FARMERS WEEKLY’S “War on Red Tape” survey last July highlighted the areas of regulation that really make readers” blood boil. Six months on, three typical arable farmers explain how little has changed – the main problems still being repetition and over-simplistic questions.

When asked which bit of red tape they would condemn to the rubbish heap first, Keith Snowball had no hesitation. “Farm assurance schemes; because we don”t get anything back.” Record keeping no one ever seems to check is also a particular irritant.

William Gemmill has a similar view. “For me it”s doing my CPD points. It”s an administrative nightmare for very little recognition.”

When asked which bit of red tape brought most benefit all three farmers were in broad agreement. “IACS forms without a doubt. I”ll happily fill in anything that gives me a financial benefit,” says Mr Gemmill. Kevin Littleboy likes the single farm payment for the same reason. “I cannot understand anyone whinging about filling in forms that they get paid for.”

As a contractor, Mr Snowball sees things from a slightly different perspective. “The Entry Level Scheme may help give us a better image. Every farm in the country would be doing something for the environment. But that is a bit tongue in cheek, farmers do a lot for the environment anyway.

Much of the red tape tangle remains a sore point for farmers, but are there benefits, for the environment for example? Mr Snowball says set-aside brought the most benefit on his farm, Mr Gemmill adding that ELS and cross-compliance will be the greatest benefit in future. “LEAF has also done a lot to promote good farming practice.”

More sensitive

Mr Littleboy praises a project he joined last year. “I joined the RSPB voluntary scheme. The RSPB mapped the farm and there were 50 different species. I use the map so that I can be more sensitive to the higher population areas. I”ve made other alterations to benefit the bird population – my hedges are now taller and wider, for example.”

The consensus of the three was that the consumer gains most from assurance schemes. “I think we produce food to a very high standard anyway, but I”ve got to concede that schemes give food traceability,” says Mr Snowball.

The Little Red Tractor scheme gets Mr Littleboy”s vote: “It”s the only scheme promoting British food.”

Opinions varied on whether the Voluntary Initiative would stave off a pesticide tax. “I sincerely hope it does,” says Mr Gemmill. “I will feel betrayed by the government if it doesn”t, having fully supported VI. If there were a pesticide tax it would send the wrong message to the consumer – if you have to tax it, it must be bad. Farmers should support VI as it shows we”re being responsible.”

Mr Snowball believes that despite any amount of jumping through hoops and bending over backwards, eventually the tax will still be brought in one way or another. “Government and public perception about pesticide residues is not going to change. Some residue levels now are virtually unobtainable without banning the product.”

A lot of schemes are well received in principle, and none of the three wanted to eradicate any one scheme or agency. Mr Gemmill would like to do a bit of pruning: “I”d trim them all down as there are so many offshoots to each one. There”s a lot of amalgamation that could be done.”

Mr Littleboy is concerned with the effect it has, and will have, to treat farmers and their employees as if they have no common sense. “We are living in such a nanny state that the idea that anyone has enough common sense to work in, or run, a business has gone out of the window.”

On the subject of silly questions, Mr Snowball has a favourite. “An inspector saw a cat in the yard while we were talking. He wanted to know our worming policy for it.”

Mixed reception

FARMERS WEEKLY’S red tape campaign brought a mixed reception, Mr Gemmill thinking it essential to bring to light what”s going on. “There needs to be some careful thought about what is the best way to proceed through this. Farmers have got to be given time to farm. Also we must be sure that we don”t end up at a disadvantage to Europe and the rest of the world. There needs to be a common sense approach.”

Mr Littleboy is a supporter because it highlights the issue, but says: “Whether it helps is another matter.”

The consensus seems to be that there is too much repetition and nit-picking, and not enough common sense.

Can the government be persuaded to eradicate the first two and assume the farming community has a fair quantity of the latter? If not, frustration seems certain to continue.

DEFRA’s Whole Farm Appraisal is set for full rollout in September 2005. Perhaps that will be the mechanism through which regulation is finally streamlined?

Who’s who

Kevin Littleboy farms 242ha (600 acres) of potatoes, winter wheat, rape, barley and grass for sheep in Thirsk, North Yorks

Keith Snowball is a farmer and agricultural contractor who farms 101ha (250 acres) of wheat and oilseed rape. He also harvests approximately 1214ha (3000 acres) of cereals yearly for 13 main clients

William Gemmill is an agricultural consultant for Strutt & Parker specialising in farm business management

RED TAPE

Administrative nightmare

Repetition annoying

Need for streamlining

Can confuse consumers

Nanny state frustration