Moving Welsh food production out of a dependency culture

By Adam Alexander

I was talking to an old farmer friend of mine about the ‘good old days’, before we joined the Common Market, and lived instead with the Milk Marketing Board (MMB) and Potato Marketing Board (PMB).  Under this system, farmers were guaranteed a minimum price that kept their farms viable but were restricted in what and how much they could produce, and were required to sell through a controlled monopoly. 

Another big difference all those years ago was that farms were more diverse and resilient.  However, even as a boy growing up on the land in the fifties and early sixties, my abiding memory of the politics of farming was around miserable wages for farm workers and the tyranny of tied housing.  (Rural poverty and a lack of housing is no less a major issue today.) Yet the stereotypical farmer seen from the outside continues to be one whose default mood is that of impending catastrophe and gloom.

We were lucky because we were able to have our own milk round, and as one of the first farms in the UK to be brucellosis-accredited there was no need for pasteurisation.  Sixty years ago, organic raw milk, cream and yoghurt were profitable on a farm of 125 acres supporting a family of eight with a full-time cowman and farm hand.  However, as we were not  accredited potato producers, we were not allowed to sell the harvest from more than an acre.

Joining the EEC in the early seventies set in motion a completely new regimen of support for farmers. As passionate a Europhile as I am, I think the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) turned farmers into dependents, and I am glad to see the back of it.  For the last one hundred years all farmers have done is what has been asked of them by their political masters. Successive governments have set standards, targets and operating practices which farmers have followed, believing promises of greater stability of markets that would make their businesses more sustainable and look where it has got them?  Farms that are only viable because 40% or more of their income arrives in the form of subsidy; land that is suffering from the ravages of high-input agricultural practices; and the burden of maintaining an unsustainable model of farming which means that most farmers are barely scraping a living, and are often weighed down by debt, the result of a constant drive to greater mechanisation and output per acre. 

So, where do we go from here?  I still fret that the dependency culture of food production is deeply ingrained amongst farmers, together with a mindset that expects government to solve our problems.  (I heard too much of this at last year’s Wales Real Food and Farming Conference.) No British government can or will, nor should they, be expected to save us from ourselves.  The abiding message we should be propagating must be about individual and collective empowerment.  In that much overused and abused phrase, we need to ‘Take Back Control.’ 

That means encouraging greater entrepreneurialism in food production, something we see more and more evidence of already.  Farmers may not all be natural business-folk, but they always have been resourceful, canny and resilient.  We need to reawaken on every farm that ingrained desire to make a living without dependency.  We need case studies and examples to provide vision and inspiration. Alongside this should be practical advice and help, which needs to come from within the food sector, not inspired by a top-down political agenda. 

Today’s political leaders are driven by the need to centralise and a belief that it is only they who can solve our problems.  Their obsession with ‘accountability’ and endemic bias against localism – believing that the people cannot be trusted to make choices and decisions that are right for them and their communities, so that money, resource and talent are drained out of local government – appears to have no end.

I think that food producers across Wales should simply ignore what is happening in Cardiff, and work out their own salvation.  Food producers simply need to get on with it.  Bottom-up action is already happening, so let’s do more of it and be a catalyst for those in the sector who recognise the need for change but are reluctant or fearful for all the reasons we know and understand. So, just what would that look like?

First up, change is driven by investment.  So, let’s call out the Development Bank of Wales.   It should be the first port of call for new entrants, for farm businesses wanting to modernise, and for other rural businesses that want to build a diverse and sustainable food sector.  Next, we know how important training, knowledge transfer and support are, so we need new organisations that will do the work of, say, Tyfu Cymru  but be independent of Welsh government funding. 

There are private investors and social entrepreneurs aplenty who are looking to get behind sustainable food businesses in all their forms, in city and countryside.  The Prince of Wales has established the Sustainable Markets Initiative and talks about the need for a Marshall-like plan for people, nature and planet. Let’s see just how this great vision can be employed in Wales.

The success of the Wales Real Food and Farming Conference, based on the shared values identified by the Food Manifesto, demonstrates real enthusiasm for change. We need now to mobilize that energy, not in order to lobby government, but to drive change ourselves. How do we do that? I have the management consultant Richard Davis to thank for the following proposal which I hope can act as a catalyst for further discussion:

THE CHALLENGE:
Demonstrate that sustainable, profitable agricultural enterprise is attainable independent of subsidy.

THE PRINCIPLES:
1.    The route to profit is ‘value’, not ‘efficiency’
2.    Value equals value to the consumer.

3.    Never outsource your relationship with the consumer to a third party.
4.    The consumer will be the same entity for many enterprises and so collaboration and cooperation will represent an opportunity for efficiency.
5.    Efficiency must always be a byproduct of value, not an end in itself
6.    Learning how to do this must be a collaborative venture.
 
Adam with his tomatoes

I believe that solutions will emerge naturally as producers and businesses learn what works for them, on the one hand, and what the public wants, on the other. That is why it is so important to have that direct relationship.  Solutions will differ, but the principles are powerful and they will travel.  We should not try and plan our way out but collect and use the best data to understand what is working and why.

We have a great opportunity now to make a fresh start. Let’s not waste it.

Adam Alexander grew up on a farm and worked for 40 years as a film and television producer. An experienced seed saver, he is currently working with a number of gardens and institutions reviving Welsh heritage vegetables. He is a trustee of Garden Organic and a steering group member for the Wales Real Food and Farming Conference. He lives in Monmouthshire.

Feature image of ploughing: Nick Rebbeck.