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TALKING POINT

TALKING POINT-JOHN CLARKE

WATCHING TV over the festive period reminded me that I am of an age when every Saturday there was wrestling on the telly. Few of the contests were more uneven than farmers v supermarkets.

Supermarkets have got farmers in an “armlock”. This is one of our Prime Minister’s unhelpful remarks. Even less helpful is that there has been no reduction in the armlock. In a recent interview farm minister Mrs Beckett said there is 86% satisfaction with rural services. From my non-scientific surveying, the satisfaction level among farmers struggles to exceed 8.6%.

Farmers will have to remove the armlock. Today, (Jan 21) I am part of a delegation meeting representatives of Sainsbury’s. The aim is not to remove the armlock but to show the retailer that we are in an armlock.

POLITICAL INFLUENCE 

Farmers no longer have the numbers to exert political influence. What has moved in farmers’ direction is the willingness of the public to get involved. Food scares and the growth in consumer organisations have created an opportunity for a farming voice to be heard.

With that in mind, the Fair Price for GM Free Milk Alliance, a broad coalition of farmers, environmentalists and others, has been formed. We are campaigning for a farmgate price for milk that will enable farmers to farm sustainably and also sell milk at a profit. Our canvassing has found that:

  • 85% of the public are opposed to GM feed being used for cattle.
  • 90% of the public believe farmers should receive a fair farm gate price.

As part of our campaign we recently had our first meeting with senior representatives of Sainsbury’s.

I arrived at the first meeting with a feeling of antagonism towards supermarkets. They are destroying our rural culture, social structure and history. Farm incomes for milk are negative and there seems little prospect of a future.

One of the opening questions was: Does J Sainsbury PLC recognise the importance of small farms?

The answer was enlightening. For five to ten minutes the reply did not mention “small farms”; did not mention farm income; did not mention farmgate prices; did not mention 40 farms driven out of milk every week. They were totally unaware of the farming crisis. Talk was all about the market and their discussions with the wholesalers. My anger rose. Our picketing and campaigning needs to be maintained. The public should be made aware of how we are abused.

 Why are they oblivious to the rural crisis? Why are they unaware of the plight of the dairy farms? Why do they believe that GM feed cannot affect milk? The answers to these questions and hence enlightenment occurred on the train journey home from the first meeting.

  • Supermarkets don’t deal with small farms.
  • The government doesn’t know about farmers’ predicament.
  • Their knowledge of GM was limited – again no one to tell them.
  • The traditional farm unions don’t deliver the case for farms to either the government or the supermarkets.

The problems between farmers and supermarkets can be summed up in one word – communication.

SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY

 Farmers are paid less for milk than the cost of production. Sainsbury’s customers do not expect Sainsbury’s milk to come from cows fed with GM maize. Sainsbury’s believes it has a corporate social responsibility. The above issues should keep a social responsibility department busy.

No one is informing the government or the supermarkets of the effect on small farms or the social structure of the countryside. Sainsbury’s has made a good start. It has opened negotiations with the representatives from small farms organisations. Here is an opportunity for it to take a lead.

Our canvassing shows there is a big opportunity for any supermarket. The supermarket must of course listen to the message coming from farmers and the public. Farmers must be paid above the cost of production. That will allow them not only to farm at a profit but also sustainably and in a way expected by the public.

TALKING POINT

6 September 2002

TALKING POINT

Moans from some sheep farmers about their wool product has finally driven me to write. Recent comments by sheep vet John Vipond, on the so-called virtues of the almost wool-less Wiltshire Horn, reinforced my feeling. I thought that argument had long since been scotched. It is hardly a suitable breed to replace hill breeds, the source of most of the UK clip; the poor things would get too cold.

Why reject opportunity to increase income from sheep? Certainly, the habits and choices of sheep rearers need examination – and I refer solely to their business choices. Given current challenges to their income, there is every reason to consider other income-earning potential of sheep.

Few farmers appear to appreciate the heritable nature of wool quality and wool weight. If you mate two differently fleeced sheep, the lamb will produce qualities and fleece weights mid-way between the two. So the three-tier stratified meat production system, which since the 1970s has supplied the main volume of meat lambs to mass retail, represents the vehicle by which the wool product can be improved and exploited.

Producers should consider the opportunities better woolled animals offer. Its possible, for example, to use white-faced and white-legged sheep on our hills and mountains. These also offer valuable pedigree markets. Cheviot and Welsh Mountain breeds have been used in this way for generations.

If farmers are determined to retain a black-faced breed, and they are pretty, they can ensure no transference of black fibre into the main fleece area.

Why should the wool textile industry pay for a low-quality product? It is poorly presented, coarse, full of kemp and black fibre, and often contaminated with paint and dyestuffs that are apparently able to fool sheep breeders into purchasing dyed flocks, because the phenotypic appearance is made to seem similar.

Most of the UK clip has slipped into a carpet wool category since the early 1970s while the sheep producing sector had a party on the back of Britains EU membership and a fantastic new market for lamb. It forgot everything else in its scramble to exploit new opportunities. The decline in quality of the UK clip is traceable from then.

The carpet industry is a low-priced sector for wool fibre which does not pay much for wool. And other fibres will substitute wool fibre at certain price points. Yet even this industry requires a minimum quality level. The technical director of one of the worlds largest carpet producers told me last year that, with established demand for pale light-reflecting floor coverings, he could like me spot a black fibre at 20 paces.

Black fibre cannot be bleached, and it is difficult to dye into repeatable dark colours. Kemp fibre is itchy and represents a fire hazard to processing plant worth millions. And dyed and paint-marked wool is useless.

Dont forget there is a world wool shortage. Average price per kg on world markets has risen, now that the Australian wool overhang has gone. But the valuable markets are associated with clothing and fashion – achievable only by 5% of UK production.

That was not the case in the 60s, before the meat bonanza. Then, even in Swaledale, home of the hairy black-faced hill breed, it was unusual to find animals with any trace of black in the fleecewool. Black-woolled lambs were hidden by their embarrassed owners.

Shame, John Vipond, on your apparently low business drive. If you want to know how to make money from wool, you only have to ask.

Money can be made

from wool, you just

have to do the job

right, says

Ann Walker

&#8226 Ann Walker has worked in a senior strategic role within the textile industry for a number of years. Her original research in wool production received an international award and Ann continues to study links between wool production and the textile industry. Ann has also responded to the minister on behalf of the British Wool Marketing Board with several surveys.

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TALKING POINT

30 August 2002

TALKING POINT

Unless it finds a new

direction soon, the

UKwheat industry

will go into terminal

decline, says Jeff Cox

As the combines finish the last of the UK wheat harvest in the south and continue their work in the north, its time we found a new direction for UK wheat.

We need to find innovative ways of creating value for everyone in the UK wheat business; new directions that make our industry sustainable and worth investing in. Otherwise it faces terminal decline.

The truth is that wheat prieced at just over £50/t or even £60/t isnt sustainable for anyone. UK grain prices could recover a little in the coming few years, particularly if we join the k. But with the USA increasing farm subsidies, prices are in real danger of being depressed still further.

Amid all this uncertainty one thing is sure. Traditional grain markets are unlikely to offer more than mediocre returns for our wheat for the foreseeable future. Regardless of US policy, lower-cost eastern European and Black Sea producers will make sure of that – not to mention competition from the global maize industry which rules the feed grain market.

The UK wheat industry cannot continue to serve its established domestic and export markets alone. These will not generate sufficient returns to justify investments for growers or the supply industry.

We must accept that continued upstream improvements in increasing yields or cutting costs wont offer enough extra long-term value to prevent the continued, steady decline.

Instead, our thinking needs to be focussed downstream at our markets, innovatively and laterally, to build the extra value we need into our product. The sort of value that will give us a worthwhile competitive advantage.

Where will this value come from? Improved raw materials that provide extra efficiencies and quality to processors, perhaps. Or even better, foodstuffs with unique properties that generate extra consumer value at retail level. Properties that could lift the value of wheat in a loaf of bread from under £300/t to say £2000/t.

In the food market we have huge potential for improvement by focussing on three primary areas: taste and texture; health; and, convenience. Lets look in detail at the protein, starch and fibre that are our core products and see how we can give them increased value.

Then, lets turn our attention to specialist products for a host of improved, non-food applications. The possibilities are as endless as they are exciting and they are achievable with existing technologies.

Within the wheat plant we have a vast reservoir of genes. We also have the advanced analytical equipment necessary to pinpoint the molecular characteristics we need. And the marker-assisted systems to reliably build these characteristics into high output varieties through conventional plant breeding.

Our real challenge today is to work closely with the food industry and interest groups to identify the most valuable areas for development from the market perspective, then focus our efforts on developing varieties and growing regimes to achieve them.

By harnessing the inherent genetic variation, modern technology and accumulated knowledge at our disposal in a co-ordinated way across the farming and food industry we can seize the many opportunities open to us.

We have to do so rapidly in parallel with traditional variety and agronomic improvement programmes if we are to ensure our wheat industry has a future in the increasingly open, competitive and subsidy-free market we face.

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TALKING POINT

23 August 2002

TALKING POINT

Granny Flindt is a lady of considerable age and formidable wisdom. Only she knows how to skin a rabbit in fewer than 10 seconds. She alone knows the magic recipe that makes her flapjack sticky enough to mend punctures and remove fillings. However, Ive always disagreed with her during the inevitable "nature versus nurture" debates that happen in a house full of children.

"Its all in the egg, you know," shed say when proudly watching one of her 11 grandchildren. "Theres nothing you can change. Its there for life when youre born." Its at this stage that I would ask her why she bothered being a magistrate for 25 years. If you cant change someones behaviour by threatening them with prison, why bother? This would usually bring on an outbreak of hearing loss that often happens with gentlefolk of four-score years.

But now it would seem that she might be right after all. A couple of weeks ago, it was announced that there is a gene responsible for all sorts of antisocial behaviour and outbreaks of general yobbery. Researchers had shown that many of those responsible for such behaviour are anything but responsible for it. They cant help it. Its in the genes. "Its all in the egg."

This news comes not long after the discovery of the fat gene. When people say "I only have to look at a bar of chocolate and I put on 2lb," they might be right. It can be only a matter of time before they find the "must go down the Jolly Flowerpots and have three pints of Village Elder and a ham and two eggs bap" gene. Im sure it must exist; after all, I get the irresistible urge to do just that three times a week. Its not my fault; I was just made that way.

When news of the crime gene broke, I searched the papers for some comment from the boys at Greenpeace, and, more specifically, Lord Melchett. Nobody had thought to ask them the blindingly obvious question: If genetic modification of people could eliminate crime, would they oppose it? Would there be good-GM (elimination of crime) and bad-GM (herbicide-resistant maize)? Would people identified as having been genetically modified run the risk of being hacked down and stamped upon by dozens of white-boiler-suit-clad protesters, watched by armies of well primed TV cameras?

Hold on a minute: Hacking down crops? Trampling and destroying other peoples property? That rings a bell. Yes of course. Its exactly the anti-social behaviour and general yobbishness that is exhibited by those possessing the crime gene! Next time they are arrested for trashing someones crop, lets hope they volunteer to give gene samples for analysis. It would all make perfect sense: Those who think such vandalism and destructiveness is justified to protest against genetic modification could be turned – by genetic modification – into rational human beings willing to argue their case in a more civilised way! Ah, sweet irony.

Then again, in September 2000 at Norwich Crown Court, Lord Melchett and his 27 fellow eco-warriors were acquitted of the charge of criminal damage. And in June 2001, seven more were cleared of aggravated trespass by Weymouth magistrates.

I have never understood how on earth they got away with it. We always used to joke that when Granny Flindt was a JP, you could get off any charge, no matter how serious, if you slipped her a nice knitting pattern that she could take home after the case. The Hampshire police used to reckon it was a stitch-up. Perhaps such practices are more widespread than we thought.

Its all in the

genes…or is it, asks

Charlie Flindt?

Would people identified as having been genetically modified run the risk of being hacked down and stamped upon by dozens of white-boiler-suit-clad protesters…?

&#8226 Charlie Flindt is a tenant of the National Trust farming 360ha (910 acres) with his wife Hazel at Hinton Ampner in Hants. Hazel runs the livestock units and Charlie runs the arable enterprise.

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TALKING POINT

16 August 2002

TALKING POINT

Consumer confidence

in food purchases

will not be helped by

widespread labelling,

some of it

meaningless, says

Ann Tutwiler

Debate over biotechnology products has raged around the world, often with more heat than light. The emotional nature of the debate has shaken consumer confidence in many countries. With conventional and biotech products co-existing in the global food system, trade tensions have flared as government regulators have tried to restore confidence.

To instill consumer confidence, government regulations must be verifiable and enforceable. Not labelling meat, milk, eggs and processed products helps that goal since it is impossible to detect genetically modified DNA or protein in the final products. But labelling other products, such as vegetable oil or refined sweeteners, which dont contain modified DNA or proteins, wont instill consumer confidence. Since it is impossible to detect genetically modified DNA or protein in these products, neither the government nor consumers can verify if such a label is truthful.

To instill consumer confidence, labels must provide information that allows them to make choices. If consumers choose to avoid biotechnology products, they will also want to avoid products that contained genetically modified ingredients. So labelling foods where DNA cannot be detected does not guarantee that a product was produced without biotechnology, since there is no scientific difference between a GM and a non-GM product.

Labeling all products that contain or were produced from biotechnology does not provide choice, either. Food companies will not offer products that must be labeled. It would be more useful for governments to establish criteria for labeling products that were not produced from GM products. That would provide consumers who wish to avoid biotechnology and companies who wish to serve them with an enforceable system.

Government policies should strive to reduce trade tensions. Since conventional and biotech products will co-exist in the global food system, governments must establish acceptable tolerances for mixing across categories. Those tolerances must be scientific and practical.

Food companies appear to be unwilling to label their products as containing or being derived from biotechnology and will demand products that meet legislated tolerances and traceability requirements. Commodity traders will have to provide those products, or risk rejection.

But, with the large volumes traded and different biotech varieties, it will be almost impossible for importers to meet these criteria.

Establishing tolerances for products approved in one country and not in another presents a challenge. Differences in the timing of product approvals creates trade barriers . Its unlikely that any given biotech product will be approved simultaneously in all producing and consuming countries.

Co-mingling of small quantities should be allowed if the product in question had regulatory approval in the exporting country.

All producers and consumers of seed, food and feed share a common interest in enhancing consumer confidence and avoiding trade conflicts. A regulatory regime that labels what is not detectable, and sets tolerances below what is practical does not provide tangible benefits for consumers and it will increase in trade tensions and conflicts. Such conflicts are in no ones interest.

In the long run, only practical, enforceable, and workable regulatory frameworks will build consumer confidence and acceptance.

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TALKING POINT

9 August 2002

TALKING POINT

However bad farming

prospects look, a

sensible policy

should ensure

survival until the tide

of agricultural

prosperity returns,

says Peter Day

Farming has experienced three dreadful years in 1999, 2000 and 2001. Although yield prospects look more promising after a drier autumn, winter and spring, price prospects look much worse than last year.

Sir Donald Curry published his report on farming and food in January and in July EU farm commissioner, Franz Fischler, published the Commissions initial proposals for the mid-term revue of CAP in 2006. The common thread is an increase in modulation to 10-20% and a cap on IACS payments at £190,000 or 2000 acres. In direct contrast, the US Farm Bill has given farmers a big rise in support payments.

The importance of an adequate and safe supply of food appears to be disregarded by both UK and Continental politicians who seem more concerned about environmental enhancement. Politicians and environmentalists appear to ignore that such altruistic philosophies work only if the industry is profitable.

So its no surprise that we have begun to see an increase in the number of farms offered for sale or to let on farm business tenancies. Should farmers quit an industry that receives nothing but unjustified criticism

For those who are not over-borrowed (a rent equivalent of not more than £60/acre) on good, productive land and who enjoy farming and have sons or daughters who want to follow them, the answer must be No. For those who are over-borrowed or have no successor, the answer is probably Yes.

There has never been so much uncertainty. Will we join the k, will the CAP be abandoned, and will interest rates remain low?

History teaches us that nothing lasts forever. The stock market boom and bust of 1999-2002 is testimony to that.

Perhaps, the most galling element of the endless carping against farming is that over-paid eurocrats, hell-bent on a federal Europe, are willing to penalise efficiency. That will be the consequence of creating more smaller production units which are less able to produce food at low cost thus ensuring greater reliance upon CAP support with financial implications for Europe.

The governments admitted failure in its handling of the foot-and-mouth crisis is evidence enough of the consequences of political ineptitude. It has therefore sought to use the EU as its scapegoat for further debacles by delegating control of our farming industry to Mr Fischler. That is a total dereliction of duty and one for which the public will pay a high price when famine replaces feast.

I suspect, like many, Britains membership of the k was a logical and beneficial step. But the probability that the government will delegate fiscal, legal and social legislation to Europe will, almost certainly, ensure the UKs rapid demise from its current world status.

We need to abandon CAP in its present form. It should be replaced with national agricultural policies which reflect national circumstances within agreed international trading criteria. Farmers should realise that no one in government is listening to them. If the public is to be made aware of the untruths propounded by politicians and lobby groups, they must deliver their message with greater assertion and clarity at whatever cost.

Meanwhile, for individual farmers committed to farming, a cautious approach to expansion and expenditure is essential. Only then can businesses be well placed to recoup losses when the tide of farming prosperity turns.

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TALKING POINT

2 August 2002

TALKING POINT

The Anderson F&M

report doesnt hide

the fact that a full

public inquiry is what

was really needed

DR Iain Anderson is a politically astute Scot and a wise choice for the Prime Minister to select as his chairman for the Lessons to be Learned Inquiry into the foot-and-mouth outbreak.

F&M cost the lives of more than 11m animals, destroyed many families and cost taxpayers in excess of £8bn. The Prime Minister was determined to avoid a public inquiry into what was described as the worst disaster to strike this country since World War II.

Instead of a public inquiry, we had the Curry Report into the future of farming, the scientific inquiries and now the Lessons to be Learned Inquiry.

Since the government refused to hold an open public inquiry, many counties held their own and even now the EU is holding an inquiry. We were told that the country could not afford the cost of a public inquiry but it appears that the total cost of all the other inquiries will exceed the that cost.

Did the Anderson inquiry and all the other inquiries provide the equivalent of a public inquiry? I attended the Anderson inquiry Press conference and Dr Iain Anderson confirmed to me that he was satisfied that his remit was to the standard of a public inquiry. But as a famous female acquaintance of a senior politician once said: He would say that, wouldnt he.

Many people have commented that Dr Anderson, while doing his regional visits, appeared moved by the many witnesses who gave evidence of their appalling experiences. But was his inquiry any more than a damage limitation exercise with a view to quietly putting the whole issue to bed? What was the true remit that he received from the Prime Minister?

A public inquiry would have been conducted by a judge who would have had the power to call witnesses under oath. Did Dr Anderson in his quiet way get to the truth? Was the Anderson inquiry influenced by the Cabinet Office which ran it? Dr Andersons remit was to report within six months, so that the country could prepare for the next outbreak and the "need for speed" was the other argument against a public inquiry. Has the requirement for a thorough inquiry come second to this goal of speed? Does the current phrase "broad and shallow" apply to this inquiry?

Did Dr Anderson look for skeletons, did he have a desire to find skeletons and if a skeleton hit him would he have been allowed to tell us? Perhaps we could ask the same question of a public inquiry? Is it in the public interest that the truth is always told? Many issues have not been addressed by Dr Anderson but is that part of the compromise to try to rebuild life in the countryside?

Those of us who wanted a public inquiry into F&M have to accept what the High Court judge said during our judicial review in February: "It was a political decision not to hold a public inquiry." Unfortunately the countryside is a political minority and minorities do not control ballot boxes.

I am sure the Prime Minister feels pleased with his decision not to hold a public inquiry, but he should remember that the truth has a habit of biting people when they least expect it. He still has some hurdles to jump such as the EU inquiry. Also, swill users are going to the High Court, seeking to establish that MAFF was responsible for the spread of F&M by failing in their regulatory duty by allowing Bobby Waugh to hold a licence. Heres hoping they succeed.

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TALKING POINT

19 July 2002

TALKING POINT

When is an acre not

an acre?When its

viewed from a

"spy-in-the-sky"

satellite, says

Charlie Flindt

What size is your farm? Lets be more specific: Choose a field, and ask yourself how big it is. Take, for instance, the first field that visitors to Flindt Towers see through the July downpours as they draw back the magnificent velvet curtains in the guest wing. Its not the prettiest sight at the moment, yellow set-aside with green patches indicating that, once again, the glyphosate hasnt done a 100% job.

And the brown mess shows weve just lobbed this years muck on it. You wont see it in next years Beautiful Hampshire Calendar. Its called Roe Hill, sometimes spelt Row Hill and Rough Hill. Those nice people at Rural Payments Agency know it by the intimate and romantic name of Field Data Printout One, Line Two. It is long and narrow, on the south side of a little valley, and like most of the fields here, runs the full range of soils from gravely loam, through chalk, up to the clay cap on the ridge at the top.

So just how big is this patch of finest Hampshire earth? The 15 farmers in the country who think only in hectares will have to excuse this bit for being in acres. According to the 1909 map, its 27.069 acres. The 1971 maps gave it as 26.99 acres, and when the National Trust swiped a bit off one end for tree planting, the figure on the first IACS form was 25.60 acres.

Then we put a strip of maize in, and this years IACS area is 25.03 acres. But for general planning such as seed ordering and sprayer filling, 24 acres usually works out about right. For seed calibration, The old Bamlett and the newer Amazone drills both give consistently high acreage figures at around 27 acres, so that figure is used for calibration.

Im happy using those figures, the RPA seemed happy with the figures; everyones happy. Can we abandon the cartography and get on with the farming? Not a chance. Over the horizon – quite literally – comes the latest little wheeze to enforce a lot more awkwardness. New ministry maps are coming, using "spy-in-the-sky" technology: A whole new set of areas to argue about, and the RPA reckons 10% of fields will need correcting. Its lucky weve hours of spare time to help out the government with its latest Doomsday Book, and fortunate, too, that we are so adept at paperwork; it is what makes us farmers.

There seems to be a little mathematical problem with "spy-in-the-sky" technology. Lets switch to metres: Roe Hill runs up the side of a valley, and it is quite steep for these parts – steep enough to make it hard work avoiding overlaps when drilling. According to my map reading, it drops 10m in 100m, about 6 degrees. Some basic trigonometry will tell you that a 100m line on that slope will look like a line 99.45m long when viewed from above. (Remember cosines?) So a 100m x 100m square might read one hectare on the ground, but our friendly "spy-in-the-sky" will argue that it is 0.9945ha. Not a huge variation, admittedly, but parts of the countryside are far steeper than Roe Hill. A 10ha field with a twenty-degree slope will only read 9.397ha when viewed from above, enough discrepancy to start causing problems.

Dont worry, new software no doubt will take this sort of thing into account, and problems will be minimal. Lets hope it doesnt come from the same department responsible for producing error-free IACS forms, thats all.

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TALKING POINT

12 July 2002

TALKING POINT

Despite the diversity

of farming, the

industry needs to

unite and pull together more than

at any point in

recent history,

says Henry Fell

FARMERS WEEKLYS leading article, "UK industry needs a united voice to turn catastrophe around" (Opinion, June 21) hit a number of nails firmly on the head. Thank goodness for your leadership and common sense.

But a key question remains – will anybody listen? Will anybody do anything about the problems besetting the UK farming industry? Or are most people so complacent, or so bound up with their own problems, that they lack the energy or the time to tackle our problems.

We live and work in a divided industry. The divisions are easy to find: Landowners, owner-occupiers, and tenants. Big farms and small farms and everything in between. Conventional versus organic farmers. Livestock and crop producers. Sadly, there is a decreasing number of young trained and inspired people. Then, we should not forget bird watchers and eco-activists buzzing around the fringes.

We make the mistake of believing that all this is an economic problem, that it will all go away once sterling weakens. Certainly the strength of the £ has affected us but it is not central and we could learn to live with that.

It is a political problem. Ever since the Repeal of the Corn Laws in the mid-19th century and the days of the industrial revolution, the British Treasury thinking has focused firmly on the virtues of importing cheap food and selling industrial products. Certainly, a couple of somewhat inconvenient wars intervened but they soon got back on track again with urban consumers support.

So, how do we set about containing that ? As FWs leader asked: How much longer must we tolerate UK politicians squandering what remains of our once great farm industry?

Certainly, the answer does not lie in voting politicians out of office. We do not have enough votes to accomplish that goal. No; our target has to be that of influencing the media for it is the media which control politics.

The RSPB knows and acts upon that fact, as does the Soil Association, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. But apparently we, in farming, have yet to learn that fact.

My colleagues and I in the Commercial Farmers Group have been talking with the NFU and the CLAB, and others, for more than two years. We have been pressing for a two-stage action plan. First, we want to see the creation of a highly professional, well informed, media relations group. Second, the creation of a Confederation of British Agriculture, along the lines of the Confederation of British Industry, in order to bring together all the disparate parts of the farming industry.

I wont say that we have made no progress, but it is not great. Of course, personal pride and status comes into this; we are dealing with human beings after all. But the issues at stake are more important than pride and status.

The political contrast with America could not be clearer. At the United States Department of Agriculture Outlook Conference earlier this year, US farm secretary, Ann Veneman said – "Homeland security is the cornerstone of all policy, agricultural and elsewhere" and "Food must be kept safe and never used as a weapon."

Can you imagine DEFRA secretary Margaret Beckett saying that, even less, Chancellor Gordon Brown? On this side of the Atlantic, we just continue to import infected meat.

So, I repeat the question – what are we going to do about it?

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TALKING POINT

28 June 2002

TALKING POINT

Government inaction

on UK agricultures

desperate state means

the time for being

polite has come to an

end, says John Clark

It is time to stop being polite about the problems afflicting UK farming. Why? A raft of reasons, including the governments refusal to grant a public inquiry into the foot-and-mouth crisis.

Then, its inaction in stopping illegal meat imports flooding into our country, the gross dragging of feet on the Curry Report, and the blatant message from ministers that no more cash for production support will be available for farmers. Neither should we forget the brainwashing messages that our modulated money is mostly for environmental measures and wildlife habitats. Nor the continuing power of the multiples to take most of the margin and dictate prices. The government shows no willingness to curb their power.

All farmers who rely on selling produce to support their families must be at the point of utter disillusionment. We should make a stand.

Some, up till now, have vented their anger on those that represent them – mostly the NFU. I understand why they are angry at the NFU. They expect the union to get results on the important issues.

But I believe we need to adopt a new approach. The NFU office-holders and staff cannot take radical direct action. Their job is to discuss and point out to ministers why policies are unworkable and to propose other options. In many areas, that approach is succeeding.

But they are ineffective in some of the main problem areas. We, the working full-time farmers, must co-ordinate some other action to show our support for the NFU and at the same time let the politicians and the public get a raw, unwatered message that enough is enough, we cannot face another season without a dramatic change in the present situation.

You will ask how we get this message across. Many of us will be attending agricultural shows. I suggest we try to persuade our MPs and ministers to attend such events. Then, lots of farmers should come to the NFU marquees bringing concise letters setting out why they are angry and cannot carry on. To be effective we need as many as possible to take this action forward.

Also we should display banners in our fields that adjoin main roads and motorways telling the public how untenable our present situation is. If that fails to stir the government, we should consider more direct action similar to past blockades organised by Farmers For Action.

The NFU should, and will, keep negotiating with the government and promoting British food. But each of us can do something to promote farming. The union cannot budge this government without the active involvement of all working farmers.

Meanwhile, the NFU will continue to keep the pressure on government to get British agriculture back into profit. It will also continue to push forward a big programme of promotion and education and a range of proposed changes to regulations and restrictions to get the best deal for British farmers.

Working farmers are being crushed by the present trading conditions. Union office holders and active members will not change this without total support.

Now is the time to join up and fight. If we are doomed to be crushed, then let us be crushed fighting and not watching on the sidelines, criticising those that have been fighting for many years.

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TALKING POINT

21 June 2002

TALKING POINT

Grain buyers as well

as producers have

rights when it comes

to with whom they

trade and on what

terms, says Jim Reed

Talking about the NFU grain contract is bound to be controversial, but I want to speak up for the trades point of view.

Farmers have a right to choose with whom they trade, and on what terms. But when it comes to the terms on which grain is marketed, the buyers – be they merchants, co-operatives or processors – also have rights.

That is why UKASTA has always consulted both farmers representatives and the end users – millers, maltsters and compounders – before making changes to its ex-farm contract terms. By contrast, the NFU chose not to consult its industry partners before presenting its contract. We believe that is one reason why this new contract may prove difficult to work and could even penalise farmers.

The UKASTA No 1 contract has always obliged the seller to meet his contractual obligation to deliver the specified tonnage so that the buyer is confident he will have the goods to sell. Under the NFU contract, "crop failure" and "adverse weather conditions" allow the producer to avoid this responsibility. Surely no one imagines any buyer could swallow the extra risk without making a big downward price adjustment.

The NFU contract requires that the buyer pay a premium for grain exceeding the specified contract quality. But end-users cannot command a high price from the market for their products because farmers are delivering slightly higher quality grain, so where is the money to come from? Buyers using these terms would have to discount the price they offer the farmer.

There is also in the NFU contract a requirement that test results on every load are returned to the producer, whether or not it achieves contract quality. But until we have a universal system for the electronic passage of such data, this could only add cost, again depressing the farmers return.

Pinning things down in the ex-farm contract can reduce the trades flexibility to make sure each parcel of grain achieves its best possible price. Take weighbridge charges, for example. They vary considerably and are rarely under the control of a merchant or co-op. Under the UKASTA system, if a merchant finds he can get a better net price for the farmer by switching to a different end user, he does. Under the NFU contract he wont because he might get stuck with unacceptable extra costs.

The real issue is what will the market bear? The UK grain price moves precisely with the world market price. The UK market alone cant pay, wont pay for any new requirements imposed by the NFU contract.

We have worked tirelessly to pull down barriers, cut transaction costs, and raise confidence in food and feed safety, so that UK grain achieves the best return in an increasingly competitive market. The acceptance of model contract terms negotiated between all interested groups seems to benefit everyone. Attempting to force through changes that are accepted neither by the processors nor the exporters of grain seems a recipe for frustration and confrontation. It cannot give any better overall return to farmers.

In most industries it is accepted that the customer is always right. Is arable agriculture different?

In most

industries the customer is always right. Is arable agriculture any different?

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TALKING POINT

14 June 2002

TALKING POINT

The NFUs new cereal

contract will bring

long overdue

advantages for

cereal growers, says

Richard Butler

Britains farmers will have joined the celebrations for the Queens Golden Jubilee. Media coverage has focused on how much has changed during the Queens reign.

Arable farmers, while enjoying the festivities, will

not have wanted reminding that cereal prices are back at the same levels as those at the time of the Queens Silver Jubilee 25 years ago.

To secure margin on grain sales, it is essential that farmers give as much attention to marketing their crops as to growing them. The NFUs new cereal contract, sent to members recently, is particularly timely.

The NFU has responded to a tide of concern from members over grain trading. The aim in producing the contract has been to work with the grain trade and cereal processors to achieve a more transparent, fairer, trading contract than the current UKASTA contract.

The new contract gives the farmer seller key new rights, including the right to receive the analysis results from the buyer for every load of grain, not just when a claim is made, as is the current practice. Such transparency exists for almost all other agricultural commodities sold ex-farm, from oilseed rape and sugar to milk and pigs. The information will help the grower avoid rejections and more consistently achieve the standards required by his contract. Some grain processors are supplying this information back to the farmer while others are refusing. Why?

Another key change is the right to independent analysis when a claim is made by the buyer. In the NFU contract this right means that if the original analysis is correct, the farmer seller must pay the cost. If not, the buyer pays. Much trade operates on that basis, but some buyers insist on their claim being accepted or the farmer has the option of having the grain back and paying the haulage. The buyer knows the haulage charge far exceeds the claim or allowance demanded and will not allow the grain to be tipped until the claim is accepted, with no right to independent analysis.

The concept of analytical tolerance is a new introduction to grain contracts. It defines that no deduction should be made when the equipment cannot measure to that degree of accuracy. Deductions on 15.2% moisture on a 15% contract is an obvious example. When did you last hear of a motorist being fined for driving at 31mph in a 30mph restricted area?

The new contract should also bring in a number of options to help farmer sellers and their customers better reflect the quality of grain. It allows the possibility of quality averaging over a whole consignment of grain rather than on individual loads. Another option allows the possibility of paying a premium when a buyer can gain a financial advantage from higher quality than the contract standard.

Hardly revolutionary, but the NFU has encountered real hostility from some in the grain trade.

Before producing this contract the NFU consulted across the industry. We received help, not only from the farming co-operatives but also from sections of the grain trade which would like to see positive change. The world will not change overnight and not everything in this contract can be achieved immediately.

But one instant success is to move the debate on how to bring grain trading into the 21st century to the top of the farming agenda.

Some would prefer that debate not to happen. Farmers with their co-operatives and merchant partners must ensure that the whole grain industry comes together to create a more transparent, equitable trading climate.

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TALKING POINT

7 June 2002

TALKING POINT

Common sense has

left the premises as

far as farming and

rural matters are

concerned, laments

Terry Bayliss

What has happened to common sense? Recently I was told that being born with all brains and no common sense is a recipe for disaster. Has all common sense gone?

Illegal food imports appear rife, yet there are still no proper controls at points of entry to the UK. Travel to the States, Australia, or the Caribbean and you are questioned, sniffer dogs check your luggage and if you have been on farm your shoes are cleaned or taken away. They take disease risk seriously and their professional approach gives a feeling of confidence. I embarrassed to say the UK is a joke.

Legal imports of meat from countries endemic with foot and mouth continue, indeed in some restaurants imports are promoted. At the same time the UK has banned the import of oak from the West Coast of America because of the risk that Sudden Death Syndrome that is killing their trees might be brought into Great Britain. Why do we ban timber imports but not meat? How can anyone claim punitive, impractical restrictions are justified when the risk assessments conclude African beef represents no problems?

Why can walkers on Offas Dyke walk through 14 stock farms over eight miles without bio-security restrictions, yet farmers cannot attend stock areas in the market?

Why do the proposed changes to animal transport legislation encourage the loading and off loading of stock, when the greatest opportunity for the animals to be stressed is during loading and off-loading?

Is it perhaps because legislation is being driven not by scientific fact, but rather by vocal single interest pressure groups that excel at putting politicians under pressure? Is common sense a prerequisite to a career in politics? Is law that by is its very nature is impossible to implement, worth anything?

At Farmers First we are in regular contact with customers and colleagues throughout Europe and around the world. Most dont understand why we in the UK seem hell bent on pressing the self-destruct button. We interpret legislation to such a degree we make ourselves uncompetitive. The rural economy, which last year proved has farming at its core, is having all life wrung out of it. Our industry has to stand up and be counted, its time for leaders to lead, priorities to be focused on and opportunities to be grabbed.

Make no mistake there are plenty of opportunities. We have access to 420m consumers in Europe; in New Zealand there are just 3.5m inhabitants. Whats our problem? Our industry is trying again to rip itself apart, politics have become so false that I understand more of the population voted in Pop Idol than the general election. Legislators seem obsessed with the obscure, failing to deal with real issues.

The time has come for a reality check. To deliver the sustainable future we need to strip away the irrelevant. We need to take seriously and tackle the challenges that prevent change and development. We need an economic environment and a legislative framework that encourages growth not restricts it. We need practical support that helps develop new thinking and ideas, not more symposiums, feasibility studies or talking shops.

Above all, we farmers have to understand that if we are to regain our place at the heart of food production and derive a fair return from the food chain, we have to harness the power of co-operation. That means changing our own actions and not simply talking about it.

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TALKING POINT

31 May 2002

TALKING POINT

It is time to restore

balance in the

livestock supply

chain. But how, asks

Peter Hambleton?

When was the last time a livestock farmer sent his customer the abattoir an invoice for the stock supplied rather than accepting what the customer thinks the product is worth? It has probably never happened, but I also venture livestock farmers have never been so exposed to the power of the processing trade.

The past 30 years have seen a quantum change in the dynamics of the livestock marketing industry. In the 1960s, every livestock farmer was a large supplier to his customer – the local retailer or processor. There were abattoirs in every town and most villages and the farmer knew his customer, he spoke to them regularly at the market. They knew what was needed and worked to deliver it.

How things have changed! Consolidation in the retail and processing sectors has resulted in our industrys well-documented weak selling position. Few farmers, and indeed few groups, have the ability to supply the necessary volumes of the desired specification to meet the markets demands. Even fewer really know their customer.

The answer, as indicated in the Curry Report, is to co-operate and to restore balance in the supply chain with farmers once again becoming recognised as a large supplier by their customers. Sounds simple enough in theory but it is certainly more difficult in practice. Farmers are traditionally an independent breed. But we must face facts – consolidation within the livestock marketing sector is crucial if we are going to be able to compete domestically and globally.

UK farmers must learn to overcome their fear of market co-operation and so must UK co-operatives. We have to learn to work together, to drive inefficiencies from the supply chain and focus on building strong customer relationships. We must divert the energies we spend competing with each other into co-operating.

There are many excellent examples of moves into co-operative marketing, usually in the guise of regional brands. Enthusiastic, local farmers getting together to develop a regional product, working hard to grow a market for their product and secure local commitment.

Unfortunately they often fall victim of their own success, unable to supply the necessary volumes and develop the business. In short they lack the necessary infrastructure, relying on the energy of a few unpaid leaders.

What these groups need is a business arrangement that allows them to benefit from the professional administration, marketing and financial expertise of larger groups while retaining local identity and commitment. Too often, these groups fear that to merge is to place their regional brand at the sacrificial altar of commodity! They fear the loss of the identity they have developed and are justifiably proud of.

However, there is no doubt if co-operatives co-operate then costs can be driven out of the supply chain, prices driven by the market and producer returns improved. If that is achieved through farmer controlled businesses then member shareholders will benefit still further. Such umbrella farmer-controlled businesses can provide a streamlined infrastructure that allows local groups to flourish, returns to be increased and local identity to be maintained- everybody wins.

We need to engender a spirit of collaboration rather than confrontation across the industry. It was Ruskin who said, "Government and co-operation are the laws of life; anarchy and competition the laws of death".

There is no doubt that if the UK livestock industry is to rebuild a strong market position, UK producers and UK co-operatives will end up co-operating. The question is how much further the industry will have to diminish before we do!

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TALKING POINT

24 May 2002

TALKING POINT

The CAPneeds

fundamental reform

and a prospectus on

just how to do it is

set out by

Robert Persey

Last week Peter Ainsworth, shadow DEFRA secretary, spoke at the Devon County Show about The Conservative Rural Action Group. It has been set up to formulate policy for all things rural. The Conservative Party is the natural Party of the countryside and now is the time to push forward new ideas. Conservatism is about spending money wisely and that is not a description of the present CAP.

The Conservative Party recognises that CAP needs fundamental reform and so here is a suggestion for such reform. EU countries should become centres of excellence acting as an environmental oasis within a world driven by global markets. The EU must set the lead in the world by showing what can be done for the flora and fauna of an agrarian environment. It should show the wider benefit to the indigenous tourist industries of a sustainable and environmentally friendly agricultural policy.

It is important that the rest of the world is given a role model, where the people living in the inner cities have a readily available green and sustainable rural community to which they can escape to revive their lives. These rural communities will provide wholesome food, an environment pleasing to the eye and an asset that will be the envy of the world.

The bedrock of a sustainable rural environment is the small family farm and that is where environmental payments must be directed. Large agri business has lost its political clout and the sustainable rural economy is now politically correct.

For the foreseeable future, the EU is part of a global food market. The EU must work within the framework of world trade. The CAP should be repatriated to be managed by each member country. Environmental resources would fall within the Green Box and would be outside world trade talks. No country would be allowed to export surpluses using subsidies.

The EU is soon to be expanded and the repatriation of CAP to original EU members will probably be attractive to those countries. The UK currently sends £5.5bn to Brussels and its farmers receive £2.2bn back.

The following are basic criteria that should govern UK and EU agricultural environmental policy:

&#8226 Food is allowed to enter or leave at world

prices.

&#8226 Production quotas would be removed.

&#8226 Environmental support would be on a banded

basis.

The UK recognises the importance of animal welfare and there would be environmental payments for chicken and pig production that satisfy certain standards of welfare. There would also be a recognition that tidy farmsteads are part of an environmental package. If farmers wanted to access these environmental payments their holding would be subjected to an annual environmental audit. Such a policy would say goodbye to thousands of sheep in less favoured areas, but such lawnmowers that remained would receive generous payments. However it is important that the removal of an EU bureaucracy is not replaced by a UK one. There must be another guideline: Do not regulate unless it is vital. The USA has decided that it can ignore the world and supports its farmers.

I believe that the policy I have outlined would be a vote winner among the general electorate.

The UK recognises the importance of animal welfare, the production of crops utilising the minimum of agrochemical and hormonal inputs and so environmental payments will be tailored to meet these objectives. There would also be a recognition that tidy farmsteads are part of an environmental package.

If farmers wanted to access these environmental payments they would have to be members of an assurance scheme which would have to be supported by robust environmental parameters. Such a policy would say goodbye to thousands of sheep in less favoured areas, but such lawnmowers that remained would receive generous payments.

However, it is important that the removal of an EU bureaucracy is not replaced by a UK one. There must be another guideline: Do not regulate unless it is vital.

The USA has decided that it can ignore the world and support its farmers. I believe that the policy I have outlined would be a vote winner among the general electorate.

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TALKING POINT

17 May 2002

TALKING POINT

Why did the government commission Sir Donald Curry to produce a review of food and farming? Why not just farming? Farmers, health professionals, environmentalists and others would have complained that its focus was too narrow. But perhaps there is a more subtle reason. Everything has been reviewed from food miles to obesity and even bird populations. However most of the serious problems have been hidden; no one is blamed and all the recommendations.

Three issues deserve particular attention. First, is the vexed question of animal disease entry into the UK. That has been a problem at least since 1868 when rinderpest appeared in this country and probably many years before that. The report says that a programme of bio-securtiy work is being developed – so please lets get on with it.

Second, Tony Blairs reference to supermarkets holding farmers in "an arm-lock" was not mentioned.

Third, is an even larger issue – human health and food.

Any review of food would be unusual if it didnt investigate farmers but why not anyone else? In relation to health, only two suggestions are made that do not refer to farming. Food should be better labelled and consumers should eat healthily. The review states that diet contributes to a third of all cancers.

The governments solution is to eat more fruit and vegetables. Fine, if they are UK fruit and vegetables. But if they are imported, how can we guarantee that they are free from noxious chemicals? Some imported fruit and vegetables contain high levels of carcinogens.

Furthermore, obesity has trebled since the early 1980s. The cost of that, according to the National Audit Office, is £2.6bn/year. And the growth of obesity has followed the growth of fast food, alleged BBC2s programme Food Junkies recently.

Also coronary heart disease costs the UK £10bn/year. A third of that is due to poor diets, which therefore totals more than £3bn/year – more than the total cost of farm subsidies. One simple way to reduce the incidence of coronary heart disease would be to reduce the level of salt. About 75% of the salt in British diets comes from processed foods. If farmers sprinkled salt on wheat or potatoes as they left the farm, they would be reprimanded, regulated or worse. Since the addition of salt is not the responsibility of farmers, no action is taken.

If the Curry Reports proposals are adopted by Margaret Beckett the future is far from encouraging. The proposals will mean:

&#8226 Some food imports continue to pollute and damage health.

