Friday 9 April 2010

Resilience: farming futures

Like most people, I have to earn my living; so I’m taking a strong interest in the local economy – how will it shape up when the oil runs out?

Farming is one of the most important industries locally, of course, and it’s changing a lot. (This is Tully’s expert area, so excuse my lack of in-depth knowledge.) A hundred years ago Norwich’s livestock and corn markets were the biggest in England. I’ve no idea whether that is true today and I should find out, because our future livelihoods could depend on it.

I did find out that the livestock market is thriving, after a long period of decline. I visited it a couple of weeks ago, where my picture shows some magnificent longhorn cattle. I was impressed – I thought that a cattle market would be hellish, but all the livestock were very placid; no stress to be seen anywhere. Heifers and their calves were always sold together. It was very different from the dreadful scenes of intensive agriculture filmed in Food Inc. I also found out that the market has switched from Fridays to Saturdays fortnightly, to accommodate the increasing numbers of part-time sheep farmers.

And I was inspired by the farming presentations at Greener Fram later the same day, especially Tim Waygood, talking about his Agrarian Renaissance. “We’ve got two futures as farmers,” he said, “global corporates or local SMEs” He told us how the profitability of farming has plummeted since the 1970s, while supermarkets’ profits have soared. Fifty percent of farms locally have gone out of business in the last fifteen years. Tim’s farm is important for the local community, providing jobs (including social enterprise for people with learning difficulties), links to the schools and a rural enterprise hub in the village. He’s not just feeding the chattering classes – he told me that people of all social groups come in from nearby Stevenage to buy their food direct from the farm. The bottom line? It’s profitable. Turnover on a mixed farm like Tim’s is £150K, compared with commodity crops such as rapeseed or wheat on the same acreage - £40K.

A completely different farming story caught my attention recently. Birds Eye has had a pea-growing contract with a local consortium of farmers for more than sixty years, but at very short notice cancelled the contract – just as the farmers were preparing to sow the crop. They’ve had to tear up their business plans and start again. Impressively, they’ve turned to growing hemp. I thought this produced some rustic crunchy-textured fabric with all the appeal of old sacks. Not a bit of it. It’s very high-tech and is being used in leading edge applications such as high-tensile brakes for Dockland Light Railway and bullet-proof materials far cheaper and better than anything made with synthetic materials.

So, is this where our local economy should be going? Not looking back; looking forward? I think so. Definitely not going for relentless growth at any cost. I’ll pick up on that theme of prosperity without growth in my final piece.

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