Last week the Prime Minister spoke at the National Farmer Union annual conference to outline the next steps designed to support our farmers, improve food security and protect our environment.

A glance over to Europe gives ample evidence of what happens to politicians, political parties and Governments when they ignore farmers and their agricultural communities. Paris, in a moment of historical repetitiveness, was laid siege not by the cannons of Prussia but by the tractors of French Farmers. Brussels saw rioting as farmers from across Europe came to protest against stringent environmental regulations that threatened to put them out of business and reduce food productivity.

Fortunately for the rural communities of Europe, the bureaucrats and urbanites blinked and shelved their proposals. However, it is a stark warning that we cannot afford to mistreat our farmers and rural producers. Outside of the forty-year-old Common Agricultural Policy, we have created a new initiative known as the Environmental Land Management scheme. This initiative is set to ensure that farmers are paid “public money for public good” which includes food production. It also is backed by a guaranteed £2.4bn spent on agriculture every year.

The Environmental Land Management scheme has fared remarkably well. Unlike European policy, it has sought to strike the right balance between food production and environmental responsibility. Through its core pillars, it has offered support for farmers to improve biodiversity, landscape recovery, enhance access and most importantly continue to produce food. Early issues have been rectified by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which has listened and responded to farmers concerns by amending and tweaking the policy for maximum positive impact.

This is not to say that the job is done and that we can all relax, but it does show what can be achieved by listening and working together with our agricultural community rather than imposing policy from on high. Those who work the land often understand it best, they recognise that not only are their livelihoods dependent on its care and nurture but so are the health and wealth of the nation.

So while there will be a steady evolution of the Environmental Land Management Scheme, we must also question what more we can do to support our rural (and coastal) producers. There are a few steps we can take in the short term.

First, let's make food education a core pillar of our learning system. Our school canteens (if they even exist) are not home to high quality, locally produced food but more often than not to fast, cheap, ultra-processed food. This has to change. Schools like The Grove in Totnes have recognised the importance of high-quality food and freshly prepared on-site meals and the role they play in improving diets, attention and behaviour. So successful have they been, that they recently won a national award recognising their efforts. We cannot hope to improve diets and health outcomes unless we start at the earliest possible stages.

Second, farmers are too often at the mercy of behemoth outlets (i.e. supermarkets) who chop and change their contracts and conditions. Such last-minute changes can hold farmers hostage causing huge losses and uncertainty. The supermarkets and the major purchasers must adhere to a national code. Riverford’s excellent petition would go a long way to seeing our local producers respected and looked after.

Third, as the Prime Minister detailed last week, we must make it easier to shorten supply chains and create more easily accessible ways to local food. Whether this be through procurement chains or by making it easier for farmers to open up farm shops. The distance between where our food is produced and our plate is often enormous. Changing that will only help improve understanding, diet and profitability.

We owe our farmers a great deal and we can show that support by being seasonal, supporting local producers and recognising the hugely important role they play in keeping this land green and pleasant.

Over the coming months, I will be hosting a series of open meetings for local residents to come and discuss issues affecting them. The next meeting will be held from 5.30-6.30pm on Thursday 7th March at Townstal Community Hall, Davis Road, Dartmouth, TQ6 9LJ. I look forward to meeting Dartmouth residents then, and please do look out for future meeting dates across South Devon.