&#8226 Some food processors continue to add sugar and salt to the detriment of health.

&#8226 Supermarkets continue to strengthen their armlock.

&#8226 Thousands more farmers are driven out to be

replaced by agribusinesses.

I do not like the philosophy of blaming other people. However, I object strongly to farmers being publicly made to carry the can for everyone. Of course, farmers will have to play their part and make changes. But so must others.

The new ministry has lost farming from its title. It has however retained food and gained environment. On that basis, Mrs Beckett must, for the sake of food and the environment, look again at her own evidence. Then, let her act according to that evidence across the food supply chain. Farmers must not be expected to bear sole responsibility for all improvements needed in food and farming.

Now farmers are

being blamed for

unhealthy food when

the blame clearly lies

at other doors, says

John Clark

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TALKING POINT

10 May 2002

TALKING POINT

I am a grass-roots farmer who cannot understand why we are expected to work all hours for a return on our time and investment that makes Third World pay packets look attractive.

My refusal to be intimidated is well known. It may explain why, at the end of my first year as an NFU council and national milk committee delegate, I am bemused and intensely angry about the union executives attitude to the plight of the people who payroll their lifestyles.

Over my 12 months as a council delegate I have developed a theory that there is a hidden agenda which is activated by any action designed to improve the financial lot of the British farmer. How has the biggest ever increase in milk prices been allowed to evaporate? Who has benefited? Not the customer and certainly, not the farmer. The answer has to be somewhere in the chain.

We have a marvellous market. So why are UK farmers bottom of the European profitability league?

Is it because we exist in an extremely aggressive food marketplace? To get our fair share of the pot we have to form strong, integrated, European-style co-operatives run by high calibre, profit-orientated people – just as the supermarkets do. The quicker we view British agriculture as British Agriculture plc, the sooner we will address the problem besetting all farmers today -no profit. Without profit there will be no investment and without investment there will be no future.

I have been told by Ben Gill that farmers will not co-operate with each other. I say they can, provided they have strong leadership to take the day-to-day administration off their shoulders. We need innovative and far-sighted managers with instructions to enhance the price per unit of produce through to the bottom line; not to kowtow to the combined wills of government and supermarkets.

Do we have that ability in our NFU executive? Or do we need a good spring clean to free up the mind-set of old hands whose heads are still nodding like the dog in the back window of a car?

When I suggested inviting speakers from the Office of Fair Trading, European banks and Danish milk co-operative Arla to address our south-west regional NFU conference to tell us how to change competition law to enable British farmers to compete, the regional director felt the subject would be too complicated for many members to understand. With such patronising attitudes how will we get to grips with our competitors?

The brutal truth is that if farming were a floundering plc the first action of shareholders would be to change the management team. We need to redefine the market, the competition and the role of the NFU.

The union has value and a role to play but it needs a 50-year spring-clean. It needs an agenda for profit instead of self-aggrandisement. I see its role as auditor of the strategy implementation while co-ops concentrate on developing the strategies for profit.

Could not the NFU Mutuals asset base of £8.5bn be turned into a wholly owned bank "agricole" so that agriculture need no longer be held to ransom by the past performance and bad debt ratios of High Street banks?

It takes only 500 signatures to call for an extraordinary general meeting of the NFU. Will we continue to resource our husbandry or shall we face up to the times in which we live and start to husband our resources?

Answers please by email (derekrmead@aol.com) or telephone

(01934 520808/515779).

A radical new

approach is long

overdue for farming

and its leaders.

Derek Mead

has a few ideas

&#8226 Third generation dairy farmer Derek Mead farms in Wick St Lawrence, Somerset. A founder member of Farmers For Action, Derek is an NFU council and national milk committee delegate.

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TALKING POINT

3 May 2002

TALKING POINT

How green are you? Heres a little test: On average are the number of birds breeding in Britain (a) decreasing substantially; (b) staying the same; (c) rising significantly? If you get your information from the RSPB the answer is obviously (a).

In a direct mail shot sent out at the turn of the year it claimed: "Wild birds in the UK face their gravest crisis ever… Dramatic changes in our countryside have seen wild bird numbers reduced by an alarming amount. Millions of wild birds are threatened with food shortages and the destruction of their habitats." Accompanying graphs showed blackbirds, house sparrows, and song thrushes having steadily declined between 1970 and 1998.

In fact, recent mild winters have been good for birds and there are more now than in 1970. For the period 1994 to 2000, 43 of our commonest species increased significantly, 37 were stable, and only 18 were in decline. The blackbird increased by 13% and the song thrush by 12%. Even some farmland birds increased: Red-legged partridge, whitethroat, tree sparrow, and goldfinch all did better.

So incensed was I by the RSPBs selective use of statistics, that I complained to the Advertising Standards Authority, who have just ruled that the leaflet was indeed misleading.

This is a small but I think important example of the way green groups manipulate facts to scare the public about the environment in general and farmers in particular. The organic movement are a prime example. How often have you heard a Soil Association spokesman describing conventional farming as damaging to the environment? It is often claimed that organic farming is good for birds, and Sir Donald Currys Commission supported this view in its recent report. But there is no convincing research showing that organic farming is significantly better for birds. On the contrary, a report into the plight of the corn bunting by the Joint Nature Conservancy Council, governmental advisers, concluded that going organic would not help this endangered farm bird, because organic farmers were becoming as good as conventional farmers at controlling weeds.

As a result of successful complaints by others and me about the outrageous statements made by supermarkets and the Soil Association, ASA has banned claims that organic farming is environmentally friendly or sustainable. This does not stop government ministers like Michael Meacher from claiming that it is – but they are on a mission to appease the organic lobby, and justify to taxpayers the millions of aid pumped into organic conversion.

The RSPB too has been the lucky recipient of government funds, for example to run Hope Farm, which it bought two years ago as a demonstration site for arable farmers. (Needless to say we have not heard a cheep out of them since about its work).

DEFRA has also funded the preparation of an RSPB programme aimed at South Africa (strange but true). So the RSPBs knocking of farmers has certainly helped it to feather its own nest. Unfortunately it has damaged the image of farmers, which has long-term consequences for us all.

The fact is that bird populations are changing all the time, for reasons that are largely outside our ability to control. Some birds lose while others gain. Compared with 200 years ago, we have gained about 40 species and lost very few. Modern farming undoubtedly has played a role, although a complex one, but there are lots of other influences on bird populations. If we really wanted to help birds we would not replace our cats when they died – but its so much easier to blame everything on farmers.

The RSPB, like many

so-called green

groups, is

economical with the

facts when it comes

to bird figures, says

Geoffrey Hollis

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TALKING POINT

26 April 2002

TALKING POINT

Septembers march

in London will be

about opposing a

ban on hunting

and its

no good pretending

otherwise, says

Charlie Flindt

In the unlikely event of having finished harvest at Flindt Towers by Sept 21, I was planning to join the White Hunter Cricket Tour of Provence. But were off to London instead.

The Countryside Alliance has at last announced Sept 22 as the day to put on some stout boots, fill up a Thermos, and head to London for a damn good protest.

Protest about what, exactly? According to the alliance, there is a raft of issues dragging people from the villages and hamlets of the nation out onto the mean streets of London. Some will attend to protest about Post Office closures.

Some will be blowing whistles and chanting protests about the high cost of countryside housing. There will be a contingent expressing their fury at the diabolical state of public transport in rural areas. Im sure that if you look hard enough there will be a posse protesting at how some people insist on having their own pewter tankard behind the bar at the Jolly Flowerpots, and insist on holding up the queue while Frank the barman finds it.

All these assorted groups will, according to the Countryside Alliance, be storming the capital to show Our Blessed Leader just how angry they are about buses, housing, shops and, of course, tankards. Oh, there might be one or two people up in arms about hunting.

Come on, Countryside Alliance. Wake up. All this lack of clarity of purpose does is let in the Michael Meachers of the world, with their "Im on this Countryside March, but Im strongly against hunting" line. Doubtless, certain Kiss-a-Bunny TV presenters and Countryfile Cuddlies will seize upon that immediately.

Ninety-nine per cent of marchers, probably more, will be there because they oppose the proposed ban on hunting with dogs. The reasons for their opposition will be many and varied. Some have jobs and cottages that rely on it. Some live for it as a hobby. Some think that gassing and shooting are far crueller than death by dogs. Some worry at the concept of banning something simply because of disapproval of that activity.

Some will be trying to point out that you cant ban what you cant define. Some recognise the ugly and undignified face of class war when they see it. Never mind all the assorted reasons, the mission is clear. Our Blessed Leader seems to take note of numbers when they are zeros on a cheque, so perhaps hell notice half a million pairs of feet yomping through his back yard.

The Countryside Alliance ought to realise that. It has lots of learned experts in the organisation, who have a wealth of experience on all sorts of countryside matters. They have spoken clearly and sensibly, for example on the foot-and-mouth crisis and the lack of local abattoirs.

But once in a while it loses the plot completely, as when it upset most of the countryside with its views on modulation. Despite those occasional gaffes, everyone is happy to acknowledge that it represents the vast majority of those of us who participate, in one way or another, in field sports. If it feels that it has to have views on other matters, thats fine, even if there are other rural organisations that have these covered.

On alliance website at present is: "The Countryside Alliances Response to the EU White Paper on Co-operatives in Enterprise Europe." Fascinating, no doubt, but not what the alliance should be about right now. And certainly not what the march will be about. Lets not pretend otherwise.

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TALKING POINT

19 April 2002

TALKING POINT

Making stock farmers

take out disease

insurance policies

has some deep

implications, as

Neil Datson

demonstrates

Never imagine that a policy is too unreasonable for politicians to support it. After a change of rules by the EU agriculture council, DEFRA, prodded enthusiastically by the Treasury, is developing a new wheeze. Livestock farmers are to be forced to pay at least part of the cost of notifiable disease insurance. Initially it will be for slaughter under welfare schemes, although the Treasury wishes to extend it to the compulsory slaughter of infected stock. (Under current EU rules they have to fund the slaughter of infected stock, so they may have difficulty with this part.) At risk of seeming smug, I told you so (Talking Point, Apr 6, 01).

When the idea briefly emerges into the light of public awareness, the logic, for the why-oh-why? school of ranters in the national media, will be inescapable. Other business people pay their own insurance premiums, why not farmers?

The most obvious reason, the reason that government spin doctors will do their best to stop the media noticing, is that only the government can protect the nations flocks and herds from notifiable diseases.

In Australia such insurance would be commercially feasible, as no visitor is allowed to bring in so much as a cheese sandwich. And there are no meat imports from countries where notifiable diseases are present. In the UK, which has the closest thing in the developed world to an open-door policy on food, the naturally risk-averse insurance industry will only offer cover at ruinous premiums.

Supposing the policy is pushed through – and it is almost certain to be in some form or other – then the governments interest in policing food imports would drop even further. To take the extreme position, should there be no cost to the Treasury from a future outbreak of foot-and-mouth, then there is no point in it spending money on preventing an outbreak. The money can be more usefully spent, perhaps on hiring more spin doctors.

With even laxer import controls, risks and therefore premiums would go up even further. Thus there is a beautiful internal logic for a government that appears to believe that the only good farmer is a bankrupt one.

However, there is a further point that needs teasing out. Farmers will not be forced to take out insurance against notifiable disease. Farmers will be forced to take out insurance against the executive, against the government itself.

That is because farmers are not paid if and when their stock contract disease; they are paid if and when the government destroys their stock. It may seem a pedantic point, but it is highly significant. It could lead to some very profitable times for lawyers.

As a small-scale cereal and beef producer, who retails all the meat that the farm produces, I have little immediate interest in the F&M slaughter policy. Faced with the alternative of massive insurance premiums I would be far better off vaccinating my cattle. Even were that impossible, and my cattle contracted F&M, I have read that they could be allowed to suffer the disease and recover naturally. I know almost nothing of the law but I would surely have a strong case if I were to demand the choice of how best and most economically to protect my stock and my interests.

What is being proposed must surely be a first in the history of democracy. The government wishes to make a part of the electorate take out insurance against its policies.

Perhaps theyre trying to tell us something?

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TALKING POINT

12 April 2002

TALKING POINT

In a recent debate former farm minister John Gummer explained that although he was happy to accept some people preferred organic farming, what he found a tiresome was the insistence of the organic movement that it must be right and everybody else must be wrong.

He said they reminded him of some vegetarian friends of his. When hosting a dinner party he was expected to go out of his way to prepare a special vegetarian meal for them. In return, when he visited theirs for dinner, was he entitled to expect a nice bit of steak? Of course not, because his preferences were wrong and theirs were right.

It never ceases to amuse me the fuss that gets made if some conventional farm produce accidentally gets into some organic produce. For example, if Mr Smiths non-organic milk found its way into a batch of Mr Holdens organic milk, Mr Holden declares his milk has been ruined and the word "contamination" gets bandied about.

It was as if the pure and chaste had got mixed with the bad and the foul. But imagine if it happened the other way round. If Mr Holden decided to mix his milk conventional supplies then Mr Smith is expected to like it or lump it.

There may be consumers who might not want organic milk. They might feel that the higher mastitis levels in organic herds raised food safety or animal welfare issues. But are their preferences respected? No.

About 40% of organic milk is sold as conventional because the demand for organic milk is much smaller than the supply. But, put the issue the other way round, all hell breaks out. It was as if putting non-organic milk in an organic bottle was tantamount to poisoning people.

It is stupid to suggest that organic milk would spoil non-organic milk. Organic milk is safe and the animal welfare record of organic producers is good. But both statements also apply to conventionally produced milk. So, why the special treatment for organic farmers?

All British farmers, both organic and non-organic, have good records when it comes to food safety, animal welfare and care of the environment. The industry as a whole should be promoting all farmers as such. The problem is organic lobbyists such as the Soil Association prefer division to unity.

They work incessantly to damage the conventional sector. They call for crippling taxes on conventional inputs. They want subsidies for the conventional sector to be taken away and given to the organic side. And they continue to undermine consumer confidence in our produce by constant suggestions and insinuation that because it is not organic it is not wholesome and safe.

In response to this, the conventional sector seems remarkably laid back but I suspect that will not last.

Many in the conventional sector are getting just a little tired of the mantra "organic good, conventional bad". It is a mantra that is now starting to effect government policy and starting to damage the conventional sector. Some, in the conventional sector are now tempted to use the tactics of the Soil Association and throw some mud back.

We are faced with an industry that is becoming increasingly polarised into two groups. It would be disastrous if those two groups were now set on a policy of taking chunks out of each other. It is time for a truce, for all our sakes.

The organic good,

conventional bad

lobby is getting out

of hand and it is time

for some common

sense, declares

Guy Smith

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TALKING POINT

5 April 2002

TALKING POINT

Converting the Curry

vision of the modern

farming industry into

practical policies is

the big challenge

ahead, says

Margaret Beckett

AFTER the nightmare of foot-and-mouth, our food and farming industries needed a clear vision for the future. The excellent report by Sir Don Currys Commission provides that vision.

The vision was of a sustainable, diverse, modern and adaptable farming industry, integrated fully with the rest of the food chain; an industry which develops the economy of rural areas while protecting and enhancing the environment. But we need to make things happen. That means the whole of the food and farming industries which together account for about one in eight of all the countrys jobs.

I say we advisedly. Many of its recommendations are not for the government alone and some not for government at all. They fall on the shoulders of all in food and farming.

The challenge is to convert the vision into practical policies and action in partnership with those industries.

By holding a seminar at Downing Street, the Prime Minister has launched a period of intensive engagement between government and those sectors which will take in each region of the country and each section of the industry.

I, my fellow ministers at DEFRA and senior officials intend to be extremely active in this process by attending regional seminars, meeting interested groups at national level and sifting through written contributions.

Once that process is over, we will launch a strategy for sustainable food and farming to help deliver on the key themes identified by the policy commission. The priorities identified in the strategy will draw on the engagement process and will need to be framed within the outcome of this summers spending review. Of course, I will want to ensure the money available from this review is used to best effect.

There are some urgent issues we can move ahead with now;

&#8226 Launch of a new Food Chain Centre, led by industry, with government financial support, to increase food chain efficiency.

&#8226 A new scheme which will provide grants of £5m over 12 months for projects to improve marketing performance and competitiveness, targeting collaborative ventures and assurance schemes.

&#8226 Award of £1.5m grant to the red meat sector under DTIs Industry Forum Adaptation Initiative to raise productivity, improve the sectors supply chain and boost competitiveness.

&#8226 An industry-led initiative to promote increased collaboration and co-operation among producers.

&#8226 A pilot network of demonstration farms to be put in place by the end of the year, to disseminate best practice in profitable and environmentally friendly farming.

&#8226 An organic food and farming action plan to be in place by July to help farmers respond effectively to the growing demand for high-quality organic food.

A steering document is available from DEFRA and on our website which asks what I believe are the key questions raised by the Policy Commission. Some, such as on modulation are controversial. The commissions proposal on this needs thinking through, for example what would the money be spent on and what impact would it have on the industrys competitiveness?

We should also consider how farmers could get closer to their markets. What practical steps can the industry take and how can government help?

By working through the practicalities over the coming months, I hope that we can drive forward the changes we all want to see and create a thriving rural economy, while maintaining and enhancing our environment.

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TALKING POINT

29 March 2002

TALKING POINT

More co-operation is the solution to many of the industrys problems. So say government, the president of the NFU, Sir Donald Curry and others, echoing the words of Sir Horace Plunkett from early in the past century. How come more than half UK producers remain hesitant or unconvinced? Perhaps because the UK solution for decades was statutory marketing boards – distancing producers from the markets. But they did free farmers to concentrate on production efficiencies. To some, the old political affiliations of the co-operative retail societies were a turn-off. Probably because many have preferred, and will continue, to deal direct, cherry-picked by processors or merchants. But they should recognise that getting into bed with an elephant can have its drawbacks.

Unprecedented changes in market forces are afoot. Manufacturers and processors have for years branded their products with labels and logos to establish market share and maintain gross margins. Could their owners now be on the defensive? A major multi-national food manufacturer recently announced a rationalisation programme to reduce brand numbers by half but stretch the remainder to include new products. New premium products with alleged health enhancing constituents are the latest weapons in the arsenal to persuade the perfectly healthy that they wont remain so, unless they buy.

Meanwhile, supermarket retailers have exposed this questionable practice by offering own brands of the simpler commodities at considerable discounts. They are further strengthening their position by the adoption of category management techniques; a US import designed to reduce the numbers of their suppliers, farmers, growers, better to dictate price and quality.

Where does all this muscle building leave producers? Given the various interests in food miles, organic produce, farmers markets, animal welfare, even government money (like the fabled Arabian Phoenix, well known but rarely sighted) are there not new opportunities for producer groups to exploit? Establishing local brands as a direct appeal to consumers, over the heads of retailers, should now be a priority in finding a place on supermarket shelves. Recent confusions over the definition of Scotch beef have been highlighted. Using English stores hardly enters into the spirit of things. Is Scotch whisky ever made from Irish barley? A local brand probably needs some romantic overtones, literary or historic associations, to enhance the imagination when trying to taste the difference.

The Little Red Tractor has helped lay the foundations, although it should complement and not distract from local brands. Why should it not also be promoted on the Continent? Exports can be transported cheaply. So many of those juggernauts, loaded with Continental imports, and clogging the M20 and M25 go home empty. Freight rates for the return journey often cost half as much as the outward-bound leg.

Local brands will not survive unless consumers are made aware and want them. The trend for co-ops to merge into larger units in recent years is therefore to be encouraged as a means to economies of scale, affording professional management, guaranteeing quality and brand promotion. This should not preclude the formation of new groups with unique products and/or niche markets.

Farmers markets can play a pioneering role in this campaign, although shopping at one in mid-winter demands traditional British grit.

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TALKING POINT

15 March 2002

TALKING POINT

If you survived BSE

and endured F&M,

take a deep breath.

The initials NVZ will

bring the most

damaging farming

blight yet, says

Nick Adames

Six years ago we were faced with new BSE rules which threatened to relegate 68 of our 120 cows to the incinerator. Classed as cohorts, they were deemed by the experts to be unsafe and had been offered up, along with another 130,000 others, for sacrifice on the EU table.

Due to my stubborn persistence over the following 18 months, including a refusal to answer MAFF letters, or return calls and cancelling all appointments, the ministry lost interest. I found a way out.

The cows were not at risk I told the MAFF officials. In fact as first and second calvers they were the best group in the herd. Although a couple had been struck down earlier, I was determined to fight for them, and their old family bloodlines. Eventually MAFF devised a convoluted justification for their reprieve; the absurdity of which we still laugh about today.

Recently, after seven lactations, the last of these 68 cows had to be put down. There was not a sign of BSE in her or the other 67, which had been moved on over the past six years.

Now we face an even greater risk to our herds future. That risk is soon to be shared by almost every herd in the country. It is called nitrate vulnerable zones. They are even more dangerous and expensive when your land runs close to ditches, steep banks, shallow soil or a national park.

NVZs effectively block the natural discharge from a cows back-end. Although not affecting the cow directly, it is the removal of the discharge, the seasonal restrictions, and the cost of that removal from the farmstead which will be fatal to us and our animals.

For years we have been told to stop relying on artificial inputs and to return to the ways our fathers farmed. Plough back the humus and become organic farmers to see the promised land, we were told. So many followed the advice. And many will regret it.

On our farm we have always put all the muck and slurry back into the soil, either onto grass in February, or ploughed back in the autumn for the coming season. And we have incorporated its use with modern methods of cropping which are non organic.

But due to the new NVZ threat this old practice is now to be banned. During September to November muck and effluent is now deemed a danger to ground water. That is because it risks pushing nitrate water levels above an arbitrary level of 50 parts per million.

Modern diagnostic techniques are very accurate; unfortunately the same equipment was unavailable 1000 or 1000 years ago when nitrate levels from natural sources would have been higher.

Sadly, we cant argue with the experts because they are beholden to EU law. It is unelected commissioners (failed politicians) in Brussels who decide our fate. The 50ppm is not negotiable.

So what BSE couldnt do, NVZs will achieve. Those who NVZs dont kill directly will succumb to the associated paperwork. The only thing left to most of us small family farmers will be to find another job. Something simple, not needing too much qualification. Perhaps become a Member of Parliament?

Meanwhile, I am starting to rue my stubbornness over protecting my old cohorts those years ago. If I had let them go I would have given up stock farming. How much better than suffering these past six years; and still having this next headache to look forward to?

Have a nice day.

&#8226 Nick Adames family has been farming in the same area in Sussex for over 340 years. The business consists of two farms; an intensive coastal youngstock rearing unit, and a downland farm with a 150-strong British Friesian dairy herd.

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TALKING POINT

1 March 2002

TALKING POINT

Nitrate vulnerable

zones are pointless

because nitrate is

completely safe at

natural levels. Why

cant the government

admit it, asks

Alan Monckton?

Before Christmas, environment minister Michael Meacher announced that he intended to extend nitrate vulnerable zones to most of England. The move was necessary because the European Court of Justice proposed to enforce a judgement against us for breach of the nitrate directive, he said.

It was an announcement that revealed trade secretary, Stephen Byers, has competition for the prize of the most incompetent minister. Lets look at the facts, all of which have been in his ministrys possession for well over a year.

Nitrate is now proved to be completely safe for health at natural levels, and at any known level above that. Below natural levels nitrate it is dangerous to health, according to part-sponsored MAFF research. And it is harmless to the environment at natural levels, as confirmed by Mr Meachers boffins. Thus nitrate restriction in the nitrate directive is pointless – all natural levels of nitrate are safe for humans.

So what levels of nitrate threaten the environment?

Ask Mr Meacher – he doesnt know – neither does anyone else. NVZ is just a cleverly misleading title.

Phosphate is the pollutant for which nitrate was demonised. It causes enrichment of estuary water, known as eutrophication and of some lake water. Nitrate is a fertiliser which feeds the algae caused by phosphate. Without high phosphate levels these algae are no problem.

Next, consider the European Court of Justices case against the UK. We lost the case because our government omitted to offer a defence. That shameful incompetence and the unnecessary enforcement provisions had to be concealed by publicity about the River Ythan in Scotland. The Scottish NFUs Gordon McCullogh tells me that Scottish Environmental Protection Agency tried to designate it an NVZ but two consecutive ministers refused because it was not eutrophic. Bird societies asked Brussels to act, which threatened huge fines if it were not designated.

A new Scottish Parliament minister panicked and designated the river without prior consultation. As the estuary nitrate level is 35 and the limit is 50, it was done on the precautionary principle. In other words, perhaps one day it might be eutrophic. Moreover the officials suppressed the Dundee University research which apparently shows River Ythan has suffered no harm from nitrate.

NVZs in England will cover huge areas where the main loss of water is into the soil substrata. What harm can nitrate do thus? None.

Incompetent government ministers and officials refuse to admit fault. Worryingly, they act without conscience and threaten to engulf us in useless and costly red tape.

The English and Scottish NFU and CLA should tell ministers to enter a competent defence to the River Ythan case which should be made public. Mr Meacher should cancel NVZs. If he wont, the action should be taken to protect our human rights – plus an injunction to prevent the introduction of more NVZs.

Mr Meacher can cancel NVZs on health grounds using the precautionary principle. Since denitrification in 1991, type 1 diabetes cases have soared. Nearly 1.5m people, particularly children, now suffer from diabetes. Is there a link?

Finally, no farmers should have to pay NVZ costs. If this government wants them, it should pay for them itself, as it did with the Millennium Dome which is just as useless.

&#8226 Alan Monckton farms 635ha (1568 acres) in Staffordshire. In addition to running arable enterprises, an Ayrshire herd and sheep, Mr Monckton has a special interest in nitrate research.

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TALKING POINT

22 February 2002

TALKING POINT

The NFUdemocratic?

Dont make me

laugh, says

Oliver Walston

LOG on to the NFUs web-site and the first words you will see are: "The National Farmers Union is the democratic organisation representing farmers and growers of England and Wales."

Democratic? You must be joking. I phoned the NFU Press office and was told the union has 60,000 members. On their behalf, 89 men and one woman are entrusted with electing the leadership. And they call that democracy?

It is reminiscent of those long-lost halcyon days of the 1970s when Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon ran the Transport and General and the engineering workers unions. As they never tired of reminding us that they, too, were elected "democratically". The local branches, attended by a clique of activists, elected delegates to the regions and the regions elected the national executive. The national executive elected the leadership, which in turn decided all policy – mainly when and where to strike. Then came Margaret Thatcher. With enormous courage, she forced the unions to adopt the principle of one member, one vote. No longer could a tightly-knit group of politically motivated men bring this country to its knees. Loud cheers from the farming community.

A decade or two later, even the Conservative Party had to admit that the days when only MPs could elect the leader were over.

Meanwhile, the denizens of Agriculture House, inspired by Canute, insist the dangerous tide of democracy must be contained. That may have made sense when a typical NFU member could not read the newspapers, did not have a telephone and was a besmocked and ignorant peasant up to his armpits in muck in some remote farmyard. In those far-off days it might have been dangerous to permit hordes of unwashed yokels to have had an opinion. And to allow them to elect the leadership would have been unthinkable.

But things have changed. It may come as a surprise to the inhabitants of Shaftesbury Avenue to hear that many NFU members have crystal sets. Some have wirelesses and, I have heard it said, a few rich farmers even have those boxes showing moving pictures.

The recent election of office-holders made me ashamed to be an NFU member. This has nothing to do with the leadership personally. I happen to like Ben Gill, think he has done a pretty good job and would certainly have voted for him had I been permitted a ballot paper.

It is inconceivable that we will ever have a modern, dynamic and flexible union which is able to adapt to todays fast-moving circumstances if we insist that 89 decrepit, unimaginative, superannuated, self-important male ex-farmers and one woman sit round a table playing the game called Buggins Turn. The rules are as are simple as they are stultifying. All office-holders move slowly up the totem pole and – provided they dont say anything which will upset anyone – they take their turn near the top. The system produces people who are smug, self-important and impervious to change.

The time has come for democracy to storm its last bastion – the citadel of the NFU. Henceforth, the vote for all office-holders must be taken away from the 89 men and one woman and given to its rightful owners – the membership itself. If the NFU refuses to do this, then Tony Blair should do to Mr Gill what Mrs Thatcher did to Mr Scanlon. Better late than never.

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TALKING POINT

15 February 2002

TALKING POINT

SPEAKING as a director of food company Triple S Ranch, we have had many visitors to view our processing plant and our partners bakery. The visitors, many of whom could be described as political, have seen how we have built from scratch a new plant for processing beef, pork and lamb. All have remarked on its high standard of hygiene.

Next, visitors tour our partners Abbey Vale bakery where high quality pies and pasties are made from the forequarter beef from our processing plant. One particularly popular line is the Brunchie; a modern breakfast for the commuter on the move – a cornet of pastry, bacon, beans, sausage and egg.

Triple S Ranch has also launched a readymade meal line producing products such as chilli con carne. Most of the products are sold as one-offs and do not yet carry our brand. And, after a great deal of effort, the processing plant is handling retail packs of branded meats through Mole Valley. Hopefully, in the near future we will be able to offer the same products through smaller retail outlet chains.

We have achieved all this with private funding using solely shareholders money and venture capital. It sounds easy but the harsh reality proved different. It has taken three fellow directors and myself eight years but it often feels more like 20 years.

Despite all the official visitors, national and local politicians and government bodies including the Rural Development Agency, not one asked what our problems are or how things could be made easier to encourage more people to add value to their produce.

Although 99.9% of people say we should diversify, add value and take charge of our produce between the farm gate and the plate, they havent got a clue what they are talking about.

We have ex-ADAS officials, advisers, sometimes using government funding, from every walk of life acting as leeches, using the money meant for agriculture. Nearly all these people who advise farmers on how to set up their own abattoir or meat plant has knocked on our door in the past 12 months asking how it is done.

They have expected us to do all the work free of charge and then charge their client £30,000 for a feasibility study. Nobody has got the secret out of us yet and all have had one big shock at just what we have achieved.

It is time government sat down with people like Triple S Ranch and asked us about the problems of setting up a value-added business. If the government was truly concerned and wanted to help British agriculture it could do so. Most of the things that we need wouldnt cost them or the taxpayer a penny. Then, the government funding available for restructuring could work effectively.

As I, and several others have been saying for the past few years, the NFU is probably the best-placed organisation, with its regional group offices and central office, to be the catalyst for that process. At present, there could be 10 similar projects in one county or region, all spending vast sums on feasibility studies which make money only for the advisers.

The NFU, with its ground knowledge, could bring these people together to talk to each other. Then, perhaps, each region would need only one or two projects. The money saved on unnecessary feasibility studies could be devoted to making the venture work. Not all will succeed but if two out of three do, it will be worth it. Now that would be an example worth following.

Setting up a

successful value-

added business is a

hard slog…and with

precious little help,

says Richard

Haddock

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TALKING POINT

1 February 2002

TALKING POINT

THE days are getting longer. Slugs are getting active again, so spring must be on its way. And what does the arrival of spring mean? Well, theres panic as we remember that the drill needs a new set of tyres (thatll teach me to buy a model with rubbler press wheels). Theres the rush on Barbie dolls in central Hampshire as Dianas birthday approaches.

Its also time to pay the NFU subs. Time to umm and ahh, time to put it to the Flindt Towers financial steering committee over porridge and Honey Nut Loops. Were a biggish farm, so our subscription is not small. In fact, its a couple of new back tyres for the CS150.

We always end up paying it, though, and Im never exactly sure why. These days, the more I think about it and discuss the NFU with other farmers, the more I think Im out of step.

First, because I want to be a member in the first place. It would be easy to save the best part of £1000 and still get all the benefits of NFU membership. After all, when they negotiate a bit more payment here, or derogation there, all farmers benefit – not just fully paid-up NFU members.

Second, because I am a fully paid-up member. I sit down and declare my full acreage. There are some, I gather, who think nothing of keeping the area figure down to minimise the fee, using a smaller holding as their area, or just fibbing when filling in the form.

What about Farmers For Action? What David Handley and his men lack is the NFUs polished approach to dealing with politicians: The "A-word-in-your-ear- minister" technique, the moving effortlessly through the corridors of power.

But what the FFA lacks in subtle lobbying it more than makes up with guts, bravado and clever targeting of blockades and pickets. It amazes me how well they have trodden the thin line that separates winning public support and alienating it. The group seems to do just enough to persuade Tescos top brass to agree to talks without blackening the name of British farmers.

There are two things I cant stand. One, as I said through the haze of his cigar smoke, to Max Hastings, the outgoing editor of The Standard newspaper, is name-dropping. The other is generalising. But let us, at the risk of upsetting both the NFU and FFA, generalise for a moment.

NFU members tend to be the gentleman farmer type. They wear a tie to work more often than not, they have Land Rovers with clean interiors and they can attend daytime NFU meetings. The NFU big guns are easily mistaken for politicians, because they end up speaking politico-babble, wear smart suits and work in nice offices.

FFA members are much more the hands-on type. If the time came to blockade the M3 with tractors, they would know how to drive the tractors. They can attend FFA meetings in the evenings, because theyre out on the farm during the day.

Let there be no mistake: I think the NFU is a splendid organisation. It helped me out with a couple of sticky problems over the past few years, and I have no doubt that it has earned my membership fee with the lobbying it has done on agrimonetary this and compensatory that. But when I hear Mr Handley in full cry, I cant help thinking that perhaps he is more representative of the British farmer of the future, and the NFU would do well to take a leaf or two from his book.

As NFUsubs time

approaches, could

the union take a leaf

or two out of the

Farmers For Action

book? Charlie Flindt

ruminates…

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TALKING POINT

25 January 2002

TALKING POINT

Committing land to

trees makes sense in

these diversifying

times. So why

arent farmers

getting into

woodland, asks

James Croxon?

WITH the traditional tree-planting season well under way it seems a good time to reflect on how growing trees has helped my farm flourish. When farmers are, at every turn, urged to diversify there seems to me no better way to secure an income while lifting the value of the capital asset.

Yet, Im told, not enough farmers are taking up the available grants such as the Woodland Grant Scheme and Farm Woodland Premium Scheme. Both have helped me make economic sense of growing trees. Perhaps it is the uncertainty of future government policy and long-term returns that stops farmers and landowners committing their land to trees.

Although tree planting grants may not compare favourably with other subsidies at present, it looks likely that this will change. Growing trees could be a new option for hard-pressed farmers. The grant system may be unfamiliar to many so I suggest that you take professional advice as I did. Only then can you make an informed judgment as to what advantages may accrue – such as knowing what your return will be for the next 15 years. That could be a real help for any present cash-flow problems and increase your diversification payments.

Tree planning can earn extra points towards an agri-environmental scheme, help educate the public and improves your green credentials. And dont forget the sporting angle.

It was a glorious day when I first saw the South Dairy Farm. I was looking for a property that I and my sons could enjoy while watching nature produce a small income and build up a tax-friendly environment. This seemed to be the perfect choice; the 214-acre farm lies in attractive countryside close to the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park and had a house with great potential and is only five hours away from London, on a good day.

But before signing on the dotted line I had to be sure that farming trees here stood a chance of being profitable. The advice from Tilhill, a national forestry management company, was Yes. Once the deal was done the company designed plans to capitalise on the variety of tree planting grants available. The previous owners, now retired, kept livestock. I am now successfully farming trees with the help of one of the largest Farm Woodland Premium Scheme developments in Wales.

Development of the woodland brings positive cash-flow for the first 15 years and provides a significant capital benefit for the longer term. The original farmhouse and outbuildings are being converted as holiday accommodation and are greatly improved by being encircled by trees.

In total more than 150,000 trees were planted during the 1999/2000 planting season. Of those, 51% are broadleaves which maximises the Farm Woodland Premium Scheme funding for a 15-year period. The combination of Woodland Grant Scheme, Farm Woodland Premium Scheme grants and Better Land Supplement, particularly on the 40 acres of arable aided land, has more than paid for the initial establishment cost. It has even created a surplus which is helping with the upgrading of the buildings.

Farm Woodland Premium Scheme payments, paid annually over the next 15 years, should also provide a healthy surplus over expenditure. By 2015 or thereabouts, the new woodland will be well established thus increasing the capital value of the farm. Trees not only provide a profit, they increase the capital value of a holding in the longer term and, for simple pleasure, there is nothing to beat them. So why not take early retirement, stay on the farm and watch trees grow?

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TALKING POINT

18 January 2002

TALKING POINT

After the worst

farming year in many

memories it is time

for serious political

action, says

Finn Christensen

THE next 12 months could be the make-or-break year for British farmers. The time has come for politicians to address the issues of outdated trade agreements which allow sub-standard food to flood into this country, and the so-called cheap food policies which are tainted by EU grants and subsidies and over-regulation.

Last year was the worst ever in many farming peoples memories. It wasnt just the drama of world events but the suffering caused by the fiasco of governments handling of foot-and-mouth following so soon after the BSE bungle.

As a dairy farmer involved in the now-dead Milk Marketing Board and Milk Marque, I can look back in anger at the way milk producers have been treated. For years, the farming industry has suffered from the actions, or lack of them, by a stream of weak and indecisive ministers and civil servants raining havoc on the food chain.

Despite persistent warnings of the dangers of importing meat and other foodstuffs, Britain became the dustbin for foreign food produced in countries where health, hygiene and animal welfare are words not requirements as in the UK. Why import meat when we can easily produce enough for home use and for export? A clear directive must be given to importers and the countries holding us to old-fashioned trade agreements that their dodgy practices must stop or the imports will cease.

MAFF has changed its name to DEFRA but more change is needed. It must stop spewing out red tape regulations as often as a sick calf scours. DEFRA has asked for comments on the future working of milk quota. Lets hope it listens to we farmers and processors. The dairy industry has suffered from too much change too fast; change that has caused bankruptcies and millions of pounds in lost profits. This is a great chance for us to install a quota system that is fair and equitable to working farmers, not those sofa farmers without investment in dairying. Last year was a classic example of how corrupt the quota exchange system has become. The Intervention Boards register shows that less permanent quota has been sold than the previous year. Temporary quota trading is at the same level, except that 10m more litres have been leased, compared with the 2000/01 milk year. Yet its commonly believed there isnt much quota. There is plenty but the market is being kept short to shore up prices. All quota should be put back into the hands of those who pull the teats and let them manage the market themselves.

We must foster the will-power – and make the effort – to work as a team to get British agriculture back on its feet this year. We must shape our short-term and long-term future profitability and development into the next decade.

We must learn that we are not in competition with each other and we must cast aside the arrogant belief that we are a better farmer than our neighbour. Lets stop being the over-regulated poor relation of Europe by giving our leaders a clear message that we want to work together to restore proper business practices and profits to working farmers in our much-maligned industry. That will require eliminating the subsidy system and rationalising production and methods, as well as controlling sub-standard imports.

If we have to work in a free market on the world stage, politicians must free up farmers to allow them to get on with the job on that elusive level playing field.

Railtrack shareholders may yet get the scalp they demand. Farmers may hope that the scalps of those who failed them recently will also be collected in due time.

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TALKING POINT

28 December 2001

TALKING POINT

Yes, its awards time

again and the lucky

recipients can thank

Charlie Flindt

GOOD grief! Can it really be a whole year since the last Flindt Awards? It must be, for once again the cream of the farming fraternity is crammed into the Flindt Towers Entertainment and Leisure Centre (on the left past the silage bales, mind the puddles) to witness this prestigious event. CNN is ready, Sky is ready, the Hinton Ampner Cable Network is ready, so without further ado, lets crack on with the show.

The Haskins Award (Best Advice To Get You Through The Farming Crisis): "Make sure you spend money wisely and that you do things at the right time" said the man from the ADAS Agriknowledge roadshow. What words of wisdom for those of us who up to now have been committed to spending our money stupidly and doing everything at the wrong time. Thank goodness for the experts.

The UHU Award (Stickiest Gooiest Agrochemical): The same winner as for the past umpteen years, Stomp. A combination of unbelievable adhesion to the can, violent orange staining and cost-effective weed control make this, once again, a popular winner. (Thatll be a tenner on my tab at the Jolly Flowerpots, please, Cyanamid)

The USAF Award (Accurate Map-reading) goes to the lorry driver who rang from Sussex to check where to find us. "Give us a ring when you get to Alresford" I told him. Four hours later, the phone rang. "Im in Alresford; where to now?" "Five miles south, and youll find Hinton Ampner," I explained. "Five miles south? Ill be in the North Sea!" he pointed out. "Ah," I said. "Youve successfully made it to Alresford, Essex, rather than Alresford, Hants." I finally loaded him the next day. Runner-up in this category is the driver who was late because hed missed the turning to Hinton Ampner. Not accidentally, but because "it looked a bit narrow."

The Sir Clive Sinclair C5 Award (for excellence in electrical work).

Scooped this year by sparkies who rushed out to do high speed repairs to the starter on the fan in our blow-empty storage bins. Good job, boys – its just that the wires went back the wrong way and my wheat was treated to 45hp of suck.

The Only Reason For Watching The Weather Forecast Award goes to Isobel Lang, for her flaming red hair and a natty line in tight bolero jackets. I wonder if shes allowed to do weather forecasts as an after dinner comedy turn? Were short of a speaker for our Cricket Club Dinner.

The Duke of Westminster Award For Considerate Landlords: Im delighted to honour the National Trust with this one, for three reasons. First, it has at last stopped going on about "organic" this and "public access" that. Second, its land agent for this area knows about farming and the countryside. Could there be a link to the first reason? Third, it is showing enormous patience when it comes to rent. Bless em.

The Killjoy Award goes to the producer of the Cheriton Players variety show. I was delighted to lead the Worzel tribute band, but very upset that I was not allowed to do an extra verse in Combine Harvester, which featured lyrics about our past and present ministers and MAFF/DEFRA. Apparently it was sexist, homophobic and obscene. I thought it was the work of a troubled genius.

The Cant Believe Were Still Here Award goes to all who survived last winters weather, foot-and-mouth, BSE, pointless politicians and witless officials, derisory prices and morale-sapping paperwork. Lets hope and pray were all still here after another 12 months.

Merry Christmas.

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TALKING POINT

21 December 2001

TALKING POINT

Its the pantomime season again. With it comes far-fetched scripts, ham-acting, stereotypical characters, and the retelling of ancient myths. We dont have to go out for this because BBCRadio 4s The Archers provides us with such material all year round. Some treat the programme as a harmless diversion, but it has done much to reinforce misconceptions which urban dwellers hold about farmers.

Rural myths are created not only by TV and radio producers in search of an audience. Lobby groups exaggerate problems to scare us into parting with money to save the countryside or improve our diet. Academics and writers produce junk science to boost their incomes. Here are some of the myths that result.

Myth one: The countryside is a terrible place to live – with not enough doctors, buses, shops or jobs. How many would willingly move to cities? There are few empty houses in country areas, and rural populations are expanding. The countryside is vastly superior to over-crowded cities in almost every way. Rural employment is growing, as technology permits new ways of remote working.

Myth two: Our farming is intensive. This is a favourite complaint of groups like Friends of the Earth, who blame intensification for foot-and-mouth, BSE, and all the rest of our recent problems. In fact, farming in this country is relatively extensive, with three- quarters of agricultural land used for raising livestock. If our cattle, sheep and pigs spent more of their lives indoors, as they do ielsewhere, we might have fewer disease problems.

Myth three: Farming has ruined the countryside. This belief is widespread, and an important driver of policy. DEFRA secretary Margaret Beckett has said that she wants CAP support to be redirected towards environmental goals, but the countryside is far from being despoiled by current farming methods. There are isolated areas of damage, for example where too many animals have been grazed on common land, but most farms are in good shape. It does not make sense for the government to press for a significant shift of resources towards the environment. Lets hope it realises this before it is too late.

