Can a royal crusade save British farmers?

WESTCOUNTRY, United Kingdom — Rolling hills, mooing cows and the sight of a tractor chugging down a winding, country lane: The English countryside offers a tranquil and culturally rich image.

But the picture is fading and the rural infrastructure that spawned it is under threat.

Enter one very high-profile champion — not quite the gallant white knight, but a real life prince nonetheless.

The problems besetting rural Britain are so dire that on July 22 Prince Charles launched his Prince’s Countryside Fund to save what he has dubbed "one of the greatest treasures of our nation."

The charity intends to provide grants to farmers in times of crisis, such as tuberculosis outbreaks and flooding, and help save the United Kingdom’s local rural culture, landscape and communities.

One of the biggest concerns for the heir to the British throne is the decline of the farming community and the decreasing number of young people entering the industry. The average age of farmers in the U.K. is 59, with 33 percent aged 65 years or older and only 3 percent aged under 35, according to the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

"The important thing is to ensure that rural skills are maintained and young people have a chance to take part in rural businesses," the prince said, speaking earlier this month on the BBC’s Countryfile program.

Stephen Burdge, an organic beef farmer in the Mendips Hills, said, “We are OK in the short term. These old guys will rumble on until they are 70, 80. But in 15 to 20 years there is going to be a severe skills shortage.”

At 28, Burdge is a rarity in the farming community and welcomes the prince’s plans to help young farmers.

“I would support anything like that," Burdge said. "It is fantastic to encourage young people to come into the industry.”

The farming industry is in desperate need of the reinvigoration normally brought by young people entering an industry in the modern era.

In previous generations, farming was predominantly about livestock management. But increasingly a deeper understanding of consumer and administrative finesse is needed.

“They [older farmers] are very staid in their ways," Burdge said. "That is all they know, they won’t open their eyes to other things, like organic or the Stewardship schemes.”

Upon returning from college, Burdge encouraged his father to think about the Stewardships scheme — an initiative where farmers are paid to conserve the countryside.

The National Union of Farmers believes that while the fund demonstrates the importance Prince Charles places on rural communities and farming, “farmers would prefer to derive a proper return from the market rather than rely on charitable handouts.”

The contributions made by donors to the Prince’s Countryside Fund will be distributed through schemes to improve skills and secure the future of farming, as well as tackling hardship directly through grants.

McDonald’s U.K., one of the fund's highest-profile donors, said it recognized the importance of the farmer to the rural community and the significance of the rural community to British life.

Brian Mullens, senior vice-president for McDonald's U.K., said: “It is important to us that we continue to have a strong and stable agricultural industry in Britain because we source so much of our food locally.”

The ramifications of rural decline for retailers such as MacDonald’s U.K. — which sources 100 percent of its beef, pork, eggs and organic milk from British and Irish farmers — are significant.

In recent years, British consumers have also increased their demand for locally sourced food. Previously organic produce was the ‘in’ thing but now with the recession consumers are supporting their local economies.

According to recent research by Mintel, a provider of international market intelligence, Britain consumes £4.8 billion worth of locally-sourced food a year, three times more than organic produce. IGD, the food and grocery experts, have found that one third of consumers specifically purchase locally sourced food, which is double the number compared to 2006.

The Prince’s scheme is also welcomed by village communities already feeling the effects of rural decline. Many communities have become dormant. Jan Knott, Rector of the St.Peter’s church in the Somerset village of Marksbury said that while a “sense of community was automatic in yesteryears, we are much more insular now.”

Villagers link the dormant nature of their communities directly to land and housing issues that affect both farmers and villagers. Land and village houses are expensive and often are the Achilles’ heel for young people wishing to remain in the countryside or farmers wishing to expand their business.

The price of prime country properties has risen by 8 percent in the past year alone, according to the global residential and commercial consultants, Knight Frank. On average an acre of land costs £5,769 in today’s market compared with only £2,500 in 2000. Knight Frank are predicting further increases as a result of land shortages and increased demand.

Often it is only "townies" — urban professionals and celebrities — who can afford to buy homes in the countryside, causing further fracturing of the community.

It is has fallen to the annual village fair to bring the community together, but even that has become an uphill struggle. One of the organizers of this years Marksbury fair, Stewart Mockford, said that of a 110 houses in the village, only 10 people took up the call for fair volunteers.

Peter Collins, whose land played host to this year’s fair, said: “It is sad. All rural life is going. That is why things like the fair are important.”

They all agreed it was important for the prince to help support rural communities.

Farmers, retailers and consumers are calling for decisive action to stem the tide of decline. But only time will tell if the prince’s fund is enough to stop villages turning into ghost towns.