Let’s plough the fields and scatter!

farmingI make no secret of the fact that I am at heart a farmer boy. At 14 I was driving tractors, milking cows and generally making myself useful on the farm. My father was a bank manager, so the farm on which I worked at weekends and school holidays was not my own. That said I did marry the farmer’s daughter a number of years later!

Today I no longer plough fields, chase escaped cattle, or freeze on bleak winter days hand pulling sugar beet from corners of windswept fields. I do however have a tractor, enough land upon which to drive it, and am still married to the farmer’s daughter.

Because clearly the lady who was to become my mother-in-law saw potential in her daughter marrying the local bank manager’s son, I often ate Sunday lunch at the farm. This was timed to coincide with your weekly broadcast on the hugely popular Farming Diary. From 1959 until around 1990 this programme was something of a classic.

So imagine my delight at finding myself last week, sitting on an almost empty train with the presenter of Farming Diary, David Richardson, sitting just across the aisle. I spent a good part of the journey working out if it would be appropriate to engage this man in conversation. I was by coincidence struggling to write this blog, but finding the subject – a comparison of a charity trustee to a rhinoceros – difficult to maintain for enough words without being rude about people who would know I was writing about them; more of that in the New Year.

So I gave up, closed my laptop. I decided that however embarrassing his reply, I had to grab this opportunity to talk with this man about farming and television. My diffidence was because when I watched David Richardson on television, I was a young and unconfident agricultural student. He being almost 20 years older was established and successful.

As it turned out he was pleased to talk. He was also particularly pleased to speak to an author as he has been seeking a publisher for his memoirs. Unlike so many, I think his will be a popular read and so in best networking tradition I offered to help him navigate the publishing landscape. The tables had turned, now I was the expert and he the beginner. Moral: never doubt yourself when confronted by a unique networking opportunity.

But we didn’t just talk about publishing. You see David writes a weekly column for Farmers’ Weekly and is a respected commentator on farming and food production. He expressed concern that today, unlike even 30 years ago, people do not really think about where their food comes from. Yet with a growing population, increasing water shortages and only 12% of the planet’s surface available to increase farm production, something has to give.

I welcomed the chance to revisit with him some of the very real, yet overlooked challenges, we all face over the coming years. Yes, some folk have great ideas, but few are practical. For us all to turn vegetarian would not enable us to grow peas, beans and wheat on what is now rough upland grazing. To deny the benefits of GM in favour of ‘organic’ is to sentence many to starvation.

Did you know, for example, that around the world right now, the area of GM crops is equal to the combined area of the UK, France, Belgium and the Netherlands? And did you also realise that as oil prices continue to soar, growing crops to produce ethanol might become a better bet than food? Many would say it’s time we got real and started to worry about the real issues of climate change and feeding our growing population.

I don’t think this is the time to make a call for people to dig up the parks and playing fields to grow food. It is however a time when we need to recognise that nature controls us and not the other way around. We cannot conjure food out of thin air. We have to compromise. Happy Christmas!


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Joan Miller
Joan Miller
12 years ago

In the the article sow the seeds and scatter, I agree with your expressed sentiments in general but could you have another think about agrofuels. You say growing crops for ethanol may be a better bet. A better bet for whom? For what as it certainly does not create more food.
I don’t feel on quite such certain ground but a large area of GM does not necessarily make it useful. Can you give me any evidence that GM is a better bet than organic/working with nature? Did you know that GM crops have terminator genes that means seeds are sterile and you cannot save the seed until the following year?

Robert Ashton
Robert Ashton
12 years ago

Thanks for your comments Joan. I’m not saying that producing ethanol is a better bet for most of us, just for the farmers offered a contract to grow for this market. Personally, I think fuel should be produced from crop residues, as human/livestock food will always be more important.

As for GM, there are two issues you raise. First, yes it’s wrong for companies like Monsanto to ‘programme’ a crop so that seed cannot be saved for the following year – although understandable when you consider their investment in developing that crop.

Secondly, GM is always going to be a better bet in terms of disease resistance and per hectare output than ‘organic’.

I think that as a global society we face some tough decisions. There are too many people and too few hectares of farmland – for me it’s GM or sensitive, phased population reduction. If the world went ‘organic’, millions would starve

Sarah Longlands
Sarah Longlands
12 years ago

Hi Rob – great to see that someone is writing about these issues. As a former Milkmaid, I too feel that UK agricultural production is a much overlooked challenge for the future, particularly in the context of peak oil.

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