Friday, 22 July 2011

Agriculture and the Rural Economy
 A talk given to the Oxfordshire  Lieutenancy at their study day on Tuesday 12th July by Anne Kelaart DL and member of the Diocese of Oxford rural team

A scene setter

I think that the perception of Oxfordshire from say Herefordshire. Cumbria or Norfolk  might be of a peri-urban county  (somewhere between the town and the countryside).  More worryingly I sometimes think that that is also the perception from the centre of Oxford.

I would contend that we are, in fact, a rural county (the most wooded county in the south east) – the Chilterns, the Cotswolds, the Thames Valley all dotted with market towns which were originally dependent on the rural economy and centred around the international jewel of Oxford.

The managers of the land and the creators of the landscape over the centuries have included many different strands of people – monastic institutions, mediaevel manors, large and small estates, yeoman farmers,  market garderners, conservation charities, life style owners, good lifers.  All have added to the complicated and beautiful patchwork in which we live.  All are bound up in and contributors to the Rural Economy.  The problem today has been the gradual estrangement between the farming fraternity (because there are so many fewer farmers) and the general public, even those living in the country.  No longer has everyone got a uncle or cousin farming and methods have changed comparatively quickly leaving little understanding of how farming is conducted.

Historically  agriculture and forestry, the provision of food, fuel and raw materials, were the cornerstones of this economy.  If we had one of Tim’s hallmark spidergrams we would see springing from these two pillars, carpenters, wheelwrights, hurdlemakers, blacksmiths, harness makers, beer retailers, butchers, bakers, grocers, greengrocers, carriers, and many more.

Is it different today?

Is the farmers’ lot as portrayed in the Archers?  Well other than that one is very unlikely to have three dairy farms in a village (I can barely think of three in the South Oxfordshire) (Jeff will fill you in more on this) and that it is always raining when we have drought I think it has got quite an authentic feel.  The fact that despite far fewer farmers we are still very generational.  My two first cousins on either side are still farming their grandfathers’ farms and think in terms of their children following them.  Although there is no such thing as a typical farmer we do congregate together.  There are eight or nine Farming Clubs around the county which run farm competitions – best wheat, best barley, best farmed farm etc., have meetings on matters of agricultural and general interest and running social events.  Also a thriving Young Farmers organisation which has an annual County Show.  We farm over the hedge (very dangerous to be driving behind a farmer doing this!).  If my neighbour is trying something I might too.  We have three professional organisations the CLA, the Country Land and Business Association, the NFU, the National Farmers Union and the TFA, the Tenant Farmers Association – all with county identity.  There is quite a lot of common membership among these.  Many farmers love shooting where meeting one another is an important factor and indeed it also  provides one of the drivers for conservation.  We have our own conservation organisation, FWAG, the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group.  Most farmers would see themselves as stewards of the countryside and there is no higher compliment than ‘He is a good farmer’.  We are all beset by DEFRA (the Department for Envirnoment, Food and Rural Affairs – note no farming in the title).  Forms, surveys, inspections, questionnaires come from them and their mitarbeiters, Environment Agency, Natural England, Health & Safety.  In South Moreton lives the Red Tape Tsar who has been charged by government to try and cut it down for us.  He has just reported.  We are not optimistic.

The changes in agriculture in the second half of the twentieth century were immense. Firstly political – the aftermath of the second world war lead to huge governmental support for farming and the perceived essential of our being able to feed ourselves and then membership of the European Community committed the UK to the Common Agricultural Policy. Secondly mechanisation – on my farm where twenty men were working in 1950 two do today (and that is probably overstaffed!)

Through the fifties, sixties and seventies therefore a guaranteed return made for somewhat of a golden age rather like the high farming of the 1850s 60s and 70s.  I would digress here to say that since the Black Death when our customer base was cut by 50% farming has always gone in waves of the fat times and the lean times. In the 1860s the farmers were so prosperous that they had begun to think themselves gentlemen and were adding coach houses to their farmyards.  In the 1970s it was swimming pools!  But the workforce was decreasing and farms were growing larger.  To cope with the large machinery small fields were disappearing and with them hedgerows.  Systems were becoming simplified.  Completely mixed farms became rare.  Old barns became redundant - the wrong size and shape for the new machinery.  In the early eighties I inherited the problem of an empty farmyard where once we had kept pigs, poultry and turkeys.  I consulted the Oxfordshire pathfinders in this area – Sir John Cripps at Filkins and Joe Jennings at Garsington – and went into a prolonged conversation with the District Council to secure planning permission to convert the farmyard into light industrial workshops.  In the way of planning departments they were a little behind the curve and took a lot of persuading that it wasn’t sacrilege to use any commercial building in a village for anything other than farming.  We succeeded in persuading them.  You will hear a lot more about this sort of enterprise here today as the Lockinge Estate have been front runners in creating the living and working village of the 21st Century.

By the mid nineties, however, the golden age was receding. The price of wheat, milk, meat was abysmal and without the support of the Single Farm Payment from Europe many farmers would have gone bankrupt.  As it was many elected to farm no longer.  Some selling up but many employing a contractor, either an expanding farming neighbour or a big company, to farm their acres for them.  The survivors were exhorted to diversify.  Some, like me, tackled their buildings. Some considered alternative crops.  Short rotation coppice for energy, poppies for pharmaceuticals (I had the odd situation of one son-in-law trying to get maximum yield in the UK whilst the other was trying to obliterate the crop in Afghanistan) Llamas and alpacas are to be seen round the county and goat dairying has been  successful.  Some started new enterprises – horsiculture was popular and businesses to do with tourism – bed and breakfast, holiday cottages and caravan sites fit in very well with a working farm.  There are several successful vineyards, produce from one of which you will be offered at lunchtime.  Farm Shops and Farmers’ Markets offered alternative outlets to the all powerful supermarket.  Some farmers converted to an organic system either from conviction that it was beneficial or for the perceived market advantage. (There has been some converting back from this latter group of late).

At the moment the in subjects are waste and energy.  Large composting sites get rid of some of the necessity of putting all our green waste in land fill and so are very popular with local councils.  They have the added benefit of the compost being available to put back on the land as an excellent fertiliser. Anerobic digestors too will take our food waste and incorporate with silage to make both fertiliser and electricity.  Also in the energy bracket come solar plans.  Large south facing barn roofs are ideal for panels as are also small fields.  The fluctuations of the government’s resolve on tariffs on these however are making forward planning quite hard.   More controversially wind turbines as we saw on our DL outing two years ago.  Also most recently I gather that a turbines for the production of hydro electricity are being installed in particular at Mapledurham and at Culham.  I like the sound of the Archimedes screw which makes these operate but I leave to others to explain how it works!

I haven’t spoken about our anni horribili with foot and mouth and bovine tuberculosis, because I prefer be upbeat but suffice it to say the first decade of this century has not been easy and I think that Glyn Evans, my boss, will be filling you in on this a little more.  Nor have I talked about the environment as Poul Christensen, as Chairman of Natural England, will do that far better than I.  But we farmers do feel passionately about our farms, our neighbourhoods and our county.
 Today  you will be hearing about the challenges and how they have been met and seeing some examples of best practice both here and at Kingston Hill.    I hope they will lead you to spread the word that Oxfordshire is a Rural County fit for the 21stcentury and that agriculture is still  at the heart of the Rural Economy.

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