Given the importance of farming to us all and the pressures food producers face, it is essential that everyone, from the consumer and general public, to policymakers, politicians and researchers, has a chance to understand the perspectives and hear the opinions of those on the front-line of farming. Farmers must be better understood, but they have a diverse range of opinions and attempts at finding a unified voice among them is difficult, if not impossible.

Agriculture is the source of the food we eat on a daily basis, but it also uses significant amounts of land and natural resources, as well as contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. So anyone looking to conserve the natural environment needs to take farming seriously. Though we are not always mindful of the strong public interest we should have in farming, the way food is produced matters to everyone, for a range of reasons. Add to this important factors such as the role of food production on the economy and the vital social and cultural place of farming, and the argument for caring what farmers think becomes very persuasive.

Farmers’ voices: cacophony or consensus?

You might think an obvious starting point to learning what farmers think would be to look to their industry body, the National Farmers Union (NFU). Founded over 100 years ago to represent farmers’ interests, the NFU is a successful lobbying organisation with access to policymakers in Westminster and Brussels. If the prosperity and wellbeing of British farmers is correlated to the success of the NFU in translating their objectives into government policy, then perhaps farmers’ voices are in fact being heard loud and clear?

But the tendency to take at face value the NFU’s claim to represent the interests of all British farmers and growers ignores the well-recognised reality: that there is not a single, cohesive ‘farmers’ voice’. Just as every farm is different, so are the opinions and priorities of the farmers who run them.

In reality, the NFU represents less than 20% of farmers and growers but derives its strength and legitimacy from the fact that its membership is dominated by the country’s largest producers. This is perhaps one reason why the organisation supports the current government’s view that the interests of the farming sector, and the UK as a whole, are best served by supporting the most technologically advanced and commercially successful farmers. What is less clear is if this policy is best for the majority of individual farmers. It is often the smaller (and more numerous) farms that tend to suffer – and ultimately disappear – under intense commercial pressure, as witnessed during the recent dairy crisis.

There are many alternatives to the NFU and government vision of agriculture’s future, from the Soil Association’s championing of organic agriculture, to smaller or newer organisations like the Tenant Farmers Association, the Family Farmers’ Association and the Landworkers’ Alliance. Although farmers would agree on the need to be able to make a living from producing food, there is less consensus on the optimum scale and nature of the production. Should farmers be producing for the market alone, or do they have a responsibility to take account of animal welfare, the environment or public health and if so, to what extent? Even where values may be notionally agreed, differences remain as to how best to achieve these results.

How do farmers communicate?

Even assuming there are instances when enough farmers are united in their views on an issue, the question of how to communicate these views presents further complexities.

This month, farmers from around the country will descend on London to demonstrate their frustration with the state of agriculture in a peaceful protest. The march is being organised by Farmers For Action (FFA), a group set up by farmers who were “disillusioned with the way farming organisations were representing their industry.” In contrast to the behind the scenes lobbying favoured by the NFU, FFA prefer direct action, including protesting in supermarkets and blockading processors. Similarly, the Land Workers Alliance regularly use demonstrations and protests. Both organisations believe direct action has a greater impact than any backstage attempts at promoting change, and that the situation demands new tactics and more urgency.

Farmers are also keen to justify the need for public support that they receive from both consumers and taxpayers. It is hard to know, however, whether this should be premised on their successes or failures. Many factors make a farmer’s job hard, from climate change to pests and diseases and it could be argued that given these risks there should be some guarantee of a reward.

Ironically, due to the nature of market economics, the more successful farmers are, in terms of increasing yields, the more chance of creating an oversupply that leads to lower prices. Supermarkets, especially when operating in global markets, exert continued pressure on farmers through an unrelenting price war.

The danger is that a continued focus on the negative aspects of farming, may cause the public to ask more fundamental questions about the industry, including whether it merits either continued public subsidy or higher food prices. It is here that the additional services that farming provides, such as stewardship of the natural environment, can be drawn on to make the positive case for public support.

Another key question farmers are asking is should they be focusing their communications on the general public or on key decision makers within institutions? The disconnect between consumers and the food they eat is widely acknowledged. It is often argued that if the public were more aware of the realities of farming then they would be more willing to support the industry.

Farmers are increasingly acting as their own advocates and communicating directly with the public using both old media and new technologies. Examples include the large number of farmers on Twitter, using social media to show who they are (with “felfies”), what they do (such as #clubhectare) and to discuss agricultural issues (#agrichat). While some online presence can be attributed to marketing for their own benefit, there is also a strong feeling among farmers that agriculture is more than just a job.

Farmers are generally aware that working outdoors in modern times is something that office-bound urban dwellers see as a privilege (if also a trial at times). This insight into the lives of individual farmers complements wider public engagement through things like farm visits or education about agriculture so that, from a young age, more people have the opportunity to understand what farming is, what it takes to produce food and why it matters.

As well as being important as a way of building support for what they do, public engagement with the food system is valuable for democratic reasons. While targeted lobbying, expert advice and independent research can all help to improve agriculture, there should also be transparency in farming systems. As with any other area of society, people have a right to know how their food is produced and have a say in the production methods used.

This can also help to counter the ignorance and misinformation that surrounds the industry. For example, the use of branding and advertising by the food industry helps to shape the public perception of agriculture but it can be highly misleading and far from a true representation. Companies have even been known to invent farm names as a branding exercise, giving the illusion of traceability.

In addition to the way farmers communicate with consumers and government, there is a lot to gain from better communication with each other. The diversity of opinions about the future of agriculture inevitably leads to competition between different viewpoints, all presented by organisations claiming to represent the authentic voice of farmers. At the same time individual farmers are often encouraged to compete rather than collaborate, in order to survive. Local cooperation among farmers, however, has been shown to produce many benefits that go beyond making their voice heard, by helping farmers to find solutions themselves, allowing them to set up resilient support networks. An added benefit is the creation of a story to tell to the public, demonstrating how farmers can work together for their own benefit and the public good.

Farmers are expected to fulfil various roles: guarantors of food security, defenders of animal welfare, stewards of the land or boosters of the economy. To do any of these things – let alone all of them – farmers need to make their voices heard with the public, the government and each other. The best option may be a series of transitory alliances, collaborations and ongoing dialogues, arriving at agreement and supporting each other on some issues while resisting the urge to claim that a single idea or way of farming can ever be heralded as the right one.

Photograph: Steph French

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