Myth four: Our birds are dying out. That is a variant of Myth 3, trilled by the RSPB to boost membership. Most birds are doing well. A recent survey by the British Trust for Ornithology showed that in the past six years 67 bird species increased in population, while only 33 declined.

Myth five: Soil is being stripped of nutrients. Another twist in Myth three and the subject of a recent book by Graham Harvey, agricultural adviser to The Archers, Enough said.

Myth six: Big farmers dont care about the environment. Forget Brian Aldridge – most beneficiaries from DEFRA-funded green schemes are large-scale farmers, who take professional advice on ways on maximising support.

Myth seven: Organic farming is sustainable and natural. The Advertising Standards Authority recently ruled that such claims were misleading, as were statements that organic farms were better for animal welfare, did not use chemicals and that organic food tasted better.

Myth eight: Pesticides and chemical fertilisers are bad for us. It has been calculated that without modern farming methods the earth would be able to sustain only half its current population.

I have travelled all round this country, and believe that we are fortunate to have a marvellous landscape, created and nurtured by generations of farmers. A happy Christmas to the real guardians of our countryside.

The festive season is

upon us and its a good

enough excuse to dwell

on the great rural

myths of our times.

Geoffrey Hollis

enumerates

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TALKING POINT

30 November 2001

TALKING POINT

When it comes to

determining the price

of wheat, the UKs

tonnage is pretty

unimportant. Other,

international factors

are far more

significant, says

Marie Skinner

Guess the size of the UK wheat harvest. It doesnt really matter whether you choose 10, 11 or 12m tonnes, unless you are betting on the outcome. The latest figure, according to DEFRA, is 11.96m tonnes, but, when it comes to determining the price of wheat, it is pretty unimportant. Other issues, such as currency, foreign prices and international markets, are much more significant.

UK grain prices reached import parity in September. That meant imports matched internal prices and gave buyers easy access to another 10-20m tonnes of wheat at prices unrelated to the size of the UK crop. About 10m tonnes were available from near European sources, such as Germany, Denmark and France, and, if required, another 10m could be bought from further afield, such as the CEECs and FSU.

But back in August, some members of the cereal industry seemed to believe the UK still ruled the world. Talk of a low UK harvest was used to predict a rise in prices. Instead of being encouraged to sell part of their crop or lock-in to minimum prices, farmers acquired a false sense of security and waited, in the hope of even better prices.

What actually happened was quite different. Futures prices peaked at £82/t in the last week of August, and by Oct 19 they had fallen to £74/t, a drop of £8/t, or 10%.

Why did professionals, who should have known better, make such wildly improbable predictions and then believe them? Despite the pessimistic views of farmers about harvest prospects, there was no sound basis to suggest the possibility of a 10.5m tonne wheat crop, which was one widely publicised estimate.

Going back 30 years, yields have never been more than 5% above or below trend. Admittedly, the weather in 2000/2001 was extreme, but even taking that into account and allowing for an unprecedented 10% fall in yield, a harvest of 12.1m tonnes was still inevitable.

To achieve only 10.5m tonnes would have required a yield drop 25% below trend. The probability of that happening was exceptionally low, yet it was given some credibility and encouraged unrealistic positions to be taken on the market.

The reality is that there are now bigger issues that affect the price than internal production levels. While the UK argued whether the harvest would rise or fall by 500,000t, the harvest potential in the CEEC and FSU was increasing by 1.5-2m tonnes a week.

It is time to learn a hard lesson, that in the greater scheme of things UK production is relatively unimportant. The difference between the first and final US maize harvest estimates are greater than the size of the whole UK cereal crop. This year the Ukrainian wheat crop increased by 10m tonnes over last season a figure which is about two-thirds the volume of UK wheat produced in a normal season.

In the UK, we cannot behave as though we control the world. We have to accept that farm profitability is highly vulnerable to small changes in price, with just £2/t often making the difference between profit and loss.

The only way to cope with such uncertainty is to adopt a proper marketing plan, not one based on predicting market movements. Having a flutter in the markets or "taking a view" is okay, if it is within a safe structure. Otherwise, even in a good year, disaster may result.

The difference between the first and final US maize harvest estimates are greater than the size of the whole UK cereal crop.

lMarie Skinner is chairman of HGCA Market Information. She farms 200ha (500 acres) in Norfolk with her husband, Chris, growing cereals and sugar beet.

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TALKING POINT

23 November 2001

TALKING POINT

The peace enjoyed during the world trade talks in Doha, Qatar contrasted starkly with the pandemonium in Genoa, around the G8 Summit earlier this year, and previously in Seattle.

Trouble was fomented by anarchists and hooligans, but they exploited sincerely held fears about the globalisation of world trade and its effects on the environment.

No one should condone hooliganism, but there are implications for UK agriculture which should not be ignored. We may have common cause with some of their concerns. Food miles, for example. Should the vestiges of empire preference linger through the shipping of refrigerated meat, butter, cheese and fruits halfway around the globe when much of them can be produced perfectly well much nearer home with less consumption of finite energy? Much of the worlds freight shipping is operated under flags of convenience.

It is a convenient arrangement for the faceless ship owners and for a few giant multi-national agribusinesses. It is also convenient for the covert application of GM crops and e-commerce, which have come to dominate their markets under the noses of apparently toothless international agencies and compliant governments. Successful market penetration is not only about quality and prices, but about who controls the marketing chain and what covert incentives are available along the way.

It is no coincidence that the enormous divergence between the ex-farm price of wheat and the retail price of a loaf of bread over the past 30 years has paralleled this market consolidation. A kg of chump chops can retail for the price of a lamb.

Globalisation is a two-edged sword. It is beneficial if it enables new jobs in Third World factories which add value to locally produced commodities such as cotton. It is indirectly beneficial to developing economies in that the newly acquired management skills and technologies can spill over into other activities such as machinery maintenance.

It also helps to stem the tide of economic migrants. The benefits which these policies and technologies can deliver, sooner rather than later, must not be denied to mankind and the environment.

Although we expect democratic governments to ensure that the international agencies they support have the authority to curb multi-nationals, it should not have the effect of blighting their enterprise and efficiency.

We could wait a long time for any potential benefits if we depended solely on government action. In any case protectionism should be a dead, if not buried, policy. We should soon starve or be bored to death if we were to confine ourselves to eating the view, and many of us would be reduced to penury if we only bought organic produce.

Can UK and other European producers collaborate to create a bigger demand among consumers for local produce, always assuming quality and palatability is competitive? I do not see the supermarket retailers paying more than lip service to the idea. Is this not something which the European farmers union COPA/COGECA should address?

But let the world bring us their spices, bananas, pineapples, mangoes, dates and rice. It could be a compromise which could begin to satisfy some of the concerns of protesters and producers alike.

No one should condone

the violence of the

anti-globalisation

protesters, but

worl-wide trade does

have some serious

implications for UK

agriculture, says

John Jenkin

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TALKING POINT

16 November 2001

TALKING POINT

The organic industry

can lead Britain to a

truly sustainable

agriculture, says

Peter Melchett

Despite the problems affecting farming, this is an exciting time, full of opportunity for the organic farming and food industry. Sir Don Currys policy commission on the future of farming and food has almost finished taking evidence, and the report is due early next year. Sir Don has been told firmly by the DEFRA secretary, Margaret Beckett that they must focus on "sustainable agriculture".

No modern system of farming is truly sustainable, even organic farming. Organic farming can reasonably claim that the system maintains soil fertility, and healthy crops and livestock, through mechanisms which are currently more sustainable than any other system, and which have the potential to be truly sustainable in future. Organic food is popular with the public and this popularity is growing. Modern societys views on a range of issues – protecting wildlife and natural resources, animal welfare, and healthy, locally-produced food – are moving in a direction which increases support for organics. The market is growing rapidly, and looks set to continue.

In the historic post-war settlement between society and the farming industry, the policy of producing more and cheaper food was unquestioned. It gave British farming what modern businesses call a licence to operate. To be sustainable, a business needs not only to be profitable, but also to have public support for the way it does business and the type of products it sells. To have a long-term future, businesses need to be in tune with public values. As Mrs Beckett put it at the Labour Party conference, there is no future for any industry "if it becomes out of tune with those on whom it depends for its markets, its custom and consequently its prospects for survival".

As a result of government policy over the past 50 years, British agriculture is out of tune with public values; it has lost its licence to operate from the public. However, as the old, overwhelming majority of farm production has lost public support, so organic farming has emerged as a potential new direction for farming.

The Soil Association accepts that organic farming is not yet truly sustainable, and that many aspects require improvement. Indeed, striving towards true sustainability require continual improvement in organic farming, food production and food retailing. The organic industry has set off down this road, and we believe that it can lead the way towards a truly sustainable future.

The scope for government action to aid this market-driven process is limited, but vital. First, the government should recognise that organic farming will play a central role in the future of British agriculture, because it delivers a wide range of public benefits, including the protection and restoration of biodiversity and natural resources, high standards of animal welfare, healthy food, and more jobs in farming.

Second, government support for organic farming should match our partners in the EU. That means improving the level and scope of conversion payments, and introducing continuing payments through an organic farming stewardship option, designed to secure real benefits for wildlife. While consumer demand drives the organic retail market, UK organic production is as affected by the economic signals from the CAP as the rest of farming. Almost all our EU competitors receive post-conversion, organic maintenance payments.

Third, the new government initiative on using public procurement to deliver sustainable development should target organic and local food.

We believe all farmers will welcome plans to keep some of the ever-growing agri-environment cash in farming, and our emphasis on buying locally produced food.

Modern societys views on a range

of issues… are moving in a direction which increases support for organics.

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TALKING POINT

2 November 2001

TALKING POINT

BY the end of October, foot-and-mouth had almost disappeared from the national media and the national agenda. Although still causing terrible problems for many, it is even slowly retreating from most livestock farmers list of worries. The fortunate, such as ourselves, for whom the practical effects were never more than a nuisance, are slowly getting our businesses back to something like normal. But we are the fortunate ones. For many people life will never be the same again.

That does not just go for farmers. There are many people in other businesses that have also suffered, particularly those which depend on the tourist trade. The worst affected parts of the country will take years to recover. The F&M epidemic was arguably the worst man-made financial disaster to affect Britain in peacetime.

And it was man-made. Obviously not the virus itself; but the virus arrived in our flocks and herds through human activity. Also the measures that were so poor at controlling its spread were determined and enforced by people.

So how do we learn the lessons of the epidemic, prevent it happening again and plan how to deal with it should it recur? These are an almost immeasurably complex set of problems but making a start couldnt be simpler. What is needed is a public inquiry, not the mealy-mouthed, see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil set of three private inquiries that Mr Blair has ordered. We need a full-scale open public inquiry, to be chaired by a judge, who would be able to compel witnesses to attend and question them under oath.

That is so obvious that the number of people who still resist the idea could fit into a modest milking parlour. Unfortunately most of them are in the government. Even Labour backbenchers know that a public inquiry is needed, although they are unlikely to say so in public. The case for a public inquiry is so strong that for the government to refuse to hold one is nothing less than a denial of justice and democracy.

When ordinary subjects are faced with such a denial by the government we have little power. But we are not powerless. We can write to MPs, ministers and the press; we can protest and we can petition. FARMERS WEEKLY partnered by Horse&Hound and three regional newspapers did an excellent job in getting more than 100,000 signatures for their own petition. There is, however, another petition that all farmers should support. This the Foot-and-Mouth Truth Campaign; the idea of Lady Apsley and Bill Cash MP.

It is a petition under the 1921 Tribunals Act and the point of it is that rather than go to the Prime Minister it will go to Parliament. This distinction is important as if the petition carries enough signatures then the government will have no choice but to hold a public inquiry. Even their own backbenchers will have to support the demand. But the key to success is in getting enough signatures. Far more than 100,000.

Fortunately collecting signatures, as I know from experience, is easy. When the issue is explained people cheerfully sign. All it takes is a little time. Lady Apsley and her small team have put a big effort into the campaign; everybody in farming should give a little of their own to ensure its success. Write for information to PO Box 30, Cirencester, GL7 2YZ or visit either www.basc.org.uk or www.countryside-alliance.org.uk. Or telephone 01285 653135. And do it now. The petition must close on Nov 15.

Another clarion call on

the crucial need for a

full public inquiry into

foot-and-mouth is

issued by Neil Datson

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TALKING POINT

26 October 2001

TALKING POINT

There is, I am unreliably informed, a car wash somewhere off Londons Fulham Road which, for an extra quid, will spray mud onto your four-wheel-drive. For these customers, autumn is a time of mists and muddy fruitfulness. But for the rest of us October isnt quite so picturesque.

After a lousy harvest and a wet back-end I am now watching the price of wheat fall like an autumn leaf. It is also the time the bank manager (now called my relationship manager) comes for lunch. After discussing the weather, I present him with my budget which shows what my overdraft will be for the next 12 months. Lunch this year was no fun at all. My overdraft will rise by about 25%.

Which is why I am looking for ways of saving money or, better still, not spending money. Three events have concentrated my brain wonderfully. The first was the arrival of a letter from the NFU inviting me to pay my annual subscription of nearly £2000. The second was a cheque from a local merchant for 27t of rape from which he had deducted £17.55 as my Home-Grown Cereals Authority levy. And the third was a cheque for 100t of wheat from which £40 has also gone to the same charity.

The NFU, for all its faults, is still a necessity and not a luxury for the farmers of Britain. Life without the NFU would be unthinkable. Which is why I shall once again, with heavy heart, write out a cheque and give it to my group secretary.

But the HGCA is a very different matter. For the past four years as cereal prices plummeted, the levy has remained constant. As a result the organisation receives about £12m a year from farmers like me. Quite what it does with this money remains a bit of a mystery. Not because the HGCA is in any way secretive, but simply because I never seem to notice the benefits I am supposed to receive. Yes I know that without the HGCA there would be no Recommended List, which costs £2m/year, and that would make me rather sad. But all the other research and development it finances at a cost of £4m/year seems to pass me by. So also does the £1m it spends on market information. And as for British Cereals Exports and British Cereals Products, I remain unmoved and unenthusiastic.

So in the HGCA we have an organisation that first, forces me to give it money. Second, never consults me about how it is spent. Third, refuses to link the levy to the market price of cereals and fourth spends my money on projects which are, at best, questionable. All of which drives me to the conclusion that in these difficult times HGCA is a luxury and not a necessity.

The best solution would be to abolish it completely. The landscape of Britain today is littered with the skeletons of organisations (Railtrack being the latest) which have failed their customers. However, if this is felt to be too drastic a solution, then let the HGCA levy become voluntary. Those farmers who wish to benefit from the research programmes will continue to pay and will continue to receive the so-called benefits. In that way the HGCA would enter the real world and find out very soon whether or not the farmers of Britain feel that they are getting value for money.

Meanwhile, I have to grit my teeth and smile every time a lorry leaves the yard and takes with it £11 which will wine and dine a Portuguese flour miller.

All of which drives me to the conclusion that in these difficult times HGCA is a luxury and not a necessity. The best solution would be to abolish it. The landscape of Britain today is littered with the skeletons of organisations…which have failed their customers.

Some cheques are

signed ungrudgingly

and other payments

are strongly resented.

Into the latter category

comes the HGCAlevy,

says Oliver Walston

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TALKING POINT

19 October 2001

TALKING POINT

Does the Right to

Roam include the

right to leave gates

open and the right to

be untroubled by

bio-security?

Charlie Flindt

elaborates

Behind Flindt Towers is the Horse Meadow, named because it was where horses were once kept. Were not daft round these parts. It has been under the plough, probably during World War II, and the ridge and furrows can still be found, especially by a mower set too low. Its long and narrow, on top of Hinton Ampner ridge. To the south can be seen the Itchen Basin, and to the north, the site of the Battle of Cheriton (1644 – when Frank short-changed a Cavalier in Ye Jollye Flowerpotse).

Along the long north edge of Horse Meadow runs a bridleway, with a gate at each end to let the horses through. Actually, the gates have gone now, and this is why.

Slaving away in the Tractor Barn (so called because thats where tractors are kept), I spotted a crocodile of cagoules making its way towards the Horse Meadow. As part of my ongoing study into the habits of the rambler, I thought Id check how they handled the gates. I surreptitiously made my way to the Cart Barn (so called because…well you can guess) next to the first gate into the meadow. The lead rambler undid the hook and lifted the gate off the latch, and went through, followed by his cheery, whistling chums. Tail gunner rambler, who could well have been Lancaster bomber vintage, swung the gate back towards the slam post, and studied the fixings. The concept of lifting the gate onto the latch and putting a hook in an eye was obviously far too much for him.

I watched in astonishment from no more than 15ft away, as he shrugged his shoulders and dropped the gate about 6in open, and resumed his hearty yomp.

He and his companions didnt get far, as I emerged to give a succinct lecture on how unfastened gates had on three occasions this summer and autumn forced us to abandon harvest and drilling to chase cattle across the Hampshire countryside. The Country Code may be unfashionable, but its still valid.

Eventually, the cagoules continued on their way, with mutterings of "bloody farmers", "wait till Right to Roam", and so on.

I cant believe Right to Roam isnt already here. Once, a footpath was a right of way based on a line drawn from any house in the village to the church. Now it seems to be any route you like between any two gates you find. This explains the continuous moaning about gates wired up: Chances are that the gate in question isnt anywhere near a footpath.

But when the woolly-hatted ones find wire on it, its out with the pliers and theres a letter to Janet Street-Porter faster than you can sing Fol-de-ree fol-de-ray.

Im also baffled about DEFRAs advice on continuing bio-security. Drive a Land Rover, wear a SCATS shirt and wellies, and you must continue washing, spraying and sterilising everything. Pop on a bobble hat, chunky boots and a clear plastic Ordinance Survey map case, and, hey presto – you can go where you like Untroubled by such a concept.

Anyway, we moved the fence in the Horse Meadow in by 15ft, so bridleway users can walk the length of the path without the trauma of using gates. One well known local walker was genuinely grateful. She was pleased that the Flindt Towers cattle (not known for being shy) now left her alone. However, another walker was furious. "Who do you think you are?" he demanded. "I used to enjoy walking all over that field. What right have you to force us to keep to a narrow path?"

I rest my case, mlud.

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TALKING POINT

12 October 2001

TALKING POINT

Better welfare practices

cant come without

economic support, says

Peter Stevenson

Many people are now talking about agricultural reform. Certainly Compassion in World Farming would like to see an end to the intensive practices which are common for poultry and fattening pigs and to animals being taken on long journeys to slaughter. In particular, we hope the live export trade will never resume.

But how do we create a climate of economic viability for these changes? First, the CAP must be reformed. CIWF believes that part of the £25bn spent each year under the CAP must be re-directed to give financial support to farmers who move from intensive to high welfare systems.

A new farm animal welfare scheme should be established to help farmers with the capital costs of introducing better systems and for a transitional period of, say, four years, with the extra running costs. It is the transitional period which is the most vulnerable for any business which embarks on fundamental change.

Second, we the public must recognise that it is our demand for cheap food that has fuelled intensive farming. If we want more humane food, we must be prepared to pay for it. What is essential is that farmers are not asked to bear the increased costs of better welfare. They must be allowed to pass those extra costs on to supermarkets and then to consumers.

That said, it is worth stressing that changing to higher welfare systems often adds relatively little to on-farm production costs – though, even then, it is the consumer, not the farmer, who should pay. NFU figures show that a free-range egg costs just 1.54p more to produce than a battery egg (a barn egg costs just 0.7p more to produce than a battery egg). As we each eat just 163 eggs a year, we could change from battery to free-range for £2.51 each a year, provided that retailers charge no more extra for free-range than is needed to cover the additional production costs.

Similarly, MLC figures show that changing from sow stalls to group housing has added less than 2p to the cost of producing a kg of pigmeat. As we each eat on average 21.3 kg of pigmeat a year, the sow stall ban should have added less than 50p a year to each persons food bill.

Studies show that with finishing pigs, providing better welfare in the form of more space, environmental enrichment results in healthier animals. It also lowers costs by reducing the use of veterinary medicines and brings better feed conversion ratios and greater productivity through faster growth and reduced mortality.

Clearly, supermarkets and caterers have a vital role to play. I would like to see all following the lead of Marks & Spencer, Waitrose and McDonalds in refusing to sell or use battery eggs. Moreover, similar policies should apply to pork, bacon and poultry meat. Having established high standards, the supermarkets must pay farmers a fair price and reverse the trend under which a declining proportion of each £ we spend on food gets back to farmers.

Above all, we must secure changes to the World Trade Organisation rules. At present, when the EU bans a rearing system on welfare grounds in its own territory, it cannot – under WTO rules – ban the import of meat or eggs coming from animals reared in that system in third countries. That has to change.

When the EU sets improved welfare standards, it must be able to apply them not just to domestic produce but also to imports. The WTO rules must be reformed so that legitimate concerns such as food safety, animal welfare and the environment do not have to be sacrificed to free trade.

&#8226 Peter Stevenson is political and legal director of Compassion in World Farming. He studied economics and law at Cambridge University. He has written reports on the impact of the World Trade Organisation on animal welfare and the economics of intensive farming.

2

If we want more

humane food, we must be prepared to pay for it. What is essential is that farmers are not

asked to bear

the increased

costs of better

welfare.

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TALKING POINT

5 October 2001

TALKING POINT

Careless talk costs

money, as cereal

growers have

discovered.

Marie Skinner

counts the cost

Random remarks can often destroy businesses. For example careless talk by the Brussels Cereals Management Committee (ManCom), part of the EU Commission, resulted in a £2/t fall in grain markets last week.

Information leaked after a ManCom meeting on Sept 20 led to an immediate fall in European grain markets. ManCom was thinking of abruptly reducing import duties because "internal prices are too high and measures should be taken to reduce them."

ManCom has the power to carry out these actions and "manage" the grain market. But doing so contradicts Agenda 2000, which was committed to reducing market interference and ensuring market prices were driven by market forces – not by politics.

With arable farm incomes already low, a sudden drop in prices is serious news. The HGCA farm model shows, before this recent drop that the average, 100ha (250-acre), combinable crop farm will make a profit of just £2,000 this season – most of which is wiped out by a £2 price reduction.

But the situation could get worse. If ManCom implements its proposals and reduces import duties for grain coming into Europe from Black Sea and Baltic ports, a further fall in UK wheat prices of £5/t could easily result.

The import levies were imposed as part of Agenda 2000 to act as a buffer, protecting the EU market from grain dumping by close neighbours. If it is now felt the levy should go, then warning should be given. To discuss removing it in mid marketing season is inappropriate and destroys orderly marketing.

So, what is behind it? According to the news agency Reuters, the commission felt the World Trade Centre bombing would have an inflationary effect on the economy. To help lessen the impact, it decided it could interfere with the markets, reduce raw material prices and counter potential increases in food prices.

These views need questioning. The commission discussion took place just nine days after the disaster when US equity markets were in free fall, when virtually all commentators talked of recession and interest rates were dropping. The analysis behind the commissions behaviour appears unsound and does not match wider economic predictions.

The effect is also inconsistent with the commissions declared objective of moving away from market management towards free market forces as the best way of controlling markets. As a result of Agenda 2000, intervention prices have fallen by 15% in two years, but the higher area aid payments, given as compensation, were set at only 50% of the price cut. That was deliberate: Farmers were expected to reclaim the rest of the cut from the market.

The changes were made to help ensure that the market ruled and intervention existed only as a market of last resort. This approach is being undermined by ManCom, which appears to be treating intervention as if it is a target price and that if market prices rise above intervention they are too high.

I cannot understand how prices can be considered to be too high when barley prices are close to intervention levels in Scotland and UK feed wheat prices, although slightly higher than this time last year, are still at historically low levels. A £2/t price difference means a lot to a farmer but not much to a consumer; it would cut the price of a loaf of bread by 0.14p.

The commission is manipulating the market. It is accepting low prices when markets are under pressure, then attacking and undermining the same markets when prices are firm. It is interfering with commercial markets in the middle of the marketing period.

The commission should be aware of its responsibilities to the commercial world and behave more responsibly.

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TALKING POINT

21 September 2001

TALKING POINT

Neil Datson laments

the sorry state

of British

farming but counts a

few blessings, too

It has been an epic year for figs. Not a crop that comes high up most farmers priorities, but it figures in mine. In our yard at Spelsbury are two trees, planted by a lady who spent the First World War nursing in Serbia and came back with a liking for figs. I like nearly all fruit, but figs are a favourite. They cannot travel more than a few miles, which is why the dry lumps of puce cotton wool that are sold in the UK never tempt me. If you want figs go to a tree, not a shop.

In which, of course, I am lucky. Thanks to Kaiser Bill and Elsie Corbett, I can enjoy my own figs. Even more, whether due to global warming or the maturity of the trees, over recent years they have cropped better and better.

Farming, meanwhile, has become worse and worse. Prices are low, subsidies are declining, and we have just come through one of the most difficult and frustrating arable seasons that most will remember. On this farm we did not have three dry days together between mid-September and mid-December, and some fields wouldnt have borne a tractor until April. Yet most of our land is fairly light, and from what travelling I have done, the crops in north Oxfordshire have looked better than most. Worse still than the weather has been notifiable disease, swine fever in the autumn of 2000 and this year foot-and-mouth.

Possibly the gloomiest thing of all is the most intangible. Many farmers will not stay in business in the current economic climate, and circumstances beyond our control have made the struggle all the harder. But it does seem that we are not wanted. The way in which F&M has been reported by the media makes farmers wonder who is living in the parallel universe. Is it us, or the rest of the nation? There has been a feeling of terrible unreality in reading the national press, and discovering that it is all about profiteering, compensation millionaires and deliberately spreading disease.

Harvest is a good time for taking stock. Things may be difficult, but every farmer has something to thankful for. We live in a democratic country that is at peace, and we live in some of the most beautiful parts of that country. We see something of nature every day. Many owner-occupiers are wealthy, and few live in absolute poverty. Almost every town has at least one street where I would not choose to live, and almost every city has at least one district where I would fear to live. But somebody has to, and frequently it is the people with the least choice and the least freedom.

Recognising your good fortune does not mean becoming complacent, or meekly accepting unfairness and injustice. It means keeping a sense of perspective and not allowing difficulties to take over life to the exclusion of everything else. It enables you to see that there is more than one side to every question. It helps you to take a positive outlook.

Although nothing is more difficult than being positive when times are hard nothing is more important. While farmers have never been the whingeing subsidy junkies that they have frequently been called, too many have been looking round and expecting others to save them. It isnt going to happen. Individually and collectively, it is farmers who will have to solve their own problems.

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TALKING POINT

14 September 2001

TALKING POINT

Now there is a true

Man of Steel to defend

the Blair world.

Geoffrey Hollis

speculates

When the inhabitants of Metropolis got into a real fix they were wont to call for Superman. In a trice mild-mannered journalist Clark Kent would slip into a telephone box for a quick change into the Man of Steel, ready to save the world yet again. Now a new hero has emerged: When beset by seemingly insoluble problems a cry goes up from Downing Street "Where is Superhaskins?"

His latest task is to restore Cumbria, post-foot-and-mouth, which will strain even his giant powers. True to the form displayed by his predecessor he has got off to a sticky start.

It was perhaps ill-advised to give his first Press interviews while on holiday in France. Even worse, they were provocative ("misreported" of course): English farmers were mollycoddled, due for a shake-out, and – quelle horreur – less imaginative than their French counterparts. Superhaskins was doing no more than dip into Oliver Walstons phrasebook. But what is endearingly eccentric coming from the cab of a combine in Norfolk seemed crass and insensitive from a Dordogne cafe.

Number 10 quickly despatched orders to Superhaskins to mend his ways, but the damage had been done. Many commentators questioned the wisdom of putting him on to this particular task. Others asked why the government needed to call on outside help when they had masses of in-house resources? That missed the point of such appointments. They are not meant to produce results but to give the appearance of decisive action in cases where nothing much can be done other than apply the healing hand of time.

To demonstrate, let us look at Superhaskins last project involving agriculture. As chairman of the governments Task Force on Better Regulation he oversaw a study into environmental regulations affecting farmers, published last November. It came up with a list of no fewer than 21 recommendations, which gave the impression of action to help hard-pressed farmers, and was reported as such.

In February the government published its response. This effectively dismissed the whole of the task forces work, but being rather long and turgid received little press coverage.

Three of the recommendations were so general that they did not warrant a plan of action. Of the 18 specific recommendations, five were said to have been tackled already, and another four were kicked into the long grass. The remaining nine were rejected, although in language which could give no offence.

For example, the sensible recommendation to scrap the idea of a pesticides tax was met with: "The government will continue to assess whether a tax or a voluntary approach is the best approach…". Thus none of the recommendations changed the course of history.

It will be interesting to see if Superhaskins manages to come up with any earth-shattering recommendations relating to Cumbria. My guess is that he will produce an imposing list of action points which would either have been done anyway, or will never get implemented. However the appearance of activity should see the government through yet another crisis.

There remains one question: Who is Superhaskins when in ordinary garb? I have an idea. In the last parliamentary session Lord Haskins set the record for the least attendances in the House of Lords by a life peer ennobled by Tony Blair – he did not turn up once. Could this be because he was there all the time, but disguised as a journalist?

Is he perhaps Andrew Marr, the BBCs political correspondent? I dont recall ever seeing them together. If you spot Andrew nipping into a phone box, do watch out; the mystery of Superhaskins needs to be solved.

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TALKING POINT

7 September 2001

TALKING POINT

August is a wicked

month…and a most

unsuitable one for

harvesting, according

to Charlie Flindt

Lets face it, August is a terrible month for harvest. How often do we combine right through? There is usually a fine bit at the start of the month, a fine bit at the end, but the rest is, as young people say nowadays, pants. Every year, the early drillers can be heard having Hagberg panics as the wet weather clobbers their ripe wheat. Early Oct-sown wheat tends to survive – but thats another story.

So what else is on for August? Theres hedge trimming, ploughing, bale cart, and for those of us who have sold off the combine, its time for the annual lorry battle.

With todays technology, getting corn out of the bins and down to the docks/mill/maltsters should be the easiest job in the world. All we want is three telephone calls. First, the long-distance warning: "Well be coming for the barley, week beginning the 24th."

Second, the short-range warning: "The lorries will start after lunch on Tuesday."

Third, the call from the driver: "Ive just joined the A272; where exactly is the store?"

This would avoid several nasty scenarios. Theres the lorry out of the blue, for instance, when you realise that theres a 44t chrome-clad behemoth throbbing outside the farm entrance. "Oh, didnt they say I was coming?" asks cheery driver through a mouthful of Yorkie bar. Do "they" really believe that we have someone employed to sit at the grain store all day, just waiting for lorries?

Theres the vanishing lorry, when the eight oclock booking doesnt show up. Im not sure about anyone else, but I reckon that if I havent heard anything by 10, I can go and do something more constructive elsewhere with a clear conscience.

Theres the two-at-once problem. That happened last spring, when I was bucketing peas out of the store. There were tears and tantrums as driver number two failed to pull rank, and realised that he was stuck there for at least 2hr. It actually took longer, as I was having a Muppet day with the loader, crashing into walls and pillars; the Jolly Flowerpots had beckoned the previous evening. If both drivers hadnt been sulking, they could have sped things up by getting out and sweeping back between bucket loads. I had to do it myself, so it was a very long time before the second one got away.

Theres the lost lorry. Turn left in Hinton Ampner, and youre in Young Towers. Go straight on and youll end up sharing a lawn with a furious Belgian Shepherd, a pathetic Collie, a dozen traumatised chickens and my pet rabbit. A simple call for directions ("right, left, straight on, yard on the right") makes life far easier.

And they dont get any smaller, do they? I wish someone could explain how to grow corn in multiples of 27t. If I make the mistake of growing five and a half loads of malting barley, the penalty on the half load can all but eat up the premium on the other five. Most of our corn is sold through an agricultural trading society based in the southern counties, which has just rebranded itself, no doubt at considerable expense. Investment in a 15t tidy-up lorry would have been far more useful.

So, how best to spend a wet August day? I could finish last years accounts (dull). I could settle down to watch England give the Aussies a good hiding (unlikely). I could renew my attempts to get Massey to lend me a demo tractor (pure fantasy). Looks like the worst job of all, then: an oil and filter change on the Deutz.

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TALKING POINT

24 August 2001

TALKING POINT

More freedom and

flexibility can only

make for a better and

more profitable sugar

beet industry, says

Marie Skinner

I am grateful to pigeons. The large number of woods on my farm, well populated by hungry flocks of the bird, meant that back in the 1970s I kept growing sugar beet and didnt replace it with oilseed rape. Controlling pigeons would have been a problem, asking British Sugar for more quota was easier.

In those days, contracted tonnage entitlement (what is inaccurately called quota) was freely available. Now, 25 years later, a third of my farm grows the most consistently, profitable crop available. It is why an arable farmer said to me, with a hint of envy: "Its all right for you, youve got sugar beet and youre protected by a closed shop."

He is struggling to make a decent return from his combinable cropped farm, whereas my arable operation, despite drastically declining income, remains in profit. He felt it unfair that he could not improve the income potential of his farm by growing sugar beet. Quota was fixed in the past; I had it, he didnt and there was nothing he could do to acquire it – until now.

British Sugar is allowing a trade in quota, with prices determined by the market. It is a new scheme giving an opportunity for new entrants to enter the industry and for existing growers to increase the scale of their operation or cash in their new asset and quit beet growing.

It should have happened years ago. Trading will put flexibility into the sugar industry, increase efficiency and keep the sugar industry moving forward. It should benefit both grower and processor.

So, why is the outgoers scheme a one-off that can only happen this year? If it is right to enable industry restructuring this year, it should be right for it to happen every year?

Constant change within the industry is essential if UK sugar production is to remain competitive. A major review of the sugar regime will occur in 2006 and, with the CAP mid-term review soon, nothing is guaranteed, not even prices. After 2006, pressure from free market forces will increase and for the sugar industry to survive, it must be efficient. The key to achieving that is encouraging change, not trying to control it.

BS should get on with its own job of processing beet and marketing sugar and leave farmers free to do what they are good at, growing beet. Growers need the freedom to choose their own cropping system. Those who want to grow beet should be free to do so, within the financial constraints imposed by the commercial cost of quota.

BS should relax, welcome increased trade in quota and realise that a grower who buys it will make absolutely sure that all the contracted tonnage is grown and delivered to the factory in good condition. They could not afford to get it wrong, in the way some growers do now.

The constructive approach would be to use this year as a pilot scheme for trading quota, leading to the setting up of a trading mechanism for future years, with rules set jointly by BS and the NFU to protect the quality and reliability of future production.

Then, everyone should step back and leave it to growers to decide who wants beet, who doesnt, and at what price. The market will determine what happens and it will work. It will be a better mechanism for selecting effective, competitive beet growers than leaving production frozen in the hands of existing growers.

So, back to my quota: At £50/t Ill sell but at £30/t Ill keep growing. If I dont sell this year Ill just have to hope that one day BS allows quota trading to become a permanent part of the sugar industry.

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TALKING POINT

10 August 2001

TALKING POINT

Lets do away with a

claims culture and

have fairer grain

trading terms, says

Richard Butler

Talking poNOT surprisingly, the attention of arable farmers is focused firmly on harvesting this seasons combinable crops. But to maximise returns, growers will need to give equal care and attention to marketing their products as they have devoted to growing and harvesting them.

The grain market has become increasingly volatile as world prices become more influential and intervention prices continue to be slashed as part of Agenda 2000. As the grain trade consolidates into even fewer hands, the poor returns have hit end users of our grain too.

In this climate, with only a small margin between making a profit or loss, the farmer cannot afford to suffer large claims or deductions from his selling price or, worse still, have loads rejected on delivery.

The Sellers Checklist, produced by the NFU with co-operation from merchants representative UKASTA, the grain co-ops, and end users, has been designed to help avoid unnecessary claims and minimise rejections. In doing so it aims to cut the costs passed back to farmers.

So how much money is being lost to farmers each year? For the past few years, about 17m tonnes of grain has been sold from our farms. If the average cost of allowances and claims were only £1.50, that would represent £25m.

Of course, many loads are delivered without claims. However, sad to note in recent seasons a claims culture has developed. Worryingly, the size of claims has risen as the value of the grain has reduced. In far too many cases the level of deduction bears no resemblance to the true loss to the merchant. But faced with an expensive rejection, most farmers have little choice but to accept the claim.

The Sellers Checklist highlights all the pitfalls in selling grain and offers simple, step-by-step advice on how to avoid them.

Farmers should always take the most accurate sample of grain as it goes into store and ensure that the grain is analysed accurately. Next, they should ensure that if any specification in the contract cannot be met then the scale of the allowance is agreed before the sale. The Sellers Checklist is equally relevant to the grower whose grain is marketed through his or her co-operative.

This years harvest, with UK wheat production down by about 4m tonnes provides the seller with a golden opportunity. In other years, some millers have held out for £1 per point if protein is under 13%. This year, some are accepting 50p per point. The net sale value for a farmer selling 200t at 12.2% protein would be a difference of £800!

Farmers should also use the special terms section to write in conditions of their own.

For example, the farmer may wish to insert no weighbridge costs to be charged to the seller. Alternatively, he may want any allowances claimed to be deducted on the basis of the average of all the loads delivered to one destination.

The NFU has been pressing for the abolition of weighbridge charges (known as the zero option) as these should be accommodated in the net price offered for grain. Weighbridge charges vary enormously and serve to seriously distort competition. They are a good example of what is wrong with the grain trade.

Lets have fairer trading terms with transparency. The claims culture is not helping the industry. I cant emphasize too highly that deductions, whether for moisture, bushel weight, or protein, should be proportional and scientifical

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TALKING POINT

3 August 2001

TALKING POINT

IF there is one group of farmers who has been doing well in recent years it is organic farmers. Good luck to them. However, I will not be in the headlong rush to join them.

There are many reasons for converting to organics, and some of them may even be good, but commercial considerations and the strength of the market are not among them. I will draw out three reasons why the market for organic food is likely to weaken. The bubble may not be about to burst, but it will slowly deflate.

A few weeks ago The Times (July 4) published an article by Geoffrey Hollis: "The great organic con trick". Broadly, Geoffreys argument was that there is no evidence to support the main contentions of the organic lobby. Organic food is not necessarily tastier, healthier or safer, and organic farming is not necessarily better for animal welfare or the environment. Agreeing with most of what he had to say, I rang to congratulate him. My tongue only half way into my cheek I added: "How much did you pay them to publish it?"

No newspaper would have published such heresies until recently. The organic advocates have had a free ride from Press and broadcasters, and they have made the most of it.

Frequently, and shamefully, they have used this opportunity to denigrate conventional farming. Now counter arguments are being allowed to surface. This is not because of a sudden attack of "fairness" – to demand "fairness" of the media is about as sensible as demanding dryness of the sea – but because it has become bored with the old line.

That is my first reason not to trust the organic market; as time passes the public will realise that there is no good reason to choose organic food.

My second point is that organic food has to be a niche product, because it is more expensive to produce.

Niche products depend on exclusivity – snobbery to give its crude name – and once they become common they lose that advantage. There would be no point in boasting about your new Mercedes Benz if all your friends and neighbours were driving the same car. When that point is reached the product really does have to be better to hold its market position. The Mercedes Benz may really be better, but the organic carrot? Hardly.

The third reason to believe that organics have had their heyday is a rather more subtle problem of their perception by consumers. Their adoption by the multiple retailers is cheapening the brand image. Even the good old Co-op, hardly the most upmarket of grocers, now has its own line of organic food products. This may be good for the Co-ops image, but it will have an adverse effect on the customers feelings about organic food. This is especially hard on the enterprising farmers and growers who have spent years building up farm shops and other retailing businesses based on their own organic holdings. It will not do them any good to have an association, albeit slight, with basic standard stores.

None of that means certain disaster will befall organic farmers in the near future. It is reason for caution, that is all. Dont forget that the multiples "commitment" to organic food will hardly last one day longer than it pays them. Their first duty is to shareholders, suppliers hardly figure in their considerations. While farmers may take years to convert they can switch shelf space into new product lines overnight. When that happens, the drop in farmgate prices will be the farmers problem.

The organic lobby has

had a free ride in the

media until now.

But times up,

says Neil Datson

I will draw out three reasons

why the market for organic food is

likely to weaken.

The bubble may

not be about to burst but it will

slowly deflate.

IF there is one group of farmers who has been doing well in recent years it is organic farmers. Good luck to them. However, I will not be in the headlong rush to join them.

There are many reasons for converting to organics, and some of them may even be good, but commercial considerations and the strength of the market are not among them. I will draw out three reasons why the market for organic food is likely to weaken. The bubble may not be about to burst, but it will slowly deflate.

A few weeks ago The Times (July 4) published an article by Geoffrey Hollis: "The great organic con trick". Broadly, Geoffreys argument was that there is no evidence to support the main contentions of the organic lobby. Organic food is not necessarily tastier, healthier or safer, and organic farming is not necessarily better for animal welfare or the environment. Agreeing with most of what he had to say, I rang to congratulate him. My tongue only half way into my cheek I added: "How much did you pay them to publish it?"

No newspaper would have published such heresies until recently. The organic advocates have had a free ride from Press and broadcasters, and they have made the most of it.

Frequently, and shamefully, they have used this opportunity to denigrate conventional farming. Now counter arguments are being allowed to surface. This is not because of a sudden attack of "fairness" – to demand "fairness" of the media is about as sensible as demanding dryness of the sea – but because it has become bored with the old line.

That is my first reason not to trust the organic market; as time passes the public will realise that there is no good reason to choose organic food.

My second point is that organic food has to be a niche product, because it is more expensive to produce.

Niche products depend on exclusivity – snobbery to give its crude name – and once they become common they lose that advantage. There would be no point in boasting about your new Mercedes Benz if all your friends and neighbours were driving the same car. When that point is reached the product really does have to be better to hold its market position. The Mercedes Benz may really be better, but the organic carrot? Hardly.

The third reason to believe that organics have had their heyday is a rather more subtle problem of their perception by consumers. Their adoption by the multiple retailers is cheapening the brand image. Even the good old Co-op, hardly the most upmarket of grocers, now has its own line of organic food products. This may be good for the Co-ops image, but it will have an adverse effect on the customers feelings about organic food. This is especially hard on the enterprising farmers and growers who have spent years building up farm shops and other retailing businesses based on their own organic holdings. It will not do them any good to have an association, albeit slight, with basic standard stores.

None of that means certain disaster will befall organic farmers in the near future. It is reason for caution, that is all. Dont forget that the multiples "commitment" to organic food will hardly last one day longer than it pays them. Their first duty is to shareholders, suppliers hardly figure in their considerations. While farmers may take years to convert they can switch shelf space into new product lines overnight. When that happens, the drop in farmgate prices will be the farmers problem.

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TALKING POINT

9 March 2001

TALKING POINT

Just when you thought

things were getting

better…another crisis

hits farming yet again,

reflects Charlie Flindt

WEVE been here before: It was Mar 21, 1996. I was sitting on the edge of Hazels bed in the maternity ward of the Royal Hampshire County Hospital. Hazel was propped up on the pillows, clutching our new-born baby. What should have been a moment of pure joy and celebration was one of great sadness. Stephen Dorrell had stood up in parliament and wrecked seven years of hard work. His announcement of a possible link between CJD and BSE meant that Hazels suckler herd, her pride and joy, was a doomed enterprise.

