Home-grown food is important – as farmers we all know that. But less so the general public, with UK food self-sufficiency falling to just 60%.
It wasn’t always this way. In 1984, for example, UK self-sufficiency in food was nearer 80%. But today it seems that most people want cheap food and the majority don’t care much where it comes from.
Some organisations blame the cheaper supermarkets – but they are only businesses providing a service for their customers. If the British public want British food then they will have to pay the price. And stop moaning when their stomachs are full.
Recent weeks have seen food shortages in some supermarkets. Why? Because there is a shortage of lorry drivers and other workers. But who is to blame in the eyes of the public? That’s right, farmers.
We face a mountain of problems. Fertiliser prices are sky high, nobody can get hold of glyphosate and abattoir workers are in short supply too. It’s back to that labour shortage again.
Name your price
My phone hasn’t stopped ringing this autumn, with other farmers asking if I can spare a few hours helping them out. Despite being semi-retired, I still enjoy sitting on a tractor seat but I don’t want to work 12 hour days seven days a week.
The days of carting potatoes or beet along the busy main roads for hours on end are long gone for me. But a normal working day? I have been told by more than one farmer to name my price as a stand-in drillman.
Defra secretary George Eustice insists there is labour shortage. Try telling that to pig farmers. Mr Eustice should get out more and see the situation for himself. Pigs are still backing up on farm because abattoirs can’t get the staff to process them.
So what is the labour shortage all about? There simply aren’t enough lorry drivers in this country. They don’t want to come here from other European countries. The number of agency drivers has fallen dramatically.
One estimate suggests that until this year up to 80% of the drivers were non-British. Why have they returned home? The popular answer is Brexit. But it is more complicated than that – and also down to a change in the tax law.
Most agency drivers set themselves up as contractors which allowed them to pay corporation tax rates – therefore earning good money. But this loophole has been closed and with the pandemic the foreign drivers just went home.
Who can blame them? Not me. Like all business owners, the need to cut costs is always relevant. When you get rid of your own staff and contract out to a single agency which relies heavily on workers from overseas, trouble is seldom far away.
All of this has led the NFU to ask Defra to delay cuts to the basic payment scheme. I believe such a delay would be wrong. As farmers we have known for years that the scheme was going to be phased out.
Plan for change
Every farm business has had ample warning to prepare for that eventuality – and it is unacceptable for farms who haven’t planned for change to push for the inevitable to be delayed. It is wrong to carry on regardless and hope things will turn the corner.
The farming industry has no God-given right to public money – certainly not when our schools and hospitals need it more. We need to stand on our own two feet – and I say that as someone who has received payments during my farming career.
If farming is to survive, we must change with the times. I cannot help thinking back to days gone by when volatile prices saw feed wheat fall to just £58/tonne. It wasn’t that long ago either. We all had to adsorb the costs. Food for thought indeed.