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Greetings from the Yorkshire Dales. As we enter August, it's wonderful to see the ramblers and cyclists making the most of summer in the Dales now that schools have broken up for the holidays.
Several weeks ago, I received an extraordinary phone call. It was from my long-term beef supplier David Harrison, whom I have often described in my updates. David informed me that for the first time in his lifetime, you now get more money at auction selling a cow for slaughter than selling a cow for breeding. Or, as David put it, "there's more money in death than life."
This is a remarkable and potentially devastating development. If it continues then up and down the country, farmers and producers will be incentivised to sell off their breeding stock for meat, never to calve again. It speaks to the huge (and rising) costs involved in farming right now that the long-term prospects of making a profit on new members of the herd are becoming more remote, and producers are simply selling up. It is unprecedented in modern times.
Is this a problem, you might ask? Many in this country advocate shrinking the national herd to stem carbon emissions, and I myself have at length described the unnatural, industrialised processes that have made the food supply chain so fragile. I do not, for instance, believe we should be breeding and rearing cattle for cheap burger meat. I also think we should be making sure that the meat we eat is better, and if that means eating less of it, then good.
It was with this dire situation in mind, and some days after the initial phone call, I went to see Rishi Sunak MP speak at the Black Sheep Brewery in Masham, near Ripon. Sunak's Richmond constituency borders Ripon, and several of our long-term suppliers are located there. At this crucial juncture for British farming, he had come to town as part of his bid to become Prime Minister. I found him knowledgeable, engaging, approachable, and a empathetic public speaker. I understand he has a strong reputation among our local farming community for these very traits.
Should it be Mr Sunak who claims the top job, his in-tray will be full. The current struggles in the economy aren't unique to farming, or Yorkshire, or even Britain, of course. And we all know the causes. It's the war in Europe, it's the price of oil, along with the lack of grain from the Ukraine. Everyone is under pressure at the moment, and the impacts are tumbling down the supply chain all the way to the supermarket shelf.
There are no sticking plaster solutions here; no slick soundbites can fix this. When it comes to farming and food, there has to be recognition of the challenges the sector faces, with a willingness to address these problems. What we don't need is wishful thinking without a grasp of what is truly happening right now.
The words "more money in death than life" brought to mind another phone call I had last year. If you were receiving my updates last summer, you might recall our efforts to save a herd of rare breed Gloucester cattle being sold for slaughter, and from there the supermarket supply chain. The cattle, most of which were in calf, now graze in Wensleydale, but it's more than the animals we saved; it's the genetics and our national heritage. Even then, just one big shock and a farmer can be forced to sell up, no matter how precious their herd.
This is just a snapshot from my corner of England of what's happening to the farming sector, and it's the flower of our food culture and countryside that's most under threat. The large, industrial farms will weather the storm, it's the little operations that will struggle. These are the people who do things properly, who take care of the land, and who are concerned with animal welfare. It was farmers such as these who saved our heritage breeds, often as a labour of love but more importantly they were here during the initial pandemic outbreak, helping us to secure food to you, and out of respect for the history of the animal. The supermarkets don't care about breed, they care about yield, and I fear the progress we have steadily made to gain national recognition will be eroded.
The wrestle with the future of food supply is a long game and there has been a dearth of joined-up strategic thinking when it comes to food in this country. Our diets, our food culture, and our farmers have suffered for this.
For whoever wins the leadership contest, there is nothing more important than the food security of this great island. I for one want to see leadership that has a focus on one of the UK's most important economic sectors; food and farming. We must not lose this cornerstone of the countryside and our culture, and we must support our farmers to rear better meat.
On a final note, I have written to Mrs Truss and Mr Sunak to ask them both, as leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister, what is their strategy for UK agriculture and food supply. I look forward to sharing any responses with you next month. As we step into August there's plenty to look forward to, with the Glorious 12th marking the start of the Grouse season and the launch of our Christmas range not far off either.
Thank you. If you have any comments or feedback, please do not hesitate to reach out to me via [email protected]. I always make time to read your comments.
Founder of Farmison & Co