A Sermon from Sherborne

A mixed harvest

A sermon for Harvest Festival Eucharist at Sherborne Abbey, preached on Sunday 24 September 2017 by Mr Anthony Lumby

I would like to use the next few minutes

  • To highlight the work of the Farming Community Network and the problems faced by many farmers in Dorset and elsewhere
  • To look briefly at the problems facing farmers as we move towards Brexit
  • To review the harvest in this area – now complete except for the maize crop
  • Finally to give you my prayers for farming

 

Despite everything “Buying British Food” is best for quality, traceability and animal welfare. Farming Community Network is a Christian Charity comprising 400 volunteers – of which I am one – spread throughout England and Wales, providing pastoral and practical support to members of the farming community for as long as they need it. Perhaps we are like Samaritans for farmers. We are immensely grateful to the Abbey – largely through David Smart and the Faith in Action Committee – for the ongoing financial help you give us. But why do farmers need our help?

As I am sure you know well, farming is not just a business, it is a way of life, a family tradition, a provider of the basics for living and a way to manage our land and protect our environment. I will speak in a moment about the great change that must come post-Brexit – but with a quarter of all farming families living on or below the poverty line and the average age of the British farmer being around 55, the short term outlook is harsh.

Cases that we are asked to help with are frequently problems arising from:

Mental health and depression

Between 14 and 20 farmers commit suicide each year. Farmers spend long hours on their own – in the tractor cab or the milking parlour. The local market was traditionally the place where farmers would meet weekly to discuss anything and everything, but there are only a few left. That is why I much admire Julie Plumley and her “Future Roots” project, with the Countrymen’s Club meetings at Holnest and Dorchester. Her Charity is one the Abbey has supported.

Marital and Family problems

Farming people derive not only their livelihoods but their home, lifestyle and identity from what they do. Family relationships are intimately bound up in their work. “I don’t know how to retire” is a comment I often hear and a problem I try and resolve, frequently coupled with retirement housing. Conversely I have been involved in dreadful family disputes over sons anxious to take on the farm but the father won’t (but should) retire. A growing trend we are beginning to sense is the highly motivated and ambitious sons stating that they have no wish to take over the farm (“Sell it Dad- it’s your pension”) but rather seeking a career managing the larger farms where their ideas can flourish.

The effects on a farming family of a fatal accident

Farming employs less than 2% of the national workforce but accounts for 25% of all workplace deaths. 30 people were killed last year and the same number have been killed so far this year, the main causes being tiredness or cutting corners when in a hurry, laziness or the fact they are working alone. Old and badly maintained machinery is often a cause, too.

Financial problems are usually due to unwise and unresearched investment.

All-in-all, it is a sad truth that the average age of farmers seeking our help is getting younger.

A summary of this year’s harvest can be described as “very mixed”. Sun and rain came at the wrong time, meaning yields and quality are down on last year. But this was aggravated by the heavy storms before and during harvest which led to a loss of grain through “shedding”, i.e. the grain was knocked out of the ear by the heavy rain which made it unharvestable.

This was offset (to a degree) by the low value of the pound pushing up the price, but following the House of Commons’ support for the Brexit Repeal Bill the pound has risen to a one year high, so prices have peaked. This shows clearly that farming is subject to the weather (it always was) plus currency and politics.

What are the problems facing farmers as we approach Brexit? I could drown you in facts and figures but, very briefly, only 56% of the food we consume is home-produced (in the 1980s it was 75%). This is awful. Post-Brexit this decline must be reversed. But the British consumer is becoming more and more ambitious and is looking to buy more food “out of season”, i.e. from countries with a different climate.

 

Here are a few more facts, some hopeful, some not:

  • Climate change is producing warmer weather and longer growing seasons – look at the growth of the English wine industry
  • Farming technology (and the younger farmers) are becoming more and more innovative (I do include GM crops)
  • 75% of our agri-food exports are currently into the European Union which is a tariff free area. What happens next?
  • My last statistic – 55% of the total UK farm income comes from Europe in subsidies – divided into 70% for farming business and 30% for environmental works.

 

After Brexit this will change dramatically. Some farmers will find a new environment in which they will thrive. Others will not. Farming Community Network and the other farming charities will be very busy giving them help and will need your prayers.

 

My prayers for farming are as follows:

  1. That Brexit will provide UK Farmers with an environment to encourage more productive and sustainable farming methods
  2. That FCN and the other Farming Charities will be ready and able to help sustain those farmers who will find it impossible to cope with the change which must come
  3. That whatever Brexit brings it will include help for farmers to maintain our wonderful landscape and the rural environment
  4. That God will honour his promise to farmers in Deuteronomy: “The Lord will send a blessing on your barns and on everything you put your hand to. The Lord your God will bless you in the land”

 

To end with a quotation – this one from a Farmer’s wife:

“I’ve only got one husband to do all the heavy lifting, silaging, tractor-driving and so on – when he breaks down – I’m stuffed!”

Mr Anthony Lumby 24/09/2017
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne