Angry Farmers Are Marching Cows and Sheep Through Central London
Hundreds of farmers marched in a protest organised by radical lobby group Farmers For Action last week. By descending on London, they hoped to push the government to act on the problems facing British farm workers.
All photos by the author.
James Edgar woke up at half past four to milk 250 cows this morning. Now he's standing outside Downing Street in a black-and-white onesie. With his daughter strapped on his back, he waves a placard that reads: "Fair Trade Begins At Home."
Edgar is one of 1,500 British farmers to march through London last week. Coach-loads from across the UK pour into the capital, some making seven-hour trips from West Wales and Cornwall.
The amassed rural folk force Londoners and tourists to double-take, with passers-by snapping photos and selfies. A cream-coloured cow called Maple, her calf, and two sheep lead the marchers past Trafalgar Square and Whitehall towards the Prime Minister's house. Police in luminous jackets chat with old farmers in checked shirts and wax jackets. Red double decker buses and black cabs beep horns in support. A farm leader quotes scripture through a megaphone. Nigel Farage, leader of right wing party UKIP, drops in for a photo op.
The protest has been organised by radical lobby group Farmers For Action. By descending on London, it hopes to push the government into action and make the public aware of agriculture's problems.
And those problems are dire. Dairy farmers' troubles are rarely out of the headlines. Due to global oversupply, a slump in Chinese demand, and a cost-cutting war among British supermarkets, the price of milk has dropped more than a third in two years. It's little wonder that five dairy farmers quit the industry every week.
It's a similar story for other agricultural workers. According to government estimates, pig farmers will lose half their income in 2016 as cheap pork floods the EU and a world grain glut has sent wheat prices tumbling. Lamb and beef has held up better but the same estimates show that a typical livestock farmer will soon earn just £20,000 a year. Any subsidies he gets are basically benefits.
Farmers For Action complain that a cheap food culture—pushed by lazy shoppers, greedy supermarkets, and uncaring politicians—is wiping out the livelihoods of small, traditional farmers. This isn't new: farms have grown and become more efficient since the Agricultural Revolution 400 years ago but today, we seem to be reaching a crunch.
"Lots of people are going out of the industry but everyone else is just getting bigger," says Jamie Bevan, a farmer from Hertfordshire taking part in today's protest. It's his first time visiting London.
"The coffee is so expensive—if I'd known, I'd have brought my own," says fellow Hertfordshire farmer Martin Williams. He and Bevan scribbled their makeshift banner on the coach ride over.
The pair may be in good spirits but the march has a dark undertone. Williams' family are losing money on the wheat they grow and the lambs they rear, and Bevan thinks small dairies like the one he works on are on the way out.
Sadly, the stats seem to back him up. The UK had 132,000 farmers in 2005, according to an annual survey by the UK's food department. Ten years on, more than a quarter had disappeared. In that time, the size of an average holding rose 27 percent. That quaint image in your head of a jolly farmer with a handful of livestock in pretty green fields is fading fast.
Of course, some farm workers have tried the entrepreneurial route, selling through vending machines or farmers markets. Others tried protest, stripping supermarket shelves of milk, blockading factories with tractors, and starving retailers of lamb (although British farmers are yet to match their militant French cousins, who terrorise towns with manure). But this march on London is a dramatic step.
"I would like to think there is a future for young people. But the way things are going, I don't see it happening," says Ioan says, a 21-year-old fifth, generation food producer from Camarthen attending the march. His family rear young dairy cows and now lose £100 on every one they sell. Ioan, his brother, and dad all have part-time jobs off the farm in order to make enough to live.
Prices aren't the only problem. Michael Bailey, a livestock farmer near Portsmouth, picks out animal disease on his placard.
"Nobody really likes killing anything, not even a farmer. But the badger is a bit too protected," he says.
Bailey tells me that bovine tuberculosis (a.k.a. TB) has devastated the country. Cattle now must be tested regularly and the thousands infected have to be killed. The government is trialling a cull of badgers, who some farmers think spread TB, but its expensive rollout is unpopular publicly.
So, why does a march matter? At the protest's climax, the Farmers For Action organisers hand a letter to Prime Minister David Cameron. It demands that he helps the small struggling farmers through the crisis.
"I don't want to walk through a graveyard and see a gravestone that reads, 'Rest in Peace, British Agriculture,'" Somerset dairyman James Hole shouts to rallying farmers.
The government says it understands the challenges of low commodity prices for what it calls the "£100 billion food and farming industry." A spokesperson told MUNCHIES: "From opening new export markets and introducing a fairer tax system for farmers to reducing red tape and giving them access to the latest market data to help them manage their businesses, we are taking action to help ensure the long-term resilience of an industry vital for our economy and our countryside."
The farmers' issue is they don't have a list of specific demands. A government committed to free markets won't splurge taxpayer cash on forcing higher prices or adding money on top of EU subsidies. Even tweaks like a stronger supermarket watchdog or new labelling laws can't tackle the public appetite for cheap food.
As the march nears an end, it would be apt for Maple, one of the cow's on today's protest, to lay a wide, soggy shit outside Downing Street.
But she doesn't. Her handlers say she's held it in all day. Britain's small farmers may well need to make another trip to Number Ten.