There are many calls for farming and food production to become more sustainable. But making big changes to the way they farm is a risky business for producers. Choosing to reduce inputs, keep less stock on land and sell less tonnes of food will reduce farm incomes, unless people are willing to pay a price that reflects the true value of the food they buy.
So how can we instil the confidence producers need? It has to start with a real commitment from all who say they want to live in a better world. We need to show we are willing to put our money where our mouth is, because, although it is often regarded as a dirty word, profit is a key component of sustainability.
Profit is what feeds those who feed us. Farmers are in no less need of a reasonable standard of living than anyone else. So how can we expect them to willingly farm more extensively and keep less cattle and hope they will one day be rewarded for the changes they have made?
Unfortunately, the food system we currently have is focused almost entirely on output and price – how much can farmers deliver and how little they can be paid for their products. That system won’t change until consumers put the care of our soils, higher animal welfare, climate change and reduced pollution of our waterways on a par with our desire for calories. But there are things that are happening that give me hope change will come.
More of us are becoming aware of how our diet affects our health and are trying to adopt a healthier lifestyle. Many are frightened by climate change. Some feel guilty about poor animal welfare and the rise of industrial livestock farming. Some really do want to to see British farmers get a fair deal. But it seems the overriding concern for most is still keeping food bills down.
In a recent article in the Daily Mail, Cumbrian sheep farmer, James Rebanks, highlighted how a preoccupation with mass production of cheap food in the USA is destroying the environment and driving farmers out of business. Is this what we want the future of farming and food production to look like in the UK? If, like me, you want your children to be able to choose real food of know provenance and to live in a world that’s not burning itself to extinction, then the answer is probably “No”.
So let’s get back to where to the place where it all started – where it still all begins today. Let’s reconnect with the farmers, the fields, the animals, the soils, the places where real food comes from. In doing this we can give producers the confidence to make the changes we want to see. Direct conversations about what they do and what matters to you can shape a better food system.
I’m pleased to report that a growing number of farmers are already facilitating that connection. Some simply through giving talks in local schools, sharing what they do via social media, or inviting interested groups out on to farms. Whilst others are finding ways to make the ultimate connection and sell what they produce directly to local people.
Milk vending machines are a great example of how some dairy farmers are making steps towards building a better food system. These relatively simple pieces of technology are an affordable investment for many family farms that can generate valuable additional income. Automated though they may be, these super-fresh milk dispensers, located in farmyards, provide access to great tasting food at source and an opportunity to meet the farmers and cows that produce it.
I believe that history will one day record that the milk vending machine, along with social media, was perhaps the greatest weapon farmers possessed in the fight to break the industrial food system and restore a supply of nutritious, real food for all. There are now thousands of people enjoying great tasting milk, having conversations with local farmers, learning how their milk is really produced. No one can get in between them to hold up misleading banners and labels. No one else can decide what the price should be – that’s entirely down to farmer and customer.
The learning for the producer is invaluable too. Glad of the chance to directly address the concerns of those who have read headlines condemning farmers far and wide but, also, heartened by feedback from customers who truly value what he (or she) provides.
A growing number of dairy farmers setting up milk vending machines, to make that connection and win the recognition and reward they deserve, are now joining our Pasture Promise scheme. Together we can help to build a nationwide network of producers offering great tasting milk direct from the farm, with clear assurance about the way they manage their cows.
Remember, every time you put coins in a milk vending machine on a farm, you are planting the seeds of a better food system. Your choice matters: ask for the Pasture Promise logo wherever you buy milk.