Yesterday we returned to the Great Dorset Steam fair for our annual pilgrimage. The ground had dried out a bit following sunday’s deluge, but not enough for the traction engines to trudge around the main ring, which was a small disappointment. They just couldn’t make it up the moderate slope without slipping backwards or sideways (no doubt creating an insurmountable health and safety risk.)
My mind wandered to thoughts of traction engines slipping and sliding on wet arable fields in the 1920s and 30s, perhaps even tipping over. How would such a leviathan be righted? Could a team of plough-horses have had enough strength, or would the farmer have to wait until another traction engine arrived to right the fallen giant. And what if this had happened at a critical moment, when that season’s wheat needed to be threshed by the latest innovation, the steam-powered threshing machine? As I watched the wheat being fed, by hand, into the threshing machine, I noted how quickly things have changed in agriculture over the past 75 years.
The pace of change was driven by, amongst other things, a massive injection of public money. Bearing in mind that Britain was essentially bust after the second world war, it is worth noting that money was found to pay farmers subsidies to produce as much food as they possibly could. But not only that, funds were found to set up agricultural research stations, breeding new types of grass, new types of wheat, new types of cattle and sheep and pigs and chickens. New insecticides and herbicides and more efficient industrial methods for producing artificial fertilisers. And new machinery to replace all those men and women who had worked the fields previously.
Now we look back on this incredible era of innovation, with mixed feelings. 75 years of production subsidies (firstly from the Treasury, then the EU) have left the countryside in a terrible state. Archaeology and history has been swept away, along with wildlife, along with ways of life, with culture and with communities – all in the name of food production and nothing else. Brexit has provided the opportunity, a once in a lifetime opportunity, to radically reform our approach to supporting farming in the UK, to rebalance the need to produce food, with the need to replenish the countryside with wildlife, with culture and with community.
All of this is folded inside a wrapper called “public money for public goods.” It is an ugly wrapper which hides more than it reveals. It is a phrase which means little to those outside the technocratic community of policy wonks (I self-identify as an amateur policy wonk) interested in the intersection between the environment, people and food production. Yet it is the rallying cry taken up by chief Brexist Michael Gove on his arrival at Defra a year ago. Gove has recognised the opportunity to make a radical change, to fight against Vested Interests (in this case the farming unions, especially the National Farmers Union – the NFU.) I have written far too much about this to provide links, but you can find a lot on here or on my Lush Times column.
As the moment approaches when the first major Agricultural Bill since 1947 is published, dark rumours are circulating that those self same vested interests are pushing back hard against this public money for public goods approach. RSPB head honcho Martin Harper appeared on the Today Programme this morning to express his grave concern that all the good work that has gone into convincing this Govt of the need to change they way farmers are supported by the public via subsidies, is for naught. Humphrys played devil’s advocate – presumably they couldn’t find anyone from the NFU williing to admit that they were scuppering proposals which had overwhelming public support. NFU has a very public profile, but most of their key work is done in the shadows, and always has been. What can Civil Society do? A letter, with many organisations signing on, has flown to Number 10, and you can see it on Martin’s blog this morning.
Will it make a difference? Has the die already been cast? NFU has been around for over a hundred years remember, and has for much of the time, at least since 1940, not only had a constant seat at the table with the Minister, but has also drafted legislation and policy for the Minister to sign off.
Gove talked of taking on the Vested Interests. Above all else, his tenure at Defra will be judged according to whether he was successful at taking on the NFU. We will know the results of that show-down in the next few weeks.