Never let a good crisis go to waste

We’re told that ‘it’s good to talk’ but farmers haven’t always had the best reputation when it comes to communication (the ‘get off my land!’ stereotype has proved difficult to shake off). But, in truth, the farming industry has stepped up its game when it comes to communication in recent years. Not since the Second World War have farmers enjoyed such popularity.

The BBC’s Countryfile is watched by around 4.5 million viewers every week. Open Farm Sunday – an initiative  that encourages farmers to invite families through their gates to experience a real-life working farm for one day every year –  welcomed 2.2 million people across the UK in 2018. And the rise of the artisan farm shop has brought greater awareness of where the food on our table actually comes from.

However while the farming industry may have created more and better platforms for communication, is anyone really listening and appreciating the realities facing farmers? Ask someone on the street if they support British farming and they will undoubtedly say yes. Ask them to pay more for their roast dinner or pint of milk and you may well see that support waver. What the British public says and what the British public does are two very different things. Particularly when it comes to putting their hand in their back pocket.

It’s not enough to communicate and for those messages to be well received. What the industry needs is action. Because farmers are struggling – and they face an even bigger fight this year, when Brexit, whatever form it takes, is finally pushed up the hill and over the other side, and its journey to the bottom gathers momentum. Words and promises are fantastic – but they won’t keep farmers in business. Particularly in the event of a no-deal, which the agricultural industry has equated to Armageddon.

Despite the popularity of farmers’ markets and support for high animal welfare standards, the stereotypes of farmers as rich landowners, living in beautiful farmhouses, collecting subsidies by the bucketload prevail. And although the general public is better informed than it has been in the past, it’s likely that these sweeping stereotypes will resurface if and when agriculture’s access to European funding dries up in post-Brexit Britain and farming and Defra joins every other government department in holding its hands out to the Treasury and saying “Please Sir, I want some more.”

So, if engaging the public and invoking their sympathies has been tricky in the past, it’s going to be even harder when everyone will be feeling the pinch and every single industry will consider themselves hard-done-by. To politicians concerned about winning votes, agriculture will be way down the list behind the NHS, schools, transport and the parts of society that are far more visible and tangible to the electorate.

This is because when it comes to food and its availability, we’ve been spoiled. When you can walk into any supermarket and buy whatever fruit, vegetable or other food you want, at any time of the year, it’s very difficult to appreciate how low Britain’s food self-sustainability is.

Studies by the NFU and Defra last year revealed the UK:

  • produces 61% of the food it eats
  • imports £3.1bn of fruit each year and £2.1bn of vegetables
  • 79% of the food we import comes from the European Union.

 

Tackling the challenges 

One perception challenge that the agriculture industry has to contend with is the sheer number of different issues and sectors it represents. From livestock and crops to dairy and horticulture, no farm looks exactly the same. And that’s before we get started on the wider issues the industry is dealing with – climate change, the environment, soil quality, and so on. The industry risks falling into the trap of ‘crying wolf’ syndrome – in short, if it demands action and expresses outrage for multiple issues at the same time, then it risks losing public support just when it needs it the most?

The challenge is to communicate simple, cross-sector, unified messages that will stay with the consumer at the check-out and at the dinner table. As Churchill once said “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” Could the expected flux over the coming months actually offer an opportunity for the industry to do things differently? Might there even be opportunities to capitalise on?

Ultimately, the aim has to be to encourage the public to put their money where their mouth is. They say they want even higher animal welfare standards – but these cost money, so are they prepared to pay it? Or, if we allow chlorine-washed chickens to be imported from America, will the consumers’ initial outrage be quelled as soon as they’re seduced by lower prices?

One thing is for certain – talk may not necessarily be cheap, but it certainly doesn’t pay the bills. The time for simply discussing issues is over – we now need to address them if we are to minimise the risk and perhaps solve them.

We have seen this first hand from one of our own clients, Bayer, whose biennial Youth Ag Summit not only discusses current issues but also equips delegates with the skills necessary to take concrete action. Those attending the 2019 event will be invited based on the strength of the ideas the propose to tackle the problems they face in agriculture in their country. The summit will then help these 100 young people work together to turn their ideas into reality. Previous summits have also called on delegates to outline ‘3 Little Things’ they will do following the event to improve food security, giving them concrete goals to work towards.

Agriculture has come a long way: farmers are talking and the general public is actually listening. Now, as the sector faces its biggest challenge in decades, we will see if the hard work has paid off and if farmers can count on their support. In the meantime we can find a bit of security in one simple fact: everyone needs to eat.

Image by Tom Grünbauer.