Close to 300,000 visitors will descend on British farms on June 9. I dreamed up Open Farm Sunday (OFS) some 14 years ago. Its purpose is to build trust and bust misconceptions, bringing the public closer to farmers and create an event worthy of media fanfare.
Although OFS will address many of the challenges specific to the United Kingdom, it holds lessons for farmers everywhere—and shows that when we tell our stories, we improve our reputation and prospects.
Managed by the charity LEAF, which stands for “Linking Environment and Farming,” OFS has become the largest single-day visitor event in the UK. Farms up and down the country, big and small welcome the public. We showcase the toil, wonder, and technology of production and biodiversity that farming delivers for the country and the countryside. Whilst corporate businesses see a need to hire spin doctors and public-relations juggernauts to greenwash their environmental credentials and allegiance to the sustainability of the planet, farmers open their gates. Honesty and openness are an easy sell.
What other industry can boast 400 businesses (farms) and 7,000 helpers (neighbouring farmers, husbands, wives, and local volunteers)? They give up not only a Sunday, but also days devoted to preparation—all to offer visitors a free day out.
It’s media manna. Television, print media, even Britain’s longest running radio soap, “The Archers,” trumpet the merits and euphoria surrounding our OFS. In a world of turmoil, we all enjoy some uplifting cheer.
Job done? Well, not quite.
When OFS began, farmers were pushing at an open door. The media back then broadcast only one story of British farming: a bad one. A portrayal of dirty farms peddling poor husbandry and a disregard for the countryside. The reality couldn’t have been more different—and now we’re enjoying a sea change in attitudes. Farmers have forged a much stronger relationship with the media. The BBC’s flagship Sunday night programme about rural issues draws up to 7 million viewers. Niche food, provenance, and country wear brands are in vogue. Farmers are once again seen as hard-working friends of environmental stewardship and sustainability, not the subsidy-grabbing foes of thriving habitats.
Yet a huge new challenge looms. On Halloween, British farming could turn into a pumpkin—because the UK is scheduled to leave the European Union on Oct. 31. In what has become a divisive, protracted, and shambolic process, Britain’s departure from the EU asks more questions than it answers for its farmers. Running parallel to Brexit, a new agriculture bill is chugging its way through Parliament. We don’t know much of the detail surrounding the future of agricultural support or trade arrangements with countries inside and outside of the EU.
Farming in Britain is going to come under a lot of pressure. A cut in farm support looks inevitable, as do some adverse tariffs or duties.
We have two choices. Join the race to the bottom and try and compete on price with countries that have much lower costs of productions or make a compelling story as to why choosing British food at the checkout marks a commitment to food quality, a healthy environment, and a vibrant landscape.
Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs has announced his desire to redistribute any direct farm support into “public goods.” Ironically, conveying benefits of public goods to the public is not straightforward. The public’s pang of guilt that comes from exporting its social and environmental conscience when buying imported food grown to a lower environmental standard is short-lived. “We can’t be environmentally conscious some of the time,” says Greta Thunberg, the Swedish schoolgirl who has sparked environmental protests around the world. Farmers need to make the case for when consumers buy British, they invest in the legacy that creates the landscapes that surround us.
And that brings us back to OFS. There’s no better way to make our case than by throwing open our gates and inviting everybody to visit us and see what we do.
In the 1980s, Britain stopped mining and started importing cheaper coal. Mining communities have never fully recovered. Unless we continue to invest in the relationship that we have with the British people our rural communities could suffer the same fate. The sentiment is with us. People are more aware of the climate and environmental challenges that we all face. As farmers we have all the ingredients for success; sustainable practice, a real commitment to biodiversity, and an openness and transparency to build trust.
We have such a great story to tell. Let’s share it.
Ian Pigott runs a diversified farming business in Harpenden, UK. Located just 20 miles from the centre of London, he grows wheat, barley, pulses and oats in rotation. The farm is a LEAF (linking environment and farming) demonstration farm. Ian is the 2014 recipient of the Kleckner Award and is a member of the Global Farmer Network (www.globalfarmernetwork.org).