Every one of them is different

Sky News is currently streaming an overview of British farming (https://news.sky.com/story/it-keeps-me-awake-at-night-can-british-farming-survive-13132220) which raises a number of questions that have been dodged for years and are coming home to roost with a certain inevitability. They are as predictable as ever, as intractable as ever and demand answers as urgently as ever. The only certainty is that the farming sector faces a crisis which has been ignored for years and will no longer wait in an orderly queue.

The first thing that needs to be made clear at the outset is that there is no such creature as an average farmer. The Sky presentation is very careful to choose visually tame representatives of a sector that  is universally misunderstood. Sky’s lead journalist on this reporting, the west of England and Wales correspondent Dan Whitehead, would doubtless agree that despite the rapidly falling numbers of farmers in Britain, there is no such creature as an “average” farmer anywhere in the world.

The industrial world develops and markets a range of specialist vehicles and technology for a sector that has as many solutions for its many technical challenges as it has practitioners. The general public, in Britain and further afield, has no problem synthesising a stereotype notion of a nonexistent rural world. In the process, any suggestion of  a viable business model  runs counter current to the town dweller’s vision of a rural idyll.

It would not be productive to imagine that rural businesses are complementary to industrial or urban economic structures. Nor can the transport and distribution networks that link urban consumers to an imagined rural hinterland ever ensure that each business gets what it needs in a timely manner.

A frequent town dweller’s  notion of a farm is more like a zoo than a production unit. Go back a century or so to George Orwell’s Animal Farm and you encounter a group of anthropocentric livestock: hens, pigs, cattle and heavy horses. Truth to tell, if it ever existed, this diverse community of livestock was a casualty of the first world war. The two million British equine casualties had a greater impact on warfare and industry than the loss of several millions of military personnel or civilians killed in air raids elsewhere. British army officers were required to supply a horse’s  front hoof when reporting an equine casualty, whereas they did not need to furnish any such grisly evidence for human casualties among their ranks.

The wartime massacre of draft horses was beyond the breeding capacity of the northern hemisphere and cleared the way for mechanisation in both rural hinterlands and metropolitan centres alike. The British army bought in horses from as far away as North America, but they were ill-suited to military requirements.

Both agriculture and industry have exhibited huge appetites for energy during the past two centuries. The combined effects of converting the plains of North America into a grain exporter on a continental scale. This was accompanied by the relentless westward advance of the railroads through the 1850s and 1860s, hauling wheat back to the east coast and shipping it on to Europe. 

The age of steam put bread on the tables of starving cities. It may even have given urban populations a passing curiosity as to where food comes from and what sort of people might produce it. But the only people that ever had contact with producers and consumers were traders with a limited interest beyond crop forecasts and spot prices. It is hardly surprising that during the intervening decades, a parallel web of dreams fed on pictures in books and magazines should inhabit part of the cultural vacuum between town and country. 

Dan Whitehead’s rural narrative assembles facets of the  agricultural world as a kaleidoscope might do. He starts by talking to Welsh sheep producer Rhodri, who has seen a 40% cut in his income, now shorn of subsidy. He is worried that his school age son will not inherit the family farm.

Outdoor pork producer Jeff laments the supposed passing of the British pig industry. Like many British pig producers, he believes his European counterparts are subsidised as generously as they have ever been. He can’t go into a supermarket without spotting foreign meat: pork chops from Spain, chicken from Poland and Brazil. He can sum up Brexit in one word: “atrocious”. From his farm in Kent,  Jeff drove a tractor up London for a city centre protest. Like many in the pig sector, he is adamant that breeders have been thrown under a bus by a government that doesn’t care. “There’s an  unfairness in British agriculture,” he argues. Looking at the deals the UK government signed with Australia and  New Zealand, he might have a point.

Nearby, fruit grower Tim has built up a strawberry business valued in tens of millions of pounds. He needs a workforce of 2000 to pick thousands of tonnes of strawberries. Most of his recruits are from EU member states. When the UK was in the single market, workers could move  freely with no time limits. Now they are limited to six months and have to move on regardless of whether or not they are a net gain or a net drain on their employer. Tim is frustrated because he cannot negotiate prices for his crop from a solid position. 

There are plenty of British pig producers who will argue that foreign pigmeat is hindering domestic producers, but the story is a little bit more subtle than that. If British producers could earn a living off the sales of pork loins, they would cheerfully do so. Since loins are used for roasting joints or bacon, there will always be buyers for this cut. This often leads to a situation whereby British loin are sold through for roasting joints. Meeting demand for bacon packers, there is a steady trade in pigs from Dutch and Danish units. These have been raised to British standards for decades and are effectively competing on a level field, even if their British counterparts see it differently. The key to staying in business is referred to as balancing the carcase, ensuring that every saleable part of the carcase is sold. Hams or gammons are straightforward to prepare for the retail market and represent a good return. What British pig breeders often overlook, however, is that they will routinely export forequarters to cutting halls in northern Europe, which have skilled workforces that make short work of the technically challenging forequarters. These are home to the animal’s powerful jaw muscles. If a pig bites your hand, count your fingers as soon as you’ve stemmed the bleeding.

