When it comes to farming, big is beautiful

BBC2’s new series, Jimmy Doherty's Farming Heroes, provides some jaw-dropping examples of the wonders of modern agriculture.

Justine Brian

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On Tuesday, like some addict devoid of any sense of self-control or ability to change my own future, I found myself tuning in to yet another new TV food programme. I had assured myself beforehand, having seen the trailers for the series, that this was one programme I could afford to miss – I could pretty much guess what the content would be. But no, I found myself tuning into Jimmy Doherty’s Farming Heroes on BBC2 anyway. What followed was a pleasant surprise.

Seasoned consumers of food porn will be familiar with Jimmy Doherty from his previous BBC outing, Jimmy’s Farm, which followed his efforts to set-up a rare-breed pig farm and establish his new business, The Essex Pig Company, to produce premium pork products.

When Jimmy Doherty first came to TV attention five years ago, he was touted as a ‘friend of Jamie Oliver’ and very much in the Oliver mould of young, dynamic, fun-loving, rule-breaking food guy. Jimmy’s Farm was in fact quite entertaining as we saw him struggle (everyone struggles in these programmes) to set up and finance his farm, deal with farmer-related trials and tribulations, and in between preach about the virtue of small-scale farming and the superior products it produces. Hence my reluctance to watch his new series, which I fully expected to follow the same, small-is-beautiful line.

But what unfolded was 60 minutes of truly interesting TV which was not (in the first episode, at least) a paean to modern hobby farmers. Instead, it was a celebration of large-scale, industrial agriculture in England’s breadbasket, East Anglia – an uplifting antidote to the miserablism that pervades a snobbish and fearful fooderati.

Jimmy, and me, marvelled at gargantuan combine harvesters using all sorts of computer wizardry to harvest wheat by the ton, doing in an hour what pre-war machines took 15 men a whole week to do; we thrilled at the 30-ton processing plants that move slowly through huge fields of celery (yuk!) and can get the crop from ground, washed, packed and stacked in supermarket-ready trays in just six minutes; a single greenhouse spanning 26 acres which produces 10 per cent of the UK’s tomato crop, heated using the CO2 emissions from the enormous sugar beet factory a kilometre down the road, which itself is the largest sugar beet processing plant in the world, providing much of the UK’s sugar. Even the producers of premium, free-range turkey – costing three times the price of a bog-standard gobbler – do so on a massive scale, hatching thousands of turkey chicks in huge incubators.

Doherty, as a small-scale farmer, was awed by the sheer scale and efficiency of modern commercial farming in the UK. And so he should be. It’s just amazing. It’s amazing that so few people, using so little effort (relative to the labour-intensive, low-tech drudgery that was farming at the start of the twentieth century) can feed so many people, so cheaply.

The series is also an attempt to show modern UK farming in all its forms, and the people behind some of the food on your table. That includes the men and women who still, despite the fantastic contraptions, work back-breaking 10-hour days doing demanding, physical work. In that sense, the series fits in well with the general assumption today that we, as consumers, should want to know more about where our food comes from and how it’s produced so that we can make ethical choices about what we eat to suit our particular food obsessions. But whereas other programmes ask us to think about what we eat in terms of reducing our consumption to save the planet, this first episode of Farming Heroes felt more like a celebration of what modern farming is capable of, and of the people who do it well. More power to all their combine-harvesters, I say.

The other stunning moment for me was when Jimmy, refreshingly, saw himself for what he is – a small-scale, niche farmer, a ‘pin-prick in terms of food production’, and not the guy that’s going to feed the nation. Those who preach the most about what farming should be are often the most removed from real agriculture. A colleague of mine, who’s from Irish farming stock, recounted to me recently just what a struggle it was for the average small-scale farmer of her family’s past. Her family only believed there could only be a future in farming, and a better standard of living for them and their children, when the small-scale, isolated farmer joined up with others as part of larger, centralised production process. While many contemporary commentators seem keen to romanticise the methods of the past, those with first-hand experience of just how inefficient and onerous farming could be do not have such a rose-tinted view.

I still fear this brilliant first episode is a con. Jimmy might be telling me now that the tractors and the combine harvesters are fun, and that large-scale agriculture and horticulture is amazing, but I still half-expect that by the end of the series he will be telling us that what we really should all be doing is growing our own veg in plant pots on our window sills. I’ll be interested to see how he deals with the idea of industrial-scale meat production, something his own farm was meant to be an antidote to.

In truth, I don’t believe that we should all know where our food comes from or how it’s produced. But for those of you, like me, who are foodie trainspotters, this is fascinating TV.

Justine Brian is national administrator of the UK schools debating competition, Debating Matters.

Previously on spiked

Justine Brian defended Delia Smith. In farming, argued Rob Lyons small is not beautiful. Elsewhere he reckoned cheaper chicken was a slap in the face for food snobs. Mick Hume examined the way the authorities hide behind celebrity experts. Why is their such opposition to modern farming techniques? asked Brendan O’Neill. Or read more at spiked issue Food.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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