Life Support

3rd April 2012

Livestock auction marts offer a life line to agricultural communities – and not just in financial terms by ensuring that farmers realise the best price for their livestock. Bagshaws auctioneer Alastair Sneddon has worked at Derbyshire-based Bakewell Market since the late 1970s and shares his thoughts on why today's livestock auction markets are more important than ever for the continued well being and success of UK farmers and their businesses.

Farming can be a lonely and stressful profession and livestock auction markets play a key role in bringing farmers together. A weekly or fortnightly trip to market offers some light relief and an escape from the day-to-day grind, as well as a chance to catch up with friends and, if required, more structured and professional support.

So not only can you keep your bank balance in good shape, by realising the very best possible price for your livestock, but today’s modern and revitalised markets also offer the chance to maintain your social life as well as your health and general well being.

We have many weekly visitors to our Monday market day who simply come along to catch up with farming friends over a hearty meal. Others may come to buy or sell livestock, but also take the opportunity to nip into our drop-in centre with minor health issues and ailments. There was a time that you could also get a haircut – sadly that business didn’t take off at Bakewell Market. But I know there are plenty of other markets across the UK where it has and the resident barber is kept very busy on market day.

Ours is a relatively new market – it moved from its original site in Bakewell to make way for town centre development in 1998. But it is still very much in the heart of the town and I think that’s also a major draw for visitors. They can come to market to do business, but they can also pop to the bank or to see their accountant, for example, while they’re here. We’re in a great location.

That said, the new out-of-town markets dotted across the UK tend to make sure that these services are also on hand to visitors. Local banks, solicitors and advisers take ‘kiosks’ on site. No doubt they drum up some new custom and farmers visiting the market can get a few other important jobs done and make the most of their day away from the farm.

Markets have always been a centre for farmers’ social lives – that’s nothing new. A chance to catch up with familiar farming faces and to ‘chew the fat’ has always been a draw for them, whether they’re selling stock or not. For some it may be the only company they have all week – a welcome break from what can be a somewhat isolated profession. And for some, particularly the single older male farmers, it’s the chance to enjoy a proper ‘home-cooked’ meal. I have to say that our ‘sit-down’ café is one of the market’s biggest attractions. The food is first-class and it’s certainly something that I look forward to on market day, so I’m in no doubt that many buyers and vendors feel the same way. They even serve proper puddings with custard. Bakewell Market’s drop-in medical clinic was set up 10 years ago. It followed NHS research that showed that the health of people working in agriculture tended to be slightly poorer than in other professions. It highlighted that this was, in part, due to the fact that farmers found it difficult to keep appointments at their local surgery during the day. So the NHS set up the clinic, which has a nurse and a physiotherapist, and no appointment is necessary – you simply turn up on the day and wait to be seen. The centre offers farmers time to talk to a health professional – some GPs don’t have that. It can also deal with minor problems, like in-grown toe nails (a common farmer complaint apparently), or simply take a blood pressure reading to monitor your health. Anything more serious and farmers are referred back to their own GP and are then ‘in the system’ and on their way to getting proper treatment. Farmers were reluctant to use the centre at first, but now I’m sure they’d miss it if it were gone. It’s busy every market day.

Other popular services include Bagshaws’ farm bureau service, which helps farmers with regulations, paperwork and animal movement records. And there is also an information centre – a little like the Citizens’ Advice Bureau – where free advice is available to farmers on any business issues.

We also have an agricultural chaplain on site – someone whom farmers can speak to freely and confidentially about their problems. That’s another essential service for a community where isolation can be an issue – it’s a safety net if people need it.

The market can meet all your needs – financial, physical and spiritual. There really is a wealth of reasons to come here, whether or not you’re buying or selling livestock. The Livestock Auctioneers’ Association campaigns tirelessly to support the UK’s livestock markets, representing the markets’ interests to government and other official bodies. It really is vital that these markets remain open, viable and thriving for the continued success – and well-being – of not only the farming community but also the wider agricultural sector.

For me, the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease really brought home what the market and market day means to the farming community. Putting the financial devastation aside for one moment, there was a huge social void when the market was closed. It’s no exaggeration to say that funerals took place without any mourners because no one knew that someone had passed away. It was a very sad time on so many levels. And when we re-opened the market I think people appreciated what it meant and still means to them on a social level, as well as a business one. Yes, it is a place to pick up important news and vital information. But for many it really is a life line – both in terms of their business, as well as their physical and spiritual well being.