Farm Ireland

Friday 23 February 2018

We need to take advantage of Britain's vulnerability when it comes to their food security

John Shirley

As a country with such an exportable surplus of food, we Irish could be located in worse spots on our planet. Sitting right beside us is Britain, the world's most food vulnerable nation.

Maybe security of her country's food supply was another good reason for the recent visit to Ireland by Queen Elizabeth.

Against a background where the world's food supply/demand balance is close to tipping point, is the British government reviewing its traditional cheap food policy? Will British farmers be more cherished in the next 50 years than in the previous 50?

On a visit to the UK last week, I detected a new confidence among its farmers. They have got over their BSE and Foot and Mouth nightmares. Having their own currency now looks a sensible option given the troubles in euroland. With world food and raw material prices rocketing, farming in a country that has to import 40pc of its food is not the worst prospect.

In contrast, Irish farmers always had to, and always will have to, aim at export markets for our core farm products. The British market has to be our first port of call.

As the queen and President Mary McAleese pointed out, Ireland and Britain are inextricably intertwined. I was amazed when British prime minister David Cameron said that little Ireland buys more British goods than Brazil, India, China and Russia combined. Surely then, Britain buying its food from Ireland makes moral as well as economic sense.

Compared to their Irish (or French) counterparts, I have always thought that British farmers are a gentlemanly lot not given to street protest. You get a mix of the large country estate owner plus the family farmer often operating as a tenant farmer. The former do the talking, but the latter keep the head down and work, work, work. Despite their large scale, British dairy farmers have left the business in droves with the milk quota moving from England/ Wales to the farmer owners in Northern Ireland.

Despite the fact that the Irish dairy co-op movement was initiated by the UK based Co-op Wholesale Society, British farmers themselves never went for dairy co-ops. Neither did the co-op mart business get going in the UK (apart from a couple in Scotland).

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Instead, UK co-ops were established for farmer inputs and for retailing to the public. In cases, co-ops in the UK were almost a substitute for Trade Unions as efforts were made to keep down the price of food. The Co-op supermarket group is still a major force in UK retailing.

It's interesting to note that while Ireland made huge inroads into British slaughtering and meat processing with Goodman, Kepak, Dawn and Dunbia, British retailers dominate in both economies.

I suspect the Brits are coming out best in this arrangement.

Britain's land area is about three-and-a-half times that of Ireland's, but its population exceeds Ireland's by almost 15 times. Britain, therefore, is over four times more densely populated than us. This gives British farmers more scope in farm shops and farm tourism, but their political clout is diminished.

In spite of a high density population, Britain still has countryside. This is in contrast to Ireland which now has a house in nearly every roadside field. Maybe the brown envelopes featured less often in British life.

I had heard a lot about how drought was impacting on Britain's farmers this season, but on a journey across Wales and down to the South East, I thought that the crops looked OK, although there were a number of irrigation units in operation.

The highlight of my trip was a visit to the Stroude farm near Lewes in Sussex. The father and son team of Harold and Mark have specialised in growing and marketing corn-on-the-cob maize for human consumption.

The family started this business decades ago in Cambridgeshire but moved nearer to the south coast to get earlier growth and the crop to market earlier. This year, the Stroudes will plant 600ac of corn-on-the-cob.

On this farm, which now runs to more than 1,000ac, the maize is rotated annually with winter wheat. Both maize and wheat were practically weed free. Newly emerging crops were being irrigated.

There is a permanent staff of five, which rises to close to 40 in the corn-on-the-cob harvesting and marketing season. The cobs are packed on farm and distributed around Britain under two brand names.

The Stroudes used to fatten beef cattle. For this, they had their own straw, their own maize by-products, wheat at first cost and a source of cheap spuds. And yet the profit was so marginal they gave up on it.

They said: "We will leave the beef to be produced off the grass by the Irish!"

In passing...

•Dairy bulls -- Again this spring, Britain had a 40pc increase in young dairy bull slaughterings. This had the effect of suppressing overall beef cattle prices right through till early May. Since then, British beef prices have surged ahead of last year.

•TB -- Britain has had a major surge in TB in its cattle population. This is akin to the Irish experience of 30 years ago. Farmers in TB blackspots have had to introduce an annual herd test.

•Death threats -- Adam Henson, presenter with the popular BBC programme Countryfile, received death threats to his children from animal rights extremists because he dared report on a badger cull. The badger cull was aimed at reducing the TB in cattle, an approach that has worked in Ireland.

•Shorthorn premium -- The Morrisons supermarket group is offering a premium of up to 20p/kg, worth an estimated £75 an animal, for Shorthorn beef.

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