I attended DEFRA’s ‘Christmas Market’ at London’s New Covent Garden before Christmas as a representative of the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie Association. We put on a great show, displaying not just the pies, but pigs’ heads and bags of Organic Flour from the Whissendine Windmill which we use to make the pastry. I also demonstrated how to hand raise Pork Pies. The purpose of the occasion was to celebrate Britain’s 40 Protected Food Names, which range from Scotch Beef, through Cornish Sardines, to the aforesaid Pies.
It was a slightly surreal event as there were no members of the public present, so detracting from the ‘Market’ label. It was, though, a well-meant attempt to promote and celebrate these great British Foods. As a farmer, it was fascinating to see and meet Hilary Benn, Jim Fitzpatrick and above all a large number of employees of DEFRA, the government department responsible, among other things for food and farming. I am sure it my imagination, but Hilary Benn did seem to move on very swiftly from at least one farmer who attended. DEFRA gets a pretty bad rap among farming circles, historically rightly so. Those I met this time though, appeared genuinely passionate about British Food and Farming and really eager to learn more about everything connected with it. I have also noticed a brighter, more constructive reception when talking to various DEFRA departments by phone.
DEFRA has just launched the Government’s new Food Strategy – Food 2030. I think this follows on the various food security reports which emerged towards the end of 2009. Sadly, but not without good reason, these initiatives are met by scepticism. Where food and farming are concerned this is because of the feeling among farmers and small food producers of having been ignored for such a long time. In general though, the reaction is because there is no real belief in government being capable of taking a truly long-term view and sticking to it.
It is very easy for the individual to criticise policy as if running the country were an easy job. There do seem to be two areas where that criticism is well founded. Long term vision and education seem to have been the real casualties of politics and strategy for the last many years. These two elements figure in food policy, retailing, production, processing, labelling, consumption and waste. They figure also in examples as seemingly different as cold weather management (January’s big freeze), health care and environmental policy.
The snows in January have brought into focus just how difficult it is to run a farm shop up a steep hill without help from gritting machines. Leicestershire Highways did manage to grit our lane a few times, but we, our few neighbours, our local councillor, friends and customers did have to beg and plead.
Years ago farmers were contracted by County Authorities to help keep the roads clear. Hopefully we will look for more ways for communities to work together in this way in future. Maybe this is all part of a refocus on local issues, communities and economies. Let’s hope so.