Old Mike

First Published in the Cornishman September 12th 2013 

View the original 

A BIT more serious about food this week. I’ve been catching up on a TV series called Mud, Sweat And Tractors. Apart from the desperate title, there’s nothing cheesy at all in the programme (apart from cheese). It’s a simple enough theme – the production of food, as seen by those who produce it.

It’s not an easy sell. People in general don’t give a toss where their food comes from as long as it does.

Farm work, involving as it does getting dirty and dealing with manure, is regarded in the digital age as it has been since the Industrial Revolution – as something normal people don’t do.

Food turns up on the shelves where you want it. Most children, if asked where carrots come from, would answer with the name of the supermarket where their parents shop. The idea that they grow in earth from seeds would be like science fiction.

 It’s a poignant tale. The Thirties were times of poverty – the war years saw a revival – the postwar years were good as food production was mainly government-controlled, with national buying schemes and guaranteed prices.

But the EU and the Common Agricultural Policy messed it up, fattening farmers as never before with monstrous surpluses here, paying them not to grow things there, sending out risible directives about foodstuffs everywhere.

There was a huge and deserved backlash, but instead of simply reining in the corrupt systems, farming went suddenly from a free-for-all to a free market.

No more would there be single bodies such as the Milk Marketing Board organising milk production in the country at a set price.

The clock was reversed; every farm was its own little business, having to do its own marketing and strike what bargains it could, as it had in the Thirties – except that then there was a local market, on the doorstep, at the village shop, at the town stores and wholesalers. The milkman did his rounds; so did the butcher, the baker and the fishmonger, all selling direct for cash. It was grinding labour but regular money.

But by the Eighties supermarkets had wiped everyone else out. The village shops were giving up. The ‘housewife’ was no longer at home to buy. Supermarkets were all there was. The only competition they cared about was between themselves, and always based on price, as it still is.

To keep prices low, they paid farmers less and less, and since farmers had no longer had any other choice, they put up with it or got out. Those who survived became as corporate and homogenised as the supermarkets themselves, while small and medium-sized farming became a marginal enterprise. Should we care? Some brave individual businesses still soldier on, but five or six companies now decide what’s grown in Britain and what we’ll pay for it.

The tradition of careful individual farming is virtually over. There’s no more diversity of production. Supermarkets – like the monstrosity still growing outside Penzance – hold all the cards, and rule over the countryside like robber barons of yore. The seductive myth that the marketplace would automatically provide a fair and equitable system while governments do nothing is displayed once again as the greatest folly of our times.


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