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01 May 2008

In God's country

In God's country

Hazel Southam heads into the countryside to examine the particular challenges facing farmers, and how Christians can help...

"When you can't see the light at the end of the tunnel, turn to the light of the world." So reads a poster on the kitchen wall of the home of farmers John and Helen Ford. The Fords are third-generation dairy farmers in the ancient village of Herstmonceux, East Sussex. They farm over 800 acres and have a stock of 700 cows, which may sound idyllic, but on the day that I meet them, this poster seems portentous.

John and Helen have just heard that, because one of their cows has been tested positive for TB, as many as 70 are going to have to be slaughtered, including their best cow. Many others are pregnant.

"We could be slaughtering healthy animals," says John. "They're good animals. I don't feel good about that."

More than a playground

For city-dwellers the countryside can be seen just as a playground for weekend outings. But in Britain, one in every six people lives in a community of less than 5,000 people.

Poverty blights the lives of almost 1 million rural households in England alone. Blue tongue, TB, foot and mouth disease and floods have all hit Britain's farming community hard. So what are the major issues affecting Britain's farmers and just how can Christians help?

Agriculture occupies 70 per cent - 9.2 million hectares - of the land area in England. But the amount of crops grown is falling as farmers leave the industry. In 2007, a survey carried out for the Department of Food and Rural Affairs showed that around a third of farmers questioned plan to either give up farming or to diversify. But they are worried about what else they could do. This was particularly true of dairy farmers like John and Helen Ford.

The Fords have lived and worked the land at Lime End Farm for 30 years. Despite their current crisis, they're still holding a celebration in July for all their friends, family and fellow churchgoers.

But the last 10 years have hit them hard. Although not affected by foot and mouth or blue tongue, the subsequent prevention of movement of livestock affected the farm's cash flow.

"We used to be able to budget a year in advance," says Helen. "Now we can't budget at all."

Changing countryside

The supermarket's dominance in the food market has also had an adverse affect. "Ten years ago the price of milk was 24p, and since then the price has dropped every year until this year, when it suddenly came up," says John.

"We get 26p from the supermarket for a pint of milk, but the cost of production is 26.5p"

"Now we get 26p from the supermarket. But the cost of production is 26.5p, with the price of animal feed going up, as well as fuel and labour costs. People outside the industry think that we are getting more money, but we aren't with all the rising costs. The money has all gone."

Why does any of this matter? John takes a long-term perspective. "We need a wake-up call," he says. "We all have to eat. Food is fundamental to life, so we need to look after the land. But in the future, climate change will have a huge effect. There won't be the food there."

He also says that many of his neighbours are giving up farming and selling off their land because prices are unsustainably low. "That's the sensible thing to do. But 1 think that God's telling me to keep the farm going. We're carrying on my father's legacy. It doesn't seem right to stop."

But every day farmers are stopping. The National Farmers' Union reports that in the last four years alone, the beef herds have been cut back by 11 per cent and sheep breeding by 10 per cent.

This means that the countryside looks different, and ultimately more of our food is imported rather than home-grown, costing more and leaving a greater carbon footprint.

"For the last eight or nine years farm product prices have been very poor," says Christopher Jones, president of the Farming Crisis Network, which began in 1995 as a Christian response to high suicide levels among farmers. "It's because of the supermarkets and their power over the marketplace. The globalisation of food has allowed big power concentrations to build up so that you get something that's a bit difficult to describe as a free market. It's an oligarchy of power and it's extremely difficult for farmers."

The result of falling prices, long hours, not being able to employ people to share the workload and a sense of physical and emotional isolation has led many farmers to "depression and despair", he says. From a normal average of 90 calls or referrals each month, the charity is currently receiving double that number. Calls reached a pitch of nearly 300 a month during last summer when disease and floods affected farms.

"We should support our farmers because they have a large role in mediating a relationship between the people in the UK and the island they live on," says Jones. "Farmers manage most of this island's surface. The landscapes, the rivers, the pollution levels, all these things as well as our food supply are all mediated by farmers. "Farmers are significant. If they are not able to do their job, then that's something that needs remedying obviously."

Take it further:

  • Buy food from farmers' markets or direct from the producer or grower
  • Look out for milk in supermarkets produced by the Dairy Farmers' of Britain, or arrange for delivery from a milkman
  • Opt for buy-direct schemes from farmers and local food co-operatives
  • Pray for the work of the Farming Crisis Network: www.farmcrisisnetwork.org.uk
  • Get to know your local farmers and encourage them in their work

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