We kept it going for a couple of years, trying to find stockmen with the same level of skill and commitment while Hazel concentrated on two young children. Not surprisingly, that proved to be an impossible task. As the beef market failed to redevelop, we decided to abandon the suckler idea and return to the simplest form of cattle rearing possible on our permanent pasture – buying weaned calves and selling them finished or as stores.

Now, almost exactly five years on, were back here again. As we wait for results of a suspected foot-and-mouth case just north of us, that awful feeling is back. Something invisible and out of our control looks likely to wreak havoc with an integral part of the farm.

Somehow, though, its not the same. Somehow the domesday option of a mass slaughter wont hit us like the BSE scare did.

You dont get fond of store cattle the way you can with cows. When youve shampooed a vast, docile cow like Zeppy to rid her of lice (using a product named WashnMoo) you can get attached to her. When youve helped her through four or five calvings and sympathised with her at four or five weanings, you can get to like the old girl a lot. So when she, and her fellow cows, had to be sold due to an unproven theory about the danger of eating her offsprings meat, it hurt, and tears were shed.

Its not as if the replacement enterprise is making money. Most of our buildings arent the most suitable for young stock and the endless wet weather has claimed far too many of the little blighers. Thank goodness President Blair hasnt finished off the hunt kennels yet.

The River Itchen decided to surface a mile up the valley from its normal source, flooding the over-winter pastures for the older stock. They have hardly thrived this year and theres certainly not much sign of spring to get things going.

So we are counting our blessings in advance. If we miss the virus, extensive beef like ours might be very much in demand as doubts are raised about the wisdom of more intensive systems. If the worst happens, well consider ourselves lucky compared with those poor souls with pedigree herds or irreplaceable organic stock. The pyres at Flindt Towers would only be consuming bog-standard (to use a topical phrase) easily-replaced government-compensated beef animals.

There have been plenty of times over the past year or so when the farm map has found itself with cricket pitches, golf courses or three-day eventing courses sketched over the pastures.

And its an ill wind, as they say, that blows no one any good. Two Sundays ago, we enjoyed a sunny walk over a beautiful snowy farm. Not a single rambler was to be seen anywhere. When I checked the gates on Monday, they were all intact and shut. Now that hasnt happened for a long time.

You dont get

fond of store

cattle like you do with

cows. When youve shampooed a vast, docile cow like Zeppy to rid her of lice you can get attached to her. When youve helped her through four or five calvings… you can get to

like the old

girl a lot.

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TALKING POINT

13 October 2000

TALKING POINT

E-commerce is

spreading in the

farming industry but

potential new

customers need to

tread with care, warns

John Jenkin

ALMOST every week it seems we are invited by yet another new dot.com to trade over the world wide web.But how can you decide which provider can be relied on to deliver what is expected from a contract, be it livestock, grains, inputs or cash?

The technology of e-commerce is relatively new and developing at an exponential pace, so few operators can demonstrate a track record of competence. Some will fall at the first fence, but as competition is the spur to innovation, the survivors will be all the more competent.

Who to choose? Who you know, rather than what you know, may still be a safe policy, but farm-household names are, as Lady Bracknell once put it, "no guarantee of respectability" in the brave new world of the net. If supermarket retailers have done nothing else, at least they have exposed how costly loyalty to branded products has been. A new name may be the best in the field, but it has to be taken on trust, however convincing the sales pitch.

Find out who is backing them, for starters. Their success will depend not only on their reputation, which will soon be spread via the grapevine, but on whether the architecture of their software is right. Few software programmers have knowledge and experience of agricultural and horticultural markets.

Three main classes of e-commerce operations are emerging for farmers and growers – those owned by buyers, by sellers and by independent, neutral trading platforms. Buyers include the multinational processors and commodity traders. Sellers include input manufacturers, e-retailers and service providers. Farmer and grower-owned platforms can be a combination of both. Neutral platforms may offer to handle the whole gamut of farm produce and requisites, by enabling bids and offers by parties, perhaps unknown to each other, to be matched.

But theres danger with a stranger. The neutral platform provider must guarantee quality, quantity, delivery and payment, to sustain its credibility. It follows that not all products will be traded through e-commerce yet. Those used to visual and manual inspections of samples may take some persuasion to convert.

Commodity traders have generally been reluctant to innovate, although some are now taking the plunge. Scientifically reliable means of product sampling and cataloguing electronically are continually being developed. Wool, for example, need no longer be handled by buyers present at auction. They can bid remotely through an extranet on the basis of specifications in the electronic catalogue.

So can individual producers, however computer-iterate and enthusiastic, really reap the bountiful harvest potentially available? Up to a point, but as multinational companies are making most of the running, it becomes ever more obvious that producers must co-operate in trading to maintain any semblance of market power. It therefore behoves co-operatives and others to get on and embrace the new technologies, if their members are not to end up with as much bargaining power as smallholders in a banana republic. They will be better able than individual members to keep abreast of the continuous and time-consuming business of upgrading software to remain competitive.

So no one should be deterred from venturing into electronic trading, whether collectively or individually. It has enormous capability to bring greater efficiencies and transparency and to add value through cost savings. The environmental benefits to be derived from logistical economies – goods moving directly from producer to processor or retailer, or from manufacturer directly to farm – ought to be a strong motivation for the government to intervene with some inducements for more farmers to get on-line.

So can individual producers, however computer-literate and enthusiastic, really reap the bountiful harvest…?

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TALKING POINT

15 September 2000

TALKING POINT

Allowing the NFU

representation on the

National Trust council

would surely gain the

Trust a more receptive

response from its

farmer tenants, says

Edward Leigh-Pemberton

Let us take stock of the National Trust, its organisation and management of UK farmland.

First, a few facts. The Trust is the countrys biggest landowner with 248,000ha (612,560 acres), it has 2.6m members and is rich. It is run by a council of 52 people – 26 elected by members and 26 nominated by persons or bodies with an interest in the running of the National Trust.

Papers for the Trusts AGM in Manchester on Nov 4 have been sent to members. In the Annual Report, the chairman highlights the role of the Trusts farm tenants, the importance of a prosperous agricultural economy to the Trust and the councils approval of a new agricultural policy.

So you might expect the NFU to be one of the bodies able to nominate a council member. Not so.

The CLA and the Royal Agricultural Society of England are represented on council. Surely the NFU, the main national body of both farming and tenant farmers, on whom the Trust is so reliant, should have a voice? I do not demean the input of others, but surely the NFUs input would be more valuable than the Youth Hostels Association?

The list of nominating bodies is up for review this year, as it is every six. The council is giving members the option to vote for the NFU, but recommends Transport 2000, the Garden History Society and the British Tourist Authority. That is indicative of a wider concern about the National Trust and its attitude to farming and the countryside. The new agricultural policy contains a lot of politically correct language more familiar to Islington than Exmoor. As the chairman acknowledges, tenants play a vital part in the Trust, but to complain or comment on Trust policy would compromise the landlord-tenant relationship. For this reason alone, the NFU should be represented on council. Farm tenants would have a representative to approach confidentially. Farm tenants have expressed the view to me that they do not have confidence in, and contact with, those determining the future of their livelihood and spending the considerable resources of the Trust. NFU representation would correct that.

With the Trusts vast membership and various enterprises, farm rental income does not make the major contribution to its income. But no one seems to have investigated the effect on expenditure if farm tenants do not have sufficient income or are not present to maintain the great bulk of the estate for free.

The Trust has not used its vast political clout to lobby actively on behalf of the farming industry. Not surprisingly, one broadsheet newspaper has described the Trust as a "rich and baggy monster peopled by urbanites".

Another concern is the voting procedure. The form itself is fiendishly complicated. A cynic might suggest its design encourages members to vote in line with the councils thinking. A much wider concern is the near total apathy of the membership. In recent years, fewer than 2% of the membership has voted. A significant proportion of those voting give their proxy to the chairman, which allows him to stifle any dissent.

I urge all National Trust members to use their vote this year. Ask yourself whether you will be acting in the interests of the Trusts farm tenants, farming generally and the future governance of the Trust if you follow the councils voting recommendations.

One broadsheet newspaper has described the Trust as a rich and baggy monster peopled by urbanites.

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TALKING POINT

1 September 2000

TALKING POINT

Nick Brown,

sympathetic

to farmers? You must

be joking, says

Neil Datson

THERE is a police interrogation routine, so old as to be positively geriatric, known as Mutt and Jeff. Mutt, the hard copper, has first go. His approach is to rough the suspect over, one trusts only verbally in Britain today, but physically in less happy countries and ages.

Then Jeff steps in. "Have a ciggy, mate. Can I get you a cup of tea? That Mutt, hes a mean sort, and frankly we dont like him here at the station. Perhaps youd like to have a chat with me before he comes back." And so the suspect confesses.

Dr Jack Cunningham was, with farmers, possibly the most unpopular farm minister there has been. He certainly did not court farmers good opinions, bringing a sort of bullying arrogance to the job. It is rumoured that privately he admitted that his aim was to cut the number of farmers in the country. And that although he was not going to say as much in public, he did not care who knew it. So the farmers disliked Dr Cunningham, they had reason to dislike him, and he was content to be disliked. What a relief when he was replaced by that nice Nick Brown.

Listening Nick. Sympathetic Nick. Generous Nick? Well, hed like to be wouldnt he? Helpful Nick? Yes, of course, we all know that he wants to help, but his hands are tied by the Treasury, arent they?

It is remarkable, in a supposedly scientific age, when people dont believe in unicorns and other mythological beasts, that so many believe the most improbable nonsense, such as that Nick Brown is on the farmers side.

The reality is that in terms of what is important, policy, you cannot put the proverbial cigarette paper between Dr Cunningham and Mr Brown. They have followed the same agenda, which is to slim down the industry and make it less of a distraction to the government. The idea that Nick Brown goes into Cabinet meetings fighting to be allowed to help farming is laughable. As it relates to farming his job is to cover the Prime Ministers flank, and he does that by fielding criticism and making sympathetic noises. As Ben Gill said: "His major achievement … is his ability to talk and listen. If we hadnt had this approach then feelings about the government would be considerably worse than they are in rural society …" (News, July 28). How apt. We have a minister who will "talk and listen" in the key task of keeping the government popular – and he will do it until the cows never come home again.

For those who believe that he actually wants to help farmers another, equally perverse, belief is essential – that he is monumentally incompetent. He plainly has not helped farmers, but he has dressed up a few scarps as a great feast.

Just look at his finest hour. In order to defuse the NFU march that was planned for the Labour Party conference in September last year, he announced a new aid package, worth £537m. When dissected, the package was found to comprise previously agreed agrimonetary compensation and the postponement of some planned additional charges. The only new money was £1m for marketing. £1m of cash and £536m of spin was quite a performance, even by the standards of the current government.

I do not believe that Nick Brown is incompetent, rather that he is doing precisely the job that his boss requires of him, and doing it very well indeed. My verdict could not be more generous – he is a fine politician.

It is remarkable, in a supposedly scientific age, when people dont believe in unicorns and other mythological beasts, that so many believe the most improbable nonsense, such as that Nick Brown is

on the farmers

side.

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TALKING POINT

2 June 2000

TALKING POINT

Lets keep the GM

debate sensible and

productive, not turn it

into a hysterical

slanging match, says

Guy Smith

Like many East Anglian farmers, we have grown high euricic oilseed rape for years. As its name suggests, it is high in euricimides which when fed to rats at unusually high doses produces lesions on their livers. So this rape is not grown for human consumption but for industrial lubricants.

To those of a hysterical predisposition, the growing of plants that are high in euricimides might seem dodgy. Many possibilities could be foreseen if you put your imagination into over-drive. The high euricic plants could get their genes into other farmed crops destined for the food chain. They might cross-pollinate with wild plants. Bees might pick up the high euricic pollen and take it back to the honeycomb. High euricic pollen may waft to contaminate the lungs of innocent children.

Such lurid scenarios are of no consequence because we know that there is no evidence of any risk from growing high euricics. It remains a nice little earner for many farmers. Contrast that with the prospect of growing GM rape, which has no known toxicity or negative environmental impact.

When it was announced that my farm was to be a GM trial site, there was a huge concern in my village and in the local media. You would have thought a UFO trial had been announced rather than a GMO trial.

In Tudor times my village, St.Osyth, was renowned for its witch-hunts. Innocent women were burned because of untrue rumours about sick children, deformed animals and blighted crops.

Now 400 years later, the village was in the grip of another witch-hunt and again there were rumours about sick children, deformed plants and blighted nature reserves. Just as many of my neighbours seemed spooked by my plans, I too was spooked by their irrational over-reaction.

The GM debate is one of the great debates of our time; but it is not really about GM technology. It goes further – it is about a growing distrust of science and unfounded fears of agriculture based on modern technology. As farmers, we stand back from this debate at our peril. New technology has been a good friend to the farmer over the past two generations. From the diesel engine to the hydraulic pump and hybrid seed, the list of gifts is endless. If we lose our confidence in new technology it could set us back decades.

"Why bother with GMOs, nobody wants them," it is asked? Although its true that the consumer is king, who informs the consumer as to what is safe?

GM crops have been taken up readily by our American competitors. On millions of acres they have been shown to be safe to people and the environment. They have reduced pesticide use and cut production costs. Yet in the UK, powerful and well financed political pressure groups have set their campaigning faces against this useful technology. They are determined British farmers will not have it, no matter what the evidence.

Our grandfathers and fathers welcomed new technology even if at first sight it had no immediate benefit for consumers. That is how they transformed agriculture from the unproductive, peasant backwardness of the 19th century into the modern, forward-thinking, productive industry of today. They climbed aboard the technology train for their benefit and for societys benefit. Today it seems the technology train has hit the buffers.

My generation of farmers has a choice. Do we give in to the eco-bigots who would prefer us as organic park-keepers or do we wake up to the importance of the GM debate? The legacy handed to us from our fathers was one of progression and competitiveness. What is to be our legacy to our children? Is it to be an agriculture that defers to the whims and prejudices of scaremongers or is it to be an agriculture that can continue to benefit from new technology and safe food?

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TALKING POINT

31 March 2000

TALKING POINT

The grain intervention

system in the UK

needs a radical

overhaul…and now,

says Richard Butler

THE intervention system for cereals is failing British farmers at a time when we are in the grip of record low grain prices. Rather than acting for all European grain producers, recent decisions from the commission in Brussels mean intervention supports the market only if you farm elsewhere in Europe not in Britain.

Complex operating procedures, nonsensical qualifying tests, and high costs are all conspiring to make the grain intervention system less effective.

Change is needed and fast. A working group was set up by farm minister Nick Brown and the NFU to look at the intervention system from cereals to dairy products and beef. It has now reported back and has recognised the need for change particularly for grain.

Nowhere is the situation illustrated more starkly than the difference between France and the UK.There is a vast difference in wheat testing costs. A French co-op offering 10,000t faces a bill for £120 compared with a bill for technical costs of, until recently, £5500 for the same offer. The UK authority insists on 20 samples, one for every 500t, but in France this is aggregated to one test.

Since the issue was highlighted by the Red Tape group, the UK Intervention Board has just announced a significant reduction in wheat testing costs. But the gulf remains.

The report recognises that post Agenda 2000, the role of intervention has changed from being an alternative market for farmers to a safety net which operates only when grain prices fall to low levels.

At current exchange rates for Nov 2000, the delivered grain price for intervention is about £68/t. For harvest 2001, that falls by a further 7.5%. Deduct £5 for transport and a further £4 to get back to a harvest price and its obvious how low intervention prices will be in the future.

Nearly 70% of UK wheat is excluded from intervention by the technical standards set by the EU Commission. Soft endosperm wheat like Riband, Consort and Claire now account for nearly half of plantings and have established real export markets.

Take last season, France produced 38m tonnes of wheat and had 6m tonnes (16%) accepted into intervention. Meanwhile, on this side of the Channel, with a 16m tonne wheat crop and very low prices, only 40,000t went to intervention.

This issue is recognised in the report and the minister is urged to press for alternative protein quality tests to the machinability test, which would not exclude UK soft wheats.

Low zeleny wheat, like UK soft wheat, must pass the machinability test, which measures the stickiness of dough. That test is expensive and takes several days. Unsurprisingly, its not used commercially by UK or Continental millers and is probably only familiar to the Mad Hatter.

The EU cereals management committee has said that intervention needs to move closer to the market. To assist this process it has just raised the zeleny test on wheat from 20 to 22, making it even more difficult for UK wheat to qualify for intervention.

Machinability is retained as a test for all wheat with a zeleny figure under 30.

But the cereal with the lowest feeding value of all, rye, remains fully supported by intervention despite the fact that with 3m tonnes in intervention, no one can find any market for it!

Rye is of vital importance to German agriculture. But there is no market justification for supporting German rye.

The nightmare scenario for arable farmers is that if world grain prices remain at record low levels, we could be forced out of business while Continental grain producers rely on intervention to support their market.

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TALKING POINT

28 January 2000

TALKING POINT

DOES this government want UK agriculture? Do consumers want the quality and standards of home-produced food rather than imports, bought in on price, to possibly questionable standards? Will there be a UK food producing industry in future?

I believe that the answer to all the above questions is Yes. Despite the problems, which affect all areas of agriculture and horticulture, I believe there is a prosperous future.

The current pressures will probably continue. The fundamental change that has occurred over the past 10 years is that we have moved from a sellers market to a buyers market. Many buyers are big, have specific requirements, and access to world markets.

Large catering companies need consistent supplies of beef of a consistent quality and at a consistent, known price. Many deal with Australia or Argentina because they cannot get the service they require here. Simply having the best product is no longer enough; we have to build the structure, which enables us to service the people who should be our customers, our home market.

The market now favours those who can identify what the market wants, and provide it, against those who simply produce and hope to sell.

GATT commitments, which are to be extended in the WTO talks, already hit our ability to export with subsidies. Also CAP support systems, such as HLCA payments are being changed from headage to an area basis. Arable crops and set-aside are moving to a common level of payment. The Rural Development Regulation, though financially small indicates the EUs intention of moving funding away from commodities. Recent news about modulation emphasises that change.

Also Europe will expand eastwards to include former communist countries.

So with the horrendous state of farm income, the weak euro, the market pressures and CAP, how do I see a future for farmers?

We have a good home market and sit on the edge of the largest trading block in the world.

We have a wonderful climate for growing a range of important crops. We have fast developing technology and technical expertise in growing and processing. And we have a public who are sympathetic to an industry which they see as producing safe food delivering environmental and social objectives.

Taxpayers question the wisdom of paying money to put grain or beef into store. There is however every indication that they are prepared to support us in achieving environmental and social goals such as ESA payments and countryside stewardship schemes.

But what really gives me faith is the fact that farmers are acknowledging that things have changed dramatically and, to survive, let alone prosper, they have to change too.

Businesses are looking hard at their costs and returns and at market requirements. I believe that we have the opportunity to build a long lasting and competitive industry. An industry which not only plays its part in meeting food production needs, but also the environmental and social expectations made of it.

Europe must play its part by developing policies and support to enable us to compete in these more dynamic markets.

The UK government must use every opportunity to help UK agriculture to survive, develop and compete.

The NFU must develop political and commercial policies to ensure a long term prosperous future for UK agriculture and horticulture. And we must all look hard at our own business, develop our strengths. We must grab the changes to develop a dynamic, competitive, sustainable industry.

There is a prosperous

future for UK

agriculture…but

producers must be

prepared to change

and adapt,

says Tony Pexton

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TALKING POINT

7 January 2000

TALKING POINT

Prosperity certainly

wont be on the agenda

for the average UK

farmer in 2000, says

Maurice Vellacott

A prosperous New Year? You must be joking. Never in my 50 years have those words rung so hollow. Its hard to understand why British farmers are being destroyed after all weve done for this country.

Farming men and women, driven by instinct to produce food and drink for our fellow human beings, are being put out of business by over-educated idiots who see no future for us.

We were told in the 50s, 60s and 70s to produce more. Now they say less. Push down your hedges they said. Now put them back up. Spread umpteen units of Nitram they said. Now we are accused of having too much nitrates in the soil. The list goes on.

No wonder were confused, but then maybe thats part of the plan?

So who has a future? Farmers with low rents, cheap labour that benefit from economies of scale may have the flexibility to survive. But thats me out. Youngsters wanting a foothold in farming will find it difficult, because the agenda is to reduce the number of British farmers. So young, vibrant farmers, contributing to over-production, will be discouraged.

They will be able to work on bigger farms, which are receiving encouragement, or become farm managers. However they should prepare to be hired today and fired tomorrow. Or better still, emigrate and watch this country inflict irreversible damage to its agricultural industry.

How can we restore our farming fortunes to their former glory? First, common sense needs to be injected into government. The extortionate cost burdens dragging down our farming industry must be cut if we are to survive. One example is the MLC levy. All inspection charges that are paid either directly or indirectly by the producer must be reduced. We should be allowed to produce to self sufficiently including 100% of UK milk consumption rather than 70%.

Imported products that are not up to British standard should be turned away. Cooking in schools should be made part of the national curriculum to help children learn about food. Supermarkets should be encouraged to be more patriotic. Also we should resume calf live exports and abandon the splitting of sheep carcasses. Perhaps we should question our continued membership of the EU? The list of subjects that requires urgent attention goes on and on.

Whatever solutions are implemented, its important to realise that this time there will be no cavalry riding to our rescue. This government is on a crusade to rid this country of 50% of its farmers. British agriculture is costing this country too much money. You only have to read into the Agenda 2000 proposal to see our fate.

MAFF acknowledges that some farmers will experience negative equity and that farmland will be abandoned. But that will be useful for wildlife habitats, it believes. Agricultures importance in the economy has declined and that trend will continue. Some farmers will go out of business but the production void left by those farmers will be taken up by other countries wanting to come into the EU. Its a long list, which includes Poland and Czechoslovakia. So as we go out of business, our taxpayers will continue to put into the EU pot. Money will be given to these countries waiting to come into the EU which will increase production and flood us with cheap food and milk. But for how long will it remain cheap?

If the £ falls imports will become dearer. And if we lose self-sufficiency, we become vulnerable; another Third World country, poor and helpless.

Some may think these views unduly pessimistic. But I consider myself to be a realist.

How can we restore our

farming fortunes to their former glory? First, common

sense needs to be injected into government.

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TALKING POINT

17 December 1999

TALKING POINT

It is sheer hypocrisy to

attack field sports but

to happily eat meat

and fish sometimes

raised and killed

the cruellest of

circumstances, says

Patrick Godwin

I am a countryman born and bred. I earn my living from the land, and I get my pleasure from the sporting opportunities it offers. However, all that I hold dear about my way of life now seems to be under threat. As suburban man becomes more vocal as to how country yokels should conduct their lives I become increasingly angry.

I enjoy the cut and thrust of debate, but what I cannot abide is the current hypocrisy of the so called animal rights movement. I refer to their complaints against live animal exports or law abiding field sportsmen, and the threat that this movement brings to a way of life I, and many others, hold dear.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word as "falsely pretending to be virtuous". What are animal rights? Do all forms of life have the same rights? Does the fly buzzing around the window frame deserve the same attention as an orang-utan in some zoo?

Obviously the answer is no. Most people would swat the fly and pity the orang-utan. Where does the fine line of judgment come? Who decides what is deserving of rights and what is not, and what scale shall be put on these passports to an easier existence?

It is impossible to create some form of league table of higher mammals and a lower division of millions of other species. It is impossible to argue that one animal has more rights than any other. All animals deserve our respect and admiration.

Every right-thinking person abhors cruelty to animals in any form. But what clouds the issue is the definition of cruelty, and the degree of suffering the animal may or may not be exposed to. Is a mouse teased by a cat subjected to more or less terror than a fox pursued by hounds? Does a goldfish transported from a fairground in a polythene bag and kept in a small glass bowl suffer more or less than a fish caught from a river or lake and swiftly despatched?

To answer those questions is to fall into the trap of anthropomorphism. We would have to put our 20th century mind into an animals brain, and live the life of a fox or a goldfish. That trap is riddled with political correctness, poor science and arguments that can never be won.

If anyone can say that their lives are free from all forms of animal suffering then I would gladly sit down and debate the subject of country sports. But there are not going to be many takers. I see no difference between keeping a pet cat with all its hunting instincts and a ferret used for rabbiting. The piece of cod on last nights supper table was not caught by rod and line and swiftly dispatched, it was caught by the gills and left on the deck of some trawler to suffocate. The chicken nuggets demolished by the children for lunch were not hand-reared, released into the wild and shot cleanly. Their fate was to see no sunshine, be regularly dosed with antibiotics, mechanically harvested and crated up to be transported by road and electrocuted.

So if one takes up the cudgels for the anti-movement, first look at your life-style. If, after close scrutiny no anomalies are recognised, then you indeed are on a different planet from me. But remember, even the leather on your feet and the soap in the bathroom were once living creatures.

If you want to ban hunting with hounds then I suggest you form an orderly queue for the honour of putting down 20,000 hounds that will no longer have any purpose in life.

Believe me, a foxhound is no pet to keep in a small box in town. He needs more than a walk to fetch the paper on a Sunday morning, and unless he can get the rights he deserves, where is the justice?

What are animal rights?Do all

forms of life have the same rights? Does

the fly buzzing around the window frame deserve the same attention as an

orang-utan in

a zoo?

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TALKING POINT

29 October 1999

TALKING POINT

Repatriate our farming

back to Britain and its

farmers. The CAPhas

succeeded in bringing

our agriculture to its

knees, says

Christopher Gill

In 1972 I bought a farm. My direct involvement in agriculture therefore coincides with Britains EU membership and its benighted agriculture policy – the CAP.

I cant be sure when I first started to question the direction in which the CAP was leading us or to appreciate the scale of the disaster that would one day overtake us. Suffice it to say that in the family meat business we have long since given up the slaughter and wholesaling of cattle and sheep – not because of BSE but because of something infinitely worse; the sheer idiocy of the beef and sheep regimes and the intolerable political interference which accompanies them.

As with every other feature of EU life, so with farming. Every perceived problem is "solved" by even more interference. Every policy initiative to help the farmer results in greater bureaucracy, higher costs and even bigger problems. We now have a CAP which is by any definition collectivist. How else do you describe a regime where the centre (Brussels) effectively tells the farmer what he may grow, in what quantities, to what standard and, to a degree, at what price?

After 25 years within the CAP we have now reached the situation, in which there is, for the average family farm, hardly one aspect of British agriculture which is commercially viable. Dare I say it, but only politicians could have brought about such a catastrophe. Not content with the havoc that they have already wreaked in agriculture, many of them gladly proceed to the next stage of collectivisation; that of the economies of EU member states through the medium of single currency and economic and monetary union.

For a quarter of a century farmers have been encouraged to produce for a market which in many cases simply does not exist, the most glaring example being the production of fourth-rate tobacco in southern Europe which nobody can smoke at an annual cost to the taxpayer of close on £1bn a year.

Closer to home the beef farmer tailored his breeding and feeding pattern to hit the specification laid down by the Intervention Board, which rapidly became the best outlet for his product notwithstanding the fact that storage (at taxpayers expense) actually reduced its value and that often as not it then had to be flogged off at highly subsidised prices (again at taxpayers expense) to Russia and Third World countries.

I dont blame the farmer – I blame the system. But I also recognise that for the average farmer there is absolutely no way that he can buck that system, iniquitous though it may be.

So, as the MP for one of Britains premier farming areas what do I see?

I see an industry brought to its knees by the ruinous policies of the CAP. I see a breed of hitherto independent entrepreneurs forced into a bureaucratic straitjacket which pays no regard to the realities of the market. I see the yeomen of England and the owners of businesses in ancillary industries being forced to close, not by dint of market forces, but as a direct consequence of a regime which is at best misconceived and at worst devoid of common sense and any vestige of morality.

Repatriation of control over our own agriculture is a vital social, economic and practical necessity for the survival of our rural areas.

As one who has earned his living on both sides of the farmgate I look forward to the day when the voice of reason and practical experience can be heard above the clamour of political ideology and bureaucratic cant.

I see a breed of hitherto independent entrepreneurs forced into a bureaucratic straitjacket which pays no regard to

the realities of the market. I see the yeomen of England… being forced

to close.

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TALKING POINT

1 October 1999

TALKING POINT

Have farm business

tenancies had a

beneficial effect in the

farmland area since

their introduction four

years ago? Yes, says

Christopher Monk

After a hectic summer dealing with a large number of farm business tenancies and contract farming arrangements, it is worth reflecting on the success or otherwise of the Agricultural Tenancies Act which introduced FBTs to England and Wales on Sept 1, 1995. They dont apply in Scotland where there has been a greater development of partnerships and contract farming arrangements.

Following years of debate FBTs were introduced with the objectives of halting the loss of tenanted farmland (declining at the rate of 50,000-60,000 acres/year before 1995) and simplifying the various arrangements (Gladstone v Bower, MAFF licences and CFAs) being used to circumvent the security of traditional tenancies at market rents. They were also intended to encourage longer-term tenancies and provide opportunities for new entrants to the industry.

We were told the new FBTs would do all this by providing freedom of contract with little interference from the statute book. Four years on, have the objectives been achieved?

The CAAV annual survey records net gains to the tenanted sector of about 30,000 acres a year and if our experience is typical, the acreage gain will be considerably higher in 1999. So I think the first objective has been achieved.

Those who have an FBT should agree it is relatively simple and easily understood. Tenancies are certainly quick to prepare and require little administration. Only this week a non-farming purchaser asked for some help with an investment he had made and within 24 hours the detailed terms had been agreed with his chosen farm tenant and an FBT agreement was in front of both parties for signature. That would not have been possible in 1994. Of course, there are pitfalls for the unwary and many situations where a CFA is more appropriate because of tax implications, an existing tenancy or the nature of the actual farming business. For these reasons the CFA has not and will not disappear, as some predicted.

FBTs have provided a clear market rent even though some critics continue to point out the rents are too high for stand-alone situations and reflect marginal economics. That may be so but it is not the fault of FBTs but of a market economy.

But what about the objective of creating longer terms (10-25 years) and opportunities for new entrants? The CAAV survey shows the average length of all FBT is almost four years but the average length for land let with a house and buildings is over 11 years. We are beginning to make progress on this objective and I believe the restructuring likely to take place in agriculture over the next few years will provide an incentive for landlords to invest in longer-term FBTs for larger units, if the rent review clauses can be clearly profit linked.

Where FBTs probably have failed is to encourage new entrants as opposed to the sons of existing farmers. Some private and traditional landowners make a point of encouraging new blood but opportunities are rare. That does not stop new entrants coming into the industry via colleges, universities and training schemes to take positions of management.

I am not surprised by the activity in new FBTs and CFAs over the past six months – a reflection of the severe pressure on farming profits. It will be a relief for some of the farmers who have decided to quit farming but do not want to sell up and move out of the family home that we have the 1995 legislation. If the government introduces an early retirement scheme, I suspect the FBT will become even more vital.

Those who have an FBTshould agree it is relatively simple and easily understood. Tenancies are certainly quick to prepare and

require little administration.

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TALKING POINT

27 August 1999

TALKING POINT

Demand for regular

farmers markets from

Londons 7m population

far outstrips supply –

so where are all

the farmers, asks

Nina Planck

Where have all the farmers gone? When I started to organise the Islington Farmers Market in 1998, the last thing I worried about was finding farmers to sell their produce in London.

Producer prices, farm incomes, and rural employment have been falling for years. The CAP, and the extra cash it brings farmers, is constantly under threat.

Because I grew up selling our own produce at farmers markets, I thought farmers would be keen to earn retail prices from a steady stream of passers-by. Compared with a London high street, the farmgate can be a lonely place.

But in week 12 of the Islington Farmers Market, the first farmers market in London, what we need is not more customers, or more publicity. We need more farmers – particularly fruit and vegetable producers. The stall with the longest queues at Islington sells beetroots, parsley, broad beans, rhubarb, carrots and more.

Demand for farm-fresh produce, sold by the farmer direct to the public, is greater than supply. The single most common customer comment? "We thought there would be more vegetables."

If you are tired of supplying supermarkets, paying hidden fees and getting wholesale prices, farmers markets may be the right alternative. US farmers take more than $1bn on fruit and vegetable sales at more than 3000 farmers markets every year. Greater Washington, DC, population 3m, supports more than 30 weekly farmers markets.

London, with a population of 7m, could support at least a dozen markets. People want fresh food in season, direct from the farmers. When given the chance, they love to bypass the supermarkets.

Farmers markets are different from the street market, green grocer and supermarket. That is why customers like them. To keep them unique, the rules are strict.

lYou must grow everything you sell. Customers like to ask how courgettes were grown or chickens raised.

lYour farm must be local. At London Farmers Markets, that means within 100 miles of London, so produce is fresh. At supermarkets, produce can be weeks or months old. It has often been in storage, sprayed with fungicides to prolong shelf life or selected for its ability to resist bruising. Farmers who sell direct grow varieties for flavour, not for the convenience of big distributors and retailers. Vegetables that taste good: How novel.

The local-produce rule also means there is more variety. About 70% of the apples we eat in Britain are Cox or Bramley, but one farmer at the Islington market grows 22 kinds of apples. Another grows heirloom tomatoes, another striped beetroot.

Without the middleman, farmers earn retail prices. There are no hidden fees. Farmers get to know their customers, and discover new ones, such as chefs, local shops, and pick-your-own visitors.

Small and medium-sized farmers can make a living selling at farmers markets. I know – my family has sold exclusively at markets for almost 20 years. Consider the story of fruit farmers who sell at a London farmers market. They grow 36ha (90 acres) of apples, pears, strawberries, raspberries and currants. "The response from the public was overwhelming," they wrote. "Many said a farmers market was long overdue. Dealing direct with the public is a much better way of selling our produce. After fruit farming for 15 years, we feel that finally we have found the way forward."

If you would like more information about the Islington market or another London farmers market call 0171-354 9968.

Without the middlemen, farmers earn retail prices. There are no hidden fees.

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TALKING POINT

20 August 1999

France and Germany – shun them

How incensed we all were to hear that the Germans are refusing to accept our beef after the long awaited lifting of the beef ban. After all this time, with all the steps we have taken in culling older animals and creating the passport tracing system, how can the Germans do this?

The Germans do not have any reason to turn our beef away, so I would like to call upon the entire British public to turn their imports away. Let them see how they like it; after all we drink a lot of their wine, beer, salami and drive many German vehicles. If we took steps in this country not to purchase German and French products, I am sure they would soon market our beef with gusto.

I therefore urge all my fellow countrymen to avoid all German and French products until our, so-called, neighbouring European partners come to their senses.

Mrs Susan Burgoyne

Brynbuarth Farm, Pentrebeirdd, Welshpool, Powys.

Subsidise at own expense

I was intrigued by your comments under the headline US coughs up farming aid when it suits it (Opinion, Aug 6).

Why should the US not cough up aid? Of course, I know the answer: world trade, open access, level playing fields and no subsidies to be given at home lest they distort the market abroad.

Our old friend the EU (in reality, nobodys friend) also raises its ugly head in the same article. It then dawned on me what the difference is between the US helping its farmers and the EU doing the same. When American taxpayers help their farmers, all Americans reap the benefit in cheap food, assured production, protected employment and subsidised exports.

In the EU, farming and farm support is regulated by a corrupt bureaucracy where those who throw their weight around get most and those who play by the rules take the hindmost.

British taxes are helping farmers in other EU countries while our own farmers are driven to bankruptcy and worse. The system is loaded against us. Also, as so often reported in your columns, the governments of our partner states hand out subsidies at home as and when they feel like it.

Since international regulation is not working, why not let the whole thing rip? If a country wants to subsidise its home industries, then let it but not at our expense. The French have been doing just that for years. Thats why their cars rule our roads and their supermarkets stock almost nothing but French produce. But no country can afford to subsidise everything all the time. The madness of countries buying from others what they produce themselves, would decline. Even that supreme insanity, the trans-Atlantic mineral water trade, might eventually dry up.

Tony Stone

1 Home Park, Oxted, Surrey.

Street might lift spirits today

It was interesting to read David Richardsons account (July 30) of his tour of Canada and also how it reminded him of the writings of the late A G Street.

Mr Streets first and most famous book Farmers Glory was published in 1932 and was an instant success. It was in fact an account of A Gs life story, telling of his early days as the son of a prosperous tenant farmer, his four years as a hired farm hand in Canada before the First World War and his return to England to take over the family farm. Despite being run on the well proven system of rotational husbandry, by the late 1920s it was on the slippery slope towards bankruptcy.

A G abandoned arable farming and, much to the consternation of his farming neighbours, turned the whole farm over to grass and focused on low-cost, outdoor dairying and milk retailing. Farmers Glory was written when he was still not sure if the business would survive. In a later book he wrote: "Like the majority of British farmers I can and will do anything rather than permit the times to turn me out of my farm. When grain pays to grow it, I will plough my land and grow it. When it doesnt I will turn to grass and stock. When neither of these pays I will find some branch of farming that does."

As an admirer of A G Streets work and a collector of his many books, I often wonder what he would have made of todays farming problems. A couple of weeks ago, it dawned on me that if Farmers Glory could raise the spirits of rural communities in the grim days of the 1930s, maybe it could help today.

I have a spare copy and would be pleased to lend it to anyone (for a small fee of course) until the day that it ingloriously falls to pieces through being passed around.

I accept that this novel form of diversification idea is not going to make much money. But if it makes enough for me to track down and purchase a copy of A G Streets Land Everlasting published in 1934 it will have been worthwhile.

C Welford

Roxby Moor Farm, Scaling, Loftus, Cleveland.

IACS cap for doing too well

I was surprised to learn that only 75% of those replying to a MAFF questionnaire, were in favour of capping (Gordon Ascroft, Letters, Aug 6). If 80% of NFU members farm fewer than 200 acres, and a full IACS farm of 350 acres attracts the suggested non-capped limit, I cannot understand why far more were not in favour of capping.

Perhaps they had access to the latest Cambridge University Farm Costings 200 page annual report. It clearly states that the average per hectare returns (without area payments), were a loss of £74/ha for the average small farm (324 acres) in the mainly cereal sector.

With subsidies the average large farm will be about seven times better off than the average small farm, because it has seven times more money invested in it.

Does Mr Ascroft see any fairness for someone like me? I fought in the last war and was blown up three times, started with 47 acres and, over the past 52 years, have built the farm up to above his suggested no-capping limit. Should I be forced to take losses or sell off part of the farm? What a price to pay for having done well.

George Scales

Cobblers Pieces, Abbess Roding, Ongar, Essex.

Even our own turn against us

We have been tucked away in a quiet corner of south east England for five generations. Over this considerable period we have worked the soil through good times and bad to feed our nation and our neighbours abroad. The good times gave us profit and the bad times a loss. But through good times and poor times we had support from our own countrymen.

Now it seems that even our own are against us. Destroying crops, setting up enquiries, more restrictions, more paperwork. All the while we are dying on our feet. We farmers will run out of money to farm and consumers will be able to buy produce only from abroad. To whom would you rather trust your food production?

T Hollamby

Woodknowle Farm, Witherenden Hill, Burwash, Etch, East Sussex.

Assurance key to beef success

Its unfortunate that Simon Mead, of MLC, appears to have rather missed the point I was trying to make (Livestock, Jun 11). The MLC is to be congratulated for bringing consumption back to pre-BSE scare levels. However, the overall picture is still one of continued decline.

What I am talking about is taking a proactive step to improve consumption on the strength of taking "farm assurance" one pace further. That is into the realms of assurance of the eating quality of a product we strive to produce, but which can be ruined by shoddy post-slaughter treatment. We need to learn from the experiences of others around the world who are producing guaranteed eating quality by applying a mixture of new science and well accepted abattoir practices, such as reducing pre-slaughter stress and ensuring the meat is properly chilled and adequately hung. There is no secret to improving beef, all we need is an industry body, such as MLC, to re-adjust its budget to enable that process to be proven to the major supermarket buyer and the general public. At present, MLC spends just 3.6% of its budget on eating quality and none in ensuring that their blueprint is enforced. That is unacceptable.

Experience from other countries, such as Australia, has shown that if meat is produced within certain parameters, then eating quality can be guaranteed and consumers are happy to pay considerably more for the product. This is the direction in which we should now be heading.

We can produce some of the best beef from natural resources and we have the biggest consumer market in the world. Theres no shame in trying to ensure that this product is made more consistent and is tasty and succulent enough to make a consumer want to buy it again and again.

Pauline Adams

Park House, Watford Village, Northampton.

Reading course could be it?

I was interested to read the letters (June 11) from the chief executive of Lantra and from students seeking training and education in agriculture.

At The University of Reading we have developed a course in conjunction with our colleagues at Sparsholt College, Sparsholt, Winchester, Hants, which may provide what many entrants require. Students can study for an HND qualification (if they obtain a merit or above) with a further nine-month spell of industrial work before attending the four-term final year at Reading to obtain a BSc honours degree in agriculture.

Experience has shown that well trained HND students from Sparsholt, who have a wide range of skills in practical and academic topics, flourish at the university. They go on to obtain posts in a wide range of careers including farm management, marketing and consultancy.

This degree highway linking Sparsholt and Reading may supply the type of course that many young people want. It may also be what they need to ensure a successful career path into the agricultural industry.

Dr R J Esslemont

Admissions tutor and course director for BSc Agriculture, University of Reading, Reading.

Straw burn does not add to CO2.

I hesitate to argue with a "consultant in the waste management industry", but in his letter (Aug 6) Anthony Kenney-Herbert seems to make a fundamental error in describing stubble burning as a contributor to the greenhouse effect. When straw is burnt, it is returning to the atmosphere the carbon dioxide which it took out during the growing year. Net contribution to atmospheric CO2 levels? Nil. That is unlike fossil fuels which release CO2 trapped millions of years ago, thus actually increasing its proportion in the air.

Dont forget that this was one of the best arguments in favour of rape-derived fuels – an argument lost, for some reason, on the major oil companies. If straw is not burnt, it will still release its carbon dioxide through decomposition in one way or another.

There is one certainty: In stubble burning days, use of slug pellets, possibly the most unpleasant things ever to be spread on a field, were almost unheard of.

Of course, it helps if you believe the experts and their ideas about global warming in the first place, along with their theories about sunscreen and artificial sweeteners.

Charlie Flindt

Manor Farm, Hinton Ampner, Alresford, Hants.

How burning saves on diesel

Anthony Kenney-Herbert wrote scornfully of J Foulds suggestion that some limited resumption of straw burning should be permitted (Letters, Aug 6). He says that "in terms of greenhouse effect alone, burning is likely to outweigh the advantage of using fewer sprays".

In fact, the reverse applies. When straw is burnt, it releases into the atmosphere carbon dioxide locked up by the plants photosynthesis during the preceding 12 months. But if the same straw is incorporated into the soil, the additional cultivations required burn fossil fuel (diesel) locked up many millions of years ago. It is the release of carbon dioxide from such fossil fuels that contributes to the higher atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases. Straw burning had its problems but at least it saved on steel and diesel.

Richard Casswell

Priory Farm, Horbling, Sleaford, Lincs.

Late-harvested OSR seed best

Ben Freers comment that "late-harvested, naturally senesced oilseed rape germinates more vigorously than earlier harvested seed" (Arable, Jul 30) is spot on. It may puzzle those readers who are aware of the long history of comments in US seed production text books that seed quality for sowing is greatest at the end of the seed-filling phase and declines thereafter.

Research on seed quality development in the Seed Science Laboratory at Reading in many species (temperate and tropical, including cereals, pulses, brassica, vegetable crops, and even trees) has shown that seed quality continues to improve for some considerable time after seeds have reached maximum dry weight. That is several weeks in the case of UK-grown cereals.

