Sunday, January 29, 2012

Some 'modern' farmers are slow to change

Some 'modern' farmers are slow to change

For them, the risks of change are greater than the security of doing things the way they have been done for the past few decades.

Is there any other trade or business so resistant to change and technical development as farming? Air transport took a about a decade to make the huge change from propellers to jet engines. Medicine takes on new drugs and techniques as fast as they are approved. The print industry, in spite of huge union resistance, took up computers long before they became a part of household life. Retailing has gone on-line, phones gone mobile, cars diesel, broadcasting digital, and those in any of these industries who have taken the view that change can only make things worse have been truly left behind, sometimes finished.

Here are two recent experiences which tell me that farming is different. Take the case of the dairy farmer who has been shooting his 'surplus' bull calves for the past decade or so. When an alternative is suggested, an alternative that might be slightly more productive, which might use this by-product of milk production as a human food source rather than an expendible waste product, which maybe a more ethical option to shooting them for disposal, he hums and haws, looking for good reasons why his calf policy is still right economically, and therefore, as a business-like farmer, ethically okay as well. The other farming head-in-the-sand is a 1000 acre cereal grower who totally resists the idea of replacing his plough and power harrow policy, justifying his rejection of min-till and other techniques by saying that he's "a traditional farmer, in an locality that is made up of traditional farmers - we plough and have always ploughed", someone who considers his cultivation methods makes him a pillar of society and sobriety, giving him the highest agricultural standards, even though the comparative costs, both in terms of carbon footprint and ££s, are considerably higher.

The case of the calf shooting farmer came on the BBC Countryfile programme of Jan 22 2012. Presenter John Craven looked at humane 'rose' veal, and how it might provide a market for the surplus bull calves from dairy herds.  Going into the street with some ready-to-eat cooked samples to test consumer reaction, and getting approval; talking to the meat trade and recording positive comments, he then gets his boots on a talks to our commercial dairy farmer.

The interesting part of the interview was the farmers response to John Craven's asking what was stopping him rear the calves rather than shoot them at birth.

"It's not so simple," the farmer explained. "I don't know if I have the skills to rear these calves as veal. I'd need to find out the techniques, the costs and find markets for the finished rose veal calves." It sounded as if he was saying "I don't want to be bothered, my business is alright as it is." even when faced with the evidence that there might well be a better solution to his calf problem.

Which takes me back to the original question - is farming the trade that's most resistant to change? In what respect is farming different to other industries? The answer must be that some modern day farmers are very wary of new methods, and find they can afford to be so. For them, the risks of change are greater than the security of doing things the way they have been done for the past few decades. In a business which has such significant tax payer support - amounting to nearly half the Total Income From Farming, they have a financial buffer which other businesses don't enjoy, and one which allows older methods to remain financially feasible.

How good it would be to hear the dairy farmer tell John Craven - 'it sounds an interesting idea, I'm going to try rearing a few of these calves for veal and get in touch with people who can market them'; and from the arable man 'it would be worth while experimenting min-till on a field next autumn, even with some adapted machinery - I would like to find out more'.