The poster covered the whole rear window of the hatchback. ‘I back the farmers’, it declared. Sat at a traffic light in north London, my heart skipped a beat. Alas, looking closer, they didn’t mean us.
The Indian farm protests are now headline news. Fully, 40 per cent of the Indian workforce are farmers, nearly 60 per cent of Indians depend on agriculture for their income and 70 per cent of the population have direct family ties to farming.
The Indian public, home or abroad, are already on their side. By sheer weight of numbers, as well as votes, they command the full attention of Government.
In the UK, barely 1.5 per cent of Brits work in farming. The 98.5 per cent who don’t hold views of us on a spectrum from Old MacDonald at one end to factory farming fascists at the other. Sometimes both together. But mostly we are not thought about at all.
Food comes shrink-wrapped and sanitised or by the bargain bucket. It is a utility, like water from the tap or light from the switch. Farmers get the same care as water engineers or gas rig workers. An irrelevance, wrapped in a mystery inside a void.
Lockdown promised a rethink, with people making food from scratch and pining for the outdoors. Yet tides of poorly shod litter bugs trampled crops, new pets savaged livestock, while gates swung untended in the breeze. To some it feels like a clash of cultures.
Nevertheless, we should celebrate this renewed interest as an opportunity. Today we must earn our markets and accept society’s concern over how we shepherd our shared landscape and how we draw life, sustenance and our livelihoods from it.
Recently, it fell upon me to justify the case for an emergency use of ‘bee-killing’ neonicotinoid pesticides in sugar beet.
‘The new DDT’, thundered George Monbiot, ’secret lobbying’, ’profit before planet’, conjuring all the rhetorical bogeymen at his disposal.
Petitions sprouted like mushrooms. Twitter boiled over. National treasures, such as Sue Perkins, Monty Don and more, rallied to the banner. Non-governmental organisations mobilised.
Despite any lingering Old MacDonald fondness for farmers, bees have much better PR than us. I was ready to fall on my ploughshare in setting out the complex motivations, as well as the mitigations and caution which we had self-imposed.
I braced for impact. And yet I was somewhat astonished to discover people interested in the detail and perceptions shifting. I didn’t convince everyone this was a no-brainer, but just setting out our predicament did un-jerk numerous knees.
Much corporate-style comms is so cautious and risk-averse it is almost self-defeating. Doing nothing is often a favoured strategy. For an industry which now needs to sing for its supper and combat a yawning divide between us and the public, that is negligent.
Granted, on social media it is increasingly those who shock and shout who are heard. Participants often preach, lecture or seek to rubbish others. What is needed is a conversation, not a pantomime.
In life, we start conversations with questions, try to find common ground and listen to the answers before replying. Farmers should treat social media no differently.
If we leave the field, we lose the argument. If we have a case we should be able to make it swiftly, directly, with balance and from the heart. Not with defensiveness or resentment for the inquiry or attention.
If people care about their food or the countryside, we have a chance. We should gratefully welcome the interest and the opportunity it gives us to explain and learn. Indifference is far worse.
Most of all we need to listen. The dialogues spawned on Twitter showed up my more fragile assumptions and forced me into further research and to consider wider implications.
With growing confidence and ability, farmers could leapfrog the middlemen, conversing directly with those who eat our food and renewing that direct link which modern life has eroded.
It is time to prove that our ears are not only filled with grain.