Charles: the future king with retro-vision

Has Charles good points to make about the countryside, or is he just stirring it up? Ben Birchall/PA

In this week’s Country Life HRH Prince of Wales writes of the social and economic importance of farming. It is, he says:

the bedrock of our rural communities, making post offices, pubs, public transport and local health care absolutely vital to the production of our food and the protection of the landscapes we all benefit from in so many ways. This is why the countryside’s contribution to the national good has to be cherished and sustained. Without it, we will all be very much the poorer.

Elsewhere in his editorial HRH writes of the British countryside as the backbone of our national identity. Setting aside for a moment just what the 21st century British identity might be, what about the many generations of seafaring, war, empire, trade, or the industrial revolution? We need only go back to 1701 to see Daniel Defoe’s characterisation of “The True Englishman” in his typically satirical way.

HRH identifies several champions or “heroes” of the countryside, and what an interesting and in some ways inspiring group they are. But heroes? Have they unflinchingly stepped forward to meet terror, risking all for their peers? And can we really say that using helicopters to ferry in material for dry stone walls is a sustainable way to manage the countryside? Here are a few others who we might also recognise for championing the countryside:

  • WG Hoskins, 1908–1922, who taught us to understand the countryside, not least through his The Making of the English Landscape.

  • Octavia Hill, Hardwicke Rawnsley, and Robert Hunter, founders of the National Trust.

  • Kenneth Watkins, founder of the Woodland Trust.

  • Countless agricultural pioneers and innovators including the likes of Bobby Boutflour who did so much to revolutionise dairy farming and cattle nutrition.

Who would be on your list?

HRH rightly recognises the vital role farmers have in feeding us and as custodians of the countryside. But there is a contradiction when he goes on to lament the decline in genetic diversity in livestock, the deteriorating condition of soil and the short herd life of some cows. The Irish potato famines are blamed on lack of genetic diversity with no mention of good rotational practice and other vital aspects of crop husbandry. Can this be a description of the “best farmers in the world” as Prince Charles says?

Contrast this with the views expressed by Allan Wilkinson, Chief Agricultural Adviser to HSBC at the Linking Environment and Farming Conference (LEAF) this month. Wilkinson noted that the performance gap between the best farmers and the rest has always been large – it is now enormous. Wilkinson’s menu for success included attention to detail, good up-to-date knowledge, personal development, looking for ways to collaborate, recognising and respecting the competition.

Price pressure

Prince Charles makes the point that the “big retailers and their shareholders do so much better out of the deal” than the farmers they buy from. He also laments the enormous waste of food in the UK every year. Perhaps some of these retailers understand farming and consumers rather more than we recognise. Increasingly we see the big supermarket groups working with preferred groups of suppliers. During the recent milk price crisis, Tesco was recognised for being more supportive of its producers. In addition Tesco has also just produced its own analysis which revealed the waste of 30,000 tonnes in the first six months of 2013, a vast tonnage lost along the supply chain “from farm to fork”. Losses start in the field, and continue right through to the final consumer.

Waste is not the only problem with food: overconsumption leads to health problems, as are changing patterns of consumption in developing countries. But while many have plenty to eat we have also seen the rapid growth of the Food Bank movement in response to a shameful economic and social need. The Trussell Trust has seen its work triple. It is now rumoured that the publication of Defra research completed in the summer is being suppressed because it links the boom in food bank demand with welfare reforms. Perhaps our list of heroes needs to include Carol and Paddy Henderson for establishing the Trussell Trust in 1997 (named after Carol’s mother whose legacy made it possible).

Like much of what HRH has written about the countryside and farming, there is little to grasp in the way of a broad view of the future of the countryside, much less how to get to that future. The countryside as romantic idyll certainly seems central to his view of the countryside, yet how will that idyll be maintained?

Investing in the countryside, but where?

There are some surprising omissions from Country Life’s editorial. For example, the government is currently consulting on the implementation of the latest changes to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Here is something which really does shape the countryside, and Defra has given us 28 days to respond to its consultation exercise.

Should we move the remaining money “up the hill” to support the beleaguered upland farmers mentioned by Prince Charles? HSBC’s Wilkinson and Tesco would both probably tell us that there is plenty more that the lowland farmers can do for themselves to improve profitability and farming sustainability. There is a strong case for diverting more of the public money to the marginal farming areas – not to support agriculture as such, but to maintain its value in supporting the rest of the industry “down the hill”, and for the numerous environmental and social benefits it can bring us all.

It is a shame that HRH does not seem to tackle this central issue of the extent to which public money should continue to support farming, what value we get in return for it, and the considerable amount of work which is currently underway looking at how we can reflect the much wider value of nature in the management of natural capital and the “purchase” of natural benefits from ecosystem services. All vital considerations in establishing a rural vision which builds on the best of a rural idyll.