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FG 175: How events in the past helped shape today's farming industry

As Farmers Guardian looks back at the archives to celebrate its 175th anniversary Emily Ashworth focuses on events that have made agriculture what it is today.

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#FG175: How events in the past helped shape today's farming industry

If there is one industry that is defined by its resilience, it is farming – and it is fair to say agriculture has faced its fair share of challenges and defining moments throughout the ages.


Some events had a devastating impact, while others provided stability and a way to move forward.


But each of these life-changing events helped to shape farming into the sector it is today.

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THE outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in 2001 caused a crisis in British agriculture and associated tourism. It saw 2,026 cases of the disease confirmed and, in a bid to halt the epidemic, more than six million cows and sheep were killed.


On February 21, 2001, the Government and European Commission banned all meat, livestock and milk exports from Britain and it took nine months to get the disease under control.


It changed the way the country farmed, including traceability measures and livestock movement restrictions, and it was not until August the first sale of live cattle began again.


By 2003, after trying to rebuild after the crisis, the UK live auction system faced massive consolidation.


It also prompted the Animal Health Act 2002, which provided regulators with more rights to deal with outbreaks of disease.



Derek Armstrong, lead veterinary science expert at AHDB, says: “The outbreak in 2001 resulted in direct losses of more than £3 billion to agriculture and the food chain, with further significant indirect losses and impacts on the farming sector. While the farming losses were quantifiable, the real cost to individual farmers and rural communities was deep and they have taken years to recover.


“Each of the 2,000-plus cases meant a farm losing all its livestock – a terrible experience for many farming families.


“Purchasing and movement of cattle to restock foot-and-mouthaffected areas may have exacerbated the TB problem. Export markets took years to reopen, adding unquantifiable costs in the decade that followed.”



ESTABLISHED by the Agricultural Marketing Act 1933, the Milk Marketing Board (MMB) was a producer-run product marketing board devised to control milk production and distribution in the UK.


Guaranteeing a minimum price for dairy producers, it also helped to develop dairy products and, from the 1950s onwards, it ran a series of highly successful and memorable advertising campaigns, running slogans such as ‘full of natural goodness’ and ‘drinka pinta milka day’.


But, in 1994, the MMB was abolished and, between then and 2007/2008, about 20,000 producers left the industry as milk prices fell extensively.





WHAT could not have been predicted was the effect of both world wars would have on agriculture.


The reduction in imports encouraged an expansion in domestic food production and it also saw an extra 2.5 million acres of land dedicated to growing cereals as part of the infamous ‘Ploughing Up’ campaign.


John Martin, professor of agrarian history at the Museum of English Rural Life, says: “The civilian food shortages and accompanying malnutrition which characterised the latter stages of World War One were instrumental in fundamentally changing the course of European history.


“In spite of Britain’s precarious dependence on imported food and the shipping losses inflicted by German U-boats, the population was less badly affected, as the efforts of British farmers in increasing food production helped to save the nation from starvation.”


A GOVERNMENT-initiated policy, it looked to reduce the amount of food imported into the country and work towards more economic stability in agriculture after the war. The act gave farmers assured markets and prices for their produce to incentivise high productivity.


It also actively promoted the marketing of produce through the various marketing boards set up before the war.



DURING the late 19th century, the industry was constantly changing, with the era deemed one of great agricultural productivity. Complex social, technological and economic changes, along with an increase in food production, enabled the population to boom.


Some significant developments included:


■ The Norfolk four-course crop rotation: fodder crops, particularly turnips and clover, replaced leaving the land fallow


■ The Dutch improved the Chinese plough so it could be pulled with fewer oxen or horses


■ Enclosure: the removal of common rights to establish exclusive ownership of land


■ Development of a national market free of tariffs, tolls and customs barriers


■ Transportation infrastructures, such as improved roads, canals and, later, railways


■ Land conversion, land drains and reclamation


■ Increase in farm size


■ Selective breeding: It was a turning point in our history and allowed to us achieve a somewhat superior status in terms of agricultural productivity.


IN 1908, the National Farmers Union (NFU) was formed after a meeting at the Smithfield Show took place to discuss if there should be a national organisation to represent the interest of farmers.


Its first president, Colin Campbell, worked to increase membership and form new branches, even though the industry was going through a period of great agricultural depression.


And after farming suffered the blows of two world wars, the NFU heavily influenced the Agriculture Act of 1947, which revamped agricultural law after the focus shifted to food security post-1945.


THE Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was introduced in the wake of World War Two to ensure Europe would be self-sufficient in food.


It originally guaranteed farmers a price for their produce and protected them from cheaper imports, which led to oversupply, such as the famous butter mountains and milk lakes. This triggered a series of reforms, including milk quotas and set-aside.


Later, price support was scaled down and replaced with direct payments, plus funding for rural development.


After Brexit, UK farmers will deal with the biggest policy change in more than 40 years as direct payments are removed and instead they are rewarded for providing ‘public goods’.



DURING the 1950s, Britain welcomed its first supermarket store, the London Co-op, and it was the beginning of change in how consumers shopped.


People were faced with the prospect of buying everything in one place and the idea quickly caught on.




By 1969, there were 3,400 supermarkets in Britain.


Farmers have since had to adapt to changing consumer trends and diets and, as more people made the switch to shopping at large retailers, it meant more farmers were supplying large supermarkets, whose low prices have put increasing pressure on the industry.

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