Why Doth Thou Protest?

BY DOMINIC WIGHTMAN

It would seem that farmers across the globe are far from happy. In the West, farmers are under assault from a raft of green policies which seek to dramatically alter their ways without adequate compensation, while large supermarkets continue to squeeze down on prices for basic commodities, so they remain competitive in their cut-throat market. In India, farmers’ protests were observed by the world’s media, particularly when they turned bloody and ugly – farmers and their families demonstrating over the government’s farm laws which they believed would ruin their livelihoods. Farming has become a difficult profession in so many lands and, as increasing numbers of countries seek to close in on zero-carbon, expect many more farms to fail, come under pressure from large corporates and, consequentially, farmer rage to rise.

Living in a rural community in England, I know well of local farmers’ grumbles, as they sink ales beside me at the bar of our local country pub. They are my friends and neighbours. There is a distrust of government, a dislike of the large conservation charities which have been usurped by ‘townies’ who badger government into coming out with unrealistic policies dreamt up on townhouse desks. There is a growing laughter at the eco chuggers who seem to think of all animals as cuddly toys and lobby for soft townie policies with unintended consequences – eco-warriors try to ban the shooting of crows who then proliferate and peck out the eyes of lambs, or protect the TB spreading badger which then predates the protected hedgehog. There is anger that townies come into the beautiful English countryside and fail to appreciate the work hours behind the beauty. There is little understanding on their part how many hours of labour went into managing woodlands or hedgerows, no grasp of the worth of gamekeepers who manage moorland, no concept of the natural hierarchy that must be enforced in rural parts to ensure that predation is managed, so farming can occur in the first place.

It is obvious to see which of my farmer pals are doing well. It is those who have convinced their family to assist on their farm, so the future of their farm is safeguarded. It is those who run shoots, which can bring in many thousands of pounds in extra income, however bad any farming year maybe. It is those who have diversified – converted farm buildings and rented them out to tenants or benefit from bed and breakfast income. Some have been successful by forming grain commodity brokerages. The farmers who stick to old ways are putting their farms on the market or selling them to developers. Those who change with the times are the winners – those entrepreneurs who sell to me direct their monthly meat box replete with steaks and minces or offer their old tithe barn for weddings.

None of the English farmers I know would ever protest. They are gentlemanly farmers. Think Range Rovers and Barbours. The only time they gathered en masse was for the march for Liberty and Livelihood in 2002 in London, arranged by the Countryside Alliance and that was more to do with protesting against a hunt ban. The only time I’ve heard them raise their voices was during an England-Wales rugby international. Sure, they occasionally grumble through countryside papers and magazines, like Country Squire which I edit, but it would take a revolutionary event or extraordinarily foolish government policy for them to drive their tractor onto a motorway near London and block the traffic in protest.

By contrast in France, the farmers are a different species – they have always lacked flegme britannique. They are notorious rabble-rousers and over a thousand tractors blocking the streets of Paris is not that uncommon a sight, spoiling cultured Parisians’ afternoons. They dump hay and spread muck until they get their way with the French government. The smell of muck does not blend well with the parfumeries on Paris’ Left Bank. Yet the French farmers are coordinated, vociferous and well supported. Oddly, despite their nuisance, there is more respect in French towns for French farmers than in English towns for English farmers, which is something we must try and change.

Farmer protests from Canada to Denmark from Chile to New Zealand are happening increasingly across the world and expect to see many more of them as mechanisation and AI progressively draw in large corporates, as governments tweak subsidies towards greener outcomes and as farmers recognise their feeding power and ability to blockade.

Can we draw conclusions from how different nations’ farmers articulate their fears and go about protesting? Perhaps there is an axis along which the protests of farmers can be calibrated internationally, with those more prone to dumping muck on their capitals and others keener to let representative bodies bash out solutions over a cup of tea and a Bourbon biscuit. In that respect, the blood-letting of the Indian farmers would be somewhat closer to the French than the English but such an axis would seem like an academic aside – a symptom of momentous change rather than a cause.

Instead, look to a future for farming that is so unlike the present that to get there will inevitably generate victims. It is a future that no single farm or corporate or government can resist. And we will get there. Progress inevitably causes conflict. In few other sectors shall there be quite so much change over coming years and decades. Indeed, we should try and show more empathy towards our farmers who strive to feed us at a time when conflicts and population growth make food security that much more vital. Good luck to us all.

Dominic Wightman is a British businessman and political adviser. He is the Editor of Britain’s popular Country Squire Magazine which launched an Indian edition last year.