Farmers face an enormous number of challenges. It is hard work battling with the elements to produce food and even harder work to do so profitably. The job goes on 365 days a year and it is not getting going to get any easier anytime soon.
I don't believe we can expect farmers to cope with their challenges without strong support from taxpayers.
1. The price of food
The biggest problem for farmers is the price they get for what they sell. Left to their own devices the supermarkets have to compete with each other to prove to customers that they are the cheapest. Whenever they encounter small suppliers who have little choice other than to sell to a supermarket then they will drive the price of that product down. Milk has become cheaper than water because of this.
If we want to help farmers then we have to tip the balance. For example we could tax sugary drinks that are advertised to our children every night and use the money to advertise a fair trade milk brand. That would increase demand and thus price and also increase the health of our children. We could call the organisation that did the marketing something radical and new, like "The Milk Marketing Board." This existed very successfully for years and was destroyed because of a misplaced belief that the market didn't need any guidance and customers would always and everywhere make the right decisions. More importantly we need to establish strong regulations over supermarket purchase deals. They are bullying some of our farmers out of business.
Markets can't be left to their own devices - we learned that when the banks collapsed in 2008. Markets need intelligent guidance and sometimes that involves governments insisting on minimum prices for products and minimum standards of production.
2. Some of the ways that farmers produce are becoming very difficult to maintain. Antibiotics are extensively used on animals. Their effectiveness is running out and the lack of an alternative poses a real threat to farm animals and to human health. The chemical companies cannot make a profit out of researching an alternative. Government needs to invest heavily now in sustainable alternatives.
Similarly many pesticides are becoming increasingly ineffective and some of the new ones like neonicitinoids are now known to have dangerous side effects for bees - thus putting pollination at risk. Many of the chemical fertilizers that farmers have relied on are mined from sources which are rapidly running out and cannot easily be replaced. Farmers need to be helped to move to integrated pest management techniques that rely on lower use of pesticides and lower use of fertilizers. We cannot expect farmers to bear the cost of producing using less fertiliser and less pesticides. They need subsidies and support from taxpayers to achieve this.
3. Consumer expectations are very high. Consumers are increasingly expecting that their food will come from animals that are treated well, fields that are farmed in ways that are light on the environment and in countryside that is heavily protected and has areas of hedgerow, meadow, and bog land. Consumers also want cheap food. The two things don't add up. Again we cannot expect farmers to produce in ways that are sensitive to the environment if we are not prepared to share the cost of doing so. We need subsidies to help farmers to adapt to less intensive ways of achieving the same productivity levels.
At the moment the main source of subsidies for UK farmers is the EU. It may be bureaucratic. It may be a nuisance to fill out long forms and be subject to inspections. Nevertheless farmers need to stay in the EU. Without the EU the loss of the lobby from, for example French farmers, would leave UK farmers exposed to the tender mercies of extreme free market advocates who want to get rid of all farming support. If we leave the EU then farmers will still want to sell to its 800 million customers. They will be required to comply with all the EU regulations if they want to do that. So they will still have all the rules. The only difference will be that they will have no say over who makes those rules. They will be obeying regulations made in Brussels without any British farmers having a say.
An even worse threat to farmers is the Trans Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership known as TTIP. This is a plan to remove all meaningful trade barriers between the EU, the UK and the USA. If it goes through then American farmers using mass produced industrial methods will be able to sell beef and milk on the UK market without any import taxes. UK farmers will either have to adopt the same brutal mass production methods or be driven out of business by low prices.
We need our farmers to be more connected with the local markets not less. The horse meat scandal showed that we simply don't know what is in many of the products sold to British consumers. Meat was being sold and re-sold many times and it was all too easy for untraceable condemned meat or for cheap alternatives to be substituted for what the consumer actually wanted.
We have to try and re-connect the consumer and the producer. We need real food now even more urgently than we needed real ale in the 1970s. Selling and buying locally and seasonally should be promoted and encouraged to help farmers cut out the middle men and women and get a decent amount of the price which consumers pay. This also needs government support and encouragement.
Many farmers have developed a degree of suspicion about the environmental lobby. They believe, sometimes with every justification, that environmentalists want to add to their costs but the public don't want to pay the price in the shops. It is time we recognised that we cannot just leave farmers on their own to cope with the challenges that they face. They need and deserve our support to make the transition to different ways of producing and selling food. And by support I do mean financial support from taxpayers.
It would be a poor lookout if a Green Party could not support farmers. It would be an equally poor lookout if farmers didn't join with the Green Party in helping to make the transition to the next phase of farming. Vote Green in 2015 if you really want a strong and stable long term future for the farming industry and safety for the food consumer.