for many of them,' says the Bishop of Ely, Anthony Russell, 'is actually to move to Peterborough.'

 

On the face of it, the Bishop's House next to Ely's great Romanesque cathedral is as remote from the rural front line as the Farmers Club. But the bishop is from a farming background and has spent much of his life fighting for the rural underdog.

 

He has been a rural development commissioner and is a past director of the Arthur Rank Centre, the social policy unit of the National Agricultural Centre at Stoneleigh in Warwickshire, where he helped develop the Rural Housing Trust. Predictably, he worries about problems of stress and suicide. But there are no conventional pieties in what he has to say; no appeals to emotion.

 

'There's no point farmers banging on,' he says. 'People don't want to hear that.' The one benefit of the latest crisis is that it encouraged people outside the industry to speak up on farmers' behalf, and it has put the rural economy under the spotlight.

 

'The foot and mouth epidemic,' he says, 'has brought to public notice a lot of things that people close to the rural community knew were going on. The fact, for example, that we are fundamentally an urban community and the rural component of the nation is quite small.' Agriculture now contributes barely 1% of national income, having fallen from nearly 3% in 1970.

 

But what foot and mouth made clear is that the economic benefits of agriculture extend far beyond the farm. Tourism, for example, depends for its very existence on a managed countryside. All the great set pieces of English landscape - the lakes, fells and moors - owe their beauty to grazing animals.

 

The cost of losing this is evident in the catastrophic impact of foot and mouth - an estimated loss to the tourist industry of #5.2 billion. The wider rural economy - everything from village post offices to seed merchants - has owed its survival to money funnelled into it through subsidy schemes.

 

'The way in which aspects of our national life change,' says the bishop, 'tends to be that they go along at a level pace for some time, and then suddenly a technological or economic change propels them through a threshold. And that is what I think future historians will say about the foot and mouth epidemic.'

 

He accepts there must be casualties. 'It'll be interesting to see what happens in upland areas. The average age of farmers in this country is 58. Whether many of them return to the hard life of the Cumbrian hills and fells is an open question.' Neither is the younger generation jostling to fill its fathers' boots. Even in cushy Oxfordshire, 52% of farmers say they have nobody to take over from them when they retire.

 

All this is tempting to express in terms of human tragedy. Throughout the foot and mouth crisis,the media focused hard on farming families for whom many generations of punishingly hard work was now valued at less than zero. Their suffering is real, and still remains very affecting.

 

Yet grief has precious little bearing on the value of a pork chop. Ironically, it is the food scares themselves that underpin the case for protectionism. The more scares there are, the less trusting consumers are likely to be. In order to be reassured about the safety of what they eat, people will want to know where it has come from.

 

The deeper irony is that it is the profitability of the UK retail market that makes farmers most vulnerable. The food chain typically has three links in it: farmer, processor and retailer. At each stage on its journey towards the checkout, it increases in value.

 

The more estranged the product from its raw ingredients, the higher the price and the lower the farmer's percentage. Wheat, for example, accounts for less than 1% of the price of a loaf of bread. 'Principally what you're buying,' says Mark Hill, 'is packaging, distribution and convenience.' This holds good even for basic commodities like milk. On the day we meet, the cost of producing a litre of milk is approximately 22p. For this, the producer is paid around 19p. It is then sold on the shelf or doorstep at 38p to 60p a litre. At the very least, therefore, packaging and distribution have doubled the farm-gate price. But if you do anything to it at all - add chocolate powder, pack it in a nicely waisted bottle and call it Chockie-Milk, for example - then it shoots right up to #2 a litre.

 

A few days later, Sainsbury's publishes the latest in its series of advertisements comparing the dull, predictable goods offered by its competitors ('A portion of fruit from any supermarket') with its own imaginatively superior products ('A portion of fruit from Sainsbury's').

In this particular case the boring competitor is a plain, unimproved banana still in its skin. Sainsbury's improvement is a bottle of 'Blue Parrot Caf banana smoothie', which it describes as 'a blend of milk, banana pure and sugar'. It claims the drink contains 94.5g of banana, which it compares, mystifyingly, to 'an average portion of fruit' at 80g. Beyond this, it offers no clue as to quantity or price. The facts, determined by a combination of experiment and inquiry, are these: each bottle contains 250ml which, priced at 79p, inflates the price per litre to #3.16. The retail value of the banana content is approximately 45p.

 

What is the lesson? Part of it is that it's not just farmers who have become dislocated. Consumers, too, have lost any real understanding of what they are paying for.

 

And yet, despite the 'quality' "Nobody now believes in a system that pays farmers to grow food that nobody wants" message of Sainsbury's advertisement, the battle for market domination is being fought on cheapness alone.

 

Hence the pressure on farm-gate prices. Hence the increasing tendency of processors and retailers to import from abroad. Hence the choice we have to make. What we have to decide is whether such intangibles as 'food security' and care of the countryside are as important as cheapness.