In oilseeds, cereals and grain legumes, the seeds lose considerable moisture during this period. In such crops there is a natural association between comparatively slow desiccation and good seed quality.

However, it is only an association. In seeds that do not undergo maturation drying, such as tomato which mature within fleshy fruits, quality improves over several weeks after maximum dry weight is achieved.

Older, perhaps more cynical, readers will have realised that I am saying seed ripening serves a purpose. For grass seed producers, note that it does occur successfully within the swath, even when seeds shatter because the biochemical changes that occur during this period are not dependent on attachment to the mother plant.

This is environment-specific, but happily does apply in UK climates. In warmer parts of the world, with some varieties at least, seed quality development can end somewhat prematurely; the result being poor quality seed.

Prof Richard Ellis

Professor of crop physiology and head of department, Department of Agriculture, University of Reading.

Farmers helping out in Uganda

By chance, I was given a back copy of FARMERSWEEKLY last month and having read it through four times, I realise how much I miss the weekly delivery when farming in the UK.

I have now worked abroad for six years with Voluntary Service Overseas and am busy taking on another challenge to turn bush into productive land for a school for handicapped children at Masindi in Uganda. Its interesting work, despite all the problems of a clapped out Fergie 365 and farming on slopes where most of the better soil has already been washed to the bottom of the hill.

I have four Friesian cows which have seen better days and which will soon need dentures. The Friesian bull is not content with his four wives and regularly jumps my new four strand fence to go courting the neighbours cows, who of course are keen to have his services free.

I hope soon to start a poultry unit and also to get some goats. The latter are for lawn mowers and to provide meat for the children. They may at present get meat only once a term.

I have started a gardening competition and there is keen interest from all the children to win the cup and a prize each. Agriculture is part of the curriculum here and all take part, regardless of limb disorders.

All this is supported by a group of farmers and their associates from Worcester who give what they can to help the farm become self-sustainable.

I would like to thank Farmers Overseas Action Group for all the support it gives to both the school and the farm. Without this support, many of these children would not receive any education or have the chance grow up within a normal community.

Robert Walker

PO Box 104, Masindi, Uganda.

One can give all a bad name

You quite rightly (Opinion, May 28) encourage farmers to counter their negative image. Leighton Grove (Jul 2) says that this is the job of the NFU.

NFU publicity is just as good as the worst farmer. The best efforts of the NFU can be rendered worthless by the activities of just one farmer. We are not like other businesses tucked away from prying eyes; so much of what we do is open to full public gaze. We not only have to be responsible in what we do but, more importantly, have to be responsible in how we do it.

The end of the calf processing scheme to which you draw attention (Opinion, July 16) is a public relations disaster waiting to happen. If calves have to be disposed of, then invite your local MP to your farm the day you do it; you never know, he or she may help.

J W Buckley

Throstle Cottage, Aketon, Pontefract, West Yorks.

NFU needs to employ PR firm

When is the NFU going to spend some of its millions on employing a decent PR firm? In an age when most organisations have PR firms to promote themselves, British farming is conspicuous in not having one.

If the UK is to compete with other European countries and sell produce which is more expensive because of environmental and welfare restrictions, consumers need to be educated as to why they should buy British. Come on NFU, hire a good PR company.

James Dorse

Parks Farm, Kingston St Mary, Taunton, Somerset.

Dear, oh dear, harvest illegal?

I wish to thank P Dransfield for his letter (Jul 30), pointing out the heavy fines for cutting hedgerows and vegetation between Mar 1 and Sept 30. We have now postponed harvest until after Sept 30 to avoid such fines because I assume combinable crops are considered vegetation.

I now have eight weeks holiday to look forward to before getting stuck into it. I just wish I had known about this before I made hay in early June and cut the set-aside last month (in accordance with the rules).

George Renner

gjrenner@yahoo.com

NVZs – why are they doing it?

The governments proposal to designate more nitrate vulnerable zones (News, Jul 16) raises the question – why? It chose to do so, it need not do so immediately – just as it chose to enforce the present nitrate vulnerable zones one year earlier than required. Why does government try to impoverish our farmers, instead of helping them? What is its hidden agenda?

The proposed water framework directive (97) is due to go before the EU parliament this autumn. The proposed amendments include some to article 4 (4) which could have entitled our government to protect our farmers from the pseudo-scientific rubbish on which the NVZs were originally based. If our government chose to fight for farmers, the whole concept that natural nitrates are pollution can be discarded, along with the now discredited nitrate directive 91/96. Why does our government not know this? And, if it does, what is the urgency to create new NVZs?

Tony Preston said his co-op did not oppose NVZ restrictions in principle, if they were based on sound science. What a pity that he did not learn about that science before speaking.

A S Monckton

The Estate Office, Stretton Hall, Stafford.

Unite to secure Malton future

If the rumours I heard are correct, now is the time for British pig farmers to unite. Malton Bacon factory is reportedly up for sale and a Danish company is interested. If that is true how can pig farmers stand back and let it happen? We must form a co-op to buy Malton Bacon Factory for the benefit of the future of UKpig farming.

If no one will listen, I dont see much future for British pig farming should our largest abattoir fall into the hands of one of our main competitors.

If you are of like mind and feel like action, dont hesitate to contact me. Otherwise dont complain about your future or lack of it.

Mark P Thompson

Wicstun Cottage, Bridge Farm, York Road, Market Weighton, York, East Yorks.

Shows not just a social event

Participating at any agricultural event is a lottery. During the planning stages you have no idea how the vagaries of crop trading or consumer interests will affect farmer participation. This year, however, serious concerns about the fall in the value of oilseed rape and the possibility of extending the use of home-produced GM-free vegetable protein to replace imported soya, meant that more farmers than usual visited the PGRO/BEPA pulse demonstration in the arable area at the Royal Show.

For these farmers, there was serious business to be done at the show. Exchanging ideas with both arable and livestock farmers provided the stimulus for further developing the usefulness of pulses.

It would be unfair to these participating farmers to downgrade the Royal Show to a social event, even though the attractions are many and varied.

G P Gent

Processors & Growers Research Organisation, The Research Station, Great North Road, Thornhaugh, Peterborough.

Still a strong voice in Europe

In support of the reply by Lord Plumb (Letters, Aug 6) to your editorial (Opinion, July 23), may I point out that alone in the UK representation in the European Parliament, the Conservatives have appointed Struan Stevenson as a permanent representative of Scottish interests on both the agricultural and fishing committees. He is one of the Scottish MEPs and a mixed farmer from the South West of Scotland.

In the South West of England, which now incorporates Lord Plumbs former Cotswold seat, he has been replaced by Neil Parish and myself. Neil is a farmer in Somerset and a former county councillor and a former chairman of his NFU. I am an NFU and CLA member and run a mixed farming and sporting estate in West Devon. While I accept that the two of us have a long way to go to make up for our Henry, to claim that the voice of farming and the countryside in Europe has been diminished is nonsense.

The Earl of Stockton MEP

Glenthorne House, 131 Coronation Road, Bristol.

Advantages of using Ovatec

In reply to the letter (July 16) Lets be proud of UK first, from Tim Haywood, managing director of Cogent, I have the following comments to make.

Our company has been supplying the Ovatec Electronic Breeding Instrument to UK dairymen (Livestock, June 1998) for more than two years with considerable success. We are proud of the fact that we now have considerably more than three sexed heifer calves on the ground.

The advantages of the Ovatec over sexed semen are numerous. The main one is that whilst using our product, UK dairymen can use semen from any UK AI organisation, and still influence the sex of their calf with an 80-90% accuracy.

The Ovatec has unique abilities and we are researching and developing its use and application every day. Detecting cysts and endomitritis, pregnancy diagnosis, mineral imbalances and fine tuning ET work are attributes that the Ovatec possesses.

The instrument is already in the hands of forward thinking, progressive dairymen who would not be without it. The Ovatec is not programmed to work with any one companys genetics. It will work and we will work with anyone who has a genuine interest.

Steve Mumford

One Stop Genetics Shop, High Brow, Tirril, Penrith, Cumbria.

Cambac doing useful research

Further to Dr Marchants comments (Letters, July 23) about Cambac research, I believe strongly that the organisation is doing valuable research. It is carried out to a high standard and is not a waste of industry money.

His letter referred to the need for work to be done on farrowing systems allowing some confinement. That is being trialled by Cambac.

Dr Marchant also mentioned the need to confine sows before parturition. Research done on my own farm, with the Chiltern Farrowing System for the past three years, shows that sows benefit from being loose up to parturition. But they need confining during parturition and for a few days after, dependent on the weather conditions.

This has been trialled with 90 Chiltern crates and 90 conventional crates and researched by Cambac and Reading University.

Mrs C A E Beacroft

Chiltern Pigs, Greenlands Farm, Moulsford, Wallingford.

TALKING POINT

Theres no denying the current interest in organic production. Relative to a few years ago, a large number of farmers are now in conversion attracted by premium prices and grants. What a pity the Organic Farming Scheme for England has run out of money for this year.

It is not only economic pressures that are responsible for this change. Producers know organic food is valued and a feel good factor flows from knowing your customers are satisfied.

But the sudden interest in organic farming threatens the monetary value of organic foods. Those who have been involved in organic production for some time feel concern for the future of a sector they have sought to control carefully through specialist knowledge and marketing effort. Those in conversion may feel the same way.

Big business is now making its play for the new opportunities a growing demand for organic food has to offer. The danger is that all involved in the supply chain will be squeezed by the competition for greater market control and the threat of organic imports rising at an alarming rate.

The battle is fought at all levels, between supermarkets, between milk and other co-operatives, and some might say between certification bodies. Certainly, consultants are embroiled in the fight; some appear to be undeclared agents for various organisations wanting to build numbers and influence. Some farmers have said they feel advisers are pushing them to join this or that certification or marketing body. Others report they are becoming frustrated by delays or feel unsure whether or not the advice they receive answers their questions.

Given the ease with which it is possible to sign up to organic grant obligations, is the level of consultancy advice offered sufficient? Admittedly, free organic visits are available but an advisers brief to impart knowledge of cultural techniques and the markets will not provide an assessment of your options. There is danger of an advisory gap developing as information on the techniques and rules of organic farming stops short of strategic advice on wider issues.

An independent business assessment goes well beyond deciding in principle whether a farm is suitable for organic production or recommending a particular co-operative. Both technical and strategic business advice must go hand in hand. If in doubt producers should commission a business appraisal, otherwise many important questions may remain unanswered.

Are you suited to make the management changes required? Do you have other options? Would it be better to cease dairying now? What will be the impact on your business if premiums are halved? Organic conversion may sacrifice intensification and technical progress; is that important to you? Are there differences between certifying bodies you should know about?

What of market opportunities? Guidance and information should be sought about initiatives in different sectors. How do the co-operative and other market outlets compare and how do changes in a young, fast-growing market affect this comparison? Whether you are producing meat, fruit, vegetables or milk, co-operation stands the best chance of preserving premiums. And co-operative processing initiatives will add value. Is organic farming right for you and if so which organisation should you sign up with?

Answering such questions now, before committing time and capital to a new organic enterprise could save many headaches and a great deal of cash later on.

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  • News

TALKING POINT

6 August 1999

The public just doesnt comprehend

I fully appreciate the efforts of the hunting lobby to defend its way of life and wish them every success. But its a pity its campaign is allowed to overshadow the plight of the real countryside and the people who still strive to earn a living there.

A way must be found to throw some light on todays agricultural problems and one good method would be to follow the excellent advice of Neil Datson (Talking Point, July 2) and lobby MPs to saturation point. Its mind-boggling just how ignorant the public is even now as to the government-inspired fiascos that plague todays farmers, and especially the livestock sector.

Only one in 20 had any idea of what is meant by the 30 month rule and even fewer appreciated the damage it is causing, the tragic waste involved or the complete senselessness of the whole scheme.

It is small comfort to be told that we can now export our beef when it must first be killed and boned-out in this country. With abattoirs closing down everywhere, it is doubtful if we still have the capacity to do it. In any case, Continental butchers will want animals that are freshly killed on their premises and will be little interested in stale lumps of meat that have been mauled about on lorries for days.

There are votes to be had in pandering to the rambling societies. But if they want to enjoy our beautiful countryside, they should be made aware that only a profitable agricultural industry can keep it beautiful. The same message should be passed on to the animal rights anarchists and all their fellow travellers.

Harry Shutkever

Wythwood Farm, Wilmore Lane, Wythall, Nr Birmingham.

Were all going bust anyway

Like most dairy farmers, I support MDCs work but since 12% of dairy farmers will be out of business in two years when the current research will be coming on stream, the organisation should put 12% of its income this year into a fighting fund. That money should be used to expose the underhand tactics of John Bridgeman and the Office of Fair Trading, the Monopolies and Mergers Commission and the Dairy Industry Federation. The MMC report has been shown to be lies written for the DIF by the MMC.

The dairy companies are gearing up to use the MMC report as a reason to drop the price of milk by 1p/litre this winter which will cost the dairy farmers £142m. Money spent on preventing that will give a better and quicker return than any research.

Mr Bridgeman and the OFT have done more damage than the strong £. He has cost me more than all the mastitis and lameness on my farm for the past 10 years.

Its time for dairy farmers to rise up and get rid of these non-elected civil servants who do not risk their own money in business but cost others so much. Those of us that are left must make a stand – before its too late.

P Skinner

Pilgrims Farm, Pilgrims Lane, Titsey, Oxted, Surrey.

Would Byers take 88 salary?

I have been producing milk for over 30 years and for the past few years I have been losing money. Last years prices averaged 9.317p/pint. The same average as 1988.

However, the trade secretary, Stephen Byers, tells me the price of milk is too high. Would he work for the same salary as he was receiving 11 years ago? Perhaps he would come to my farm and explain where I am going wrong?

M J Stocker

Coombe Hill Farm, Keinton Mandeville, Somerton, Somerset.

No future in euro currency

As Mr Seals says (Talking Point, Jul 23) the euro should have been economic not political. What is of great concern, is that the EU heads of government, including ours, should believe the currency would be strong.

When the Maastricht criteria were abandoned to allow all bar Greece to enter, the euro could represent only the sum of those currencies. But the main concern is the federalism, which the single currency has to lead to, is also bound to be weak just as the currencies and economies of the Latin American countries would not improve if they integrated.

The fact is that countries with different languages, cultures and religions retain their individualism. At best, the EU will be an inefficient, ineffective compromise with each country out to get what it can.

Companies with only three bosses, not 15, work only if one dies and another one is ill.

George Scales

Cobblers Pieces, Ongar, Essex.

Marque should get backing

At last, someone is standing up for farmers. I refer, of course, to your report, "Marque given nod" (News, July 23) in which fighting Finn Christensen declared that Milk Marque has to build a £50m processing plant.

The flag is now at the top of the Milk Marque mast and should stay there. Despite the ludicrous report from the Competitions Commission and referral to the Office of Fair Trading, Milk Marque must go ahead with its plans to process high quality traceable milk for use in food products currently made from imported milk additives.

The government has called for import substitution and told farmers they must compete on the world stage. So why doesnt it encourage Milk Marque? Why has the NFU been so slow to recommend its members to stick together in their own co-operative.

If the processors wont exploit the market for milk products, farmers must do it themselves. Milk Marque must get on with it now before the dairy trade costs the consumers more money in lost opportunities.

Housewives and their families should be told the truth about the cost of food, particularly milk and processed dairy products. Milk Marque has done more to hold a fair price for fresh milk than any of the large processors but got no credit for it and lost membership by doing so.

Without a strong Milk Marque producer-co-operative, processors and supermarkets would have a field day with milk. Competition would be nearly absent and the loss leader fresh milk sales would be replaced with profit-making shelf fillers in the form of dairy produce.

We were told this government would give everyone a fair deal. What about the bad practices which are really against the public good?

In my locality, every newspaper is owned by one company which controls all the weekly and daily newspapers for hundreds of miles around. If trade secretary Mr Byers investigated that he would do millions of local newspaper readers and small business advertisers a good turn.

David Parker

Home Close, Teffont, Salisbury.

More cows and lower prices

With the ending of the bull calf slaughter scheme, and the increase in female inseminations, the result, without doubt, will be extra females coming into the dairy herd. That will depress still further an already over-supplied market, which is bound to result in further decreases in producers prices.

J Hopkins

62 Churchfields, Thurgoland, Nr Sheffield.

Differing milk tastes for all

NDC marketing manager Andrew Ovenss response to my plea (Letters, July 2) that promoting milk to be drunk at room temperature, rather than ice-cold, ignores my point that it could unearth a new, additional, market.

Generations have been persuaded by the media, their mothers, and their schoolteachers, that drinking chilled milk from the fridge is the right way, and it has become the convention. Sixty years ago it was rather necessary, since milk was contaminated with micro-organisms, pathogenic and otherwise, and would have spoiled quickly .

The attitude that we all must have the same tastes seems to have been inherited from the old MMBs. The admirable initiatives to promote added-value products such as Ayrshire, Guernsey, organic, buffalo and sheep milk show that we do not.

John Jenkin

5B South Cliff Tower, Meads, Eastbourne.johnjenkin@btinternet.com

Large farmers control vote

As a member of the council of the NFU for the past nine years I have consistently advocated modulation and have been outvoted because the council has a majority of large-scale farmers. And lets face it – turkeys dont vote for Christmas.

NFU statistics show that 80% of its members farm fewer than 200 acres and it is unlikely these would be penalised under any form of modulation. In reply to the MAFF questionnaire, more than 75% favoured capping.

If we assume the old cliche that 20% of farmers produce 80% of the food, we can safely conclude that those 20% receive 80% of the subsidies. Therefore the majority of NFU members (80%) receive the minority support (20%). That suggests the larger (economical farms) do not need the same subsidy as the smaller family farms.

A form of modulation, which I advocate, would be fairer to all concerned. The first 50,000 or 60,000ecu would be paid at 100% and the next unit at 75%, and so on. It seems to me that the present system of support only hastens the demise of the small family farm.

There is a better idea, and that is the bond system of support introduced by Prof Tangermann, Prof Marsh and others, 10 years ago. The bond system involves payments based on averaging the previous years support which could be delivered as a lump sum to enable those who wish to get out of farming to do so. No further support would then be paid to that farm, or paid over a limited period of years in the form of a bond. This idea was rejected by the NFU when I, together with others including Lord Plumb, presented it to them.

Alas, we will still end up with a system imposed on us which will bear no relation to farmers farming for the countryside.

Gordon Ascroft

Church Farm, Yelling, Huntingdon, Cambs.

Europe farm issues defined

I was surprised to read your editorial (Opinion, July 23) suggesting that the leader of the Conservative MEPs had deprived Britains farmers of an important voice. Edward McMillan-Scott MEP, himself from a farming background, has appointed five Conservative MEPs to the European parliaments agriculture committee, where Robert Sturdy MEP will continue as spokesman. James Elles MEP, a former DGVI official, is chairman of the agriculture, fisheries and budgets working group of the 234-strong centre-right EPP-ED group. James Provan MEP, a farmer, is Conservative vice-president of the Parliament and John Corrie MEP, another farmer, is co-president of the African, Caribbean and Pacific committee. Lastly, Caroline Jackson MEP has taken the chair of the environment committee.

The issue is not, as you suggest, a choice between agriculture and ACP – it is between agriculture and environment. As former president of the NFU, the European Parliament and the ACP Assembly, as well as chairman of the Conservative MEPs and the agriculture committee, let me assure your readers that the environment committee is legislative, in that it now has full "co-decision" powers with the council of ministers. It has been responsible, under Labour chairmanship, for a stream of red tape covering rural issues, such as new laws on integrated pollution control, hygiene, water and animal welfare.

The agriculture committee, while influential, has consultative status only, since almost all agricultural issues are decided between the council of ministers and the Commission.

Lastly, the European Parliament uses an internal PR system in allocating the chairmanships and vice-chairmanships of committees. Under this, the Green Partys 50 MEPs chose farmer Friedrich Graefe zu Baringdorf to chair the agriculture committee, which would otherwise have been taken by the German Socialists. Under PR it was not possible for the Conservative MEPs even to get a vice-chairmanship of agriculture. However, I know that, as before, they are all committed to the well-being of British farming and the rural community, and now as president of the Conservative Agricultural Forum, I am always around to keep an eye on them.

Lord Plumb of Coleshill.

High index isnt the only criteria

After an enjoyable day at the Royal Show viewing fine cattle of many dairy and beef breeds, I feel compelled to write on my concerns about the extreme nature of the black and white dairy cattle on display.

No one doubts the conviction of those who keep these cattle that they are the ideal cow to produce milk. However, I note doubts about the future of these so-called high index cows ability to produce profitably at the current milk price. The heavy use of British Friesian semen in commercial herds suggested many farmers are already taking action to adapt to different milk production conditions. After listening to their views, it is clear many believe that it is imperative they have long living as well as productive cows.

The British Friesians dual purpose virtues are now back in vogue and the demand for quality suckler replacements and other forms of cross, as well as pure cattle, are making a big difference to the balance sheets of many efficient modern units. Without doubt the Holstein is discredited when it comes to the beef sector. Although that may be of no consequence to the pedigree world, at the commercial end a large and valuable market is available to them.

I worry that everyone is being bombarded with the index-mentality. Read the auctioneers forthcoming sales lists and you see a different story. Herd after herd is for sale; many are well above the average-sized operation. The small to medium-sized family type operation is coping as well as any in these desperate times and many will be dual purpose units.

The media should give more attention to the dual purpose option as a counter to the interests of the high-index Holstein promoters.

Rodger Lindsay

Floriston Rigg, Blackford, Carlisle.

Co-op will hit market towns

I write concerning your article All Wales Marketing Co-op (News, Jul 16). The subject appears to be the brainchild of MLC following Mr Huw Thomass visit to New Zealand.

If this proposal succeeds, it will spell the end of most Welsh fatstock markets. That has always been the desire of the MLC as far as finished stock is concerned. Do farmers want this? Few store markets can exist as sale centres without fatstock sales. This will result in the decline of market towns. How much did Mr Thomas learn in New Zealand?

Lamb buyers are few there, prices and bonuses are low and returns poor. Most lambs sell for about £10 or so. He does not mention this. Without competition, prices will always be low. The auction markets are the only places to provide competition. Mr Thomas has poured scorn on the failure of Welsh Quality Lamb. He has also forgotten what happened to FMC, Shropshire Fatstock and also other co-ops and groups which all failed.

Milk Marque has virtually failed. Why should this venture succeed? Only a small percentage of sheep producers have subscribed to Farmers Ferry and I cannot see them queuing up to finance this proposed new venture. The MLC, Alan Michael, Christine Gwyther and John Lloyd Jones of the NFU are living in a fools paradise. They should know that the buying strength of the supermarkets, by encouraging deadweight selling, have lowered beef, lamb and pig prices. Deadweight selling reduces the number of buyers in the market place and consequently reduces competition. How do they think that the co-op will improve lamb prices? In my view it will lower prices further as market competition will evaporate.

Welsh farmers, I hope, will not be sucked in by the proposal of the Welsh Food Strategy. They should keep their £75 subscription in their pocket and join the Farmers Ferry.

R G Williams

Hill Farm, Marstow, Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire.

BBSRC support for best research

You report (Arable, Jul 23) a statement for the Home-Grown Cereals Authority which refers to a reduction in funding for agri-food research by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. The BBSRC has increased its support for research relevant to these sectors over the past two years. Our total spend in this subject area for 1998-99 was £37.7m and this is planned to increase each year to £41m in 2001-02.

I have also noted your report on the plans to consolidate the Institute of Arable Crops Research (IACR) at the Rothamsted site.

BBSRCs decision to withdraw from the Long Ashton site of IACR is part of a £19m programme of investment at the Institutes Rothamsted site over the next four years. This will account for over half our capital expenditure budget for that period. It is the clearest indication of our commitment both to the institute and to our support for securing the highest calibre research in support of UK agriculture.

I am disappointed that this strengthening of the Institute was reported as "bad news for farming". BBSRC will ensure that science continues to come first in our planning decisions. This will include not only the transfer of top quality research from Long Ashton to Rothamsted but also the responsible provision of appropriate arrangements to ensure that facilities such as the National Willows Collection are not lost.

We are always available to provide details and background information to all our activities.

Ray Baker

Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, Polaris House, North Star Avenue, Swindon. ray.baker@bbsrc.ac.uk

Please, let us use computers

As government ministers pack their bags for the parliamentary recess they heap yet another burden on beleaguered British cattle farmers.

A registration fee for calves of £7 is not an unexpected figure, given the way in which the system has been set up. Pushing paper around is expensive, especially when it all goes in first class post and much has to be sent twice when mistakes are made.

Would the same charges have to be levied if the emphasis were on electronic data transfer? The technology is available to ensure that trees are pulped only as a last resort in the effort to ensure total traceability for the consumer.

The mandarins should realise that farmers are becoming enthusiastic and adept in embracing information technology. Most progressive livestock farmers have invested in computers already, and would be willing to use them to greater effect if only the ministry had the foresight to make it a priority.

E-mailing all the required information to and fro is fast, accurate and cheap. A charge of £7 for a passport applied for in this way cannot be justified.

The NFU is proposing to dig its heels in and argue that no charge should be levied. That position is unrealistic and fails to accept the reality of a system that world markets demand, and that must be seen to, work properly.

A better negotiating stance would be to insist on realistic charges for farmers who have already invested in technology and an insistence that the government takes immediate steps to catch up with the modern world.

Simon Rees-Jones

Orchid Data, 7 Darwin House, Corbygate Business Park, Corby, Northants.

Making move to France easy

As a bilingual British agricultural consultant offering a successful installation service since 1989, for farmers wishing to settle in France, I would like to reply to Clive Edwards (Letters, June 4) and Peter Mayo (Letters, June 25). Not all agents should be tarred with the same brush.

Both omitted to mention that on the course at Limoges, there was a satisfied client of mine who had been installed in a short space of time in a neighbouring area. My comprehensive service covers all the points they seem to feel agents neglect. I offer a personalised service for individuals, families or companies wishing to buy/rent and I am totally independent, working in conjunction with the administration, banks, accountants and agricultural organisations throughout France in whichever region suits the clients interests best. There is government/regional aid (low interest rate loans/grants) for farmers of all age groups. I am there to ensure my clients take advantage of these.

I undertake to look after clients from the initial search to dealing with copious paperwork, and all the legal procedures, where necessary through a notaire/avocat. Help is given with the organising the removal of equipment and stock from the UK, and arranging the obtaining/transfer of quotas, and the marketing of livestock and cereals. It even extends to sorting out new school arrangements for children.

Any farmer thinking of moving to France should contact me. If you avail yourself of my services, you will not only have the benefit of my experience, but also the reassurance of talking to previously installed farmers, which will help to dispel the myth that all agents are crooks. Moving to France is not always hassle-free, but if you are totally committed to a more positive future, the end result will be worth it. You will be welcomed as a fellow farmer rather than a foreigner and supported by a government that cares about smaller farmers.

George Lidbury

The Barton, North Petherwin, Cornwall.

Knives going in on TV…

I refer to the recent Channel 4 programme, Countryside Undercover – Free as a bird (C4, 9pm Thurs, July 22). Farmers are suffering tough times and the publics image of our industry isnt great. So why is Daniel Butler betraying fellow free-range egg producers and tarnishing an already dim image that farmers have.

Is he trying to get larger free-range units exposed and closed down so he can expand and fill the gap? Or have I missed a point? Is he really trying to help the image of egg farmers. It beats me?

In times like these, we should all stick together and not shoot each other in the back. So, if youre going to make a documentary for TV, make it count for us and not against us.

Rob Makillie

beesknees@goplay.com

Allegations on BBC were false

You may remember a Private Investigations programme on BBC2 on August 26 last year which featured three pig farms which were supposedly contravening MAFF animal welfare regulations. I am the owner of one of those farms, and ex-employer of the presenter, Ian Dickinson. I have spent the past nine months taking the BBCs producers to the Broadcasting Standards Commission, to complain that the programme was neither fair nor accurate but deceitful and rigged.

My complaint was upheld and an apology was broadcast on July 14 on BBC2, and published in the Daily Mail the same day. It would benefit the whole meat industry for as many people as possible to be made aware that these allegations have been shown to be false.

Stephen Fall

Kirklington Hall, Bedale, North Yorks.

Burning will alienate public

I was surprised to read Mr J Foulds letter (Jul 23) in which he suggests that farmers should be allowed to burn at least 30% of their cereal stubble.

Ignore the bureaucracy which would be required to monitor "limited stubble burning albeit with conditions".

And overlook the fact that the environmental damage would be caused by a resumption of stubble burning. In terms of the greenhouse effect alone, burning is likely to outweigh the advantage of using fewer sprays.

The most worrying aspect is Mr Foulds apparent disregard of public opinion. British agriculture has enough problems already without pursing changes in legislation which are likely to alienate the public.

I am a farmers son actively involved in running the family farm but earning most of my income from consultancy in the waste management industry. I cannot think of another industry, with the exception of the explosives industry for considerations of safety, which is allowed to dispose of a significant percentage of its waste by burning on open fires.

The outcry which would follow an application from another industry for the open burning of its waste, could only be imagined. There is no reason why agriculture should expect to be treated differently.

The Bryant and May baler was rightly banned and this should remain the case.

Anthony Kenney-Herbert

Rolstone, Hewish, nr Weston-Super-Mare, North Somerset.

TALKING POINT

Suckler cow replacements could soon be priced like gold dust – even though the beefing characteristics of dairy-sourced animals continues to slide down the Holstein route.

That means farmers must quickly organise alternative supplies. Not just so they can secure better quality animals but because they also face a 15% gap between their annual requirement and the number of bulling heifers on the ground.

It is a situation that has crept up on the industry because the initial reaction of many suckled calf breeders to the increased narrowness of rump and thigh was to hold back heifers of their own which would otherwise have gone for slaughter.

However this detour has run into a brick wall. Current replacements are seven-eighths pure and the only solution for most is to either set up a two herd system or drag themselves back to the dairy herd.

They could get a shock. Not only are the latest dairy bred heifers even more scrawny, they are also more expensive. The increasing softness of the Holstein has pulled down beef cow fertility and longevity and they are going like hot cakes in response to a sudden hike in the replacement rate to almost 20%.

The figures are startling. NBA has calculated that as long as the suckler herd sticks at its current level of 1.92m head the industry will need up to 380,000 breeding heifers a year but the last census showed that only 269,000 in-calf beef heifers were on the ground.

However help may be at hand because the imminent revision of LFA support payments offers a golden opportunity to go back to basics and re-introduce hill breeding cows to large tracts of disadvantaged land.

These animals almost disappeared from bent and molinia pastures 30-40 years ago when the British Friesian crosses emerged as the dominant suckler cow.

But if breed societies, hill farmers, administrators, environmentalists and auction markets can pull together in a multi-platformed and common effort, a large herd of hill cattle could soon be re-established and the supply shortage of specialist bulling beef heifers substantially eased.

There would be many advantages. It would not only improve the quality of the beef herd but also help to spread hill sheep grazing over a wider area and be popular with environmentalists because it would encourage a wider range of plant and animal life too.

And the move could also be seen as a clever response to market forces because the extensive nature of the system would help to underpin beef as a superior and therefore high priced, retail product.

However progress will not be quick – and even then a huge effort will be needed because the existing pool of hill cows is as lean as the landscape on which they roam.

Rough calculations indicate that an all-Britain basis there may be no more than 15,000 to 18,000 which means their heifer calf output could be limited to no more than 6,000 to 7,000 head a year. So there is a huge shortfall between supply and the annual 380,000 head industry requirements for replacements.

There are other sources such as a concentration on calves from more acceptable British Friesian cows and the establishment of specialist herds of composites initially bred in the United States.

But it is hard to see the suckler beef industry being able to maintain both the quality and the numbers of its bulling heifer replacements unless it puts substantially more hill cows, many of them no doubt of a more modern type, back on land they used to graze 40 years before.

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  • News

TALKING POINT

30 July 1999

READERS LETTERS

To ban the hunt would be disaster

Never before has our rural population and wildlife been threatened by such prejudiced ignorance as that displayed by some of Britains MPs.

Hunting is just one of the wildlife management tools which ensures that a healthy population of foxes, hares and deer exist; not in nature reserves but in our farmland and woods. Hunting is run to strict codes of conduct and policed by men, women and children from all walks of life who follow on horse, on foot or by car at their own expense because they are passionate about the environment.

Hunting is their hobby enjoyed all over Britain. A hobby that can be followed for a few minutes or a full day, every week or just now and then, as and when family and work commitments allow.

Hunting people look after the wildlife for the benefit of all the people of Britain by ensuring a living landscape. They also organise functions to raise money for worthwhile causes for the benefit of all such as cancer research and air ambulances.

None of the non-hunting animal welfare organisations ever do thAT. They are selfish to their own cause and blinkered to a rational overview of the world around them which needs to be managed.

Banning hunting brings no benefits to people or animals. If you agree, do everything you can to ensure it continues or we will witness a man-made countryside disaster.

Walter M Black

The Countryside Alliance, The Grooms Cottage, Sherbourne, Warwick.

Deny scientists right to meddle

It is beginning to dawn in the public mind that, having survived Nostradamus dire predictions for the ending of the world, we may fall victim to the prediction of Karl Marx. That is it will take illegal action to prevent the multinational corporations from inflicting damage to the planet and to the health of our children.

In the debate about genetic engineering of food, there is continuous recourse to the evidence of science as the deciding factor. It is worth remembering that Albert Einstein made the following remark: "One thing I have learned in a long life: that all our science measured against reality is primitive and childlike."

It has been the grand pretence of modern science that existence is fully comprehensible to the human mind. Hardly surprising, then, this present confusion of the ability to tamper with nature, with having the complete knowledge of reality to warrant such acts of vandalism.

It is not scientific to assert, as scientists do, that nature is the product of chance chemical reaction and consciousness the by-product. A new science is being developed which recognises consciousness as being primary in nature, In this ordered universe, what scientist could claim the right to meddle, and what businessman can claim the right of might by financial clout?

Science knows as much about the universal questions as a lonely gnat skating on the surface of the mid-Atlantic can accurately report on the contours of the oceanic floor.

It may be of value to the likes of Monsanto, to recall that the French Revolution began with a man, an axe, and a rabble who marched on the Palace of Versailles. The rabble was made up mostly of distraught mothers who would not forgive the fouling of their childrens food supply.

Giles Maynard

Chairman, Dilston Press Ltd, Cowick Farm, Hilmarton, Calne Wilts.

Calm debate at anti-GM meet

We organised the public meeting at Lyng in Norfolk to which you refer (News, Jul 16) and found your report less than balanced. Most people attending the meeting were either from Lyng or the surrounding villages.

The debate was calm and courteous and we regret that the farmer, Mr Brigham, chose to send a prepared statement, rather than attend to explain his views. Those who contacted us to ask for this meeting were, like ourselves, all ordinary, local people with genuine concerns. They felt that consultation and information had been denied them, first by Mr Brigham and then by the government and AgrEvo.

The meeting raised further important issues among which were the following. First, a decision has not been made as to how to destroy the GM maize crop; the suggestion is that it will be incorporated into the soil. Mr DSouza then admitted that a non-GM crop grown in that same soil next year could be sold, unlabelled, for animal or human consumption. Second, liability for contamination of non-GM crops or environmental damage is still under discussion with only days before the crop flowers. Why was this trial even started before such basic rules were established?

Karly Graham and Jo Page

KeG4887028@aol.com

Genetic change only natural

May I be permitted to clear up the confusion surrounding genetic modification (Letters, Jul 9). The theory of natural selection postulates that genetic modification is the mechanism through which evolutionary change occurs. The distinction between natural and unnatural agents of this change seems to me spurious. A gene is no more than specific arrangement of amino acids and other chemicals within a chain. It is there in a currently surviving species only because, after a mutation that put it in position, it conferred advantage on the individual which possessed it.

When enough mutations have occurred the individual becomes so different from the original (not to mention from others in which different mutations have occurred) that a new species appears.

By extrapolating this process from a single original living organism divergent species evolved and eventually plant and animal life established, originating from common genetic material. To suggest that any particular gene is only appropriate to this organism seems illogical considering the common origin of life.

It is so unnatural to facilitate such change? The only difference between human intervention and the myriad of other influences inducing mutation is that of intention as opposed to chance. The result will be the same, many failures, and the conferring of advantage on a few individuals who flourish and compete successfully. It is reasonable to suggest that the changes brought about by Monsanto could have occurred spontaneously.

Human intervention will however alter the pressure of selection, and thereby affect what survives and what doesnt. In that sense, Monsanto joins the Ice Age and gunpowder as part of the world within which natural selection operates.

The real point at issue is not genetic modification, but the context within which the resultant individuals are allowed, encouraged, or prevented from flourishing.

If I trusted politicians and big business more, I should be more sanguine on this issue. As it is, this technology is neutral but with enormous potential to be used to advantage but its introduction requires responsibility and care.

David Boulton

Bounden Hill Farm, Charwelton, Daventry, Northants.

GM label is misleading

The recent discussion in your letters columns about genetically modified organisms springs from whoever was responsible for inventing that label in the first place. It is perfectly sound to say that selective breeding is genetic modification; available genes are introduced to achieve certain properties in the animal or plant being modified.

The current debate involves a method which literally takes apart a collection of genes (chromosome) and rebuilds it with different components which may, in some cases, have come from a different kind of organism. The technique is probably more correctly titled genetic engineering and was often referred to as such until fairly recently.

Using this more descriptive term would probably satisfy both sides. In fact, we probably have some headline-seeking journalist to thank for the present label.

R Burrell

Kenilworth, avrilb@surfaid.org

Danes take Heritage name

I am a regular purchaser of Heritage bacon, although it can be difficult to find with its small print. I was pleased to see the other day that Heritage bacon had changed its pack design and Heritage was printed in large and eye-catching letters. Further investigation revealed in very small print the words Danish Bacon.

Can the Danes be allowed to get away with this? Can they steal another brand name?

Mrs SM Body

Treweatha Farm, Dobwalls, Liskeard, Cornwall.

Beg to differ over Limousins

Having had the honour of judging the Limousin classes at this years Royal Show I feel it is necessary to comment on your misleading report (Royal Show Report, July 9).

Hawsons Gold Dust was not in the same class as Millbrook Lancelot, neither did he stand in front of him at any time in the show ring.

Millbrook Lancelot was a worthy supreme champion of the breed and, together with the female and reserve champion Ronick Janita, went on to win the Burke Trophy. That was the first time ever for the Limousin.

Doug Edgar

Fellside, Ousby, Penrith, Cumbria.

Balloons pollute the countryside

How can people be proud of letting 5000 balloons pollute the countryside (News, July 9)? Especially to promote farming. What goes up must come down.

Most of them seem to land on our farm. They flutter in the hedge and spook the horses. Ive hit the ground too many times to count. They cause horses to shy in front of cars that travel along the lanes too fast to stop suddenly.

I heard galloping horses in the paddock and discovered that an inquisitive horse had nibbled at the label and got it stuck between his teeth and was galloping around with the balloon chasing him.

Young calves have had them stuck internally. Even if they are biodegradeable its not quick enough to save lives. Please tell the NFYFC campaign to raise their own awareness and other peoples some other way.

Mrs Rosemary Manlove

Bury Barns Farmhouse, Sandon, Herts.

Quality meat? acquire a list

I have sympathy with Denis Lilley (Letters, July 9) who is trying to find a source of good meat but he should not despair. As a conservation measure, we introduced several years ago the Traditional Breeds Meat Marketing Scheme since many of the breeds under our wing were largely scorned by the mainstream meat market. Thus we accredit selected independent butchers around the country to stock and market meat from purebred, rare and minority breeds as a speciality product.

Using traditional, slow-maturing stock kept in non-intensive conditions, I can assure him that meat through our scheme has many of the old-fashioned virtues he remembers with well-marbled beef, pork with real crackling and dry-cured bacon which would test the spirit of many vegetarians. Alas, the OTMS prevents us from offering beef from fully mature cattle of 800kg liveweight but I am sure that our beef is the next best thing available.

We have a growing list of accredited butchers around the country and with their success, a growing army of discerning consumers discovering that there is an alternative to the sort of eating experiences Mr Lilley describes.

At the same time, with such an appreciative market, numbers of many rare breeds are increasing again.

Anyone looking for quality meat should contact us for a list of accredited butchers.

Richard Lutwyche

Rare Breeds Survival Trust, National Agricultural Centre, Stoneleigh Park, Warks.richard@rbst.demon.co.uk

Strong merits in modern meat

I would like to reply to Denis Lilleys letter (Jul 9) Modern meat not worth eating. He obviously did not visit Barenbrugs stand at Grassland 99. Otherwise he would have enjoyed beef supplied by our local butcher here in West Sussex. I suggest he moves to this area to enable him to feast on marbled beef and excellent pork sausages which I can assure him will not taste like condoms filled with soya meal.

Bill Morphew

Horsham, West Sussex.

Consumption of beef declining

The MLCs head of beef strategy is right to point out that beef consumption is almost up to 1995 levels (Letters, July 9). But he overlooks the fact that the total volume eaten each year still appears to be in long-term decline. Disappointment in its taste and flavour is almost certainly a significant contributory factor.

Mr Mead also concentrates on extolling the virtues of the MLC blueprint which, if it is adhered to, should present consumers with beef that is consistently more tender. But it may be that in times of short supply, less beef than normal is in abattoirs long enough to hit the recommended maturing period.

Mrs Adams (Livestock, June 11) is not just a Nuffield scholar she is also widely recognised as the NBAs spokesman on consumer affairs. Like her colleagues, she takes the view that more must be done to re-introduce taste and flavour into home-killed beef.

Our belief is that this means the industry must concentrate more on the production of the right type of animal instead of focusing only on establishing post-slaughter tenderness as the MLC is doing through its blueprint.

More effort should be made to take advantage of the fuller flavour of grass and silage fed beef and the identification of animals most likely to produce marbelled beef.

We accept that if blueprint protocols are followed to the letter, more consumers will get tender beef but abattoirs cannot make a silk purse out of a sows ear. And it is also important that they receive more slower growing animals that have absorbed more omega 3 fatty acids through grass and are killed later than animals producing fast, tasteless beef through exclusively grain-fed intensive systems.

If this production-led approach was married to the MLCs post slaughter blueprint controls, then consumers and the industry would be more likely to enjoy the benefits that come from supplying even better beef.

Robert Forster

The National Beef Association, The Firs, Blackmore Park Road, Malvern, Worcs.

Threat to small farms evident

According to the latest prophecies of Dr Michael Murphy, of Cambridge University, small family farms will disappear like corner shops.

You dont need to be a number cruncher to come to that conclusion. That process has already been under way for decades. Its not just small family farm businesses which will disappear; along with them will go many allied trade businesses. I suspect not many tears will be shed for the inevitable demise of the mass ranks of agricultural hangers on such as land agents, quota agents, consultants and of the rest.

It must be the most maddening experience for a dairy farmer to turn out of bed at 5am, seven days a week, to pull cows teats and have to lease quota at 10p a litre from a non-producer quota owner such as an over-paid pop star or commodity dealer. Dairy farmers themselves, not just their cows, are the ones who have been milked.

J D Wright

Riverview, Toad Row, Henstead, Beccles.

Nest destroyers risk £1000 fine

I noted your letter (Jul 16) about hedge cutting and destroying birds nests. I thought everyone knew that this activity is illegal from 1 Mar to 30 Sept; as is cutting back any sort of vegetation. It carries the risk of a £1000 fine or an unlimited fine for a second offence. Please save the hedge and grass trimming until winter when there is not as much to do on the farm.

