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Farming

Can Labour reconnect with the countryside?

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Labour needs new rural stategy: Thinktank report claims

LABOUR must reconnect with the politics and culture of the countryside to be confident of winning the next general election, according to a new Fabian Society report published today. To secure a working majority the party will need to capitalise on the demise of Ukip and the decline of the Liberal Democrats and gain seats in both rural and semi-rural constituencies.

Labour Country, a new report from the Fabian Society, supported by the Countryside Alliance, shows Labour still has a way to go to win over rural voters. The report argues that to gain countryside seats Labour needs to be seen as ‘a natural party of the countryside’.

To win a UK majority, the party does not need to beat the Conservatives across all rural areas, but it does need to be competitive. Of Labour’s target seats ahead of the next general election, 16 are rural and a further 28 have at least 3,000 rural inhabitants. A YouGov/Fabian Society poll shows that as things stand:

  • The Conservatives lead Labour by 54% to 31% in rural England and Wales (23 points)
  • Even amongst working class rural voters the Conservatives beat Labour by 49% to 35% (14 points)

But in better news for Labour, the party is ahead of the Conservatives in rural England and Wales among people aged under 50 (48 per cent to 36 per cent) and among those who voted remain in the EU referendum (45 per cent to 34 per cent). There are large numbers of both groups across rural England and Wales, despite the countryside being older and more Eurosceptic than the nation as a whole.

The report identifies the policy areas that are key to Labour rebuilding its connection with rural voters – including transport, housing and farming. But focus groups conducted for the report also show the party needs a shift in how it campaigns and organises to ‘rural-proof’ everything it does.

The report concludes that Labour’s next manifesto should set out an economic strategy that delivers for rural areas. It makes recommendations in four key policy areas:

A place-based industrial strategy:

  • support for small-scale enterprise and manufacturing
  • place-based investment
  • support for technical education

Better rural transport:

  • the restoration of the rural bus routes lost since 2010 and the municipalisation of bus services
  • reviewing the effects of the Beeching cuts to rural train services

Local, affordable housing:

  • democratic local involvement in planning
  • affordable and social housing to meet local need
  • small-scale development on disused plots of land
  • architectural form that fits the environment

A post-Brexit agricultural settlement:

  • a new support system that values the labour that sustains the countryside, rebalanced towards small-scale and marginal farms as well as the provision of public goods

Shadow secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs Sue Hayman MP said: “The Conservatives take rural communities for granted, imagining that they have their votes sewn up. But it is all too clear that they have nothing of substance to say on the real challenges facing rural communities.

“As the member of parliament for a rural constituency in West Cumbria, I know only too well how creaking Victorian infrastructure, rural poverty and a lack of employment opportunities for young people are leading to a growing disconnect between city and countryside. At the same time, austerity is leading to the steady erosion of the pubs and post offices, bank branches and local businesses that serve as the heart of so many of our small towns, villages and hamlets.

“This new report outlines positive recommendations for how to take on the Conservatives in their rural heartlands and deliver for rural communities across England and Wales.”

Andrew Harrop, general secretary at the Fabian Society said: “To win the next election Labour must gain seats with lots of rural voters and that will take a big shift in the way the party campaigns and organises. But there is room for optimism, with Labour now leading the Conservatives among rural voters under the age of 50.

“As a former Labour candidate in a rural seat, I know myself that the party is often dismissed as an ‘urban’ intruder that does not understand country life. Labour must prove to countryside voters that it is on their side with rural-friendly policies for saving banks, bus routes and countryside businesses.”

Baroness Ann Mallalieu, Labour peer and president of the Countryside Alliance said: “There is no doubt that there can be no future Labour government without improved support in the countryside, but this can only be achieved if the party gets serious about making a credible policy offer to the countryside. For too long Labour have conflated rural issues with animal issues, to the detriment of Labour’s vote in the countryside. This report lays out how Labour can correct this trend and challenge the Conservative party’s rural dominance, by speaking to the genuine concerns of people in the countryside.”