Value or price?

Today’s On Your Farm came from Yew Tree Farm, Bristol’s last city farm. Third generation farmer Catherine Withers faces existential challenges to a business that has adapted to extensive and rapid change, but is on the point of losing access to land that is vital to its survival. Part of a site of Scientific and Conservation Interest, the farm should have been spared the predatory attention of a local property developer.

Click the screengrab to access the programme on the BBC.

Instead, acres of hay and winter feed once intended for Catherine’s dairy herd is under lock and key. The tenancy on the field concerned was terminated in favour of a planning proposal for 200 homes that has yet to be agreed. When the BBC visited, the hay in the field was ready to be cut and the livestock would have been sure of winter sustenance. However, Catherine is kept away from her crop by a heavy padlock on the gate. Being able to see the crop but not gather it in just adds injury to insult.

Elsewhere on the farm, another tenancy on a field adjacent to a local council crematorium is set to end, as the town hall plans to extend the amenities for its residents. Again, it is the dairy cattle that will lose out. Catherine has a small dairy herd, as well as outdoor pigs: she also grows vegetables, which she can sell to local residents within walking distance of her farmhouse. Bristol used to have more than 30 farms within its boundaries: as the city’s only remaining farmer, Catherine is something of a local hero, not just to her customers.

Yew Tree has a high proportion of ancient meadow in its grazing, an irreplaceable asset that has been quietly sheltering threatened flora and fauna for centuries. Its value to Bristol is incalculable, but depends on being an integrated space, across which wildlife can roam. The shift from viable and productive to long term decline is an ever-present threat and determined by factors that neither Catherine nor her many supporters can control.

Listen to the programme while it is available on the BBC Sounds website. It raises questions for all of us, regardless of whether we live in a city or a rural area.

Taking sides with bacon

Until the latter years of the twentieth century, bacon followed a parallel path to the rest of the pig sector, taking its share of knocks on the way. Processors could sell as many loins of bacon as they could get their hands on, but they were held back by a balancing act, otherwise known as balancing the carcase.

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Pig sector still struggling

Despite some welcome signs of change in the fortunes of the pig industry, there are some ominous long term indicators. slaughter weights are starting to ease off from January’s high point. But at about 94kg deadweight, this year’s slaughter pigs are still five kg a head more that this time last year.

Welcome news from Morison’s when the retailer raised its contribution to production costs (SPP) by 30p to GBP 1.80. Pig producers need more retailers to do likewise. More to the point, producers need a more reliable system for recovering their cost of production, just to stay in business.

January pigmeat imports totalling 83,000 tonnes were up over 20% in December, not to mention double the volumes imported a year ago. Bacon imports in January were 27,000 tonnes, compared to 9,500 tonnes a year ago and 17,500 tonnes in December.

Market trends like these spell trouble for UK pig producers.

Since writing this piece in the spring, the AHDB has reported a recovery in market figures to nearer normal levels. However, this does not mean that pig farmers are any better off than they were earlier in the year.

40k and counting

Delegates at the National Farmers’ Union conference at the end of February learn that at least 40,000 healthy pigs have been culled and taken out of the food chain because of a continuing failure by abattoirs to collect and slaughter all the pigs they contracted to take last year.
Pig farmers up and down the UK are struggling in an ongoing crisis that is leaving hundreds o pigs a week on farms, eating food that is hitting record highs. The BBC cites a Norfolk farmer (https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-norfolk-60516864) who is sending 200 a week out of his 300 contracted animals, leaving him with 100 more pigs every week to feed. They eat 10.5 kg of feed a day ad by the time they are finally killed, they will have eaten an extra quarter of a tonne of feed. This is unplanned buying for the animals concerned, at a time when feed is at an all-time high and wheat prices are well over GBP300 a tonne.

Why pig slaughter weights matter

Since the end of October last year average pig slaughter weights have been rising steadily, hitting 95 kg during the week ending January 8, 2022. This is about 5kg above the long term average. This is due to abattoirs refusing to take all the pigs they contracted for at the beginning of the breeding cycle. Processors face a shortage of skilled labour in the killing lines and boning halls, with the result that pigs being held back on farms.

Here, they are eating feed that was not costed into the business and since UK male pigs are not routinely castrated, they are increasingly likely to pass puberty and be affected by boar taint with the onset of breeding condition. This renders them unsaleable and inedible.

The weight of a pig at slaughter is critical to its commercial value, since overweight pigs put on fat in the muscle tissue and their conformation is no good for retail or foodservice clients.

A week later and no sign of any change.

British pig prices dropped even further in the week ending January 15. The Standard Pig Price (SPP) dropped to 139p/kg, the lowest it has been for almost a year. Pig producers are still looking after pigs that should have left their holding long ago, as the average carcase weight set a new record at 95.42kg (source AHDB). Since these animals would normally have left for slaughter, farmers are having to buy grain on the spot market, pushing feed prices up in the process.

