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Farmers in the Doldrums

March 04, 2001|Stephen Games | Stephen Games is a British journalist and faculty member in the media departments of both Boston University and AIU-London

LONDON — It has been a horrible week for British farmers. Just as British beef is returning to the world market, three national herds--cattle, sheep and pigs--have shown signs of a disease for which the only acceptable remedy is incineration. This foot-and-mouth crisis comes on top of a series of outbreaks of E.coli, swine fever and BSE, a collapse in grain, dairy and stock prices, and weather conditions that have damaged harvests and led to flooding. Farmers may be forgiven for thinking they have been singled out for torment.

What damage will this latest disaster do? It won't affect anyone's eating habits, though food prices may temporarily rise. The big competing supermarkets clear their shelves promptly of anything likely to harm their reputations, and the food industry is now so internationalized that there are always safe alternatives: New Zealand lamb, Irish beef, Danish bacon. Nor will it do long-term harm to food production, according to Sean Rickard, senior agricultural economist at the Cranfield School of Management: Output will recover just as it has recovered from diseases in the past.

What will be hurt--perhaps fatally--is the way farmers see their prospects and the way they, in turn, are seen by the public. In Britain, the countryside has always enjoyed good PR. In spite of the fact that Britain was the world's first industrialized country, it has always managed to portray itself--quite falsely--as an essentially rural nation, with metropolitan centers set in a vigorous, pastoral backdrop.

The sad fact, however, is that the British countryside can no longer sustain itself. Rural schools, shops, businesses, banks, post offices and bus routes are closing down, and nearly half the farms in both England and Wales have become hobbyist toys for latter-day Marie Antoinettes and aging rock stars. In the last two years, 4,000 farmers and 40,000 laborers have lost their jobs; during the 1990s, the number of dairy herds dropped from 35,000 to 26,000.

To the nation's chagrin, traditional small-scale farming--a dairy herd of, say, 30--no longer works. To farm viably, you need hundreds of acres and an eye on the bottom line, something Americans have known for a century but which offends British sensibilities. In the U.K., big farmers are public enemies, grubbing up hedgerows, draining marshland, planting ugly but productive crops like oilseed rape with its migraine-inducing yellow flowers and, where possible, turning over land for house-building. The British see all this as betrayal. They want landscapes that are still defined by Gainsborough's squirearchy and Capability Brown's milords of the 1750s and speak witheringly of "industrialized" farming.

The persistence of this belief in a national aesthetic depends on the notion that farmers are free to act as nature's custodians. They are not. Farming practice is now dictated by global prices, currency, interest rates and European regulations, all of which have acted to suppress farmers' commercial flexibility and hold down incomes.

Farmers feel particularly put upon because the British government has not taken steps to stop this erosion, won't bring down the value of the pound, won't provide relief from taxation, won't limit foreign imports to maintain high prices and won't simplify European red tape. Government hasn't done these things because of its strong feeling that farming has to come to terms with modern life. The countryside, it says, needs to be as robust as it was in the 18th century, but it needs to be robust on today's terms.

Two legislative initiatives by Tony Blair's government symbolize this collision of values: the scrapping of the 900-year-old hereditary peerage and the outlawing of its favorite sport, recreational fox hunting, on grounds of cruelty. On the first question, opponents couldn't raise enough steam to mount an effective protest; on fox hunting, however, they have stirred real passion. Activists protest that an obsession with the well-being of foxes, which they see merely as field vermin, smacks of inner-city naivete and fails to recognize the centrality of hunting to the life of the countryside. They see the gathering of horse and hound to kill foxes not just as a sport (and one that employs 35,000 people) but as a national institution, something they accuse the Labor government of being too urbanized to understand.

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