P Dransfield

North Yorkshire House, Main Street, Great Heck, Selby, Nr Goole, East Yorks.

Long Ashton has vital role

I am disturbed by your report (Arable, Jun 18) of the proposal to close IACR – Long Ashton. Long Ashton Research Station has been at the forefront of agricultural and horticultural research for almost a century.

The original work on cider-making and fruit juices led to broader studies of plant biology, nutrition and disease control in fruit crops. The work widened to include other crop plants and thus was developed the expertise which resulted in Long Ashton becoming an important part of IACR. Todays issues are the environment and responsible use of agrochemicals.

Long Ashton has for some time been addressing these through the LIFE/ICM work. The biomass studies developed from work on willow growing for basket making. That work was nearly closed at a crucial stage a few years ago.

As a farmer and wildlife trust member, I meet many well-educated people who are concerned about the effects of modern farming on wildlife and the environment. It is the inter-relationship of biological species that created and which maintains the environment in which we live and farm. We must ensure that our farming methods can co-exist with the biological mechanisms on which we depend.

Excessive emphasis on industry rather than public funding for research has concentrated work on commercial profit rather than public interest objectives. This, and the attendant short-termism, has probably contributed to the problems of BSE and OPs and certainly to the poor public image of scientific agriculture.

We need publicly funded positive studies of the relationships between crop production methods and wildlife balance in the environment and the environmentally beneficial potential of GMOs such as disease resistance, extended growing season and legume style nitrogen generation for cereals and grasses. New Labour has a commitment to the environment; so instead of closing Long Ashton, the BBSRC should be frightening the wits out of government with warnings about what will happen if they do not fund the appropriate work that Long Ashton is ideally placed to undertake.

I must disclose a personal interest. My father, Prof Thomas Wallace, worked as a soil chemist at Long Ashton from 1919 until his death in 1965. He was director from 1943-57 and during that period I grew up living on the station farm.

Nigel Wallace

Craen, Llanerfyl, Welshpool, Powys.

Farrowing crate ban misguided

I read with dismay the RSPCAs decision to ban farrowing crates. My sows were very contented farrowing in crates. Most of them grunted as you passed. Each sow got its own ration and cleaned it up by the next feed.

I began keeping sows years ago. The bullies were just the same then as today.

The decision to ban farrowing crates by Freedom Foods has nothing to do with welfare it is about legacies they wish to gain from old ladies. Those would allow people in these organisations to keep their cushy jobs.

Jimmy Fraquair

Wellington, Dalkeith, Midlothian.

Dangers of OP acknowledged

Information from the working group on OPs has at last led to recognition of the serious effects that OP sheep dip has had on many farmers (News, July 9).

Thanks to the determined actions of voluntary bodies and individuals, who refused to give in, the recognition of the dangers of this product are confirmed. But this is not the final act in the protection of farmer and consumer safety.

Other products, many used as sprays on farms, in industry, in homes and on our food are still used and accepted by the Pesticides Directorate or the Vet Medicines Directorate as safe.

Theres little evidence of adverse reaction reporting, due mainly to the ignorance of farmers and public regarding the existence of such a system.

It also reflects the lack of expertise in the medical profession regarding ability to diagnose toxic effects and relate them to specific toxins.

The ethics committees are either biased or have little say and where an element of doubt exists, the precautionary principle is used less in scientific practice.

Farmers should make sure their MPs are aware of these issues when voting on the Freedom of Information Bill shortly to be debated. Secrecy in the licensing procedures must be eradicated.

Setting up of a new food ethics council, a group of independent members with expertise to deal with such issues, is good news.The committee could be a step in the right direction to protect farmers and consumers.

J MacDonald

Farming and Livestock Concern, Penlan Fach, Llangain, Carmarthen.

Dip claim is just scaremongering

The Talking Point (Jul 16) on OP sheep dips by Paul Tyler is scare mongering of the worst sort. He has misrepresented the findings of the study by the Institute of Occupational Medicine in such a way that sheep dippers will be caused maximum alarm.

The study set out to test the claim that exposure to dips over a long time, even in low doses, can cause nerve damage. It did not support that theory. Instead, it concluded that if nerve damage has occurred it may be due to exposure to concentrated dip.

That is hardly surprising because the first part of the study, carried out in 1996, showed that less than half of those handling concentrate bothered to use gloves, and that most of those who did use gloves failed to do so correctly.

Mr Tyler states that 18% of farmers handling dip suffer nerve damage.

This is not true. 19% of dipping farmers reported symptoms (not the same as nerve damage) compared with 11% of farmers not using dip and 5% of industrial workers.

More English dippers reported symptoms than Scottish dippers, and older farmers reported more symptoms than younger ones. After adjusting for age and country the study found that there was no real difference in symptoms between farmers using sheep dip and those who did not. Both groups had more symptoms than industrial workers, which may say something about farming as a way of life, but not much about dips.

So what does this mean? Probably no more than that mishandling concentrate dip is a mistake – which was already known. The test for the regulatory bodies is to see if they can improve the handling of concentrate. The study was carried out some time ago and it may be that the certificate of competence which has been introduced since then will have reduced careless handling. Also manufacturers have been asked to make the packaging of concentrate less prone to accidents.

Rather than trying to scare farmers it would have been much more helpful for Mr Tyler to have urged them to treat dipping seriously and use protective clothing wisely. His remarks will probably lead to more ill health in farmers, from unjustified worry.

Geoffrey Hollis

12 Lodge Drive, Hatfield, Herts.

Colleges doing their level best

In response to Simon Gibsons letter (June 18) I dont think the colleges are entirely at fault, although I accept his concerns. Colleges predicted that the currency of qualifications would be devalued in the eyes of industry if the pre-entry and sandwich industrial elements were removed, and the courses shortened. But they were powerless to prevent the funding and awarding bodies from doing so.

Industrial advisory panels at Writtle, and I suspect many other centres, debated these changes and attempted to put pressure on the funding councils and validating bodies, but to no avail. Our only alternative suggestion was industrial sponsorship – if the industry really wanted the colleges to put in extra time and effort without government funding, could they not provide some sponsorship maybe on a partnership basis? Alas the industry is going through a difficult period and conditions were hardly conducive to success.

Mr Gibson states that the problems are the fault of the colleges trying to keep student numbers up to the detriment of quality. In fact colleges are trying to maintain quality and protect agricultural education despite the funding problems.

His point has been made for generations and was almost certainly made about his course as compared to those preceding him. There are lessons to be learned but the graduates and diplomats of today are able to enter a complex industry equipped with the necessary skills to enable them to develop their careers and enhance both the industry and the economy generally.

Robert Curtis

Writtle College, Chelmsford, Essex.

TALKING POINT

Internal squabbling is

the tallest hurdle

confronting the road to

sugar beet success,

says Marie Skinner

The UK sugar industry has the opportunity to take a huge leap forward and reposition itself as a major, competitive player in the European sugar market. But, it may never happen, if internal disagreement prevents a constructive approach to the future.

The good news is that growing and processing sugar beet is profitable, despite problems in other arable sectors. The bad news is that grower and processor are arguing with each other over the basis on which they should work together and share out the guaranteed return.

The Inter-Professional Agreement (IPA) is being re-negotiated. British Sugar, the monopoly processor, and the NFU, acting for growers, are trying to reach a new agreement. The two sides, despite having already spent nearly three years in negotiation, do not seem able to reach an amicable conclusion.

With the gap between BS and the NFU currently like the Grand Canyon, it is unlikely to be bridged by either side. The dispute will have to be settled by independent arbitration. That may sound like the sensible solution but it carries considerable dangers.

British Sugar has made it clear that if arbitration occurs it will withdraw many of the concessions it currently offers. Some existing beet payments could be put at risk, such as early and late delivery bonuses and the beneficial, sugar scale. Beet contracts would become ex-farm, with the transport allowance to growers ending and British Sugar managing transport – so extending powers back on to farms.

The NFU believes it is worth risking losing the current basis on which trading occurs. It feels BS exploits its monopoly processor status by not paying for increased quality or for sugar extracted from the crowns – despite this sugar becoming part of the 1.144m tonnes UK sugar quota paid for in full by the EU sugar regime.

Growers expect the NFU, as the seller of their beet, to fight strongly for their interests. Negotiating on price, and trying to achieve the best possible deal.

Both sides could lose out through arbitration and the destruction of good working relationships throughout all levels of the industry. Growers will only know if this is a price worth paying when they know the final result of arbitration.

As commodity prices fall, it is accepted that the agricultural industry must work more closely together with the food chain than ever before, to be more competitive, productive and innovative at every stage.

Already, there is more vertical integration within the sugar industry than for most other crops. Growers and processor should be building on that advantage to produce a model of efficient practice that other commodities envy.

Outside influences are threatening the UK sugar industry. The EU Sugar Regime is under review and cuts in quota and/or price are a possible outcome. MAFF and the EU Commission are also discussing regional premia. If MAFF allows the UK to lose its regional premium for being a deficit sugar producer, it will cost growers £1.30/t.

The current IPA is steeped in ancient history and desperately needs updating. Before it is too late, the sugar industry should find a way to move forward in a constructive and productive way. But, that will require both parties to have an enthusiasm for change, rather than a begrudging reluctance to move.

As British Sugar and NFU dig in their heels either side of the Grand Canyon they have a choice. Stay put or take a risk and make a major leap across. Small moves will not work, as the Chinese proverb says: You cant leap a chasm in small steps. Your comments would be welcome. marie.skinner@farmline.com or fax 01508 495488

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TALKING POINT

23 July 1999

Please come and listen to milk advice

I would like to compliment John Page on his Talking Point and David Richardson on his column (July 9). Both address the same theme provocatively and sensibly. When two such respected figures say the same thing so clearly, it is time for milk producers to take notice.

For four years, MDC work to help farmers reduce costs and become more competitive has been well reported in FW. More than 50 MDC projects have been completed with measurable benefits to producers. Within the next year, we will be aiming to produce a cowside mastitis test that will improve the accuracy of treatment and speed the return to productivity. Through a Link project, jointly supported by MAFF and the feed industry, we will produce an improved rationing system, which more accurately predicts milk output from feed input.

The publication of the MMC report into the milk selling system and DTIs Press statement has provoked concern among dairy farmers. At a time like this, MDCs role as a farmers self-help organisation is more important than ever. Nobody pretends that the route to improved profitability will be easy.

To help dairy farmers find their own answers, we have recently launched a national network of focus centres to provide ideas, help, support and guidance. Understandably, milk producers are concerned for their futures. But even the most sceptical owe it to their families and their businesses to take a careful look at a programme that is already delivering results for their neighbours. It could do so for more if approached with an open mind and the courage to question established management. I would urge every dairy farmer to attend at least one MDC focus centre meeting.

Peter Merson

Chief executive, Milk Development Council, 5-7 John Princes Street, London.

Chilled milk is most appealing

John Jenkins (Letters, July 2) calls upon the MDC, Milk Marque and ourselves to study why the public does or does not drink milk, before the start of a generic marketing campaign.

Each year, as part of its market research activity, the NDC talks to thousands of people of all ages throughout Britain about milk. Our research consistently shows that the chilling of milk is critical to its appeal. Warm milk, even milk at room temperature, is a turn-off for consumers.

Our research also shows that generic marketing could have a significant impact on milk sales. Any campaigns effectiveness will depend on understanding the consumers perception of our product and building on milks natural strengths, rather than challenging its weaknesses. Clear strategic thinking is vital if we are to produce ads that have a real and lasting effect on milk sales.

Andrew Ovens

Marketing manager, National Dairy Council, 507 John Princes Street, London.

How many are we carrying?

How big is a farmers back and who are we carrying?

Just how many people does the produce of the farm provide a living for? Or for that matter, how many deadweight officials are hung round the neck of each farmer?

A E Searby

Mayfields, Croft, Wainfleet, Lincs.

Herts show spread word

It was good to read of the efforts of Messrs Bart and Piggot getting the farming message across at the Hertfordshire Show (News, July 2).

Members of the Braintree Branch of the NFU took a stand within an area of the Essex Show, organised by the Essex Agricultural Society entitled "Essex Food and Farming". Farming members joined with three group secretaries to talk to visitors on the stand, highlighting the problems facing the industry, discussing matters causing concern to the public and emphasising their hopes for the future of the industry.

Displays on the stand illustrated crops grown in the county and their eventual use, together with live animal exhibits of a cow and calf, ewe and lambs and day-old-chicks, which all acted as magnets to draw visitors on to the stand, particularly children. Apart from the large numbers of dogs and horses being exhibited there were few other animals at the show. Those on the NFU stand were popular with a public who still expect to see them at a rural show of this standing. Recipe leaflets, stickers and other handouts and the presence of the Asda "Keep Britain Farming" Tour Bus all helped to add further interest to the display.

About 100,000 people visited the three-day show and the NFU stand was regularly full to overflowing. Everyone involved was well pleased with the opportunity to promote the farming industry to a generally supporting, even if at times an inquisitive or suspicious, public and one which is continually growing as urban areas expand in Essex.

Peter Hinckling

NFU Office, Earls Colne, Essex.

RSPCA should leave us alone

Yet another organisation is trying to bring the pig industry to its knees. Why doesnt the RSPCA concentrate on what it was founded for and leave the farming world alone.

If all the monies used to set up these organisations were ploughed into the pig industry there may not be the crisis everyone keeps talking about and seems to be doing nothing about.

S Baldwin

Latton, Nr Swindon, Wilts.

Destruction of trial vandalism

My Talking Point article (June 11) certainly sparked off some correspondence, most of it taking me to task. "Confused, out of touch, mischievous, misunderstands the facts" were some of the comments. I do not mind that, if it makes people think.

I started farming in 1949. Farming today bears little relation to that of 50 years ago. No one then would recognise the high tech industry of today. Increased yields of high quality and bought by the consumer at unimaginably low prices. Milk even costs less than bottled water. That has not happened by accident. It has all come about by the application of science and technology.

That surely is not in dispute. The point is: What change shall we see in the next 50 years? Make no mistake, changes will come about, not in an era of protected and guaranteed prices, but in a much freer, competitive, world market. Opportunities, yes; easy pickings, most definitely not.

Genetic modification will be part of that change worldwide, whether in its present form is another matter. How and in what form, must be the result of scientific enquiry and evaluation, monitoring, and control. To dismiss it out of hand, without field scale trials is to tie both hands behind our backs. And to destroy those trials is not only folly but an act of mindless vandalism.

Among the correspondence that landed on my desk was a large bundle of papers from the Natural Law Party. I am grateful, even though I disagree fundamentally with its outright opposition. Is it, I wonder, against natural law to have a general anaesthetic when undergoing a serious operation? But then perhaps I am being mischievous again.

Henry Fell

Barton on Humber, South Humberside.

Lets be proud of UK first

We are grateful to FW for demonstrating its responsibility by announcing the UKs first-ever births of female calves using sorted semen in conjunction with artificial insemination (Livestock, June 25). Your article accurately informed readers about this breakthrough breeding technique which will soon allow UK dairy farmers to select the sex of their dairy calves before conception.

However, we were disturbed by your comments (Opinion) on the same subject. The tone was downbeat and sceptical placing the success of this historic breakthrough in cattle breeding on the shoulders of the marketeers instead of where it rightfully belongs. That is on its unique foundation of solid science, successful farm trials and, most important, the enormous animal-welfare benefits it will bring.

Farm Animal Welfare Council in its Dec 97 report on the welfare of dairy cattle recommended: "…the sexing of semen should be used to reduce the number of unwanted male dairy calves…" The Banner Report on the Ethical Implications of Emerging Technologies in the Breeding of Farm Animals stated: "An improvement in the sorting methods, which make them more efficient and allowed sorted sperm to be used in AI, would render sperm sorting commercially more viable, and should be welcomed."

The RSPCA and NFU have also praised the welfare benefits for dairy cattle.

We also noted the positive tone of your editorial on a Dutch farm assurance scheme. If our breakthrough had been made by a European country, would it have received a more positive editorial?

What has been achieved in the UK is a European first and something dairy farmers have wanted for many years. Other European countries would have given their back teeth to have been the first with this technology. So why dont we be more proud of what has been achieved first in the UK?

Tim Heywood

Managing director, Cogent, Aldford, Chester, Cheshire.

Bring back the burn now…

Its time to turn the clock back in the interest of economics and using less agrochemical. Farmers should allowed to burn at least 30% of their cereal stubbles each year.

It is common knowledge that a good burn is worth £8-10/ acre and can benefit the soil in destroying wild oat seed and giving a clean disease-free entry for the following crop. Indeed, it is particularly useful for those thinking of going organic.

It is more natural and kinder to the environment than using more sprays to control the ever increasing resistant strains of weeds. Lets get the NFU to back a return to limited stubble burning albeit with conditions.

J Foulds

Pinchpools Farm, Manuden, Nr Bishops Stortford, Herts.

Encouraging green practice

I was thrilled to read your encouragement to the establishment to try to use set-aside for environmental benefit. We should do more and show that we are doing more.

Set-aside should be based in each block of land on which an IACS payment is made. With overhanging branches and overgrown hedges, which we wish to encourage, 6m is too narrow. Our thinking should be based on 10 plus.

A P Turney

Field Farm, Winfrith Newburgh, Dorchester, Dorset.

Cow important as the bull

As a breeder of what are probably the UKs only two recognised dual-purpose breeds, the Dexter and Red Poll, I was pleased to read your recent article (Livestock, July 16).

Improvement schemes and the collation and dissemination of data helps breeders select and use the most appropriate sire on the most appropriate dams.

The danger in the past has been to put all the emphasis on the sire. Research overseas has recognised that the cow is as important as the bull. The talk is of the perfect composite cow. Years of breeding has produced what must be the perfect cow in the Red Poll which achieves quality milk and meat; and longevity. Many of todays large suckler herds could improve their margins with the use of this breed with its low input costs.

The problem with the less popular breeds is that there is less genetic variability available to continue improvement schemes. One can end up with too high a proportion of the national herd being from one or two herds.

I recently discovered that the Red Poll Development Society has semen available from seven bulls from herds that no longer exist. That will increase the diversity of bloodlines, improve the Red Poll and give small-scale breeders like myself a greater choice of bulls.

The only problem with using bulls that died in the mid-60s is the lack of data on how their progeny fared. This will however be available in a few generations time unless readers have information on the herds concerned. Those are: The Hallingbury, Honest, Gedding, Foxearth, Dungate and Kirton.

In my case, crossing the two breeds gives hybrid vigour, an animal that can be killed after two seasons on grass, a high kill-out percentage and a highly manageable and marketable carcass. And yes, the Dexter bull can reach.

Ted Neal

9 Savile Way, Fowlmere, Royston, Herts.

Farrowing cash wisely spent?

I am concerned to read that the UK pig industry is going to spend £400,000 to determine whether any of six different farrowing systems can be commercially successful. Having been engaged in farrowing system research for the past 10 years, we are still some way to developing a system that is successful, even under experimental conditions.

The farrowing situation is complex in terms of sow and piglet physiology and behaviour. We are still trying to gain a full understanding of these interactions. Until we do, designing a commercially-successful alternative to the crate will remain over the horizon. A study of this nature, though laudable, is too much too soon and will set this ultimate goal back years.

The only alternative that could work is the temporary crate idea where the sow is confined for about five to seven days before and after farrowing.

Whatever systems are investigated, I hope that CAMBAC carries out the study with a higher-than-usual standard of scientific rigour. It must recognise that the major factor influencing the success of a farrowing system is the person caring for the animals. This factor is a difficult one to balance experimentally. In the current economic climate, it would be sad to see important industry money being unwisely spent.

Dr Jeremy Marchant

Peter Wall Distinguished Junior Scholar, Institute of Advanced Studies, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada.

Taking issue with advice

Your article on carting grain at harvest (Arable, July 2) is informative but contains two examples of bad advice. First, trailer size. To avoid slow-downs when unloading on the move, trailer capacity must be at least two and a half times the combine tanks capacity. In your example, that would mean that the trailer for a combine with a 6t capacity tank would have to be 15t not 12-14t. The smaller trailer would be full before the combine had discharged its second tank full.

Second, is the seemingly sage advice to use tramlines where possible.

Although good in theory, in practice it is the major cause of wheel and axle failure in trailers. If there is not a perfect size match between the ruts and the trailer wheels, hug side loads are imposed. That is even worse if the trailer pulls away out of the tramline when full.

The experts are so removed from reality that the possible use of a lorry is dismissed because few farms could justify the cost of a new rig.

Do the words second-hand never cross their minds? It is possible to get a good second-hand lorry for about £1000 that will cart 15t of grain in much more comfort than a tractor and trailer. It may not have a plate but most farms dont need road use.

M Pinard

Lodge Farm, Lower South Park Road, South Godstone, Surrey.

What about our compensation?

UK farmers suffering from cattle herd TB-breakdowns and receiving only 16% compensation of the total real costs, must be pleased to hear of a new development. This allegedly principled government will repay the full cost for a family of five planning to holiday in, say, Barbados if it is unable to issue their passport on time.

Let us hope that no one has booked into the £1000-a-night luxury Conrad Hotels that Jack Cunningham uses at the taxpayers expense. Clearly, it is one rule for those who can afford to leave these shores for holidays abroad and another for those who must stay behind to protect their livelihoods.

Peter J Brady

Society for the Eradication of Tuberculosis Transmission (SETT), New Lodge Farm, Quarnford, Nr Buxton, Derbyshire. peterjbrady@hotmail.com

Sows lose touch with piglets

Dr Marchant, at de Montfort University, asks whether modern pigs are losing the ability to respond to their young. (Livestock, May 21). He refers to large, noisy farrowing units, which may be the heart of the problem. Sows in their natural state make a nest to ensure a quiet, sheltered place for farrowing.

The Pig Welfare Code claims to take account of "freedom to display most normal patterns of behaviour", of which this is one. Stress is laid on the importance of straw or similar material, but how many sows receive this? Farrowing crates, according to Prof John Webster, severely restrict the opportunity for social contact between sow and piglets: As with antibiotic growth-promoters, a change in management practice, which used to be called husbandry, is indicated.

J Bower

The Farm and Food Society, 4 Willifield Way, London.

TALKING POINT

To join or not to join, the euro? Its one of the hardest questions farmers face. It divides the industry and troubles many farmers.

At present, our industry is half in and half out of the euro which, despite the optimistic start, has fallen to near parity with $. Our support prices are set in euros, our subsidy payments are made in euros and what we end up with results from the conflict between the £ and the euro.

Many believe monetary union is an inevitable consequence of the single European market and free trade between EU members. No doubt, in time, the economies of the EU will move together with increasing internal trade and mutual dependency as cultural and social characteristics merge.

But European Monetary Union was founded not on the economic principles of the single market and economic reality but on political expediency. Will the single currency survive? The economies of participating countries did for a time converge. At present, it is all too easy to see that convergence diverge as the fault lines of the euro economies become clear. With Italy seeking to exceed the permitted budget deficit, the Franco-German economies slowing and excessive price rises in Portugal and Ireland, the one-fit-for-all policy is weakening and, with it, the international value of the euro against the $ and, unfortunately for UK farming, the £.

Compared to our EU colleagues we have an economy to be proud of; low inflation, relatively low interest rates, low unemployment, low state subsidies and though we might not agree, low taxation. Its the opposite experienced by other euro members.

None of that helps farmers. We see our industry shattered by lower prices and lower support even though only part of this is as a result of the Euro weakening against the £, the rest, as we are all too aware, is a world market effect. Our supply and demand are impacted by global trading.

If UK agriculture were to join the euro at present currency levels, our fate would be sealed. Is this or any government likely, or even capable, of engineering a suitable entry rate of exchange in the foreseeable future?

The euro is being weakened daily by the varied economic problems of its members. Politics created the euro, not economics; thats what is wrong with the euro today.

Many commentators state that it is inevitable that we will join. Apart from birth, death and taxes, nothing is inevitable. As the fifth largest world economy and a truly international trading nation, with the least restrictions of any EU economy and the largest financial centre in the EU, we can survive outside the euro zone as a nation for the foreseeable future.

The freedom of currencies to move up and down is just as vital as the ability of an economy to set its own interest rates. We have that freedom; are we ready to hand over these levers of our economy to Brussels? Without true economic convergence, economic sovereignty remains an issue.

UK agriculture may have to learn to trade out of the euro zone for a long time. The £ may continue to appreciate, just as other EU currencies have against the £ over the past 50 years. However, other EU agricultural industries prospered in countries with an appreciating currency, we need to ask how?

Joining a flawed currency union would lead inevitably to higher taxes, costs and a worsening of our ability to trade globally. Thats something else we farmers will have to manage in the next few years or die from our failings.

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TALKING POINT

2 July 1999

Markets fly own flagsin France

I have recently returned from a short break in France attending the Le Mans 24 Hour Race. While there, I looked around the local supermarkets and feel that my observations warrant this letter. In UK supermarkets, we expect to see English, French and South African produce. However, in France I could find only French apples and vegetables.

Although it was difficult to identify the origin of tinned goods, most appeared to be French. The meat was all French; some specifically marketed as locally produced with premium prices.

The beer was mainly French, German and Danish with only one brand of English. Turning to crisps Vico produce a special crisp (at a premium price) which is plastered with French flags and proudly proclaims that the potatoes are from Picardie, the sunflower oil French and the sea salt from Guerronne.

Is it any wonder that our farmers have difficulty in getting a decent price for the food that they produce when they lack the support that Auchan and Carrefour are obviously giving French farmers – with similar support from French processed food producers as well?

We must re-boot the Buy British Campaign and our supermarkets must support this by reducing choice if need be.

Marcus Adams

Annexe 1, 15 Church Lane, Little Eversden, Cambs.

Who is Henry trying to fool?

I dont know who Henry Fell (Talking Point, Jun 11) is trying to fool; himself or the rest of us? But his claim to have been involved in genetic modification of his sheep for 40 years is a contradiction in terms.

He might well have introduced genes from other breeds but that is a far cry from the present debate. If the scientists of the time had been attempting to introduce genes from rats, monkeys, fish etc into his flock, perhaps by now he would have found out whats worrying an army of Luddites like me today.

"Find out the facts" he says "and judge accordingly". What a gamble.

How can a man with six years on the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution "fail to understand why so many farmers are turning against GM science". Hasnt the BSE fiasco taught him anything?

We dont want an agricultural backwater or a theme park Mr Fell. We want to be left alone to produce food that is fit to eat and a marketing situation where we can afford to sell it.

Harry Shutkever

Wythwood Farm, Wilmore Lane, Wythall, Nr Birmingham.

Breeding claim is centuries old

Henry Fell (Talking Point, Jun 11) is being mischievous in comparing his own efforts to create a new breed of sheep with those of the genetic modifiers currently in the news.

Selecting within a species is what breeders have done for centuries. Its goal is the creation of superior breeds or varieties that could in theory occur naturally. If GM were to be used within species simply to speed up the development of new varieties, most of us would embrace the idea warmly. But what causes excitement is the creation of varieties that could never occur naturally because they have had foreign genes introduced to provide some agronomic benefit.

Until all effects on the environment have been properly ascertained, I believe it is the duty of all custodians of the land to resist the commercial introduction of such new genetic material. If such testing takes 25 years, so be it.

I also have grave doubts as to whether GM crops will make farmers any better off. Since the last war, arable systems have become more dependant on artificial inputs and production has risen enormously. At the same time, consumers and retailers have benefited from cheaper food supplies, agrochemical companies have done well and land prices have risen. But the farmer in the middle has ended up having to run faster to stand still. Is there any reason to believe the introduction of GM crops wont continue this trend?

Profitable farming has more to do with demand for our crops than whether the latest technologies have been used to produce them. So lets not be so stupid as to rush into the latest that technology has to offer in order to produce something that our customers dont want. Besides, I am enjoying being on the same side as the consumer for once.

Caspar Bush

Peart Farm, Norton St Philip, Bath.

Extra litres line others pockets

Dairy producers must do their homework. Many small-scale producers are receiving less than 18p/litre.

Why produce extra litres to line the pockets of the dairy company directors and share holders. If 6.2p is the break even price, quota should be 3.1p giving an equal share of profit to the producer and the person leasing out the quota. Large and small herds are selling out. The June returns will show a sharp fall in dairy cow numbers and in the total number of producers.

A R Rolf

Rolf Park Farm, Beaulieu, Hants.

Probe quota leasing market

When the investigations into supermarket profiteering are concluded, perhaps attention could turn to checking out the antics of the quota leasing market. Hard-pressed producers are being screwed by merciless leasing tactics from both agents and the lessors on behalf of whom they apparently work. With milk prices at unbelievably low levels and with some milk cheques generating less than 13p a litre in May, I do not see how agents have the nerve to try to hold prices up so unrealistically.

Then to get people to come to auctions, where major portions of the quota advertised for sale as a lease or permanent transfer is then withdrawn because it will not meet with the ridiculous expectations that the agents have given the lessors before the auction, is an insult to working farmers who give up time to attend. Unless agents get their act together soon, they are going to loose what little face they have left in this despicable market. For those who depend on leasing quota in, so that they may retain a viable business, it is to be hoped that sanity will return. Hopefully, those who work for a living will have a chance to generate a return that at the least will equal that obtained by those who do not work for their living.

Oliver Dowding

Hill Farmhouse, Shepton Montague, Wincanton, Somerset.

An NFU job to tackle bad Press

With reference to your comments encouraging farmers to take action to redress the negative headlines (Opinion, May 28). Surely, it is the job of the NFU to represent farmers and to counteract any negative publicity, which may arise?

Leighton Grove

Cilmaengwyn Isaf, Cilmaengwyn, Pontardawe, Swansea, West Glamorgan.

Offaly cull data doesnt add up

The bovine TB problem is escalating rapidly into areas which have been free of TB in cattle and badgers for 40 years. Surely that suggests its coming from untraced, brought-in stock?

Farmers cannot wait another seven years for the Krebs badger cull to prove, at great expense, that badger culling doesnt work.

It is tragic that the media have now seized on the Irish Offaly badger cull as "proof" that badgers are the answer. The reports duly note that in the project area, TB in cattle fell 91% between 1988-1995, whereas in the outside control area it only fell 53%. It is not mentioned that there were a few bad TB herds in the control area so that TB levels went up markedly in 1991.

Also, there were 55,000 cattle in the project area but 150,000 in the control. The numbers of reactors removed were 1458 versus 5646 respectively. Is it credible that taking out a mere 141 TB badgers in the 600sq km project area, over half in the first year, was the key to success as opposed to taking out 10 times the number of TB cattle?

M Hancox

17 Nouncells Cross, Stroud, Glos.

College gave me practical skills

I write in response to J Mussons letter (Jun 4). I also come from a non-farming background and left school after my GCSEs and went to work in my parents business. At the age of 23, I decided that agriculture was where my future lay. Having no A levels, I was not able to go straight onto a degree course and so I had to complete a pre-degree foundation course.

This I did at Bicton College, in conjunction with the Seale-Hayne Faculty of the University of Plymouth. The course contained the necessary core subjects, such as maths, biology and chemistry, and also covered areas such as crop and animal production and estate skills. Both these subject areas were highly practical, focusing on topics such as animal handling, crop and weed identification, tractor driving and other estate skills. The practical elements were also amply backed up by theory in the lecture room.

I am still at Seale-Hayne and the pre-degree course gave me the skill and confidence to find employment in the agricultural sector. In my holidays I have worked on farms, for harvest and lambing, gaining much-needed funds and a wealth of additional knowledge. I recommend this option not just to people without A levels but also to those without farm experience. I am sure, like me, they will not regret the experience and it will have nothing but a positive effect on their future studies.

If the industry is to continue and prosper it needs motivated people who are well trained and educated. It is my belief that this is still possible within the current education system.

Alex Jones

The Cottage, Globe Hill, Woodbury, Exeter, Devon.

Fighting reverse Robin Hood tax

Regarding your article Poll claims pesticide tax wont meet aims (Arable, June 18), I hope farmers have forwarded their objection to the environmental tax on pesticides. But farmers are not the only people who need to fight this reverse Robin Hood tax.

If you havent already read the European Unions Environmental Taxes and Charges in the Single Market (COM 97 0009) it will reveal exactly how it is indeed another back door tax. You will also see that not only are one or two member states making full use of the pesticide tax but also have gone ahead with a fertiliser tax.

Like many British people, I feel farmers have had a rotten deal, yet now, more than ever, I want good wholesome food. And I need confidence in the people who produce my food which I no longer have.

I also need confidence in my government minister for food, which I no longer have. When things go wrong in the farming industry, we all pay.

Anne Palmer

115 Cannock Road, Westcroft, Wolverhampton.

Muck, mystery & bureaucracy

In response to D Wenmans letter (June 11), conversion to organic farming is unattractive, to me at least, for a number of reasons.

Organic farming principles are at least partly muck and mystery rather than good science. It is very bureaucratic.

There are animal welfare concerns because of the said bureaucracy. The government has provided insufficient funding to cover the cost of conversion.

If countryside stewardship money is received, the conversion money is reduced.

Prof Nixs highest predicted grass margins for lowland lamb production are almost identical with those published in Elm Farms equivalent farm management pocketbook because of the lower stocking rate imposed. An organic farmer will have to be a good farmer.

Once more farmers have jumped onto the organic bandwagon, prices will fall to the same level as conventionally produced food. Statements from one prominent organisation that imply that only organically produced food is safe are offensive.

Organic farming is an option for those convinced of its merits, but maybe not for the rest of us.

G Smith

Old Milton Farm, Thurleigh, Bedford.

Innocent until proven guilty

Your correspondent J W Buckley, a solicitor (Letters, Jun 11) tells us farmers why we should join ACCS. He says: "If we are accused of not doing our job properly, how would we prove it?". One hates to tell a lawyer how to do his job but he should know we are innocent until proven guilty under English law.

Why should farmers have to prove their innocence to anyone? Ever-increasing grain exports prove already that buyers want our grain and need no reassurance. He asks whom the farmer can turn to if accused by a so-called "expert" of making mistakes. For a start he can turn to us at the Federation of Small Business. We often find the self-styled experts view is often just as easily questioned.

Bob Robertson

Chairman, FSB Agriculture Committee, Down Barton Farm, St Nicholas-at-Wade, Birchington, Kent.

Alert public to the use of BST

I hear on the radio that milk is to be made available to schools. What an excellent move, not only for the children, but for the dairy industry. However, in the light of the response to GM foods, what will happen when our customers discover that their children are probably drinking milk produced from BST-treated cows?

It seems obvious to me that the response will be to stop it straight away. It will also alert the public to the fact that farmers are again treating their stock with unknown substances for financial gain, caring not one bit for the consumers health or their cows health. What will be the response to that? Surely, they will stop drinking milk altogether.

If we dont alert the public now, to the threat of BST being used in the UK and Europe, by the end of the year it will be too late. The two milks will be mixed, undetectable and beyond recall. We in the industry are always crying that we are misunderstood, yet we can see a situation approaching that is going to make us even more unpopular.

Who will we have to blame but ourselves? Its always possible that the government is allowing all this fuss about GM foods to muddy the waters around BST until it is too late and its here. Perhaps it feels another trade war with the US would be bad business, and probably unsustainable.

It will be unstoppable if we dont address it in time to alert the public. As we have seen, they no longer trust the politicians, but they do believe they can move mountains – which they can. We should be seen to be helping them or calling on them to help us. That way we are on the side of the angels, and not companies and governments. And we would be doing ourselves a favour.

R Allen

Ennerdale, Crosemere Road, Cockshutt, Shropshire.

Ice cold milk misses mark

Before sinking money into generic milk advertising, there must be some up-to-date research into why we drink or do not drink it. Whoever takes it on, be it the MDC, NDC, Milk Marque, or whoever, let the sacred cow of previous campaigns; that milk should be gulped down ice cold from the fridge, be questioned.

That is because the unique flavour of fresh milk, as from the cow (nearly), is diminished and its digestibility reduced. Chilling makes it more difficult to distinguish from UHT milk, and increasing UHT consumption opens up the market to imports.

As with red rather than white wine, imbibing at room temperature may unearth a hitherto neglected market of potential milkaholics.

John Jenkin

Agricultural consultant, 5B South Cliff Tower, Meads, Eastbourne. johnjenkin@btinternet.com

Put Taunton on market map

Your article about farmers markets (Features, Jun 18) omitted Taunton. We have appeared on few lists because we are wholly farmer-led. We believe we are the only completely farmer-led market in the country.

No help has been received from any source except the NFU during our start up phase.

We set up a farmers co-op to organise the market. Members join for £1 with a returnable loan to us and we have obtained sponsorship for a set of smart umbrellas.

Having become successful, with two markets held and the third on Jun 24, the local council has now offered help.

We are proud to have succeeded through the dedication of 21 farmers who feel it was worthwhile to co-operate to make a thriving market, enlivening the town centre and making it a memorable shopping experience for many who attended and promise to return for the next one.

Shopkeepers who feel threatened are invited to meet us and those who feel it gives their business, within the vicinity, a boost are welcomed by all concerned.

June Small

Charlton Orchards, Creech St Michael, Taunton, Somerset.

TALKING POINT

What future is there for Britains beleaguered livestock farmers? Every sector – dairy, beef, sheep, pigs and poultry has suffered hard times recently, and there are pitifully few signs of recovery. There are many reasons for things being so bad, not all of which farmers can influence. But farmers do have the power to influence their major problem, if only they would take the little time and trouble to do it. There has never been a better time than now to write to your MP.

Nobody could accuse the current government of being sympathetic to agriculture or rural problems in general. Nick Brown has got himself a reputation as the listening minister, but that is just about all he has done, listened. Easy for him, cheap for the government, more or less useless for farmers. The only things he has done for pig farmers are eat a few sausages at a logo launch and write letters to retailers asking them to source UK pork and bacon.

However, it now may be just possible to jolt the government into taking the farm crisis seriously. It was embarrassed by the elections for the European parliament. The contamination of Belgian food with dioxin has made MPs nervous about food safety. A pig industry initiative, Tony Baldry MPs The Animal Welfare (Prohibition of Food Imports) Bill was voted through the Commons by 173 votes to 0 on June 8, with cross party support.

Although, there was a 10 minute rule bill that proposed banning animal product imports from countries with lower welfare standards, farmers should not get too excited. There was never any chance of it becoming law. What it has done is raise livestock farming on the political agenda.

On June 9 the Prime Minister said, in answer to a question about the Bill, that the government "will consider carefully" and "look sympathetically at it". Clearly such a response does not amount to action, but it does suggest that the message is finally getting through.

There is a great deal that the government could do to assist livestock farmers in the UK. Domestic health and welfare standards could be written into value for money criteria for all public bodies procurement policies. Offal disposal is a public health issue, but offal disposal charges are now a discriminatory tax on UK meat production. The unfolding Belgian crisis proves that other countries farm assurance and traceability falls short of our standards; UK farmers might – with government assistance – turn the hated assurance schemes to their own advantage.

So write to your MP. This is a job that just cannot be left to the NFU. The letters written by individual farmers, who are suffering the hardships of the farm crisis, have far more impact than the letters of national organisations who exist mainly to lobby. It does not matter greatly what is written, as long as it impresses MPs with the immediacy of farmers problems.

Politicians generally do not care greatly about farmers problems. Although they enjoy making concerned noises about animal welfare, they have no moral scruples about the import of food from low welfare systems. One thing they do care about is food safety. They care about dangers from food products, whether real, possible or merely imagined. One thing, above all others, must be made clear to UK politicians. They must be warned, in terms that they can understand, that if UK livestock production is allowed to collapse UK farm assurance and traceability will go with it.

Politically, there has never been a better time to lobby MPs. Dont be apathetic and leave it to others. Your MP needs your letter now.

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  • News

TALKING POINT

11 June 1999

Ministers diet leaves bad taste

The appointment of Christine Gwyther as the first vegetarian agricultural minister of Wales (News, May 28) is arguably symptomatic of changing times. It is glaringly obvious to most people in Wales that employing Ms Gwyther for this post is as appropriate and tasteful as hiring a pork butcher to handle the catering at a barmitzvah.

The livestock producers of Wales are not advocating the disregard of arable farmers or the oppressive regulation of Ms Gwythers diet, but it must be recognised that when 90% of agricultural production in Wales is meat, there is a basic conflict of interests.

Most farmers do not find vegetarianism offensive and respect anyones right to adopt it as a lifestyle. However, Ms Gwyther is a vegetarian due to moral, rather than medical reasons, and has "gradually lost interest in the taste of meat". (Wales on Sunday, May 30 1999). Hardly the most enchanting advertisement for Welsh farming. It suggests someone who is prepared to have cast-iron principles until compromising them becomes personally and professionally beneficial.

Ms Gwythers decision to accept this cost seems to suggest a lack of integrity and interchangeable principles, which concerns and saddens Welsh farmers. Clearly a vegetarian fibre-rich diet does not automatically precede a wealth of moral fibre.

Rhys A Parry

Gwerninog Farm, Llansoy, Usk, Gwent.

Reasonable line is starting point

I was listening to Today on Radio 4 recently on which a Welsh farmers leader was expressing concern that the agriculture minister in the new Welsh Assembly is a vegetarian. His points were well made and relevant but I had to score the interview a draw because the interviewer went for the reasonable argument. That is bound to find favour among the vast majority who do not understand the underlying situation.

We all know this line of argument well because it is firmly ingrained in our national psyche. On this occasion it ran: Is it reasonable to challenge someones ability to do this job just because they are vegetarian? They may have many excellent qualities and be right for the job.

Of course, we privately acknowledge that this could be true and so we let the matter rest without giving it the airing it deserves. In reality this comment should be the starting point for a debate to assess the merits of the candidate, where being a vegetarian is merely one factor. Unfortunately, we all lead lives that are rushed and so the soundbite rules. I was quietly convinced that the Welsh farmers were wholly justified in their concerns, but would probably have done nothing more were it not for the arrival of the Labour Partys pamphlet serving as a Euro election wake-up call and entitled Taking a lead in Europe.

In light of such evidence, I think it is reasonable to assume that Welsh farmers have every right to be worried. So, by the way, do all the rest of us. Much is spoken of the process of dumbing down in public life. But surely there is legitimate cause for concern about the stature and experience of those who are hoping for us to give them the huge responsibility of running our country.

A J T Carter

Kings Farm, West Wellow, Romsey, Hants.

BSE inquiry is now a farce

How much longer must we wait before the BSE inquiry dithers to a conclusion? I believe that farm minister, Nick Brown, has made a serious mistake in allowing a further extension for what has now turned into a complete farce. When this inquiry was first announced, it was welcomed by farmers as a way to solve a very awkward farming problem.

Beef production was once a stalwart of British agriculture and also enjoyed a good reputation as a wholesome and safe part of our diet. Bungling politicians and bureaucrats were quickly able to destroy that image during the BSE crisis. Millions of tonnes of rendered beef at astronomical cost to the public Exchequer later, we still have no conclusion.

Farmers cannot be expected to bear the burden of other peoples mistakes forever.

The BSE inquiry should be told to pack its bags as quickly as possible and issue an urgent interim report before the BSE inquiry itself becomes a bigger farce than the BSE crisis.

Arnold Pennant

Nant Gwilym, Tremeirchion, St Asaph, Denbighshire.

Combine crops need subsidies

Do not be fooled. Without subsidies, combineable crop farming will fail. We cant compete against big climatic advantages. Guaranteed warm sunshine cuts labour and machinery costs and saves £s on disease and weed control.

Our window for cutting wheat is 150 hours, if you are lucky. In North America and Australia, it is between 600 and 800 hours (ideal for contract farming). They can make profits with wheat yields of 1.25t/ha and prices of £64/t. The wheat is hard and ready saleable, their combines get no work and they do not need loss-making break crops.

