The Archbishop has written in the January edition of the British Farmer and Grower – North East. The article follows in full...
Recently in this magazine, Paul Temple wrote about the need for farmers to ‘get fit quick’ in relation to the marketing challenges ahead for UK farmers and having ‘sustainability’ at the core of decision making. Friends, he is right.
I set out on a six month Pilgrimage of Prayer, Witness and Blessing last winter across the Diocese of York – an area of 2661 square miles. Day by day as I walked through the streets and the fields, talking and praying with people who joined me, I was made aware just how much the farming landscape is changing and of the innovation, technology and expertise that is required to manage and maintain the land.
I didn’t ‘get fit quick’ but I know a little more first-hand about the pressures that farming businesses face: the precision that is required, the care of crops in changing conditions, livestock maintenance, waste management, energy efficiency, skill-shortages, conservation and diversification requirements.
Students at Bishop Burton and Askham Bryan Colleges are being prepared for a future which is wholly committed to farming but they are also exploring new production techniques. The UK is recognised as a centre of excellence for agricultural research and technology is changing the way our food is produced in ways that we may not have envisaged a decade ago.
Across the Yorkshire Wolds and the Vale of York on my Pilgrimage, I met with second and third generation pea growers the proportion of whose produce exported to the EU was around 70%. They knew exactly the harvest dates for their succulent peas and they were picked and frozen in a staggering 150 minutes. Such use of technology is making our farmers more efficient and productive – but it’s also about having sustainability at the heart of the process.
Back in 2008, I spoke at the North East County National Farmers’ Union Centenary Dinner about self-sufficiency becoming an increasingly important part of domestic food strategy, in which government and wider society must play a part. I said that we should identify those foods which can be produced locally and let’s urge a return to a "buy British" mindset for the food that we eat. My view has not changed because whether its English cheese, Scotch Whisky, Welsh lamb or Northern Irish beef – people want to buy our top-quality produce.
Animal welfare standards in the UK are second to none, likewise traceability arrangements. Additionally the Red Tractor assurance scheme gives consumers added confidence from farm to pack, and the entire process from farm to supermarket shelf. And yet the situation for many livestock farmers is that they would be better off financially if they gave up producing cattle and sheep. Hill farmers continue to have a precarious existence where the pressure on prices are such that it is difficult for a decent living to be made, with dairy producers bearing the brunt of poor prices. But, British consumers should pay more for the food they purchase at our supermarkets in recognition of the contribution made by farmers to national life.
It is no accident of history that so many of Jesus’ parables are set in an agricultural context. Whether it is in sowing, growing, and reaping, or in tending, shepherding and keeping stock, the meaning and mystery of life is revealed in the sacred covenant of God and nature, and in humans as toasted stewards of God’s grace in creation. Farming matters, because ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof’ (Ps 24.1)
I don’t know what will happen to farming when we leave the EU – but the skills, fortitude and resourcefulness I have seen indicates a bright future ahead. May you continue to be the guardians of our food security, and protectors of our countryside. Without farming our good and pleasant land would soon become a wasteland!