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Farming

Ceredigion dairy farming family highlight benefits of knowing your farmer

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KNOWING your farmer, being able to ask questions about their produce and how they look after the land is of paramount importance to Ceredigion dairy farming family the Thomas’s.

The third generation to farm at Pantfeillionen, Horeb, Llandysul, Ceredigion, are Lyn and Lowri Thomas. Lyn has been farming since he was 16 and celebrates just over 32 years in the industry this year.

The family looks after 170 acres and rents a further 100 acres, with the land down to grass. 70 dairy cows, a few sucklers and calves which get sold on as store cattle, call these green hills home. 

Farming, the couple say, has changed a lot in the last few decades and the industry has moved with the times. The way forward for the family is to maintain the small-scale ethos of the family farm and connect on a personal level with their customers who buy raw milk directly from the farm. 

Describing their farming system, Lyn says: “We do all our own silage and everything is done in house. We don’t use a lot of fertilizer, some yes, but we can’t use too much because of the nature of the ground. We’re farming on rock so that means we need to be careful otherwise our grass would burn on the south facing slopes. 

“There’s not a lot of topsoil here so we have to use some fertilizer to keep the grass growing but usually no more than a bag an acre is used for silage with some slurry. We don’t go overboard with slurry. Slurry is restricted to about 1700-2000 gallons an acre.”

Lowri adds: “Our earth worm population is very healthy. We try to compost farm yard manure and like to keep it for more than a year, but of course with the new NVZ regulations that won’t be possible going forward. It’s better for the ground if it has been composted for 2 to 3 years but that’s a different story.

“We try and do things as sustainably as we can here, we don’t buy a lot of stuff in and try to grow what we need ourselves.”

The cows get fed some cake but most of it is milk from grass and silage in the winter, explains Lyn. “We look after our cows, if we don’t look after them -they won’t look after us. We see them every day and if something is wrong then it gets dealt with straight away.

“The foot trimmer comes in every six weeks, the vet is here monthly for a routine fertility visit where we can chat about the herd’s health at the same. We milk record monthly with NMR, this is when Johne’s testing is done, and we try to keep the cows as healthy as possible.

“The healthier our cows are, the more productive they are and that also hinges on the health of the environment around them,” he adds. 

“We haven’t got a large herd, we know every cow, some even have names thanks to the kids. Because we milk them ourselves, we see them twice a day. They have little groups and we know which cow belongs to which group of friends.

“They have access to the sheds, all through the year, so they can go in and out as they wish over spring and summer. If they’re coming in we know that’s where they want to be. They have 2 safe places,” explains Lowri.

The family has started a raw milk by the bottle business, which customers can buy directly from the farm. It started with neighbours asking if they could buy some and  after a bit of deliberations in 2018 they set up the business, registering with the FSA and local authority, and the ball was set in motion. 

“Milk started being sold directly to customers in March 2019 on a small scale and low key way to help build the business up gradually. We know all of our customers, and didn’t install a vending machine on purpose. 

“We want to know who our customers are and speak to them and it’s good for them to know who we are as well. It gives us a chance to explain how we farm and look after the environment and the cows.

“When Covid hit last year, people became more aware of where their food was coming from and what was around them.We picked up more customers through that as well. It’s absolutely fantastic and more and more people now look for local food products, conscious of where their food comes from and how it’s produced,” said Lowri. 

Lyn is passionate about the ground that feeds his cows, understanding the direct link between the environment and the health and welfare of the cattle.

He says: “ We don’t push the land too much. We farm it sustainably, it gives enough grass for the cows but it’s not overstocked. We could keep more stock but then we’d need more fertilizer and more food for the cows. I’d rather not do that.

“We have about 0.8 cows per acre here, which is below average. But with more stock to feed, we’d have to reseed the grass more often. 

“I haven’t reseeded a field here in 7 years and then it was only because it was old ground when we bought it. It’s still going and we have grass here that’s been going for 25 years. So that’s storing a fair bit of carbon.

