The first Monday after Twelfth Night was traditionally marked as the first day of agricultural work after Christmas and the beginning of the agricultural year. To celebrate Plough Monday the plough was paraded through the streets of the town or village to collect money. Local traditions saw mummers plays and molly dancing performed, or straw bears paraded through the streets adding to the occasion. With faces blackened in disguise, ploughboys would pull up the gardens of landowners who did not pay up. As well as collecting money, the main purpose of the occasion was to bless the plough. A whole community would come together to celebrate the first day of agriculture and the work of ploughboys.
We are now in the 21st century but Plough Monday is still celebrated in regions of the UK, particularly in the East of England (other regions celebrate it too – even in London there will be a Molly dancers tour of Greenwich this evening). Last year was tough for many farmers and for the food system in general. Erratic weather gave us droughts followed by excessive rain resulting in flooding. It is estimated that extreme weather in 2012 cost British farmers £1.3bn. And that is before taking into account the sow stall ban, milk price cuts and other policies impacting the industry.
While some respond to this insecurity with calls for genetically modified drought- or flood-resistant crops, and others call for better extreme weather insurance, I call for the return of Plough Monday. Let us celebrate the plough and the farmers who survived what was one of the toughest years many had ever seen. Let us celebrate British agriculture and what it does for local communities, economies, the environment and our health. We can’t control the weather but we can control the food we buy and the demand we create that supermarkets respond to. It’s a new year. It’s a new Plough Monday. Let’s make 2013 the year of the farmer and support our agriculture through whatever tough times this year may bring.