 

Despite buying more expensive convenience foods, and eating out more often, we spend a much smaller proportion of our income on food and drink than 30 years ago. Then it was 30%. Now it's 10% and falling - another statistic that makes farmers worse off by serving them a smaller slice of the national cake.

 

The question Hill and others raise is whether it is safe to go any further. 'Food is our first medicine,' he says. 'So why does price matter more than the security of what we eat?'

 

The message is clear. If retailers continue to put pressure on prices, then the farmers quite understandably will do all they can to protect their incomes. First they will try to increase output. When that fails, they will try to cut costs. Cutting costs means cutting corners, and cutting corners means that food safety, animal welfare and the environment may all be put at risk.

 

There is a superficially attractive argument in favour of letting farming die. We won't starve. Raw materials can be bought abroad, and we can still earn huge profits from processing them. But two obstacles become apparent.

 

First, 'abroad' isn't as stupid as we like to think. It knows it makes no sense to export bulky raw materials for British processors to profit from. Raw materials are much costlier to ship than packaged foods, and packaged foods earn much more profit. You don't have to be an economist to predict the inevitable outcome. Like everything else, the food industry is becoming globalised. Industry sources reckon that by 2010 most of the world's grocery market will be controlled by fewer than 10 companies.

 

The battle for competitive advantage therefore will be intense, especially as the European Union expands eastwards.

 

From eastern Europe would come not raw milk or milk powder, but raspberry mousse and Chockie-Milk. From Brazil and Thailand would come not container-loads of raw chicken but cartons of frozen nuggets.

 

The hard reality is this: if the British farmer goes down the tube, then he'll take the UK food processing industry with him.

 

And how would we cope with food scares then? It is difficult enough to keep track of supplies in this country. Unforgettably, earlier this year a number of big-league processors and supermarkets, including Sainsbury's, Budgen and Shippam's, had to recall products made from condemned chicken diverted from a Derbyshire pet-food plant.

 

 

With supplies from abroad, it is almost impossible. 'Food is usually monitored on exit from the departing country,' says one well-placed English commentator. 'But if you're a Third World country and there is foreign currency at stake, are you really going to say, ' This is not fit for export'?'

 

Indeed, one of the most important factors that makes foreign - and particularly non-EU - produce cheaper than our own is that it does not have to conform to the same costly health and animal-welfare standards.

 

Imports in the past have included typhoid, botulism, listeria and salmonella, and our EU partners in Holland, Germany, Spain, Ireland and Italy have already sent us meat that breaches BSE controls.

 

But food safety is not the only issue. There is the very substantial question of who, in the absence of farmers, would look after the landscape. 'No one should delude themselves,' says David Scott, chairman of the Royal Agricultural Society's strategy committee, 'that there is any other kind of land manager waiting in large numbers to take over.'

 

With a bitterness that is, just, tempered with humour, many farmers would like to see the conservation charities - so clamorous in their demands and free with their advice - have a go at running things. It's not wholly impossible - the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), for example, has a 180-hectare working farm in Cambridgeshire - but pies come no higher in the sky than the belief that the landscape could be conserved in perpetuity by anything other than a profitable, confident and forward-looking farming industry.

F orward-looking means not seeing farming purely in terms of food production.

 

The buzz word - horrid but unavoidable - is 'multifunctionality'. In plain English, this means that such things as the conservation of landscape and wildlife, the development of alternative energy sources and the maintenance of a clean water supply should count on the credit side of farming's balance sheet.

 

There has to be more to agriculture than growing food at lowest cost for global markets.

 

We do have a choice. We can live in parkland and pay twice - directly to import our food, and indirectly through taxation for the parkland to be maintained. Or we can make a smarter choice where we pay only once, for our food to be produced in our own fields, and get the management of the countryside thrown in for free.

 

Well, almost. If there is no such thing as a free lunch, there is certainly no such thing as a free landscape. And the question is: who pays?

 

As a nation of shoppers we stand convicted of double standards. We say we value the environment and want it protected but, says the Royal Agricultural Society: 'A degree of hypocrisy is evident amongst the majority of shoppers, who do not follow this through in their purchasing decisions.'

 

Reality cannot be ducked. For all the tractor logos and farm-assured labels with which supermarkets emblazon their products, British consumers will not buy food just because it is British. They want special offers; they want cheapness; they want value.

 

For the men on the hill, how is such a reality to be survived? Nobody, not even the most purblind of village idiots, now believes in a system that pays farmers to grow food that nobody wants.

 

One solution might be to end all subsidies and simply surrender to the market. That would concentrate farmers' minds all right, but, warns the Royal Agricultural Society, only at the cost of bankrupting 40% of them overnight. And in the orgy of cost-cutting that would follow, you could kiss goodbye to any idea of environmental stewardship.

 

The market cares as little about landscape as it does about humans who stray into its line of fire. Save the skylark? Forget it. If the flow of taxpayers' money cannot be turned off, however, it can certainly be better deployed. The need, says the Royal Agricultural Society, is for 'total land management' - ie farming for the benefit of the broader rural economy and the health of the landscape, not food production alone.

