Bringing the harvest home
ONLY a hunch, but farming attendance at harvest festivals might be lower than usual this year.
The All Things Bright and Beautiful and All is Safely Gathered In lines will ring hollow to those who have either come through, or are struggling with, the worst harvest conditions and lowest yields in a generation.
For those who believe that sort of thing, the promise that seedtime and harvest will not fail might produce a wry smile; they haven’t entirely failed, but for both it is proving a close-run thing in this year of appalling weather, the worst in most respects since 1912.
Those trying to feed families on static incomes, falling if the modest rate of inflation is taken into account, might also balk at a harvest festival of thankfulness as food prices, particularly vegetables, potatoes and fruit rise. There could be a lot of competition for whatever offerings are laid at the altar.
The price of grain products is also rising. It doesn’t do much good to point out to a cash-strapped shopper that grain accounts for only about 10 per cent of the cost of a loaf of bread any more than it does to point out that the cost of barley accounts for about 10p of the cost of a bottle of whisky.
It doesn’t do much good either for farmers to point out that on average only about 10 per cent of household income is spent on food. That might be true for the higher incomes, but those in the “squeezed middle” are probably spending rather more than 10 per cent.
And those in the “squeezed bottom”, if that’s an acceptable phrase in these troubled times, probably have to spend a considerably greater percentage of their income on food. We could argue about the type of food and fizzy drinks too many buy and advise them on such useful, cheap and nutritious foods as porridge and how to get full value from a chicken, but it’s their choice.
Wrong and wasteful, but theirs – just as every one of us makes decisions about how to spend our money that often strike others as silly or wrong. We might also ask why a rise in fruit and vegetable prices in Scotland should be a big deal when, according to all surveys, most of the population still fights shy of anything green?
But an increase in the price of pies, pasties and takeaway meals has to be considered along with rising meat prices.
That’s why supermarkets, particularly the struggling giant Tesco as it loses market share and popularity, are unlikely to change their ways – that is, to squeeze suppliers until the pips squeak to provide what their customers want as cheaply as possible while trying to make a profit for shareholders.
When money is tight, home-produced supplies variable and quality a problem, the support of big retailers for British farming is tested.
I hardly need add that it is also found wanting. Protests, as last week by NFU Scotland about Tesco and Asda for not supporting Scottish lamb, are wasted breath.
How long do supermarket bosses need to study “profit and market share” on one side and “support for British farmers” on the other to decide strategy? Exactly, and it’s not going to change.
Happy days when support for British farmers was unconditional, from shoppers and government, as reflected in the BBC2 series Wartime Farm, which I’ve watched occasionally in recent weeks.
As with any TV series aimed at viewers assumed to have the attention span of a goldfish, there is a lot of gimmickry and wasted effort and time that any genuine wartime farmer would have put to better use, but there are nuggets of new information and “Fancy that” along the way.
And the nub of the programme, dear to farmers’ hearts, is that the nation did rely on them to produce as much food as they possibly could, almost – the generally unspoken part of the equation – at any cost. Shoppers would pay the price for what rationed supplies they could get and still tended to think of farmers as the good guys.
As noted, happy days. Now with vast arrays of food available at any time, in wasteful quantities a wartime generation would boggle at, shoppers demand that it should be relatively cheap and farmers fear – as they have always feared – that home-produced will be sacrificed to imports.
Perhaps the recent estimate of a world population of more than nine billion by 2050, up by one third on today, and the Food and Agricultural Organisation’s estimate that feeding them will need a more than 60 per cent increase in agricultural production – an increase of almost one billion tonnes of grain and 200 million tonnes of meat annually – will change the gloomy outlook of British farmers.
Or perhaps not. Has Abide With Me been sung at a harvest festival? There’s always a first time.
• Congratulations to Andrew Arbuckle, regular occupier of this space, on being presented last week with the Guild of Agricultural Journalists Netherthorpe Award for his outstanding contribution to agricultural communication over more than 30 years. In that time he was also an outstanding councillor and served as an MSP. Well done, that man.
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Source: the scotsman