George Scales

Cobblers Pieces, Abbess Roding, Ongar, Essex.

How about a cartoon book?

I come from a family which is now, sadly, one generation removed from the land. I spent much of my boyhood working on my relatives farm. One by one I watched the farms closed and sold.

But because of my own strong attachment and interest in farming matters I occasionally buy a copy of farmers weekly. On a light-hearted note I would like to say how much I enjoy the cartoons. They are excellent, amusing, humorous and well illustrated. If the cartoons were collected together in a book I would buy one.

The British Press has a long and honourable tradition of cartoons of lampoonery, wit, sarcasm, ridicule, spoofery, political and social comment, good natured leg pulling, gentle self deprecation and mockery. You uphold these traditions with your excellent cartoons and I hope that you will make them available to the public in the form of books sold through newsagents and bookshops like the popular Giles Xmas albums.

Paul &#42 Metson

21 Valley Mount, Harrogate, North Yorks.

Kiwi milk on Virgin flights

I was interested in your photo and caption (News, May 21) regarding Virgin Trains and its commitment to British farmers. I wish this was also true of Virgin Airlines when I flew back from Johannesburg to London. I thought I was being served good milk from Devon, England but when I looked closer it was from New Zealand. Does this still apply with Virgins latest Back British Farmers campaign?

Mike Lewis

Somerset Federation of Young Farmers Clubs, The Old School, School Road, Westonzoyland, Bridgwater, Somerset.

Dont support inefficiency

Your leader (May 14) on capping the support payments of larger-scale farmers in favour of smaller ones, has a big flaw. There is no mention of efficiency. So many smaller farmers are unaware of the fact that they are running a business and that in doing so they have to make a profit. The more they are assisted, the more they will continue to be oblivious to this vital fact. No-one wants to see the rural structure suffer by the demise of these small family farms but there could be parallels to draw with other businesses.

Village shops have been going out of business at an alarming rate driven to the wall by the absence of profit. The support from local councils with business rate reductions has come too late for many.

Do we expect our big multi-nationals to refuse some contracts in favour of the smaller manufacturing company which is having trouble surviving?

What about Manchester United providing financial assistance to Woking? I cant see any of this happening.

The world of business is a hard one and not to be entered by any one without full knowledge of the risks. Those farmers sons who go to agricultural college, and many dont, come home in the mistaken belief that they can run a business. College is often the beginning and the end of their business training as they rarely want to pay for further training. The insular nature of their business is also a disadvantage.

The problem is so multi-faceted that there is no easy answer. The subject of support payments has sparked much heated discussion over the years. Part of the solution must be education in business matters. Then if a profit cannot be made, at least as an average over three years, it should be a consideration to stop before more of the family capital worth is eroded, and the family is left with no business, no house and no trade or profession to follow.

Cheap food policy has always been put forward as an argument for support. While not arguing against that, we should not be supporting inefficiency.

Barrie Bishop

Mitre Farm Management, Coultings Cottage, Fiddington, Bridgwater, Somerset.

GM low risk, so low cost cover?

It was cheering to learn that any risks associated with genetically modified crops are vanishingly small, as explained by Mr Merritt of Monsanto in your Cereals 99 supplement (May 28).

Presumably that means his company will be able to negotiate accordingly low-cost insurance cover against any claims for damages resulting from the use of GM seed or food.

Such a precaution would do much to reassure the public. In addition consumers would gain much-needed confidence from knowing that sober-suited City actuaries were both confident in the seed companies generally and specifically in their ability to assess risk.

Peter Gill

Needwood House, North Hermitage, Shrewsbury.

Stop protecting sparrowhawks

Few would disagree with Simon Dee (Letters, May 28) when he says that, while efficient farming should continue, it should be accompanied by the maintenance of good wildlife habitats.

One small error, however. He said that great tits form the main prey of sparrowhawks and, because the great tit population has remained stable, this proves that sparrowhawks do not affect songbird numbers.

It would take the equivalent of 170m great tit-sized meals to satisfy the national population of sparrowhawks, clearly beyond the capacity of 3m pairs of breeding tits.

As shown by Continental and British studies (see The Sparrowhawk by Dr Ian Newton) the brunt of predation on farmland is borne, in roughly descending order, by house sparrow, songthrush, chaffinch, blackbird, skylark, yellowhammer, tree-sparrow and starling. If this list has a familiar ring it is, perhaps, because they form the core of species that the new conservationists weep over while celebrating the rise in predators.

Dr Newtons British study showed, on farmland, that great tits formed only 1.7% of prey, whereas the songthrush was nearly 13%, blackbird nearly 12% during the period April-August. For the rest of the year the great tit kill was 0.5% of all prey. The RSPB admit, that about 50% of songthrush mortality is through predation by sparrowhawks.

If we are to meet our obligations towards maintaining all wildlife species there must be not only habitat provision, but also sound wildlife management including, where necessary, the control of predation. One helpful step towards this would be the removal of protected status from the sparrowhawk.

G Main

Stone Cottage, Somersham, Ipswich, Suffolk.

Danger to great tits overstated

In his letter (May 28) Simon Dee informs us that research has found that sparrowhawks main prey are great tits. Of all the many birds that I have seen sparrowhawks kill, not one of them has been a great tit. There are still some of us who prefer to believe what we see, not what the researchers would have us believe.

James Stubley

20 East Street, Rippingale, Bourne, Lincs.

Wrong date for Limousin sale

We were surprised to learn from a recent issue (Stock and Sales, May 28) that we were planning our production sale from our Normande pedigree Limousin herd at Carlise on June 1. The sale of in-calf and bulling Limousin heifers will be held at Carlise on Friday July 9. We hope not too many prospective buyers were misled by the article but will come and join us and other consignors on July 9.

Norman and Elsie Cruickshank,

Normande Limousin, Cowford Farm, Cleghorn, Lanark.

Rambles help maintain paths

One of our members recently brought to my attention Peter Thompsons letter (Mar 12) criticising members of the Ramblers Association for not putting anything back in return for the pleasure that they receive from using countryside footpaths.

I am pleased to inform him and other interested readers that this is not the case. West Wilts RA group formed a working party in 1976 to assist with the maintenance of footpaths in the area. The working party, made up of RA members who have retired, still meets for a half day every week, fine or foul weather, to carry out rights of way maintenance in West Wilts on behalf of the Highway Authority.

Since 1984, when we began keeping records, the working party has completed about 1300 tasks including 700 stiles, 110 bridges, 223 signposts and 24 bridle/kissing gates. That is in addition to clearing many miles of overgrown paths; mainly of brambles, oilseed rape and maize.

We are not unique. There are numerous volunteer groups such as ours throughout the country helping to keep footpaths open, properly signposted and waymarked and in a good state of repair.

John Rowe

Secretary, West Wilts Group, The Ramblers Association, Oaklea, Trowbridge Lodge Drive, West Ashton Road, Trowbridge.

Landfill path has pitfalls

The article (Features, May 14) on making money from landfill paints a too optimistic a picture of landfill as a means of improving land and making easy money. I say this with over 25 years experience working on landfill sites of all types and trying to rescue those that have gone wrong.

Properly planned, and supervised, landfill can prove a successful method of restoring disused quarries and the like. Too frequently, left to unscrupulous contractors, it is a recipe for disaster.

Lifting low-lying land can reduce flooding and placing stone, sand or chalk under the topsoil might improve drainage. Most fill materials are, however, not free draining but do contain sufficient stone and concrete to render subsequent drainage difficult and expensive.

Good materials are snapped up quickly and what is left looking for a home is the dodgy stuff. Contractors are notoriously optimistic when it comes to describing materials. The heaviest clay is described as free-draining and unimaginable amounts of concrete, brick and rubble have to be hauled out of stone-free subsoil.

Traffic, dust and mud on roads are a constant source of irritation to neighbours. Too many unsuitable sites are being used for landfill resulting in land slippage and pollution problems that will inevitably fall on the land owner.

If anyone gets involved in a landfill project, make sure you have a properly drawn up contract with a reliable company. Even that will not completely relieve you of responsibility. If the company disappears or goes bust you will retain all the liability. Do not ignore the potential negative effect on the land value.

The history of landfill is a catalogue of short-term solutions and long-term headaches. Make sure you do not add to it.

S T Pool

Lea House, Wainstalls, Halifax, West Yorks.

No response to organic market

We have been growing organically for the past 23 years. At first, we experienced a steady increase in demand and during the past two years a meteoric rise for organic produce. Produce is imported from the rest of Europe not because its better quality (it is not) but because British farmers and growers do not seem to want to respond to the market and go organic. Why?

David Wenman

Scragoak Farm, Brightling Road, Robertsbridge, East Sussex.

Cash motivates Michael Eavis

We were amazed by your article "When milk and music meet" (Features, Apr 23) which so distorts the truth. There is only one reason why Michael Eavis invites 80,000 people (planning permission 100,000 this year) on to his farm each year. That is money – £85 per head.

But, for some of those who have to live in Pilton village and put up with crime, dirt and excrement which condemns the entire communitys life to a living hell for 10 days, it is a different story.

We would like to take issue with your comment that there were no more incidents than would occur in a town of the same size on a Saturday night. During the 1998 festival, there were 945 reported crimes.

That compares with the Bath and North East Somerset area where there were nine reported incidents during the same period. (Figures supplied by the Avon & Somerset Constabulary).

At the neighbouring Royal Bath & West Show, an event attended by nearly double the number of people over four days, the number of reported incidents was five.

We do not object to the holding of the festival.

However, it is far too large and, as a result, every possible planning condition – numbers, noise and hygiene – is contravened with impunity.

There have certainly been instances of violent crime and even fatalities.

One day, there will be a major tragedy so, until the local authority begin to exercise proper controls, most aspects of decent civilised behaviour will continue to be abused.

Frank Challenor

Cumhill Cottage, Pilton.Jim DowlingPilton Manor Vineyard.Richard SheldonPerridge House, Pilton.Dick SkidmoreWell Hayes Farm, Lower Westholme, Pilton.

ACCS shows we did job properly

To understand the importance of ACCS requires an understanding of risk. We are all accustomed to risk, and handle it differently.

There is a form of risk which is becoming more important. It is the question: "Did you do your job correctly?"

As you go about your work, ask: If I was accused of not doing this job properly, how would I prove that I had worked correctly? If I was accused by some expert of making mistakes, who could I turn to? Which of my friends/neighbours/salesmen/suppliers/advisors could I ask to vouch for me?

You would struggle to find any expert to contradict the expert. Then you will ask: Why did the NFU do nothing to help? But the NFU has done something about it – ACCS.

ACCS sets a standard for farmers to work to. It is not just a standard set by farmers for farmers, but set by farmers, and outsiders. Many farmers see this as a weakness but it is a strength. Because outsiders endorse the scheme, they will not accuse farmers who join the scheme of doing their jobs incorrectly.

It is impossible to eliminate risk completely but, for all practical purposes, ACCS removes risk. The alternative now being promoted is a retrograde step. It is all very well for farmers to say this is the standard we are going to work to, but if people outside farming do not accept it, we can still be faced with the accusation: You did not do your job correctly.

I am a working solicitor. My main area of professional work has been bedevilled in recent years by lack of an equivalent to ACCS.

Too late the solicitors NFU equivalent organisation has woken up to this and set up an ACCS-type scheme. For years solicitors have had to follow court cases and work out for ourselves what standard we should work to. I do not want to see farmers go down the route.

For your own sake, learn from the mistakes of others. The NFU has had the foresight to do something for your benefit and protection.

Embrace ACCS, and the schemes like it, and let them become a way of life for you. It is extra work you could do without but it is for your own benefit and protection.

J W Buckley

Throstle Cottage, Aketon, Pontefract, West Yorks.

Top tuition in sheep shearing

I have just completed the shearing course, organised by Cannington College and funded from Europe.

May I just say that this is an excellent course, and would recommend it to everyone. Even experienced shearers will learn a thing or two, such is the high standard of tuition.

Eleven of us started the course with no experience. After the three days, the eight people remaining could all shear a sheep to quite a good standard unaided – albeit slowly. Speed comes with experience. The art of shearing is hard work, but extremely rewarding and well worth learning.

If you live in the south-west, can spare a few days over a weekend and are keen to learn, give them a ring. If this proves popular it could be made national.

With all our thanks to the team.

Andrew Coombs

Three Tuns Farm, Emborough, Nr Bath, Somerset.

Compound feed hasnt hurt me

Your report "BSE never a human threat?" (News, May 21) perhaps means at last there is going to be serious questioning as to the origins of New Variant CJD.

I have never questioned that something appalling happened to the British cattle herd. The physical evidence was there for all to see. What I do question is whether BSE is the real culprit for New Variant CJD.

Some time ago I wrote to the BSE inquiry stating that over many years, I had occasionally sampled pig compound feed purchased by eating a few nuts at a time. Thus I have directly eaten infective meat and bonemeal, over a 20 year period. As yet, the only malady that affects my brain is the financial hell of pig farming.

I am sure that there must be thousands of farmers who over the years have sampled compound feed like myself. What about employees of the compound industry who would have worked with the substance? They may have inhaled dry matter dust or also sampled the finished product as part of quality control. If one then carries on to the urban population, how many consumed a bit of pet food, just to see what it tastes like. If this is correct, why have not all these people gone down with New Variant CJD?

I should be interested to hear what the experts have to say. I am convinced that history will eventually recall that never has so much hot air and money been expended on the matter of BSE.

In no way does this detract from the terrible deaths of millions of cattle, or the families whose loved ones have died from New Variant CJD.

David Turton

Oast House, Egypt Farm, Rushlake Green, Heathfield, East Sussex.

Abstain from Euro elections

I am urging farmers and those within the agricultural and land use industries to abstain from voting at this years European elections.

That is because the UK government has opted out of more EU schemes and because Prime Minister Tony Blair and farm minister Nick Brown have distanced themselves from those aged over 55 who have been forced out of their farms. All they are left with is a jobseekers allowance.

FW has written time and again in respect of our farmers having a level playing field with regard to imports. The situation seems to be becoming worse as displayed in the pig industry.

The Lib-Dem manifesto is dead in the water as is the Tories manifesto.

Why should those within rural society support MEPs to join the Euro gravy train while countrypeople are left to social exclusion?

John E Willett

14 Eastgate Road, Holmes Chapel, Cheshire.

TALKING POINT

At a recent meeting to discuss CAP reform, a senior representative from a well known conservation organisation asked a telling question. Why are we bothering about agricultural production, when there is plenty of food in the world?

Sadly, that point of view has got a strong hold in the minds of so many, otherwise intelligent, people. Perhaps we should not be surprised. The shelves are groaning with high quality food.

Farmers, are losing the argument. No one in the industry doubts the severity of the present financial crisis.

But how long will it last? Too many farmers believe it is a temporary downturn. Before long the £ will weaken, the Russian and Asian markets will improve; it has all happened before and eventually the pendulum will swing back.

If only that that were true. The reality is different. Taxpayer-funded support, on which so many of our enterprises depend, will reduce or disappear to be transferred to environmental care. The freeing of world trade under the World Trade Organisation will have a dramatic effect despite French delaying tactics.

Also government thinking, across the political parties, has changed fundamentally. None of that means disaster but it does mean that we have to take a different attitude to policy. Instead of defending what we used to enjoy, we must try to turn the present and future situations to our advantage. We have some of the best farmers in the world, a favourable climate and a market on our doorstep.

If we are to succeed and prosper in an increasingly competitive, quality conscious market, we not only have to be good, we have to be better and indeed much better. That means making optimum use of science and technology to improve yields and quality and to reduce costs. We have done that to an outstanding degree during the past 50 years. When I started farming, 25cwt of wheat was an acceptable yield, today you dare not boast of less than 4t in the pub.

One of the more dangerous outcomes of the BSE fiasco is that, coupled with irresponsible reporting, it has turned the public anti-science. Nowhere is this symptom more apparent than in the debate on GM foods, particularly bearing in mind recent comments from Prince Charles. I can understand the publics view.

What I fail to understand is why so many farmers are turning against GMscience.

I have been involved in genetic modification of my sheep for 40 years or more. We have introduced genes from other breeds; we have selected and culled with rigorous discipline. In consequence, the Meatlinc breed is a vastly different and better animal than it ever was.

The average dairy cow which 50 years ago struggled to produce 2000 litres, now cheerfully does 8000 or 9000 litres. Every crop or stock has been genetically modified. The introduction of resistance to some herbicide in rape is but an extension of this.

The fact is that this technology, properly monitored, controlled and used, is an essential part of the progress that we have to make if we are to prosper in a competitive world while supplying what customers want. So think carefully before you swallow the highly charged and often emotional outpourings that you read every day. Find out the facts and judge accordingly.

All that I have discovered leads me to believe that the potential for progress, not just in yields but in quality and in environmental care, is real. Our competitors are already making full use of the technology.

If we farmers choose to deny well proven science, we condemn ourselves to becoming an agricultural backwater; a theme park. Is that what farmers want?

ALuddite attitude to

new food technology is

the road to nowhere,

says Henry Fell

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TALKING POINT

21 May 1999

GM oilseed will escape from lorries

Now that oilseed rape is fully in flower, we can all see how much was scattered from the back of various trailers and lorries during the past harvest.

We are confidently told that GMO rape will not breed with anything further than 200m from the sown crop through wind pollination. What use is a pathetic reassurance like that when the seed will be scattered all around the countryside from various leaking trailers or lorries?

Perhaps somebody who supports the introduction of this technology could explain some things to the vast majority of us who do not. How can this pollution by seeds, and therefore growing plants in the following year, and later by volunteer pollinations be prevented.

How can we be confident when we see it appearing all around us?

Oliver Dowding

Hill Farmhouse, Shepton Montague, Wincanton, Somerset.

Honey carries the gene

I read your publication on tape. My worry about GM crops is that as pollen never decays and as bees cannot be expected to know if it is from GM vegetation, all honey, like gold, also never decays. It will contain the changed gene(s) for ever.

Strangely, I have heard no bee keeper or farmer raise this point. A paleo-botanist should be consulted. I also agree with recent letters about GM weeds. Sounds a reasonable worry.

J E Lilburn

195 Acre Lane, Northampton.

Public happy to buy GM foods

At a recent horsey event our outside catering van carried a notice saying: Any food or drink sold by us may contain genetically modified materials.

It was the first time we seen such a notice and not a single customer expressed any anxiety or comment. We had the best day we have ever had for this type of catering.

I dont think the buying public are that bothered about GM foods – as distinct from the chattering classes.

Mrs Alice Gillett

Middle Tarr Farm, Lydeard St Lawrence, Taunton, Somerset.

Fewer farmers is official aim

I fear the answer to our question (Leader, Apr 30) Why wont the government help new entrants? is that the government wants fewer farmers, not more. Its new direction for UK agriculture is that farm income per head should be maintained in the face of falling prices by dividing the reduced total national return among fewer farmers. That is called restructuring.

Thus a retirement scheme, which will reduce the total number of farmers, is favoured. An incomers scheme, to increase farmer numbers, is not desirable. We should all be pressing for the two to be linked. Subsidies to retiring farmers should be conditional on their holding being taken on by a new entrant. New entrants should be eligible for substantial start up loans, as in the USA and on the Continent. They should also have generous government contributions towards necessary re-equipping, as did those of us who started up more than about 25 years ago.

Government seems to prefer the present system whereby any owner occupier who no longer wishes to struggle on readily sells or rents his land to another farmer who already has a fair-sized farm. What this process is doing to the environment and local economies is something that badly needs quantifying.

Mrs Pippa Woods

Family Farmers Association, Osborne Newton, Aveton Gifford, Kingsbridge, South Devon.

Good to see FW back capping

For the leading farming journal to openly support capping (Leader, May 7) must be a red letter day for those of us who have been advocating such a course of action for 10 years through organisations such as The Family Farmers Association.

I disagree with the assertion that our large farms are more efficient than the smaller family farms on the continent and indeed than our own small units.

Over the past 50 years, it is clear that mechanisation and chemicals have overwhelmed the husbandry aspect of farming. Farming on a large scale, at one time a difficult and unrewarding operation, has become de-skilled. Genetic engineering could make it more so.

However the social and environmental costs of the agricultural revolution are coming home to roost in BSE and TB breakdown in our herds.

Ways must be devised to consolidate the position of farming farmers in the EU. Capping or modulation must be favourite – has anybody a better idea?

So far as husbandry and the environment are concerned, EU taxpayers have a right to insist that we EU family farmers farm not as mini-industrial farmers but as good husbandry farmers producing good quality food. If that results in better food at a higher price only UK consumers would whinge. The French would certainly see the sense of it.

If we ceased to undermine the third world, and indeed Russian, farmers by dumping our surplus production, who can complain? It might even please the USA.

Tony Sutcliffe

Grange Farm, Broxholme, Lincoln.

Organic boxes track-record

We would like to take this opportunity to explain that David Richardsons experience (Apr 30) of our nationwide organic box scheme is not typical.

If he had chosen to, he could have invoked our no-quibble guarantee to rectify all the problems that he identified in his consignment. Every comment from our customers is passed on directly to the producers for clarification, and suitable replacements are sent for every damaged item in the next box.

If our delivery was as bad as was made out, any customer would have been entitled to, and would have received, a free replacement box at no further charge.

All our customers receive the same level of customer care. As an entrepreneurial business in three growth sectors, organic food, home deliveries and internet shopping, we take great care to ensure that our customers are aware of their rights, and to make it as easy as possible for complaints to be made and resolved swiftly.

We have a file full of positive letters. And we have editorial coverage from many journalists who have also tried our service anonymously and felt able to recommend it to their readers in the national Press.

T Young

Fresh Food Company, 326 Portobello Road, London.

Trailer safety being neglected

As a haulage contractor, I must comment on the use and safety of large trailers that are towed on the roads by agricultural tractors. Some are up to 40ft in length and were designed only to be coupled up to lorry tractive units.

We in the haulage industry have to be safety-conscious and have our vehicles tested every 12 months. We also have numerous checks by the vehicle inspectorate and police at the roadside. But trailers in agricultural use do not and many are unroadworthy with bald tyres, no fail safe breaking systems or secondary safety coupling.

I was involved in a frightening incident recently while following one of these heavily laden trailers which was being towed by a tractor. Climbing a steep hill in Shropshire, the trailer broke free from the tractor and hurtled backwards into the front of the lorry which I was driving. This incident caused serious damage but luckily without injury to anybody.

If this trailer had been fitted with a fail-safe breaking system, such as is used on HGVs, or a secondary coupling, this accident could have been avoided. It was lucky that a HGV was following and not a small family car as the outcome would have been tragic.

So please can farmers and agricultural contractors make sure trailers are safe and roadworthy. There are already too many deaths on the roads.

Graham Jones

International Bulk Haulage, Werngoch, Garthmyl, Montgomery, Powys.

Cant even get its post right

How are British farmers supposed to have faith in people who cannot even get the posting of their circulars right?

How are we supposed to have faith in an organisation that sends out Welsh/English correspondence in separate envelopes? On two separate occasions I have received an envelope with the Welsh version of a leaflet enclosed and then a further envelope arrived empty. (I presume this should have contained the English version of the form.)

This puts a lot of faith in the people handling cattle ID tags, doesnt it?

J Gobourn

Lovesgrove House, Capel Dewi, Aberystwyth, Ceredigion.

TBs made a comeback

I missed the first minutes of a recent BBC programme on badgers and TB. The last part I switched off because the programme typified the BBCs attitude to farming and the countryside.

TB, a scourge in my fathers time, had all but been eradicated in humans and cattle decades ago. But its making a comeback. Closed herds, clear of the disease for generations, are having TB reactors. The infection has come from an outside source and most newly-infected herds are in areas with high badger populations.

Badgers have become more numerous than foxes. Good; they are delightful. But when badger sets are fiddled with, TB and neighbouring dairy herds, which have been clear of TB for 50 years, start to get the disease. Badgers are not only prime suspects, they are the only ones.

The programme explained that TB spreads from cow-to-cow but did not say that this happens only after it has first got into the herd from an outside source.

The most offensive part of the programme was how it treated badgers and cows. A caged badger was shown before it was shot, then being shot and finally after shooting. The RSPCA claimed no one checked to see if the badger was dead; possibly prolonging the animals suffering. A nice elderly couple of ardent badger lovers were shown feeling sickened by the blood stains.

Contrast that with how a cow was treated. A typical, well-looked after cow was shown being diagnosed as a TB reactor. It was merely said that the animal would be dealt with. No bang, no blood, nothing to upset anybody.

My childrens two grandmothers both suffered from TB. It is a potential scourge that everyone, including the BBC, should take seriously.

&#42 Thompson

Hart Moor Farm, Hart Village, Hartlepool.

Adjusting to LERAP regs

I write with reference to the new LERAP regulations that were introduced on 8 Mar 1999. Involved in advising on agrochemicals each day, I have been helping my customers in adjusting to this new scheme.

I agree with the principle of buffer zones. After the 97% non-compliance with the previous scheme, a change was needed. However, after numerous discussions with my customers, I cant understand why MAFF, PSD and the other regulatory bodies cannot reach agreement and let farmers have a six metre set aside strip around the nominated ditches and water courses.

Not only would this reduce the risk of direct water contamination from sprayers but also create a better habitat for wildlife and improve hedge regeneration. As with the previous scheme, the new policy will be difficult to police. Because of the practical difficulties of spraying one metre, two metres, and three metres from the ditch, while using tank mixes at different rates, there must be a risk of non-compliance.

Also there is the risk that some farms will decide to pipe and fill in water courses instead of leaving strips either side. If the regulatory bodies would work with the farming community and develop more practical and workable schemes, perhaps we would see a better response and a notable reduction in traces of pesticides in watercourses. Isnt this what we are trying to work towards?

Paul Stapleton

Paul.Stapleton@dalgety.co.uk Dalgety Arable Ltd, Lincoln.

What, no Welsh lamb in Wales?

I have just returned to mid Wales with my son to explore the area where my grandfather and father were born and grew up.

Its mainly sheep producing country but we couldnt buy a meal of lamb chops anywhere. Why is this? Who is responsible for marketing Welsh lamb?

David Wadsworth

14 Preston Close, Strawberry Hill, Twickenham, Middlesex.

Strong regions for strong NFU

Your report (News, Apr 30) highlighted the frustration being felt by Devon farmers, and the way in which some of them vented their anger on Ben Gill, NFU president.

It was also suggested by Richard Haddock, Devon NFU chairman, that the solution might be for the south west NFU to go it alone. That is certainly not our regional policy, but it does demonstrate the problem of formulating national policy which also takes into account local problems.

Lowland beef farmers in the south west, many hundreds of them, get no hill subsidies and cannot turn to IACS for relief.

Their problems need to be understood by other regions. However, I am sure that the suggestion of a south west council was made in the context of regional development, and the likelihood that the NFU may need to realign and strengthen all its regions to mirror the Rural Development Authorities, concentrating on local issues. It was also made in the context of supporting our president and his team in their vital work in Whitehall and Brussels.

Paul Simpson

NFU South West Region, Agriculture House, Pynes Hill, Rydon Lane, Exeter, Devon.

£PLI doesnt reflect Friesians

How refreshing to read about British Friesians in FW. Times have changed and the focus is again on longevity and the contribution it makes to profitability.

Low replacement rate enables farmers to cross with pedigree beef bulls to provide suckler herd replacements or bulls suitable for fattening.

With much increased milk production, protein % and lower vet bills, the British Friesians ability to milk off grass and forage without losing fertility, puts her in the spotlight.

As only the first five lactations count for index and with changes in the base, the formulation of PIN works against the longer living cow, even if she goes on to produce high yields over a number of lactations.

£PLI is a step in the right direction. But since it is mostly based on PINs it will never reflect the true position of the British Friesian.

Mrs M V Mead

Holt Farms, The Barn, Yoxter, Wells, Somerset.

Getting worse for free-range

Since my last letter some time ago warning prospective free-range egg producers about expansion, the situation has deteriorated. It continues to show all the classic signs of over production in the future.

Anyone proposing investing in this business must think long and hard and calculate their prospective returns on the basis of 20% lower prices than at present. Egg prices are falling and production is increasing.

Many large units coming on now will flood the market.

E J Smith

Clay Hall Farm, Bidford-on-Avon, Nr Alcester, Warks.

Board cant carry the can

I refer to the letter "Whats sauce for the goose" (Apr 9). The letter quotes the disclaimer from the statistics of milk production circulated by this agency as a service to the milk industry.

In producing the statistics the Intervention Board has to rely on data supplied by more than 100 milk purchasers. We do all that we can to ensure that the data we receive is accurately reproduced and we have regular discussions on possible improvements to the data.

However, we cannot accept that the Intervention Board is liable for errors in the basic data supplied by first purchasers.

An IACS declaration which uses directly available data as the basis for a claim on public funds cannot be compared with the issue of statistics based on information supplied by third parties, in this case milk purchasers.

An IACS declaration which uses directly available data as the basis for a claim on public funds cannot be compared with the issue of statistics based on information supplied by third parties, in this case milk purchasers.

C M Collins

Group manager, Milk Quotas, Intervention Board, PO Box 2013, Reading.

TALKING POINT

As the daughter and the wife of landowners, I care deeply about the land and its custodians. But, it was becoming a mother that really got me involved in issues of food and farming.

Daily I read about some ghastly food scandal for which farmers are blamed. The true cause lies in the drive to maximise production to compete with cheap imports; and the absurdities of international commerce bringing food from half way across the world that could be produced at home.

Two years ago, I started my own organic vegetable garden. About 30 local families receive a weekly box of fresh vegetables, people queue at the Friday stall, and we sell at Bristol farmers market. I hoped that by avoiding the middlemen I could supply chemical-free produce at a affordable prices.

Perhaps if I was an owner-grower working 80 hours a week I could make a good profit, especially if sold to wealthy city customers and restaurants.

But we dont make a profit. People are crying out for food they can trust, yet small and medium-sized growers, whether conventional or organic, are in crisis. Struggling farmers are forced to lay off workers while they themselves work harder for less return.

Something is wrong when our farmers produce good food, close to the people who want to buy it, yet food produced thousands of miles away sells more cheaply. A major reason for this is that governments of every political colour (except the Greens) promote growth by signing free trade treaties like GATT and Maastricht. Without protective barriers, cheap imports and the international buying power of the supermarkets badly affect both farmers and consumers.

The largest businesses can take advantage of economies of scale by centralising production and distribution. Multi-nationals can transport goods anywhere in the world from countries with lower labour costs and environmental standards. We get green beans from Kenya and turnips from Australia more cheaply than UK produce. But as consumers we pay for far more than the price tag.

Weve already paid through our taxes for government spending on the motorways that enable the massive distribution operations from central stores and for strengthening bridges to take their 44t lorries. We pay with our childrens health for the air pollution and global warming caused by this traffic.

To match global competition and supply the supermarkets demand for ever lower prices and uniform produce, our farmers have been forced to intensive production methods, concentrating on one crop. To push production past natural limits they depend on huge inputs of chemicals, and need massive machinery using quantities of polluting fossil fuels. Most of these inputs are bought outside the local economy. Thus rural communities are like sieves, unable to retain the benefits of farming.

There are solutions. By shortening the distance between producers and consumers, we would sustain the livelihoods of independent farmers and processors, and keep the benefits in the locality, revitalising rural areas.

Already, many food producers are taking the initiative. By the end of the year there will be 45 farmers markets. There are already 450 box schemes operating. Farmers are forming co-operative groups to handle their own retailing.

The huge demand for organic food means that at present 60% of it is imported. The opportunities are enormous; but our government has to match the subsidies available in other European countries.

We will all benefit when we strike the right balance between local and international trade. The message is: Not global, but local.

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TALKING POINT

7 May 1999

No longer committed to my pigs

The experts for some time have advised that in order to survive, let alone succeed, in pig farming farmers have to be committed. As the years pass, pig farming becomes more of a financial burden. For the first time in my 46 years I looked up commitment in the dictionary and was well educated. It advised thus: "Engagement that restricts freedom of action".

Surely, that breaks one of the fundamental rules of business. You must be free to act immediately, if something is financially wrong for whatever reason whether as an individual, or as an industry.

Traditionally, pigs were part of a mixed farm; if they were financially unworthwhile, they were cut; until supply came into balance with demand. Income from the other farm enterprises tides the business over and capital value is maintained.

Updated into modern day parlance, pigs should be part of a portfolio of investment. The other investments may be on or off farm or other income generated from working off farm.

Commitment takes at least two individuals or parties to trust and work hard for each other to make the commitment work. We pig farmers have neither commitment from government or the purchasers of our pigs.

I still intend to farm pigs but not be committed. As long as I farm pigs I have a duty to supply pigmeat that is wholesome and fit for human consumption but I do not have a duty to farm pigs.

My brain is now at peace and I am looking forward to the rest of life thanks to my new vision of how to farm pigs with sanity.

David Turton

Oast House, Egypt Farm, Rushlake Green, Heathfield, East Sussex.

Simpler to keep HLCAs

I have sympathy for civil servants grappling with the new area payments system for LFA stock-farming regions. HLCAs, we are told, are first in line to be transformed from headage payments.

The minister has stressed that sheep and cattle producers cannot be insulated from market forces by subsidies. But plainly an area payment scheme must relate to more than simply acreage. A flat rate with environmental top-ups has been mentioned. But with an infinite variety of topography, climate, altitude, soil types, and exposure, many wonder how a fair basis can be struck.

The only reasonable yardstick is the historic stocking density which, over generations, has been found to be in balance with the natural vegetation and in-bye resources.

If differential rates a hectare are to be introduced, an enormous job of assessing each and every farm will be necessary. And if environmental top-ups are planned, how will these fit with ESA and Stewardship tiers?

It would have been simpler to keep the HLCA system in place and fine-tuned it to meet new environmental criteria. It could be turned into an environmental premium or why not put all LFA farms into ESAs and redraw this effective scheme tailored for hill farmings needs?

It is a monstrous bureaucratic exercise to change a system of regular support payments. At present they provide farm balance sheets with asset value on which overdrafts and loans can carry farms through the financial year.

MAFF should consult more closely with organisations close to the industry before forcing through impractical ideas.

K A McDougall

Stiffkey, Wells-next-the-Sea, Norfolk.

Triangular tags badly flawed

David Cottons letter (Apr 9) hit the nail on the head with regard to plastic ear tags. Every cattle farmer in the country could write the same story. Any tag of a triangular design runs a high risk of being ripped out.

Like most farmers, I have stock with ripped ears. One calf lost her tag at a young age, so much was the damage to the ear, there was not enough left to replace the tag.

A much better tag was on sale in recent years. It was metal with the same clip device as a standard tag. On the top bar the design was circular, painted red or yellow, with black engraved letters and numbers. It was plain to read at a distance and had a much better life span than the plastic ear tag. I worry about the pain inflicted on the animal when the tag is ripped off taking pieces of the ear with it.

The people who approve plastic tags should remember that we have laws in our country to protect animals against cruelty.

Can you imagine the national outcry if we treated our cats and dogs in the same way?

George &#42 Wilson

Bidgoods Farm, Woodbury Salterton, Exeter, Devon.

Making tags to stay put

In the first six months of our suckler calves lives, when outside they lost more than 105 of their primary tags. Perhaps more thought should be given to the shape of these tags as well as the size.

Making them smaller would help. Circular tags would eliminate, to a large extent, them getting caught up on wire fences and the like.

Mrs W D Darling

Hill Farm, Knapp, Taunton, Somerset.

Gallic guns – silent songbirds

G A Vigrass may be right (Letters, Apr 16) with his assertion that cars, cats and kestrels are the main culprits responsible for the demise of the songbird population in Britain.

He could have included a more readily identifiable category. One whose activities could be curtailed overnight: Those gallant, Gallic "sportsmen" of the Mediterranean seaboards, who refuse to observe a closed season on migrating songbirds.

Although specific closed dates have even been decreed by the EU, the French government recently capitulated to its voter-laden shooting lobby, and abandoned the enacting legislation. It has thus made itself liable for hundreds of thousands of francs in fines every day. But as these will no doubt go the way of earlier "penalties" Brussels imposed on France, for illegal government aid to Air France and Credit Lyonnaise (and soon, no doubt, French pork producers). No one expects it will make the slightest difference.

It is just one more glaring example of the hopeless game of bluff and brag in which we find ourselves with the EU. All the winning cards are held by the other players.

Tony Stone

UK Independence Party Prospective Candidate for the June 99 European Parliament elections, 1 Home Park, Oxted, Surrey.

Inspectorates charge high

I read with interest the Powys farmers idea (Letters, Apr 23) for making money by setting up an Extortion Agency. Sadly I have to inform him that like many good ideas, someone has already thought of it.

The Dairy Hygiene Inspectorate charge £94 for 15 minutes unskilled labour requiring no specialist equipment other than a clipboard. Charges like these make even my vets and accountants fees seem reasonable.

E G Benney

Lower Penpol, Mawnan Smith, Falmouth Cornwall.

Big organic fees for small unit

On the vexed subject of farm assurance, I have just been shown an invoice from the Soil Association for organic certification sent to a part-time smallholder on a few acres of dreadful ground. He will be charged the same stiff fee as a large farm on Grade 1 with a turnover of £120,000 a year.

His inspection takes a maximum of half an hour. Large farm inspections can take a whole day. The fee is the same. The unfairness is palpable. His fee has increased by 60% from last year. He will almost certainly drop out of the symbol scheme. Group certification is only a fig-leaf to cover the nakedness of a misconceived fee scheme. No two separate holdings have shared aims or systems.

Not many years ago the SA nearly folded up but for the dedicated support of a handful of smallholders, gardeners and benefactors. It has now been hijacked by Organisation Man. Certification has all the hallmarks of a racket in which smallholders are now made to subsidise millionaires.

Eve Balfour would have been appalled, not to mention Fritz Schumacher. It wont be long before we find SA inspectors all running about in brand new cars at our expense.

It is to be hoped that a genuine grass-roots organisation such as the Henry Doubleday Research Association (HDRA) will now step in to rectify the deficiencies and unfairness in the current SA certification scheme so that small growers and large gardeners can obtain organic certification for less than £100 a year.

The HDRA recognises the need to put the interest of all its membership before those of its excellent staff.

Let it be remembered that the great bulk of organic production is in the skilled hands of millions of gardeners and smallholders and it may well only take another recession to drive this message home.

Stuart Pattison

Church Lane, Calstock, Cornwall.

Organic move is sound sense

How refreshing to read Mike Rowlands article (Talking Point, Apr 16) on organic farming.

As he points out, going organic makes business sense. A series of food issues, like GMOs and BSE, all mean that the phenomenal growth rate of demand for organic foods, currently exceeding telecommunications and computers, is unlikely to be a flash in the pan. It is rooted in worldwide concerns over food integrity.

Britain imports 70% of its organic produce, yet many supermarkets and consumers would like to source these products from the UK. Sound business sense indeed, Mike.

Douglas Parr

Campaign centre director, Greenpeace UK, Canonbury Villas, London.

Whos gaining in milk area?

Your Business Section (Apr 9) refers to the decline in the producers share of the retail milk price, and the apparent mis-match with retail prices charged on the consumer. As a small wholesaler/retailer, I can assure producers that it is not the doorstep delivery service that is making the extra profit. Indeed to the contrary.

The doorstep service is most certainly in decline, despite our best efforts. As a business, in order to maintain gallonage, we have to compete with the supermarkets. As a result discounting has had to take place. Once that doorstep sale is lost, it is lost forever. Sales based on polybottle packaged quantities, coupled with competitive pricing structures have proved successful. But there seems little enthusiasm within the dairy companies for such initiatives. The fewer outlets there are to market the product, the more intimidating the purchasing influence of the large supermarket chains. The result is further pressure on producer prices.

Someone, somewhere, is benefiting at the expense of the farmgate supplier. If its not the retailer and not as claimed the supermarkets, the finger of suspicion must point to the dairies and processors. Perhaps someone can enlighten a confused and sceptical small retailer.

Edward M Thomas

Llaethdy Hengaeau Dairy, Hengaeau, Llanfair, Harlech, Gwynedd.

Tyre damage is a deep concern

The letter from Valtra Tractors (Apr 23) concerning wheel compaction, was on the right track but did not dig deep enough.

Id like to point out that: "The all-important depth of 20/24cm," is not enough for cereals. In a dry year, they need to penetrate 100cm if they are to avoid drought stress during the critical grain filling period.

Damage to the soil profile, caused by combines and loaded trailers, that are not on LGP tyres, as well as hard tyred tractors, will cut cereal yields by 2-3t/ha in a dry season. The worst offenders are the Biomass Terrigator spreaders.

To be sustainable, the energy value of the products which leave the farm – crops, milk, meat and wool – has to be replaced. FYM is only half the answer. The billions of supermarket trolleys of food, in the form of human waste, also have to be replaced.

Unfortunately, the biomass contractors who use five-wheeled Terrigators, who could offer sustainability, do more damage than good. They have a tyre-deflating switch in the cab, but, to increase output and save time, do not use it.

The one exception is in the Oxford area where compaction is taken seriously. In our area, Thames Water, the piping to the tyres was removed in 1997 and last autumn the driver did not use the deflate facility.

Everywhere that Terrigator went had to be mole ploughed to reinstate a good soil profile. Tractors on hard tyres, whether 5t or 8t will cause subsoil compaction below 24cm on clay soils, even under dry conditions.

George Scales

Cobblers Pieces, Abbess Roding, Ongar, Essex.

Role of humus in soil health

I refer to your article, "It all starts in the soil" (Livestock, Apr 23). Independent Soil Services is the only UK company able to offer the complete Albrecht soil audit and we have been using the soil balancing techniques with great success in the UK for the past four years.

It is important for farmers and growers to understand that not all soils react in the same way and that the analysis should show the potential of the soil with the biological activity level.

The article suggests that a 5% humus content is necessary for a well balanced soil. There are few laboratories in the world that can measure humus and you certainly would not get 5% of your soil as humus.

Organic matter is not humus, but active humus is important for plant growth and should be measured. I have studied the Albrecht method, both in Australia and the USA. There is much more to a healthy soil than will be shown in a standard Albrecht type test.

But the principles are sound and I agree that if you get your soil right, the crops will be right and the animal that feeds on the crop will be right.

Robert Plumb

Managing director, Independent Soil Services, Hall Farm House, Back Street, Gayton, Kings Lynn.

Still waiting for an apology

In response to R Leachs letter (Apr 23) "Is this a record?" I can only speak from our experience.

We apply to BCMS for cattle passports each fortnight. The applications are listed, courtesy of a precise computer program so no animal is more than 14-days-old when a passport is requested.

Due to the electronic scanner being unable to distinguish between the number 7 and the letter T in our herd prefix number, several passports had to be returned to be corrected.

One particular passport is significant. The calf was born on Oct 18 1998 and the application made on Oct 27, well within the 45-day time limit. However the initial passport contained the above incorrect herd prefix number for the dam and was returned with corrections.

The second passport issued contained the incorrect ear tag and the date of birth which read a whole year earlier at Oct 18, 1997. That passport too was returned for correction, along with a covering letter which crossed in the post with a less than friendly letter from BCMS dated Feb 4, 1999. This letter acknowledged the receipt of the original application on Nov 2, 1998, and accused us of making an application outside the deadline and assumed that we may own further animals which fell foul of the rules.

It was accompanied by the threat of legal action, fines and possible imprisonment.

The BCMS hotline was more than hot when I phoned to suggest that, before letters of this nature are sent, BCMS should get their computers talking to each other to check whether a re-issue is being processed thanks to a problem that lies on their own desks.