 

Farmers in future need to be subsidised in proportion to the amount of land they farm, and the way in which they farm it, not the size of the harvest.

 

As it is so clearly in the public interest for the countryside to be properly managed, and for landscape and wildlife to be conserved, it is right to expect taxpayer beneficiaries to meet their share of the cost.

 

Under a scheme of targeted benefits, farmers would be subsidised on a sliding scale according to the amount of 'public good' they were doing: the habitats they were conserving, the species they were protecting, the woods or heathlands they were planting, and the access that they provided.

 

Because the poorest land often carries the highest amenity value, this would have the added benefit of targeting according to need. Ruthless monoculture merchants - the fabled barley barons of the east - would not need, deserve or receive any subsidy at all. At the other extreme, hill farmers on land of marginal economic value but huge environmental importance might receive more in subsidy than they earned from selling their sheep.

 

On the broader canvas there would be political advantages, too. That great globaliser, the World Trade Organization (WTO), is immutably hostile to European farm subsidies and wants them stopped.

 

Well, so be it. Whereas the free-trade purists might object to production subsidies, they can hardly object to farmers being paid to conserve the environment.

 

Already there has been some minor alteration of the CAP, reducing some production subsidies and reallocating a proportion of the money as cash-per-hectare 'area payments', to be made irrespective of yield.

 

The UK government is urging it to move further and faster, but confronts a huge weight of political and bureaucratic inertia. The result, in lieu of action, has been a listless round of discussion documents, consultation papers and committees, accompanied by often incomprehensible tinkering with the current system.

 

If there was ever a time when farming dominated the political landscape, that time is long past. With evident reluctance, and at the eleventh hour, the general election was postponed to avoid disenfranchising communities isolated by the foot and mouth crisis. Otherwise, the only reference to the countryside came from the urbanite Labour MP Tony Banks, who as ex-sports minister knows exactly when to kick a weakened opponent. For him, the pressing rural issue was a ban on fox-hunting. Failure to deliver this, he said, would be 'a running sore' in the next parliament.

 

Even before the foot and mouth crisis, farmers were struggling to make ends meet. On average throughout last year (2000), farm-gate prices for almost all the main commodities were less than the cost of production. Production costs and average price:7 Wheat #110 a tonne - #70-807 Barley #130 a tonne - #707 Rape #270-300 a tonne - #120-1307 Milk 17p a litre - 17p7 Beef #1.20 a kilo - 90p7 Lamb #1.20 a kilo - 92p7 Pork #1.05 a kilo - 95p Production costs don't include any income for the farmer, or returns on capital. Not even subsidies payable on cereals (#30 a tonne), lamb (25p a kilo) and beef (30p a kilo) could lift them into profit.Source: National Farmers' Union

 

Regardless of what happens to hunting, and regardless of Maff's disappearance into the new Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the antis will have the satisfaction of seeing many of their opponents forced from the field.

 

As the farming industry polarises, so further losses will be inevitable. 'Whenever there is pressure on an industry,' says Hill, 'you get polarisation. The people hardest hit are those in the middle - businesses that are not large enough to achieve economies of scale, yet not small enough to switch to local niche markets.

 

A rationalised industry therefore ends up with a few very large operators at one end of the spectrum, and a multitude of very small businesses - organic cheese makers, organic meat producers, etc - at the other. It's the supermarket versus the delicatessen.

 

There is room for both in the market, but little scope for anyone in between.'

 

The great temptation for many small and medium-sized outfits is to switch to organic, but here again the economic undergrowth conceals a trap. The temptation is obvious: demand for organic food is growing - by as much as 40% a year, says the Soil Association - and 70% of it has to be imported from abroad.

 

The pitfalls, however, are exactly the same as they are for 'conventional' produce.

 

Other countries have lower labour costs and can therefore supply more cheaply. And if there is a widespread switch to organic production, the supply-and-demand equation will be turned on its head.

 

Only for as long as demand outstrips supply can organic farmers charge a premium.

 

Is there nothing, then, that medium-sized producers can do to prevent the trap door yawning beneath them? If they cannot compete on price - and they can't - the only option is to compete on quality while simultaneously climbing further up the food chain to claim more of the 'added value'.

 

The opportunities are clearly spelt out in the Royal Agricultural Society's policy document, Routes to Rural Prosperity. Either individually or in groups, farmers can process their own food and sell direct to the public from farm shops or through farmers' markets (see box, above left). They can sell to the catering trade. They can convert to speciality food production - organic meat, cheese, yogurt - to sell locally or through supermarkets.

 

If the worse comes to the worst they can follow the government's advice, convert the farm buildings to alternative use and diversify into other businesses. On my way home from Ely, I follow a hand-painted sign advertising that traditional staple of rural cottage enterprise: the free-range egg. There is a dog whimpering somewhere; the sound of something banging in the wind; a pair of pigeons crashing out of an unpruned apple tree. I call out, the tentative, lone voice of a vanishing market. Nobody comes. Unless concern for the countryside turns itself very rapidly into action, the risk is that nobody ever will.

 

Sunday, 26 August 2001