Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Farming life: We are not a flyover state

Farmers like me provide food for the rest of the UK. So why do they ignore us?
March 1, 2023

In February, I was invited to give an after-dinner speech at the Wisbech branch of the National Farmers’ Union. The town of Wisbech is an inland port a handful of miles from the Wash in the north of Cambridgeshire. To my shame, I’ve passed by many times without paying it any attention, like plenty of others journeying between the thriving industrialised city of Peterborough and the picturesque coastal villages of north Norfolk. In the US, the states in the middle of the country are sometimes disparagingly called “flyover states” in the assumption that they are observed only from the airplane window as people travel between the east and west coasts. Despite being near the coast, Wisbech, together with the surrounding countryside, is the east of England’s “flyover state”. 

Until this year, I knew little of the town, which is some 32 miles from my farm. I can forgive myself for being unaware of the history. But I should have known more of the rich agricultural landscape, part of the Fens created by the draining of around 1,500 square miles of marshland that used to reach south beyond Ely and west to Peterborough. The settlement of Wisbech was first recorded in the year 656, and its name is thought to mean “on the back of the (River) Ouse”. It’s a town that has hosted kings and castles, a port and a prison, and provided passengers for the Mayflower voyaging to the New World. But it’s the agricultural magnificence that should put the town firmly on the map.

Wisbech is the branch of the NFU that produces the most varied array of foods in Cambridgeshire. At their AGM, I met farmers growing typical cereal crops— wheat for breadmaking, along with barley for beer and animal feed (and Maltesers)—but also rapeseed for cooking oils and biofuel, and maize for anaerobic digestion systems that produce green energy from plant material. With top-grade peat soils high in organic matter from the former marshland they also grow potatoes and sugar beet here, plus fruit and vegetables including apples, pears, carrots and parsnips, as well as ornamentals and bedding plants, poinsettias, roses and gypsophila.

Growing a variety of crops as diverse as this—and there are undoubtedly even more that I’ve forgotten due to the influence of  the “G” in my “G&T”—requires immense knowledge. All this wisdom was in the room; men and women, tenants and landowners, old and young spoke to me about their love of the land and of the wildlife that shares it, and demonstrated a deep knowledge of the soils beyond the scope of textbook learning. 

However, the feedback that I received during my speech illustrated to me how deeply my fellow farmers feel misunderstood by the wider public. The audience nodded enthusiastically as I spoke of my excitement about the current age of farming which—though not without its challenges—is a time when technology means we can learn from farmers across the world. But heads bowed when I spoke of my sadness that, despite this, our nation has never been less informed about where its food comes from and farmers are often feeling vilified or ignored.

We had laughed and joked throughout the evening, but this is a subject that holds no humour: there is a feeling of despondency about the fly-tipping that is spoiling our beloved countryside, about the hare coursers and unruly dogs that are terrorising livestock and wildlife, about the rural crime that leaves many farmers feeling less safe in their homes.

As I reached the end of my speech, I encouraged my fellow farmers to throw open the farm gate by using social media, the parish magazine and letters to officials and members of parliament, to get our voice heard by the public and those making decisions. We must share the highlights and hardships of farming life and remind the nation that we are growing food for the industrial cities and the beautiful villages, from London to Land’s End to Lerwick. We are UK farming, and we are not a flyover state.