In early 17th century England, a chronicler of rural life noted a new social trend. Farmers were moving their farmyards out of the villages and towns so that they stood alone in the countryside “like crows nests”.
You could say it was the start of an alienation process that we still see writ large today. No longer were farmers embedded in the communities they fed.
At the same time, from 1600 onwards, farmers were starting to find themselves as a smaller fraction of society.
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In Tudor England 80% of the population was engaged in that most essential of occupations, namely food production. In contrast today, that figure has fallen fifty-fold to between 1% and 2%.
And here lies a paradox. While farming is an industry without which a society could not possibly function, at the same time it has become a somewhat marginalised outlier.
You could argue that this has important consequences when it comes to farming’s place in society.
There is an old adage that runs along the lines of “see yourself as others see you”. As a farmer, it is something I’ve always struggled with.
This is partly down to the fact I see the world as being primarily divided by my farmgate. I can struggle to empathise with those beyond this metaphorical and physical divide.
Indeed, I can even sometimes hear myself using words like “townies” as a derogatory term. It’s as if I’m morphing into some sort of ridiculous comic character in The Vicar of Dibley.
This insularity undertook a seismic shake-up a couple of years ago when we opened a cafe in an old farmyard on the edge of Clacton-on-Sea.
Suddenly understanding the consumer at the end of the food chain became a commercial necessity that a lifetime of farming hadn’t really prepared me for.
It isn’t without its challenges. If you think millers and maltsters can be maddeningly fussy, then try selling your wares to the fried egg aficionados or the scone connoisseurs, some of whom are seemingly programmed to pick fault and plaster it on Trip Advisor.
At least if you have a load of milling wheat or malting barley rejected, the millers and maltsters don’t take to social media to lambast you in public.
The other eye opener was to realise that across the whole food chain there are major commercial challenges that aren’t just piled up on the farm side of the farmgate.
I used to believe that old moan that farmers tend to be price-takers, whereas the other players in the food chain wielded some sort of superpower that allows them to control prices.
The reality is that it is the end consumer at the tail end that tends to wag the food-chain dog. And don’t think those end consumers wield some sort of unfettered market power.
They are fundamentally constrained by their own individual spending power.
When times are hard, they are drawn to low prices, just like us farmers when buying things like machinery or fertiliser.
As the economic fallout of a global pandemic and the first war in Europe for a generation starts to bite, undoubtedly there is a rough ride ahead.
But we need to avoid the self-pitying assumption that the farming industry will get more than its fair share of the pain.