British pigs start 2022 with record average carcase weight

As overcrowded pig farms send their first lorryloads of slaughter pigs to the abattoirs, AHDB is reporting an all-time high of 94.12 kg for the national average carcase weight. As if proof of poor conformation was needed, back probe measurements averaged 11.8mm in the week ending January 1. Predictably, the percentage of pigs meeting the SPP specification has sagged to 84%, compared to a long term average of 93%. Without culling or moving thousands of pigs that have been contracted, but not taken by processors, the pig sector crisis will deepen: ignoring it will not solve anything.

AHDB pork data can be found here.

Tesco makes pig harvest gaffe

Tesco tweet bot “Kayley” upset UK pig farmers on January 5 by suggesting that British pork supply gaps were weather-related and that the retailer stocked pigmeat from a number of countries to ensure the best quality was always available. In the process the retailer coined the “pig harvest”, adding to the anger of pig producers all over the country. Read Alastair Driver’s account of this episode in Pig World.


British pigs overlooked in Brexit preparations

Urgent requests for government involvement in setting up the commercial infrastructure that would be needed for trading as a third country after Brexit were mostly ignored, according to pig industry body the National Pig Association (NPA). In November 2020, with less than two months before the end of the transition period, the association had “…a long list…” of unanswered procedural questions for the export of breeding pigs and pork products after Brexit.

While the NPA continued to work closely with the environment ministry DEFRA, NPA chief executive Dr Zoe Davies warned that: “…time is now running short and we need more urgency and engagement from across Government before it is simply too late.”

She observed that the UK pig sector faced the very real prospects of being unable to continue the vitally important trade in breeding stock to the EU and of severe delays, as well as higher costs and reduced market access for pork exports. “The impact could be devastating,” she warned.

Some of the unanswered questions required solutions regardless of whether or not there was a Brexit agreement in place after the transition period. Topping the list was a lack of Border Control Post (BCP) facilities in key European ports for live pigs and in some instances pork products. Once the grace period ends for customs health checks on imports, serious doubts persist about the availability of qualified veterinary professionals to process a tidal wave of additional certificates. The NPA estimates that the paperwork alone will increase fivefold.

“We are still waiting for an indication of whether or not the significant extra veterinary resource required can be met,” explains Davies. In 2020 DEFRA told the NPA to persuade the key EU port authorities to invest in the necessary BCP facilities and left the association to its own devices. “There has been no interest from the Government in helping us engage at either Commission or Member State level.”

The required investments in BCP facilities will also be required for consignments arriving in the UK once the transition period is over. “There are no seaport BCPs in the UK at present either,” explains Davies.

Defra has pointed out that, as it is phasing in import checks, these won’t be needed until July 2021. However, we will need to know well in advance what the exact requirements will be for testing and inspection, while any port operating as a BCP will require time to put the necessary infrastructure in place.” The financial commitment involved is significant: it includes specialist veterinary staff appointments as well as buildings and laboratory facilities.

A further practical consideration that was still unresolved at the end of the transition period was transport. “Hauliers will require separate authorisations and qualifications in both the EU and UK. There is still a complete lack of clarity as to how companies will be able to register and hold multiple authorisations without adding huge cost.”

The operational impact on the slaughtering and processing sector of losing large numbers of qualified non-UK EU vets is not a new concern. The issue was raised in the House of Lords report number 15 published during the 2017-8 session of Parliament. (https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201719/ldselect/ldeucom/15/15.pdf)

This post first appeared about 10 days before Christmas. Today, December 25, it is clear that the government has learnt nothing from this episode; there is a lingering temptation to suggest that this was the intention all along. More than 30,000 healthy pigs have been culled at the expense of pig producers up and down the country. Many of them have gone or will go out of business through business through no fault of their own.

British pig producers face oblivion

A 20% drop in the number of skilled butchers working in British abattoirs and boning halls has led to a 25% fall in the number of pigs being bought in by the slaughtering sector. The result is that British pig farmers are running out of room to keep unsold pigs and face the prospect of culling thousands of healthy animals.
The National Pig Association chief executive Zoe Davies is already warning that most of the British pig industry will be out of business by next summer. From its conversations with members, the NPA can confirm that at least 16,000 healthy pigs have already been culled in recent weeks, but the figure is almost certainly the tip of a very grisly iceberg.

The UK government has offered support packages for the processing sector in a bid to restore slaughtering capacity but none of this will stop pig farmers going out of business. Farming minister George Eustice is on the record saying that he can’t see what else he can do that might help pig producers stay in business.
NPA ceo Zoe Davies is frustrated by DEFRA’s lack of  foresight. “If that’s the way they want it, then that’s the way it will go. We will just see droves of people going out business, there won’t be a British pig sector going forward, or it will be massively reduced, and we will just end up importing all the product from European Union.”
Davies estimates that the pig crisis cost producers GBP 130 million during the first six months of 2021 and she is seeing farmers leaving the pig sector and farming.

The operational impact on the slaughtering and processing sector of losing large numbers of highly qualified non-UK EU staff is not a new concern. The issue was raised in the House of Lords report number 15 published during the 2017-8 session of Parliament. (https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201719/ldselect/ldeucom/15/15.pdf)