Thursday, November 10, 2011

Farmers boring? Who told you that?...

The farming community are a mixed bunch. Describe each and every one of the UK's farmers in 3 words and you'll struggle to find any with a matching description. They truly are a cross section of society but  despite this the media seems keen to come up with a stereotype of 'a farmer' and of what being a farmer means.

A recent survey of 1000 teenagers has shown that farming is suffering from something of an image crisis. Farming topped the 'least liked' jobs category, and was voted fourth in a list of jobs teens see as 'most boring'. Hardly a ringing endorsement of a career in agriculture. It seems the youth of today are more drawn to careers in the media, creative services, sports, leisure and IT.

Before we get too worried it's probably wise to sit down and think about what 'being a farmer' means to these kids. As the surveys were carried out in London, Birmingham and the southeast it's safe to assume that many of these young people are not directly in contact with farming so their ideas will be based upon what they perceive farming to be about. But what has 40 years of television taught these young people about farming life...

Farmer 1... Old MacDonald

Open a children's story book or watch a TV programme from the 1970's and a farmer is probably a jovial character who can be found sucking a piece of straw as  he drives his tractor. When he's not tractor driving he's leaning on a gate smiling or passing the time of day.  This farmer will have cows, sheep, pigs, hens, ducks and even a horse- his life is a series of animal related calamities interspersed with lots of head scratching.

It's a stereotype from a previous generation that's pretty hard to shake off as it's the one we're all taught as children. Despite being something of a myth it's a lifestyle that is believed then adopted by television chefs and misguided small holders who give 'being a farmer' a go.

Farmer 2... Bogis, Bunce & Bean

Perhaps the least flattering of the stereotypes this is the 'townie'-hating, subsidy-grabbing farmer of the 1980's suburban middle classes' perceptions- this is Mr Get Orf Moi Land.

This farmer was invented at a time when Europe was a place of butter mountains and wine lakes. Farmers were believed to have lined their pockets with public-funded subsidies and all while Africa starved. This was also a time when the environmental impacts of pesticides and post-war 'modernisation' were being felt and from all directions fingers were pointed at the farmer. This greedy, grumpy, bloated stereotype was last seen persecuting the cast if an 80's sitcom in an episode set in the 'countryside'.

Farmer 3... Mr Hard-Done-To

The 1990's and the 2000's were undoubtedly a hard time for farmers; food scares, competition from overseas and the growing demand for cheap food hit the rural economy hard. The public were shown slow-motion footage of BSE infected cows stumbling in mucky yards and later giant pyres burned across the countryside- topped with the bloated corpses of Foot and Mouth infected herds.

Farming became about poverty, hardship, danger and loss. Thousands of farms were driven out of business, and thousands of young people sought work elsewhere. The average age of a farmer rocketed and rural suicide rates soared.

Perhaps the most horrible thing about this image of the farmer is that is rooted in truth- I know this as I was 11 when in 1996 the then-Conservative Government confirmed that BSE had jumped the species barrier. This and the 15 or so years that followed have not been great times to be a farmer in the UK.

Farmer 4... The 'Modern' Farmer

As we have moved into the 2010's (is that what we're calling this decade?) some areas of farming saw a slow recovery. Farms are now different places as those that survived the last couple of decades did so through self-sacrifice and/or diversification. The farming community felt ready for a new label but finding one was difficult.

Perhaps in an attempt to move away from the depressing truths of the past and  to appeal to the non-farming rural community (many living in the converted cowsheds of yesteryear), the media has switched its focus to a more general rural economy not so centred on food production. This may explain why Countryfile is now a Sunday evening show about smiley young presenters paragliding over the Malverns or taking nut-picking mini breaks in Cornwall- all while wearing brightly coloured outdoor gear.

The farmer himself is now equally at home on the laptop as he is strolling through his organic Dexter herd which he will later mince into premium burgers. This is the farmer that looks on as Jimmy Doherty crouches down smells a handful of restoration meadow hay and talks about the future of farming.

So who is right?

Is it any wonder young people aren't drawn to farming- they have no idea what farming actually is. All of the above may be true of a tiny minority (I've met all four on different occasions) but none are representative.

The 'rural economy' the media now features is about leisure and retreat. Food production has become about the peripheral rather than the mainstream. When the public aren't jotting down the recipe for Hugh's wild chestnut and saddleback stuffing they're rallying to Jamie's fight against intensive chicken production- but what about the vast majority of farmers producing food somewhere in the middle ground? I suppose they'll just keep quietly farming on.

And as for those teenagers, I totally understand their misconceptions of 'farming'.  They're just another generation we've failed to teach the truth about British agriculture.

The reality is they were never going to be farmers anyway. I just hope they find all the excitement they require from a life in IT.

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