Farming is a seven-day-a-week job. There are no days off or holidays, and people are increasingly doing it for nothing. Even Britain’s best-known farmer, Jeremy Clarkson, famously made a measly £144 profit from his first year in the industry (if you discount the fortune from Amazon to make his TV series). As he says in the show, if he can’t make a profit, how can anyone else?
The situation has only got worse since then. Shoppers are already being stung with food inflation at 19%, well above the overall average, but things could have been much worse. Joe Bramall, a National Farmers’ Union ambassador, agriculture student at Harper Adams University and rising star in the industry, tells me that farmers have swallowed a huge proportion of rising costs.
Unsustainable rises in the cost of food production
“On farm inflation is currently at 43% … We put fertiliser on our land to grow our crops so we’ve got feed for our animals, back in 2019 it cost around £200 per ton, last year it hit £1,000 a ton. That’s just one of the small input costs for farmers that has gone through the roof.”
So why don’t our food bills don’t go up by 40% to match costs? Bramall smiles. “If [farmers] passed that onto the consumer there’d be no farmers left in this country. We’ve lost 350 dairy farmers since October last year and we need to work hard to make sure there’s a long-term future for the sector in this country.”
Not exactly a glowing endorsement for donning a Schoffel and some wellies to move to the countryside.
But it’s not just making profit farmers have to worry about, a new subsidy system is only just being implemented to replace the EU’s common agricultural policy after Brexit. After years of uncertainty about what the system will consist of, new environmental land management schemes were revealed a few months ago and have been a topic of fierce debate ever since.
‘It’s going to be a real balancing act’
The new system rewards farmers for taking action which protects the environment such as conserving hedgerows, rather than paying out based on the size of the farm as the old system did. While the environment is unquestionably important – 70% of land in this country is agricultural so there’s a clear responsibility on the sector to look after it – the new system favours larger farms and arable areas, punishing land with less environmental potential like moorland.
Net zero and climate change are a challenge for agriculture; farmers own vast swathes of the countryside but are also at the heart of the polluting beef industry (producing one kilo of beef emits on average 50 times more emissions than producing one kilo of vegetables). Farmers are both the firefighters and the arsonists.
Bramall says it’s a challenge, but one farmers are dealing with well. “Some solutions are expensive, but others aren’t that expensive. Here at Harper Adams University, we are working round the clock with scientists looking at different ways we are producing food, especially meat and dairy, to help us reduce emissions. There are some wonderful food additives out there now that scientists are saying can reduce emissions by 80%… it’s something we are working incredibly hard on.”
But what about the massive structural elephant in the room for farmers, fewer people are eating meat and demand is only set to fall more.
“It’s a challenge but ultimately there is a lot of land in this country that still cannot produce cereal crops” says Bramall, who goes on to explain that a lot of vegan food is ultra-processed and has recently seen falling sales.
“It’s going to be a real balancing act. Ultimately globally there needs to be a reduction in meat consumption from places that don’t produce meat in the sustainable way we do in this country, but shifting to an ultra-processed diet is not the way forward.”
The hidden toll on mental and physical health
There’s a much more immediate, and more personal problem facing many farmers much closer to home though. Agriculture is an isolating and hugely risky industry, you’re 21 times more likely than average to die of work-related injuries, making it the most dangerous industry in Britain.
Thanks to a combination of gruelling antisocial hours, financial pressures, huge responsibility, and solo working there’s also a major mental health problem in the sector. A 2021 survey from the Farm Safety Foundation revealed 88% of farmers under 40 rank poor mental health as the biggest problem facing the industry, quite a stat given the long list of other issues facing them.
Bramall backs this up, highlighting that it’s a point of huge discussion and concern. “We talk about mental health an awful lot in this sector, it’s a real challenge as the job is very isolating. We also talk about health and safety in the industry – it’s another thing a lot of people are working on to help improve as it’s a challenging part of the sector and one that worries me a lot.”
It must be a slog for many to get up every single day and face all these challenges then? Not on the whole says Bramall, farmers have a duty to keep food on the shelves which is very motivating.
“We saw the challenges when milk wasn’t on the shelves [during the pandemic] and the panic that it caused. I think that’s a big motivator, supplying food is quite exciting … There is a slog, and that’s pretty challenging, but people are really passionate about British farming and that’s what keeps us going.”
Optimism and necessity will drive the industry forward
But even with all the big picture challenges and seemingly existential threats facing British farming he remains stubbornly upbeat despite my pessimism.
“You can get bogged down in all that but I enjoy the day-to-day, I enjoy getting out on the farm and when the weather is like it is today [blazing May sunshine] it’s brilliant. I am apprehensive [about] … how the industry’s going to move forward. But people need to eat. There’s going to be nine or ten billion people on the planet by 2050 and they will all need to eat so we are going to need farmers.”
Good point well made. In a nation of foodies there’ll always be a place for farmers.