On Wednesday night I had the privilege of addressing the members of the 2016 Oxford Farming Conference during the annual debate held in the historic Oxford Union building.
The motion before the house was “Agriculture is an Equal Opportunities Industry” and I was invited to argue against the proposal.
For those of you who weren’t there, or equally those of you who were, the address I gave is detailed below.
Mr President, my lords, ladies and gentlemen.
May I firstly thank you for the invitation to take part in tonight’s debate, to be surrounded by history in such a respected location and to be in the presence of so many distinguished guests.
In much the same way Linda considered the position from which she is speaking tonight, I did likewise.
I decided I couldn’t ignore the fact I am a BBC employee, and on that basis I have to refer to sellotape as sticky-back-plastic and possibly tell you that other debates are available…
Also, like Linda, I don’t believe agriculture is an equal opportunities industry.
Let me take you on a journey, not an X-Factor style one, so there will be no mention of how I’m doing this for my gran.
I want to take you on a geographical journey.
Consider, if you will, two young farmers, graduates of agricultural college, who have worked to save capital and now aged twenty-five (it seemed a good age to choose) are looking to take on a farm tenancy.
One based in Yorkshire, the other in Cambridgeshire.
Cambridgeshire County Council maintain thirteen-thousand-four-hundred hectares of county council tenant farms, with two-hundred-and-sixteen tenants. A vibrant community one could argue.
North Yorkshire County Council, on the other hand, are selling their tenant farms when tenancies end and between 2013 to 2014 sold at least 158 hectares of farmland property. A community coming to its end?
Do the two young people looking to farm, have the same degree of opportunity? It would appear not.
And what if those youngsters aren’t from a farming background – like I wasn’t.
In the summer of 2013 the Future of Farming Review Group Published a six month review. Which warned that farming is perceived as a – and I quote – “a closed shop” with evidence suggesting 84% of farmers operate in established family farms, only 8% were first generation farmers not from a farming background.
‘This is a significant issue that can deter new entrants who are not from a farming background, but do have enthusiasm, fresh ideas and business skills, the report said
Consider two young children, each playing with their farm toys and model tractors, yearning to make their games, their lives. One growing up in the centre of London, the other surrounded by Welsh hills.
Do they have equal opportunities?
Sure, they both can have the same toys, the chance of good schooling, if they want to become teachers or computer scientists, there should be equal chances of success.
If they turn to Google – the reputed provender of all knowledge and information – and search for the image of a farmer, they’ll find out of the first fifty pictures only three contain a lady.
Is this not a reflection of the fact agriculture is seen as a man’s world? And if one of those youngsters is a girl, will she think there’s a place for her in farming?
…and as you’ll remember they were both playing with their farm toys, but how many parents give their daughters tractors to play with…
Meanwhile, returning to the geographical basis, the child in the Welsh hills has a good opportunity of turning his farm toy dream into a Massey Ferguson reality (other tractors are available). But will the child in the centre of London, ever see a farm except from a car window?
As Linda used a quote from Bill Clinton, I will use a quote from Tony Blair; who once said three simple words. Education, education, education.
For the agricultural industry in recent years the theme has been diversification, diversification, diversification.
Direct selling models of livestock farmers trading with consumers are often proposed and celebrated. From my own experience, they work very well.
I was fortunate: my nearest abattoir was only nine miles away, the next 9.2 miles, another 19, a fourth just twenty miles. I had so much choice, choice that allowed me to run a sustainable business. Thanks in part to where I lived.
For farmers on the Isle of Skye however, their choices are much more limited. The last abattoir on the island closed in 1992 and while proposals to build a new one continue, their opportunities to run direct selling business models are muted.
The nearest abattoir at Dingwall is one hundred miles, or a 3.5 hour drive away. Heading to the slaughterhouse at Lochmaddy? You’ve got an hour and 3/4 ferry journey.
Do farmers on the Isle of Skye have opportunities equal to the ones I had? I don’t think so.
Of course one could move. Closer to an abattoir, to a different county, out of the city. But with land prices and land rents often pushing record highs…
…What opportunities do young farmers have to buy or rent, let alone that youngster from the city?
The average age of first time home owners in the Uk is now over thirty – a figure that surely attests to the struggles and limits young people have to amassing capital and accessing finance.
To run a farming business requires ever greater funds, especially if companies are to weather the storms of financial instability.
What scope do young farmers have to access the required levels of investment and cash flow, to buy a farm, let alone run it. Maybe 58, the average age of landowner, points to the fact there is little.
As I travelled to Oxford my train coursed through great swathes of England’s farming country, significant parts of which were deep under water.
Which takes me to my final point.
As extreme weather events appear to become more frequent and farmers in North Yorkshire think of the floods in 2000, 2007, 2012, 2015 and into 2016 too, how equal is the opportunity they have to run a thriving business if their land is underwater?
Mr President, my lords, ladies and gentlemen. At the end of the day we must ask ourselves “are the opportunities in the agricultural industry any more unequal than those in other sectors?”.
So we have to be bold and acknowledge any inequality.
Because whoever you are, wherever you live and whatever you do; we all have to battle against the trials, tribulations and trappings of life.
…to pretend the agriculture doesn’t suffer from any of those, would both be hugely optimistic and potentially naive.