“We aerate the fields, cut slots in to drain the water off and keep fertilizer application to a minimum – it all helps to maintain a healthy environment and soil that stores tonnes of carbon.” 

“When the cows come in over the winter, we drip feed the fields with slurry. The first grazing here in March is excellent, the grass is ready to go because it’s been drip fed over the winter. We apply only a small amount every now and then and it works wonders. We’re therefore quite concerned about the NVZ regulations which won’t allow us to carry on looking after the land that way,” Lowri adds. 

The wildlife on the farm is plentiful with kites, buzzards, owls, herons, woodpeckers, bats, frogs and foxes, rabbits and badgers as well as deer inhabiting the hedgerows and land that can’t be accessed with hedge cutters. 

“There is plenty of undergrowth and habitat here for the wildlife to flourish. We’ve certainly seen an increase in wildlife since the lockdown and it’s a joy to see,” says Lowri. 

The family have also planted some trees at the start of the year to fill in gaps in hedgerows. Taking part in a community growing project in Llandysul, Lowri received a surplus of 100 native trees which include oak trees, crab apples, cherry trees, dogwood, willow and birch. Lowri is looking forward to seeing how they grow in years to come. 

“We chose random places to plant the trees, mainly where we had gaps in hedges and on ground that’s too wet for the livestock. All of this will provide extra habitats for wildlife in years to come.

“Blackthorn hedges were also planted along fields that have been amalgamated and will provide wind shelter for the cows and also nesting habitats for farmland birds,” said Lowri. 

Lyn and Lowri are proud to produce food and look after the environment they call home but get disheartened with the negative stories surrounding the industry.

Lyn says: “A lot of the information put out now is referring to farming on a global level. Large scale and intensive farming. And in some parts of the world that’s true. But our farming systems here in Wales are different – we farm with the environment.

“You’ve still got your traditional small family farms, looking after the land. Because if you look after the land the land looks after you. That’s an important distinction. People also need to ask where their food comes from and how it’s produced and farmers in Wales have a great story to tell.” 

“We’re not very good at telling people how we produce food. I understand how food is produced through my background of being a vet.

“So when I go into the supermarket and look where the food is coming from – I know what to look for and I distinguish between packaged locally and produced locally. But to be really sure – go to your local butcher, green grocer and small shop or farm shop and that way you can be sure, as a consumer, that your food has been sustainably produced and it’s farmed in harmony with the environment.

“We’re not horrible people, farmers have been portrayed as polluters and not fit to look after their animals. It’s time we tell them how well we look after our lands and animals,” Lowri said.

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Farming

Economic value of red meat sector rises

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THE VALUE of the iconic beef, lamb and pork sectors to the Welsh economy rose in 2020, as consumers turned to local, sustainable, quality food during the COVID pandemic, according to analysis by Hybu Cig Cymru – Meat Promotion Wales (HCC).New figures from the Welsh Government ‘Aggregate Agricultural Output and Income’ report show that the total value of agricultural output in Wales for 2020 is projected to stand at £1.7billion – a 6.2% (or £99 million) increase on the provisional figure for 2019.


Cattle and sheep account for 44% of this total at £750million; the highest proportion recorded since 2016. The agricultural output value for Wales’s pig sector also increased (by 34.3% or £2 million) to a value of £8 million.
The figures reflect the strength of the livestock sector in Wales and sit in contrast to Total Income From Farming (TIFF) figures for the UK as a whole newly released by Defra. Although the TIFF figures are a different form of measuring farm production, the UK data concurs that the livestock sector has had a strong year, but in other parts of Britain, this was more than offset by poor harvests in the arable sector.

Demand for beef and lamb have been strong in the domestic retail market since the immediate aftermath of the first COVID lockdown in spring 2020. After initial market volatility, marketing campaigns by HCC and other bodies encouraged consumers to recreate restaurant meals at home.
Over the past 12 months, domestic retail sales of lamb and beef have trended consistently higher, with spending on lamb 20% higher than the previous year. Sales at independent high street butchers are also strong.
Research shows many demographic groups, including families with children, buying more beef and lamb than previously, and turning to quality home-grown produce.


