Bench Across Britain: Farming community calls for 'more support' and quashes subsidies 'misperception'

The Cheshire Show is a world away from Westminster - but amid the agriculture machinery displays, the pony club races and pens with the best of British livestock, we have smuggled our unwieldy parliamentary bench to an industry at the mercy of changing weather and politics.

On the seat of power in a sheep pen in a far corner of the show, Ruth Howard, a ruminant nutritionist, laments the rising price of animal food. "Over the last two years in particular we've seen massive increases," she says.

"I would say about two or three years ago our price for a compound feed would be about £200 a tonne. Last winter we saw them rocket to £400.

"Our motto is that we feed the animals that feed the nation, and we need support to be able to do that.

"The subsidies that are out there have helped soften the blow to the housewife in your shopping basket. Without that and without the support behind agriculture, the cost of living crisis will only get worse."

The agricultural budget is a common theme of conversation. Sheep farmer Richard Gate says: "Subsidies are given to us and there's a misperception that it's to the farmer and it is not. It is to help the farmers produce cheaper food for the general public."

Responding to the launch of party manifestos, the National Farmers Union (NFU) has expressed concern that while the Conservative Party has committed to increasing the farming budget by £1bn over the course of the next parliament, the Labour Party is yet to give a clear commitment to a budget.

Rachel Hallos, vice president of the NFU, told Sky News: "That does concern us. We need to know what sort of budget is going to be allocated to farming.

"It's as simple as that. I think the devil is in the detail and there doesn't seem to be overly amounts of detail."

Labour do say in their manifesto that "food security is national security" and promise to "champion British farming", with a target for half of all food purchased across the public sector to be sourced locally.

At the Cheshire Show, we meet dairy farmer Ray Brown who has recently spoken to both Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer. He was impressed with their understanding of the issues.

"We're very, very reliant on imported food," he said. "And we only need to look at the recent events around the world. It's made us surely think about food security."

He warns that some environmental schemes linked to government payments to farmers are forcing them to stop using good farming land.

Mr Brown says: "The main problem is the government thinking through the policies they're bringing out, making sure that we can firstly feed everybody and bring environmental schemes out that make sense, use areas which we can't grow food on, rather than letting land go, which is prime land for producing food."

Andrew Dutton, from Cheshire Farm Machinery, says his sales are down this year due to the wet spring that has dulled crop and produce yields. He says farmers are lacking confidence to invest.

"We need more support for our farmers. We need to back British farming. We need to buy locally, buy British. The farmers need some confidence going forward that they're going to receive the funding that they need."

Held in Tatton, the Cheshire Show sits in a safe Conservative constituency once held by chancellor George Osborne. The red rosettes on the prize bulls are unlikely to be worn by winners in this constituency on election night, but there's uncertainty.

Mr Dutton says: "I'm still on the bench really?"

He taps the green cushions on our House of Commons chair. "Personally, I voted Conservative my whole life. But no one's offering what I want at the moment."

A passing woman in jodhpurs says "I'm voting Reform, and a lot of my friends are voting Reform", but she decides not to take a seat to tell us more.

We do, however, manage to speak to two horsemen fresh from jousting, dressed as knights, in the main arena. Both come from rural, Conservative-held seats in the Midlands. Clutching an axe, Sam Conway from Knights of Nottingham says he traditionally votes Conservative but wants "clarity and honesty".

He adds: "I don't feel like I've had any of that so far. I don't feel like anyone's come out with some clear policies. We see a lot of political jousting."

Sam's fellow knight Mark Lacey leans forward on his broadsword and adds: "It's just time for a change, and let's see what happens. And I'm happy for it to change.

"I've lived in a blue area my whole life, but let's have a change. Let's see what somebody else does."

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On our journey across Britain - to Cornwall, Gloucester, Luton, Southall, Kent, Leicester and now Cheshire - there is a lot of indecision. Shy Tories seem extremely shy while Labour voters question whether their vote will bring the changes they want.

The farming community certainly wants more assurances from Starmer, but it also feels like this area, which is not usually an election battleground for Labour, is open to some form of change. And if Labour can capture a seat like Tatton, it would be a killer blow to the heart of their rivals.