One of the mildest spells of December weather on record was no consolation for most farmers at the end of a difficult 2015.
Dairy farmers probably have the strongest claim to hard times and low prices, but the bank accounts of beef, sheep, pig, potato and poultry farmers also suffered from lower returns. Grain prices have also been well down, only partially compensated by higher yields.
In short, a year farmers won’t regret seeing the end of. It’s human nature that it is no consolation that many other industries have been clobbered. Oil prices have slumped, good news for us all in some ways, but bad news for the thousands who have lost their jobs. The same goes for thousands of now unemployed steel workers while the closure of Britain’s last deep coal mine saw the end of an industry that once employed – as did farming – about one million workers.
As for being a farmer it could be worse. You could be a farmer in South Africa and be four times more likely than average to be murdered in a country with a frighteningly high murder rate. A glance at any foreign news section of a newspaper also convinces me that there are many worse places to try and make a living from farming than Britain. But the daily demands of farming being what they are it’s not always easy to appreciate that.
As well as saying goodbye to one year, or more likely in the case of 2015 ‘good riddance’ this is traditionally the time to look ahead and hope for better things from a new year. The Tenant Farmers Association has at the top of its wish list the belief that landowners and, more to the point, their estate agents must realise that rents should be reduced. ‘Farmers have had to tighten their belts and it is only right that landlords should share that burden,’ said the association’s chairman.
All I can say is good luck with that.
It’s tempting to say the same about NFU Scotland’s claim that food retailers must commit to working with farmers, suggesting that ‘food producers should share in the rewards as well as the risks.’ At first glance that seems as fond a hope as that of tenant farmers for lower rents, a belief that real-life Scrooges will change as the fictional one does in Dickens’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ and become kinder, better, people.
But on reflection the farmers’ union is trying hard to get retailers – effectively the big supermarkets that control so much of our food – to give Britain’s farmers a fairer deal.
Supermarkets struggling for market share and their own profits as well as the expectations of shareholders won’t be easy to convince, but in a sincere way, rather than scathing, I’d also like to say good luck with the NFU’s attempt. Efforts made by hundreds of farmers to meet shoppers are having some effect and that too is a brave attempt to get a message across that British farming is still important and deserves support.
One newspaper caption used on photographs of December’s unseasonal weather made me laugh. It claimed that ‘the topsy-turvy weather is confusing nature as sheep have already given birth to these spring lambs.’ A basic biology lesson needed there, I think.