HCC Data Analyst Glesni Phillips said, “The strong demand for red meat from the domestic consumer has helped drive market prices for beef and lamb at Welsh livestock markets in the second half of 2020 and into the early months of 2021.


“It’s no surprise, therefore, to see that the overall value of the industry is projected to have grown. We have seen inflation in the costs on farmers, which offset some of the gains from improved market price; however, it’s heartening to see consumers’ support for quality Welsh produce.“Welsh Lamb and Welsh Beef remain key drivers of our rural economy, and given their excellent brand reputation, they act as flagship products for the growing Welsh food and drink sector.”Further analysis of the aggregate output and income figures for Welsh farms are available in HCC’s latest monthly market bulletin.

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Farming

Ian Rickman: 2021 is a critical year for Wales’ farming future

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THE INCREASINGLY negative narrative around livestock farming and its portrayed impact on the environment and climate change has led to farmers in Wales standing up to tell their stories and highlight the positive impact livestock farming has.


Through the Farmers’ Union of Wales’ campaign ‘Guardians of the Welsh Land’, farmers are addressing misleading claims by various groups about the role livestock farming plays in relation to climate change and the environment.  Launching the campaign, FUW Deputy President Ian Rickman said: “The FUW has consistently recognised the threat represented by climate change and the need to take action. This is clear from a cursory look at our manifestos and policy documents published over the past twenty years.


“We know that farming is already responsible for a critical carbon resource in soils, woodland and semi-natural habitats and I’m pleased to launch the FUW’s environment campaign – ‘Guardians of the Welsh Land’ from my home farm here in Carmarthenshire today. As farmers are the most trusted link in the supply chain, they are best placed to communicate their stories, helping to address consumer concerns and influencing political agendas. Members can also look forward to a variety of webinars over the coming months, which will focus on the different challenges ahead for the industry and how to overcome them.


“There is no question in our mind that we need to counteract the continuation by the anti-farming lobby of their campaign to vilify and belittle domestic food producers.  These attacks are corrosive and grossly misleading, negatively influencing consumer perception of the industry and influencing political agendas on a global scale.”


Mr Rickman added that 2021 is an important year for these types of conversations.


“Knocking on our door are the United Nations Food Systems Summit and COP26. The FUW has been engaging with these conversations at an international level and shares some concerns with other industries across the globe about the wider narrative and ambitions set out in inconspicuous looking documents. Plans, we and the general public don’t support.  Telling the positive story of the guardians of our Welsh land is now more important than ever,” he said.


Starting in the first week of June, the campaign introduces four farmers all of whom tell the story of how they are addressing environmental and climate change needs in their unique ways: Carmarthenshire organic sheep farmer Phil Jones, the Roberts family from Meirionnydd, Ceredigion dairy farmers Lyn and Lowri Thomas and FUW President Glyn Roberts who farms with his daughter Beca at Dylasau Uchaf in Snowdonia.


“The campaign will further highlight that Welsh farmers are rising to the challenge of improving soil health and increasing organic matter in soils, improvements which represent further opportunities for sequestering more carbon. These improvements, the campaign will highlight, are achieved through specific livestock grazing patterns and rest periods. The campaign is also clear that the correct options, guidance and rewards are required to encourage more farmers to adopt such systems,” said Mr Rickman.


Soil, the campaign will stress, is a long term investment and at present, around 410 million tonnes of carbon is stored in Welsh soils and 75,700 hectares of Wales’ woodland (25%) is on farmland, representing an important and growing carbon sink.


“As acknowledged in Natural Resources Wales’ State of Natural Resources Report, using land for food production is an essential part of natural resource use and management.  Whilst we acknowledge that  agricultural intensification has undeniably had negative impacts on some species and ecosystems, there is overwhelming evidence that other factors, including reductions in agricultural activity and afforestation, have also had severe negative impacts,” he added.

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