What do farmers really care about?
Farmers occupy a very special place in the food system. As the people who grow crops and raise animals, generating most of the raw materials for our food supply chains, they are at the point where different interests come together and so often find themselves the focus of controversy. Should we eat less meat to save the climate, or are sheep and cows the best way to use the grass that grows in Wales? Should we do more to preserve biodiversity or have we gone too far in that direction? How far should we support food production with public money? These important debates can all too often become polarized and focus on what divides us, rather than what brings us together.
We wanted to see how an exploration of shared values could create connection across some of the apparent divides in the food system, and so the Food Values project headed to the Royal Welsh Show this summer to talk to farmers and land managers and start a conversation. It’s easy for discussions about farming to get side-tracked into complaints about the system – the frustrations of dealing with bureaucracy, the powerlessness of the producer in the face of market forces, public indifference to where their food comes from – but we wanted to get beyond those concerns.
We wanted to explore instead the core values that farmers bring to their work, so we engaged them in conversation about their lives and let them speak for themselves. The half-dozen people that we spoke to on a sweltering afternoon amid the crowds of the Royal Welsh were hardly a big enough sample to draw firm conclusions but they did represent a cross-section of farming – young and old, Welsh and incomer, full time and part time, male and female – and a few themes emerged which resonated with wider research we have conducted.
Perhaps the main message was how they saw themselves as producers of food. They spoke of the contribution that they are able to make to rural communities, with whom they are in a “symbiotic relationship”, not just by supplying food but also supporting small businesses and craftspeople, and generally maintaining the fabric of the countryside. They took a pride in their skills and mentioned the satisfaction that came from managing resources well, reducing external inputs and employing local people. There are fewer people working the countryside than there were, and there has been a cultural impoverishment as a result, but farmers know that food production will always be important and so they are ready to look to the future and adapt.
Another theme was the sense they had of obligation towards the land that had come into their care. “We try not to mess it up for the next generation,” as one of them put it, a way of thinking that naturally encompasses an ethos of conservation and care for wildlife, and comes with a sense of history and a familiarity with the pendulum swings of agricultural policy. There was pride too in educating urban people about food production and the countryside, through schemes such as Open Farm Sunday.
What happens next? We made this video not to be the final word on what farmers care about, but to start a discussion which might lead to deeper understanding of what it is to work the land. We hope it will encourage other farmers to reflect on what really matters to them, and that this might start a wider conversation which will lead to constructive change. Brexit brings with it an opportunity to re-think our food system from the bottom up, and it’s important that everyone’s voice is heard.