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Why our farmers need a Christmas present - from us

Friday 05 December 2003

Dairy farmers received a major boost this week - but as Christmas approaches we, the consumers, can do much more to help local food sales, argues our countryside commentator John Sheard

BRITAIN'S dairy farmers this week received a rare piece of good news: Dairy Crest, one of the country's biggest food producers, agreed to pay 2p a litre more for milk that will be made into cheese.

To non-farmers, this sounds absolutely trivial. To the farmers I know in the Ribble Valley, Lunesdale and the lowlands of Craven, it could be a life saver - recently farmers were literally pouring millions of gallons down the drain because they lost money by sending it to market.

Sadly, the rise came too late to save some close friends: their once thriving 350 acre farm on prime bottom land has been sold after three generations - and the farm buildings are being turned into up-market housing.

However, the National Farmers' Union greeted the new agreement with warm words because it came after months of negotiation with Dairy Crest and will, the union hopes, lay down new ground-rules for future food industry co-operation.

For it may be a sign that the big food processors, and the supermarkets which control some 80% of our food sales, have at last come to realise that they cannot process it, or sell it, unless someone rears or grows it in the first place.

In other words, you can only go on screwing your suppliers into the ground for so long until you suddenly discover that you have no suppliers left!

However, there is another link in the food chain which is even more vital to the future of British agriculture: us, the consumers. And as Christmas approaches, it is time - literally - to put our money where our mouths are.

My family has already ordered a locally grown, free-range turkey. So have our neighbours. They will cost a few pounds more, no doubt, but they will taste better and we know they are British, Godammit - many frozen turkeys sold in supermarkets come from mainland Europe.

We won't be much help on the veg front - my allotment will supply the sprouts and parsnips - but afterwards, we will finish with English cheese (blue Stilton, of course). For this year, all things French have been banned from our household - forever.

This, I realize, makes me sound like a raving xenophobe which is sad for, in my younger days, I holidayed in France every year. That was before the French (with their German lickspittles) began their present blatant attempts to take over the continent in a way that Napoleon and Hitler never managed.

Once again, the French have tried to torpedo the long-overdue restructuring of the notorious Common Agricultural Policy, which puts billions of Euros into the pockets of French peasant farmers.

My family pays a lot of those Euros - far too many, in fact - so I don't plan to give them any more whilst my friends and neighbours, Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cumbria farmers, are struggling to survive.

A couple of weeks ago, I watched England win the world rugby cup with friends early on Saturday morning and we celebrated (ironically enough) with Buck's Fizz made out of Australian sparkling chardonnay. And fabulous it was too.

So there will be no champagne chez Sheard this Christmas and New Year. No cognac (we'll flame the pud with Scotch), no French wines and (this bit is a real sacrifice) no French cheeses.

When we are not eating eating Dales turkey, it will be local beef or lamb - and perhaps a locally shot pheasant. There will be real Wensleydale bought off Skipton market, eaten with English apples, and perhaps a slice of Somerset brie.

The bonus in all this is that the profits on our festive spreads will go into the pockets of hard-hit English farmers and growers. If we all did this, the people who look after our countryside would have a Merry Christmas too - and they damn well deserve it.

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