Eventually a corrected passport was received but we are still waiting for the written apology.

Iris Bray

Pool Hall Farm, Menheniot, Liskeard, Cornwall.

BCMS passport – a record?

Since the inception of the BCMS I have, to date, made one single application for a passport. The passport received was correct in all respects. This must be a record.

C E Wormleighton

Craignich, Isle of Lismore, By Oban, Argyll.

Thumbs up for ACCS wreckers

With so much opposition in the farming community to the assured combinable crops scheme, I was pleased to read that a group of midland farmers have started a campaign to wreck this silly, bureaucratic and badly run scheme. They intend to set up a scheme which is sensible, cheaper and less bureaucratic, capable of verifying all production standards to satisfy the consumer. Incidentally, I have never met one person outside the farming community who has ever heard of the ACCS.

One of the most disturbing things I have read is that the NFU has used £56,000 of its funds to help set up the controversial ACCS. I think this is dishonest knowing that 75% of its members were opposed to it. It has a lot of explaining to do otherwise it will lose the respect and support of its members.

I back the Midland farmers and I know members and non-members of the ACCS do also.

Best of luck, they deserve the support of all the farming community because we must stop these ACCS zealots from trying to dictate our every day farming operations.

E Bell

Wingland, Terrington St Clement, Norfolk.

US beef poses BSE threat

After the awful cost of the BSE fiasco, particularly with regard to the lives of innocent people, how can the government allow the import of beef from the USA without verifying that it is free of BSE?

I addressed a farmers convention in Minneapolis on Dec 10 last year where I said that if anyone in the audience treated their cattle with organophosphate pesticides they would experience BSE in their herds. The relationship is still denied by MAFF but supported by an increasing number of UK vets.

Afterwards, I was approached by a gentleman who identified himself as Dr Jon Paulson, a veterinarian with a conscience. He said: "I have treated 250,000 head of cattle with OPs and we have BSE, but it goes under another name – Downer Syndrome. Dr Paulson also told me that he was ill due to OP poisoning.

During my stay in Minneapolis, I learned that the first case of nvCJD in the State of Minnesota had been confirmed in a Minneapolis hospital. I am also given to understand that several cases of the condition have been reported in Utah and Colorado.

On 8 Jan, a Mr Kimball was interviewed on the BBC Radio 4s Farming Today. He was introduced as being the director of the Food Safety Institute in Washington DC. Mr Kimball said that he and his institute were taking the US government to court for hiding the fact that they had BSE in their herds.

There can be no justification for this government allowing the import of US beef, when our own has been rendered so much safer.

Alwyne Pilsworth

A P (Consultants) Ltd, Woodside, Wobeck Lane, Melmerby, Ripon, North Yorks.

Assurance views are misleading

The views expressed in Mr Dalrymples letter (Apr 9), about farm assurance are misleading. Although ABM may have wished to have been accredited by Jan 1999 it is not in our gift to specify when accreditation will be awarded.

Under EN45011, accreditation is granted for particular certification activities. ABM has lodged a number of applications with the United Kingdom Accreditation Service which has responsibility for accrediting certification bodies.

In February an application was made by FABBL/ABM for accreditation through UKAS to EN 45011, the European standard for product certification. Under the UKAS rules, a scheme has to be inspected under operational conditions.

This is being done. So there is no question of standards failing to meet recognised requirements.

We expect the scheme to pass its inspection. The protocols under which FABBL and ABM operate were set after rigorous discussion with all links in the beef and lamb production chain and meet the food safety and farm assurance requirements of all concerned.

The inspection body is also expected to be accredited to EN 45004; the standard for independent inspection bodies. That assessment is being carried out by UKAS.

In addition ABM and FABBL have striven to ensure that ABMs inspection requirements are delivered at an affordable price, while still ensuring the robust assurances that customers demand.

We agree with Mr Dalrymple that unaccredited verification and assurance is inadequate. EN45011 and EN45004 have become international benchmarks for the food industry. That is why ABM and FABBL are committed to delivering an accredited scheme for beef and sheep production at the earliest opportunity.

We agree with Mr Dalrymple that no sensible farmer would pay £85 – or 85p – unless he is certain of getting value for money. And, that means a credible farm assurance system. The chain of assurance being created by FABBL and ABM will do that. It will provide confidence to our customers at a price which is fair to farmers.

Jamie Lindsay

Chairman ABM

Dr Ian Frood

Chairman, FABBL, Farm Assured British Beef and Lamb, PO Box 165, Winterhill House, Milton Keynes.

Wool price fall easy to predict

I read with interest the comments (Letters, Apr 23) of Ian Hartley of The Wool Board concerning the likely drop of 40% in the price of wool. If thats the forecast, the actual percentage drop will no doubt be even greater.

However, "Its an ill wind that blows nobody any good" and we breeders of Wiltshire Horn and Polled Wiltshires (Easy Care) have been advocating the virtues of woolless sheep for many years. In 1979 I wrote that "the price of wool in real terms is falling steadily while the costs associated with its production, such as shearing, fly dipping, etc, continue to escalate. It will not be long before wool is regarded as a weed!"

Forgive me saying "I told you so". The motto of the Australian Wiltshire breeders is: No wool, no work, no worries.

Iolo Owen

Bodorgan, Anglesey ateal@easynet.co.uk

Exporters costs dont add up

Farmers Ferry is quoted as saying (News, Apr 16) that MAFFs plan to reform arrangements for veterinary inspection of animals before export will add £189,000 a year to exporters costs.

That is over five times higher than the governments own figure. MAFF estimates that the new system will add about £37,000 a year to exporters costs, or just 5p a sheep.

How have exporters come up with a figure so much greater than MAFFs?

I am, moreover, dismayed that some in the farming community are opposing proposals designed to prevent the export of unfit and unhealthy animals.

While MAFFs plans are welcome as far as they go, they will do nothing to address the main problem – what happens to the animals once they get to the Continent.

Compassion in World Farming recently trailed British sheep being taken all the way from a staging point in Belgium to an abattoir in southern Italy.

The 2000km journey lasted 30 hours.

If travelling time from Britain to Belgium is added, many of these animals will have been transported for well over 40 hours.

Journeys of such length are totally unacceptable but will still continue even after MAFFs proposals have been put in place.

Peter Stevenson

Political and legal director, Compassion in World Farming, Charles House, 5A Charles Street, Petersfield, Hants.

Were greens unpatriotic?

I enjoyed Tebbits cartoon (Apr 23) showing the English farmer and his family enjoying all those English delicacies for their St Georges day lunch.

But what was in the unlabelled dish of greens? Surely not brussels sprouts?

Lawrence Wright

Middle Campscott Farm, Lee, Ilfracombe, Devon.

TALKING POINT

THE Americans were right. When EU farm ministers emerged from Brussels negotiations, the CAP reforms they had agreed were described by Dan Glickman, US farm secretary, as the status quo.

That seemed unfair criticism after two years of hard work by the commission and significant price cuts across most commodities. But after the EU heads of government meeting in Berlin produced a watered-down and delayed package of reforms, Mr Glickmans summing up is hard to contest.

The Berlin summit has kept CAP within its budgetary limits and secured French support for the reforms. However the cost of the compromise has been a package which is devoid of meaningful reform and lacks any vision for the future. The deal has extended the reign of an outdated and unpopular (among non-farmers) policy and ensured that producers spend the next six years relying on a system in continual flux for half their income.

Oh, to be a French farmer and enjoy the certainty that large subsidies are a birthright and that the concerns of taxpayers and the world trade agenda of all the other EU industries are nothing more than an inconvenience. The French model of agriculture, of supported prices and protected markets, has been preserved more or less intact.

In its Situation and Outlook for Cereals, Oilseeds and Pulses paper published in July 1997, the Commission assessed the progress of the McSharry reforms and highlighted areas for further change.

These problem areas fell into four categories including. Those were: Complexity of the CAP, inconsistencies such as the same "high" intervention prices for all cereals, poor public image and the risks of imbalance as rising cereal production faced static domestic consumption and limits on subsidised exports.

The Berlin deal addresses only the last of these problems. In addition, a CAP budget held at existing levels for existing member states will not pave the way for Eastern expansion of the EU. Of all the stated objectives for Agenda 2000, the only one that may be met is the ceiling on subsidised exports of cereals which the EU is committed to under the GATT Uruguay round. That has been achieved by including a set-aside rate of 10% for the next six years. With only a 15% intervention price cut, internal EU cereal prices may continue above world prices.

The methods which in the past have been used to deal with surplus production: subsidised exports, or greater use of the intervention system, leading to subsidised sales out of intervention, are no longer available. So to control surpluses set-aside has been increased.

The increase in set-aside rate, suggests that attempting to meet trade commitments was the one constraint which EU leaders felt they had no choice but to meet. But if it scrapes within the requirements of the GATT talks, the Berlin package of CAP reform leaves European agriculture in a much weaker position than the Brussels deal would have done when it comes to facing the next WTO round.

When new trade talks begin, Europe will be seeking greater access to world markets for its manufactured goods and service industries. Achieving that and defending its own markets against imports of everything from bananas to banking services will be more difficult given the limited scope of this CAP reform.

The rest of Europes industry will find that impossible to take. Sooner or later European farmers will have to face more open markets and more competition for customers at home and abroad. Without the support of a stable, forward-looking CAP, that sounds like a threat. With it, it could be an opportunity.

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TALKING POINT

23 April 1999

TALKING POINT

The tables are turned at

last as the free-

wheeling big multiples

face full investigation,

says Robert Forster

IT had to happen because their arrogance was beyond belief. Just three years ago the four biggest multiples were trampling over the agricultural supply industry with apparent impunity.

Now they are to face a full inquiry into their profits from the toughened up Competition Commission. Farm leaders who responded to the first grass-roots protests with the claim that it was a mistake to criticise the largest buyers of domestic farm products, preferring instead to lick the boots that were kicking the industry in the teeth, have been shown to be utterly wrong.

It also means that the supermarkets super-slick PR machines were able to fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time. But thankfully the self-serving nonsense they spouted failed to fool all of the people all of the time and has now been recognised as paper-thin.

Livestock farmers were among the first to spot this. And if a food industry historian ever decided to identify the point at which it was first suspected that the emperors in charge of the multiples might not be wearing any clothes, he would focus on the night the fishes in Holyhead Harbour dined on Tesco beefburgers. He would also pick out the afternoon when the same companys chief executive told the Oxford Farming Conference his £13bn a year outfit made no money out of beef.

When Tescos spin kings spotted, late in 1997, that the tide of good will was beginning to move against them, they tried to secure the high ground. They began claiming they recognised the damage caused by plunging prime cattle prices and volunteered to suspend Irish imports.

The incredulity that greeted claims that Tesco made no money from beef hardened into a slower, more determined fury when a series of media exposures underlined that it was unlikely, if not impossible. A report commissioned by Tesco to support its statement was branded a whitewash.

Now that a Competition Commission inquiry looms, farmers and their supporters can be pleased that the multiples are at last in the dock and the substance of their pleas of innocence will be tested in the cold light of a formal examination and not by skilful hyperbole and carefully targeted spin.

But they must also hope that the commission is not persuaded to push too hard for lower retail prices. And it should conduct a full examination of the impact of predatory purchasing on the businesses that make up the food supply chain.

The commission should recognise that the greatest of all supermarket skills is to take the same sized income slice for itself even if the economic cake is smaller. Unless it checks the supermarkets, their inevitable response will be to push all potential losses back to their suppliers, and then the commission will have failed to curb the menace.

Instead it must force the retail giants to acknowledge they must cease being dividend machines for their shareholders and assume wider responsibilities such as the protection of rural structures.

Companies as big as Tesco, J Sainsbury, Asda and Safeway are too big to career around inside the UK economy like loose cannons. Their capacity for selfish damage can be curbed only if they abandon single-minded profit taking and accept that the sheer scale of their enterprises forces them to assume much wider obligations as well.

If a food industry historian ever decided to identify the point at which it was first suspected that the emperors in charge of the multiples might not be wearing any clothes, he would focus on the night the fishes in Holyhead Harbour dined

on Tesco

beefburgers.

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TALKING POINT

9 April 1999

Where is the help for new entrants?

The chairman of the National Federation of Young Farmers Clubs has put the case for helping new entrants into farming clearly and comprehensively (Talking Point, Mar 26). He reminded us that this is the only country in Europe which gives no help to young farmers. He could have mentioned that the US Department of Agriculture grants substantial loans to young farmers. All this raises an obvious query: Why?

Twenty years ago the difficulty of getting into farming was one of the main reasons for starting the Family Farmers Association. One of the founders was a would-be farmer, son of a small farmer, who has since had to make a career elsewhere. For all these years, we and the Young Farmers Clubs have been arguing the case for help for new entrants. MAFF, indeed the whole of whichever government happens to be in power, doesnt want to know. Why not?

Why is MAFF so uninterested in farmers future? In the 1960s it helped small-scale farmers. In recent decades its policy has been to improve the structure of British agriculture. That means not helping as many farms as possible to be viable, but increasing the average farm size.

There used to be an economic theory that farming was a poor use of resources which would be better employed manufacturing more expensive items than food. Surely this cannot still prevail now that all the economic, social and environmental spin-offs from a flourishing farming community are recognised and unemployment is a chronic problem?

It is also acknowledged that we need a secure source of healthy food, which means encouraging home production. Does MAFF actively seek to reduce the number of farmers by refusing help to install new ones? If so, why?

These are not rhetorical questions. Many of us have been asking the government about them for years. Why dont we get satisfactory answers? Does anybody in MAFF read farmers weekly?

Mrs Pippa Woods

Chairman, Family Farmers Association, Osborne Newton, Aveton Gifford, Kingsbridge, Devon.

Farm assurance is misleading

Beef and lamb producers are being seriously misled over farm assurance. Indeed, it is little short of criminal when few farmers can afford to squander money.

During the Smithfield show, ABM chairman Lord Lindsay announced that his organisation expected to be accredited by UKAS to EN 45011, the European Standard for Product Certification, during Jan 1999.

That has not happened and unaccredited verification, like a verbal agreement, isnt worth the paper its written on. Now FABBL chairman Ian Frood trumpets about operating to ABM standards – those standards that have so far failed to meet recognised requirements.

So FABBL members are being fleeced £75 or £85 for a failed standard certificate. They are also being duped by that £75 price tag. The level of inspection is so cursory that it cannot possibly comply with the requirements of the accredited standard.

D &#42 M Dalrymple

17 Byfield Road, Chipping Warden, Banbury.

OFS is rubbish for Exmoor

It is deplorable and a retrograde step that MAFF has taken recently in proposing the Organic Aid Scheme be altered to become the Organic Farming Scheme (News, Mar 12).

In April last year and subsequently MAFF issued Press releases announcing its intention to promote and encourage organic farming.

Payments were specified in three categories and were a definite improvement on the previous and present schemes in operation. No date has yet been fixed for OFS to start.

The indication is that over five years the costly conversion process would be softened financially by front-loaded hectarage payments. Now we have a proposed OFS which has not been ratified by parliament. It has a strong agri-environment and cross-compliance element, on the excuse that double funding would have happened with the conversion assistance payments.

All those in an ESA scheme or country stewardship are to be severely penalised under OFS. This is absolute rubbish especially on Exmoor, where the ESA payments per hectare are lower than the reduction in organic payment proposed. Exmoor is the lowest funded ESA in the UK on a per hectare basis and hence the most affected potentially.

We are a group of Exmoor farmers who are interested in organic concepts and several have already signed up to the scheme. All have done their budgets on the basis of the previously published figures which is distinctly dodgy if you are in receipt of ESA or stewardship money.

Remember that as a conventional now organic farmer the reduction in stock numbers on a neighbours organic farm will benefit you – supply and demand rules the market.

If customers wish to buy organic produce they must be right. We cannot go on chasing subsidy money by keeping more and more animals on a given acreage and must look for alternative ways of marketing or adding value.

So please conventional farmers dont knock us and we wont knock you. Your support versus MAFF in this current aberration will be welcome.

John L Armitage

Exmoor Organic Group, Exmoor House, Dulverton, Somerset.

Whats sauce for the goose…

While studying my IACS forms I found they contained 14 declarations, eight undertakings to sign, and a warning which includes the threats of fines, loss of the aid claimed, any to which you may be entitled during the remainder of the year, and exclusion from the schemes in the following year, and penalties. It also threatens imprisonment.

However, correspondence from the Intervention Board states: "Whilst every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the data provided, the Intervention Board shall not be held liable for any errors or omissions".

May I suggest the NFU provides all its members with a rubber stamp for use on all forms. "Whats sauce for the goose…"

Name & Address Supplied

Mixed signals from ACCS

Last week I attended a lecture given by a regional manager of ACCS.

Once again he insisted ACCS is a voluntary scheme. Yet he later endorsed the ACCS pamphlet listing merchants, millers and maltsters intentions to source only ACCS approved grain from harvest 2000 onwards.

If ACCS was sincere in its wish for the scheme to remain voluntary, it should distance itself from these statements.

That it is prepared to use them as propaganda to put pressure on farmers to join is reason for concern. It also highlights the opinion of many who believe ACCS is steered by the trade.

Darren Tebbitt

Hill Row, Haddenham, Ely, Cambs.

Proof of harm? Prove its safe

The self-immolation of the farming industry continues apace and is it any wonder? Genetically modified crops are being sold through the food stores to a public which does not want to buy them. There is genuine scepticism about the reliability of such food and the possibility of long-term and, as yet, unquantifiable damage.

We have been through this scenario time and again. Look, for example, at the BSE crisis, the use of OP products, not to mention DDT, aldrin, dieldrin, etc. On each occasion we heard reassuring noises from manufacturers, from politicians and from the farming industry. Farmers leaders said trust the scientists. But each time there was a failure of the product, damage to the consumer and consumer confidence. Each time the farming industry has suffered.

Until farmers, and their leaders, begin to support the public and demand that the precautionary principle is carried through to the bitter end, even if it takes 30 years to prove a product is safe, then farming will continue to be the author of its own demise. Any family which has suffered a crippling or a death from a linked disease, such as CJD or OP poisoning, will not forgive an industry which apparently puts money before health. It is no longer acceptable to say that until there is proof of harm we should continue using the product.

John B Blackhurst

Planning and land advisor, 5 St Michaels Court, St Michaels Lane, Derby.

Agronomy tip for contributor

I would like to offer agronomy advice to James Moldon, your Farmer Focus contributor (Arable, Mar 26) at Stanaway Farm, Otley.

The tank-mix recommendation for Ally and Eagle on both winter and spring linseed has been withdrawn by both manufacturers because of crop safety fears.

The two products may still be used in sequence and will provide excellent low-cost weed control.

Name and address supplied.

Wide open for super-weeds

If one grows herbicide-resistant rape, what happens when you rotate your crops? Surely rapeseed that has been left behind after harvesting can turn into a super-weed. Never mind the spread of the pollen, it can spell trouble, even in the field where it was sown originally.

Havent those promoting GM crops thought of that, or do they not care? In a few years we could have super-weeds all over the place. Any advantage there might be in using GM crops will be short-lived. A new series of herbicides will have to be developed, simply to cope with GM crops which have become weeds.

Dr L C Herbert

64 Ullswater Road, Sompting, Lancing, West Sussex.

Tanker drivers can test milk

I write in support of the comments made by David Trick (Talking Point, Feb 26). Any delay in testing milk seems unnecessary because there are tests which are fast, easy to read and sensitive to most antibiotics.

Youd think tanker drivers could carry out a test while they wait for the milk to be agitated. I understand that this is the case in Germany and France where hundreds of tanker drivers perform these tests every day. Are we to fall foul of their standards in the publics eye, once again?

I use Axients Beta Star test which takes only five minutes and is easy to interpret. Surely with such tests available, the UK has no excuse not to reduce the risk of contamination of whole silos and speed up the process.

W M Bilkey

W C Bilkey & Son, Gargus Farm, Tregony, Truro, Cornwall.

These noises are part of country

In the present economic climate and in the wake of the BSE crisis, it is sometimes necessary to restructure ones business in order to boost failing income. Well, fair play to Mr Hughes (News, Mar 12). He should be commended because he has done just that – wound down his beef production and planned to increase his 70 strong dairy herd to 200.

But, alas, a neighbour has objected about night noise levels to Carmarthen County Council, which has responded by imposing a curfew on the cows between 10pm and 7am in order to protect his quality of life. The £150,000 development can go ahead only on the absurd condition that the cows do not moo above 5 decibels during their curfew. Now, to make comparisons, 30 decibels is equivalent to the acoustic condition of a bedroom at night, 60 decibels is equivalent to a conversation at 1m.

How ludicrous in that situation.

The complainant living in the countryside should expect to hear countryside noises and I question why he lives there if he objects to them? What is the countryside without countryside noises?

Come on, Carmarthenshire County Council, stop this farce now before you make yourselves look sillier.

Paul Weedon

6 Model Farm Cottages, Shirburn, Watlington, Oxon.

Cut just curb overcharging

I read with interest your article entitled "Spares prices are slashed" (Machinery, Mar 26). My company, Spaldings, has been the leading supplier of spare parts to UK farmers for more than 30 years and it is interesting to see that after all this time one of the most respected plough manufacturers in the UK, namely Dowdeswell, has decided to reduce the price of its spare parts by as much as 45%.

I suspect that most farmers with Dowdeswell ploughs will view this in the same way as we do at Spaldings, and that is it suggests the company has been over charging for many years. Even with these fantastically new low prices, our Spaldings parts for Dowdeswell ploughs still represent savings of more than 40% compared with Dowdeswell new spares prices.

There are a number of other issues which may mislead your readers. The article states that manufacturers invest many thousands of pounds developing their products. We at Spaldings spend more than a quarter of a million pounds annually on product development and quality control. Many of our spare parts are engineered to a standard in excess of the original equipment and have proved in field trials to outlast those parts generally known as genuine.

I am proud to tell our UK farmer customers, who number more than 45,000, that all products in our range are genuine Spaldings products and of guaranteed quality.

Dowdeswell sales manager Mike Alsop notes that "spare parts generate 25% of their turnover". Spare parts for Spaldings represent our entire business. That is why when people buy from Spaldings they buy from a company which has expertise in spare parts supply rather than expertise in capital machinery.

Dowdeswell states that price reductions have been made possible by savings in production costs and use of more competitively priced raw materials. If this is the case, has the price of the complete plough has also dropped by 45%?

David A Fox

Managing director, Spaldings (UK), Sadler Road, Lincoln.

Ear tags are not welfare friendly

It seems that we all go along with putting two tags in our animals ears so that a MAFF inspector can read them from a distance, and to comply with EU regulations.

I have had more animals with ripped ears in the past 12 months than I have had in the past 12 years. That cannot be good for the animals welfare and if it was not for the fact that we receive headage payments there would be no justification for the Ministry doing regular spot checks to read all of these ear tags.

I would like to think that someone is working on a more welfare friendly system that can be adopted as an EU standard.

David Cotton

LDWCOTTON@email.msn.com

Milk machine for Sri Lanka

Ten years ago, I visited Sri Lanka to train health workers in the high hills tea estates. I was lucky enough to find half of a hen house to use as a classroom. The farmer was a wonderful man who did a lot to train young people to increase their self-sufficiency skills.

He wrote recently asking if there was any possibility of my finding a disused milking machine. He had won a cow in the local agricultural show and, as he intended to increase his herd, he felt a machine to assist the milking would be useful. I wonder if any of your readers have one which I would take to Sri Lanka the next time I go. If anyone is interested in seeing pictures of the farm I would be happy to send some photos.

Mrs Marion Holland

1 Rectory Drive, Gosforth, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Labour hits the smallest hardest

The latest disaster to hit small farmers is the change in IACS regulations which removes all relevant benefits, subsidies and quotas for holdings below 7.5ha.

We were led to believe that it would be the large farmers who would have their payments trimmed or capped. But now the government has done its best to finish off the smallest farms.

Fortunately, we are over the limit, but many will find this the final straw and will have to sell up.

Does the Labour government want the smallest working farms to sell up and be replaced with larger units?

It is scheming to buy land with IACS designation and then find it abruptly removed, thus devaluing it overnight.

Do we want to see all farmland in the hands of the Oliver Walstons and co?

W F Kerswell

Picklescott, Church Stretton, Shropshire.

TALKING POINT

As a land agent, brought up in the country, who lives in London and specialises in valuation, I read the wording of Michael Meachers announcement on the right to roam with considerable interest.

The first point to make is that all that has happened is a consultation document has been printed. There is no Bill nor any proposed date for when one might be introduced.

The second point is that the new right of access will apply only to "mountain, moor, heath, down and registered common land". Specifically excluded are developed land and agricultural land except that used for extensive grazing. But there is the possibility of additional types of land, woodland perhaps, being added to the proposals after the consultation period ends.

Although the question of where is unclear, what is set out is that access is for people on foot only for the purposes of open air recreation and does not automatically include dogs. By implication off-road vehicles, mountain bikes and those coming on to land for say hang-gliding are not included.

Farmers will have the right to suspend access for certain limited periods and will continue to be responsible for the safety of those on their land as if they were trespassers.

From a valuers perspective what interests me are the financial effects of the proposed legislation. The document acknowledges that the proposals will have some cost implications but it appears to conclude that these will be small in relation to the benefits. This is presumably a reference to the cost and benefit appraisal set out in the executive summary of appraisal of options.

This suggests that the government is not prepared to pay compensation. So if a landowner can show what in legal jargon is known as diminution of value, which would make a claim for compensation justified, then that land might be excluded from the rights.

This seems to be consistent with the statement that "it is not intended to interfere unduly with peoples lives or livelihoods". A voluntary approach still appears to be seen as a key part of the overall initiative and perhaps the political aim is to provide something for the electorate at little or no public expense. The government, however, seems prepared for a battle. It anticipates that if compulsory access enforcement orders are used, 50% will be challenged and some may progress to the European Court of Human rights.

As someone who frequently appears in the High Court as an independent expert on valuation issues, it is almost inconceivable to me that public access to private land will have a neutral or nil effect on value. Diminution in value in this instance would be the drop in value of the land as a result of the public access. For example, any hampering of the farming activity which was both long-term and constant would be detrimental to land values.

In the same way, sportsmen will pay a premium for the right to enjoy field sports. Walkers may disturb both the game and the sportsman himself. If the sport becomes less desirable and demand drops the capital value of the asset will go in the same direction.

Although some individual owners may have the resources, initiative and facilities to benefit from public access, others may not. That could mean that the effect on value might be a factor of ownership as much as the characteristics of the land itself.

It is too early to tell if access will be granted en masse or progressively over time but I have little doubt that farmers will use their best endeavours to maintain and enhance the value of their asset. For those concerned about the capital value of their holdings, quantifying diminution and claiming compensation may be the best way of resisting enforced public access.

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TALKING POINT

19 March 1999

GMcontrol is all but impossible

The regulations covering the growing of GM experimental crops are a joke when bees and the wind can carry pollen very much further than the experts allow. After all, we get sand blown in from the Sahara and radiation from Russia.

D J Phillips

Shadbrook Farm, Staunton, Glos.

OSR stance can protect wildlife

The first genetically modified crop likely to be ready for commercial release, a herbicide-resistant form of oilseed rape, is shortly to undergo a four-year evaluation by the government to establish whether its widespread release would have impacts on wildlife.

However, this cautious and scientifically valid approach to environmental safety is inconsistent with recent government statements that the commercial release of this crop may be permitted before the evaluation period is complete and before the requisite scientific data has been collected and analysed. This contradictory government message has alarmed conservationists, including the RSPB and English Nature, but does not seem to have provoked a reaction from the farming community or their representatives.

Given that most farmers value wildlife and its conservation, it is difficult to understand why the agricultural community has failed to speak up on this issue.

For too long farmers have been vilified as the enemies of wildlife but they now have an historic opportunity to set the record straight. The time has come for British farmers and their representatives to stand up and be counted in the GM debate and insist that such crops are assessed fully for environmental safety before commercial release. A moratorium on the commercial release of GM crops until 2003 makes sense for farmers, conservationists and the environment. So let us stand together and tell the government what we think.

Dr Mark Avery

Director of conservation, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Sandy, Beds. Blake.Lee-Harwood@rspb.rg.uk

Unknown perils of genetics

As a medical scientist turned farmer, I wonder how many of your readers know what is put into an animal or plant to make it a GMO? A construct is inserted, so called in the trade because it has three parts: The desired gene, a marker gene and a promoter. The marker enables selection of cells in which insertion has succeeded for cloning, and the promoter does the inserting.

What might happen if the construct is eaten by humans, or other animals? The chance of either the desired or marker genes getting incorporated into the eaters body DNA is small but not impossible. But the consequences would be incalculable if it did. Either could easily get inserted into the bacteria that live in the guts. If that happened with an antibiotic resistance gene, we might end up with antibiotic-resistant E Coli. Promoters are usually viruses, or chunks of DNA from bacteria called plasmids. It is nonsense to say these cant get into the body: What about gastric flu?

If the GMO is the plant and the construct is in its pollen, I do not see how anyone can predict where it might or might not get to.

Is it true that possible consequences are tested for? The commercial companies trying to make money from GMOs do tests, but you would expect that they do the minimum required to get a licence for trials. There is research into the questions that people have considered, ranging from one-off ideas of academics seeking research grants to requests from regulatory bodies. But, by definition, no one can be researching questions that have not been considered.

It is years too soon for commercial GMOs. They may have some benefits that are desirable, but they are not necessary except to sustain commercial greed. Are British farmers really so gullible as to want to embrace this complexity without understanding it properly? Let the boffins boil DNA in their labs, but keep the products of their work off the market until much more wisdom can be found. Let us imitate the Canadians who are trying to keep a lid on GMOs, rather than the technologically-driven and gullible USA. We should opt out of this commercial race for short-term gain.

C W Burke

Hope Farm, Ashwater, Beaworthy, Devon.

Nothing against organic farms

Lord Peter Melchett (Letters, Mar 5) alleges that in his lifetime I have been wrong about every environmental issue to affect farming. He goes on to urge me to go for "the godsend of organic farming".

Come off it Peter. As Norfolk farmers we both know too much about one another to indulge in such rhetoric. I know, for instance, that your 800 acres in north-west Norfolk is not farmed organically. I also know, having visited it a number of times, that it is managed sensitively with due regard to the environment – just as I try to manage my own farm – in line with LEAF objectives, which I try to promote. Indeed your practice, rather than your words, would make you an ideal LEAF member.

None of which should be taken to mean I do not take organic farming seriously. As a director of Sentry Farming I am indirectly involved in the management of two organic farms. I am also associated with an animal feed company which supplies organic products. Organic farming is an important and growing niche market and by my associations, may I suggest, I recognise the fact.

What I reject is criticism from some organic adherents which implies that the produce of integrated farming, which represents a valuable ongoing option for more than 95% of UK farmers and is accepted by a growing number of consumers, is inferior. The organic lobby clearly believes it is good marketing to criticise the systems of other responsible farmers. And it has served them well because, for the present, their well heeled customers swallow everything they say. But organic farming is not the holy grail. It has food safety and environmental weaknesses too and I hope, for organic farmers sakes, that these are not found out by their trusting clients.

In these trying times for all farmers, would it not be better for us to recognise that all responsible farming systems have a place; that consumers have varying demands which need to be satisfied; and to stop sniping at one another – especially when, as in Peter Melchetts case, credibility is suspect.

David Richardson

White Rails Farm, Norwich.

Organic is not energy efficient

In reference to the letters (Feb 19) regarding the political nature of modern organic farming systems, does it really occupy the moral high ground?

Having worked on what is regarded as one of the countrys leading organic vegetable farms, I would like to suggest that this system is not energy efficient in terms of diesel use or sustainable as the Soil Association would have us believe.

During my time there I witnessed the use of small implements being used on tractors with a horsepower availability far in excess of that needed. The land was worked many times with various tools, manure spreading, then planting (sometimes replanting) spraying and picking. The continual working of soil with many equipment passes left a totally structure-less soil. This created a situation whereby the natural solifluction was greatly increased, to the extent that soil levels in the lower areas had visibly risen.

Mr Hughes (Feb 19) states that indirect energy consumption is reduced in an organic system and this is true for the likes of artificial fertiliser and agrochemical use. But indirect and direct energy consumption by the use of diesel per unit area was greater than that of any farming system I have experienced to date.

My understanding of the word sustainable in this context is to prolong, encourage and endure. Yet with the soil being abused, compacted and washed away, none of these descriptions seem to fit.

People may now say that I am against organic agriculture. On the contrary, I believe that it has a valuable place in our industry, but to believe that it is somehow better than conventional agriculture is wrong.

James Warne

Sidcup, Kent.

Produce organic food at home

My family eats only organic produce. How can I support British farmers when most organic food is imported? Locally produced food should be consumed in the interests of all. Surely farmers should be able to compete with organic produce flown in from abroad.

Also, I would not eat meat which is reared on genetically modified animal feed. Meat produced in this way will be boycotted once the public is aware of the possible dangers.

Mrs J Csoti

47 High View, Pinner, Middlesex.

Use talents & be competitive

T A Gwillim (Letters, Feb 19) is right to say that Britain has always been outward looking and has thrived on free trade. Perversely, he then suggests that we should join EMU at the earliest opportunity. In doing so, your correspondent thinks we will be "at the centre and not the margins", whatever that means, and that we will be better placed to avoid trade wars.

What matters is that Britain maintains its competitiveness. And it will only do this by relying upon and improving its unrivalled store of skills, flexibility, adaptability and experience in dealing with ever-changing world circumstances. What determines the health and vitality of an economy is not whether it forms part of a single currency area, but the talents and acumen of its people operating in a sympathetic business climate.

This climate should encourage low taxes, competitive labour and production costs, a modern infrastructure and a culture which is global and not just European.

The Fortress Europe option, offered by Mr Gwillim is, characterised by heavy-handed intervention and regulation, crippling social costs, massively unfunded pension liabilities, high and rising taxation and endemic institutional mismanagement and corruption at all levels. It is also undemocratic and unaccountable. It is, in short, just the sort of body liable to start a trade war and thereby fly in the face of the trend to worldwide tariff reduction.

Your correspondent mentions John Gummer in order to support his case. Mr Gummer, together with Messrs Clarke and Heseltine, were among those who held a gun to John Majors head throughout the last parliament and prevented him from taking a principled stand against unworkable and dangerous European unification. They are the last people whose advice should be taken on this issue.

Mrs Di Brooks

20 Northlands Road, Totton, Hants.

Free nutrients are not potash

The value of John Daltons contract spreading of biosolids from Welsh Water (Business, Mar 5) will no doubt be of interest to a number of farmers in his district. They should note however that the free nutrients available from such products are nitrogen and phosphate and not potash as reported in the article.

The productivity of biosolids for grass is such that potash can quickly become a problem unless properly balanced by separate potash applications. The PDA has produced a free advisory leaflet which covers this topic.

J D Hollies

Director general, The Potash Development Association, Brixtarw, Laugharne, Carmarthen.

Cereal imports bypass ACCS

We noted with interest your article (Business, Mar 12) about the importation of 3.05m tonnes of cereals into the UK last year.

Could we ask the importers if these cereals were grown on farms registered with ACCS? And if so, could they publish proof?

If they are not grown on ACCS-registered farms, are UKASTA, malters, supermarkets and NFU heirarchy attempting to stop the sale and use of these imports? Or do they demand only that British growers must submit to the indignity and expense of an idiotic and meaningless inspection by a private verification company?

British farmers would be well advised to ask this question of the next grain trader attempting to coerce them into paying out vast amounts of money to become registered with this useless scheme.

Why apply this bureaucratic nonsense only to British farmers when it is patently obvious that our overseas buyers are more than happy with our superb quality cereals, as witnessed by the record level of cereal exports?

Dick Lindley

Birkwood Farm, Altofts, Normanton, West Yorks.

HGCA levy a waste of money

I have just received yet another expensively produced HGCA communication. It comprises three separate envelopes all with the same contents, but this no doubt increases circulation.

Last autumn I went to one of their road shows and the best thing about it was the lunch. I am guessing wildly, but the HGCA must have an annual income approaching £10m from the levy paid on every tonne of cereals sold. Why is it that so much of the information we get in return is thoroughly old hat, much of which we have all heard before?

If there is no better use for this large sum of money, then the HGCA levy should be scrapped as should the oilseeds levy. The money could be better spent.

R P Headley

Tile Lodge Farm, Hoath Road, Hoath, Canterbury, Kent.

Did you farm in the early 1930s?

I am undertaking research for a Channel 4 documentary series about all aspects of the history of the countryside before and during WW2.

I would like to hear from people who have first-hand farming memories of the hard times caused by the agricultural depression in the early 1930s. Please write to me at the address below.

Mrs Jelbert

Testimony Films, 12 Great George Street, Bristol.

Family farms fighting back

There are definite signs that hard-pressed family farmers are fighting back. In our small parish it was decided by minority vote to make it compulsory to attend the local environmentally sensitive Latin enhancement classes and also the veterinary handwriting proficiency diagnosis guesswork workshops.

At last, when meeting numerous inspectors on their annual visits, which have been brought forward to a monthly basis, farmers are able to correct some misconceptions about their ability to read and write in just one language.

With the year 2000 approaching, it is essential that farmers can talk to inspectors in a language they can understand. For example uptius spoutius (pregnant) means the cow has not got a belly ache. A long squiggly line on a bottle of drugs supplied by the vet is the single common name for a wide range of medicines used regularly on all farm animals.

When approached for help with this initiative the NFU said it would be unfair on large, efficient, wealthy landlords to expect them to stop counting their subsidy monies and attend evening classes until such time as they had computers capable of doing this work.

Calling MAFF on its freephone service led to the following instructions: First press 0, then press 1, then 7, then 6, then 9, then 6, then 8, then 0, then 2, then 8, and then 6. After all this frustration, I find this is my own telephone number and I finish up talking to myself.

M T James

Hardings Leigh, Chawleigh, Devon.

Farmers cannot pass costs on

The letter from Mr Andrews of Northern Foods (Jan 22) was interesting, particularly as his ex-boss Lord Haskins announced in a speech at Oxford that farm assurance schemes are useless.

In saying that farmers must follow other sectors in the food chain, Mr Andrews forgets that other sectors can pass their costs on to consumers. Farmers cannot. We have more parasites and red tape on our backs.

With incomes dropping 56% last year, adding to costs is not an urgent priority.

ACCS is not a standard accepted by the whole supply chain. The rest of Europe has not accepted it and unless it does, on the same day as us, there will be illegal trade distortion between EU farmers.

Robert Robertson

Chairman, FSB agriculture committee, Down Barton Farm, St Nicholas-at-Wade, Birchington, Kent.

Dont consider free range eggs

With the unprofitability of much of farming, dont be tempted into one branch that has kept its head above water.

Battery cages may be banned in 10 years time but meanwhile they will continue to produce, and sell eggs at half the price of free range. The free range market is saturated. New units will only depress the price further, and cause the investor to wish he had put his money elsewhere. Be warned.

E J Smith

Clay Hall Farm, Bidford-on-Avon, Nr Alcester, Warks.

TALKING POINT

Talk about déja vu – the past weeks shenanigans and cobbled-together deal at the agricultural council reads like an poorly edited repeat of the MacSharry script. Thousands of farmers in the street and the usual lip-service to environmental goals, demands to cut all the budgets except ones own, and even our old friend modulation in the guise of the Austrian cap.

This last not only sounds like a rather inefficient form of family planning – thats almost what it turned out to be. It was designed to stop any more CAP budget increases by putting an upper limit on what any individual farmer can get. The ways to avoid its palpable discrimination were obvious and family planning would have been the easy way out. Im glad weve seen the back of it. MacSharry did not ride again.

The outcome is, nonetheless, deeply disappointing. It costs too much. It wont satisfy the coming GATT negotiations and the environmental package is pathetically small. There will be more milk quota but it will be distributed to the wrong people and getting rid of the whole system will still mean a major battle which we will have to start on immediately. This cannot be seen as the radical reform we need.

Indeed, when Mr Brown came to sell the deal to the Cabinet he emphasised the effect on the food budget of the average family. It cant have struck those who were still listening as much of an argument. The CAP budget goes up £5bn. Britain will be paying a good slodge of the extra. Agenda 2000 has in fact become Agenda 2004. Even then, Mr Brown will only be promising a cut of £70 a year in the food bill of a family of four. Shorn of its folksie electoral packaging, thats less than 34p a week a person in five years time. Well, Ill put more than 34p on the fact that in 2004 no one anywhere will notice a hapenny of difference at the check-out at Tesco.

The whole argument is misconceived. We ought to begin to remind people that food is too cheap and that most of what we pay doesnt go to the farmer but is the cost of preparing his produce for the microwaves of two income families.

In general Ive been a Nick Brown supporter but this kind of presentation is counter-productive. Nobody believes promises of cheaper jam tomorrow, and they are right – they wont be getting it.

Given that the settlement is not what we hoped, has all this trouble been worth the effort? Hasnt the "let each EU country sort itself out" brigade got a point? Certainly not. If every one of us had our own farm policy there would be subsidy competition among the nations which really care about their farmers, and subsidy starvation in countries like Britain whose governments can afford to ignore the farming vote. Then in the next GATT round the USA would take us to the cleaners one by one, dumping their product (GM or not) and driving our farmers out of business just as they did a century ago.

In the EU, British farmers have something worth defending – the support of nations who have not forgotten their roots in the countryside, and who will fight to keep the rural areas alive. Together we can manage much more radical change than this, alone we will be overwhelmed.

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TALKING POINT

25 December 1998

TALKING POINT

As the old year draws to a close, now is a good time to take stock of the future of the rural economy. Next summer the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions will produce a rural White Paper. Many would complain that a consultation paper two years into this governments administration is long overdue.

But the focus outlined by deputy prime minister John Prescot is promising. He is right to highlight problems such as Rural Development Commission figures that 75% of rural parishes have no daily bus service. But waiting for the government to act could be too long a wait.

It is time for rural communities to accept that there is an interdependence between town and country, and that the growing rural population must be harnessed. The potential for a vibrant rural economy is not a pipe-dream, there are solid grounds for this belief.

In the past 15 to 20 years country-dwellers, and farmers in particular, have had to come to terms with an extraordinary political shift which has spread throughout society. The radicalism of Mrs Thatchers premiership saw big changes in the economic construction of the country, most obviously within industry.

The radicalism of Mr Blair lies in internal Party reform which has cemented these changes. It spells the end of the industry versus agriculture, urban versus rural divide that has characterised the British social and political landscape. To this end the size of the work-force in finance and banking grew 71% between 1981 and 1994. In the same period farming, forestry and fishing fell 18%, manufacturing fell 21% and construction dropped by 16%.

Although farmings contribution to gross domestic product grew from £5810m to £9148m between 1984 and 1996, it translates into a fall in its contribution to total GDP from 2.1% to 1.4%. Falling farm incomes make diversification in the rural economy is more important.

To survive the rural economy must continue to adapt to the world of soundbite politics, a global market and the information superhighway. New technology is breaking the barriers of geography. The debate rages about genetically modified crops. But what of the people who contribute to the rural economy?

According to recent MORI figures, 20% of the population claim to live in the countryside but only 7% actually do. The urban/rural barrier is being blurred and farmers are taking on the role of custodians of the land. We must be pro-active in making people aware of access arrangements and in protecting wildlife.

On the international stage, the greatest test is a closer European Union. Struggles with CAP reform and Agenda 2000 will continue but its general direction has been set and the fluctuations of interest rates and the strength of the pound make a single currency increasingly attractive for farmers. Regardless of when the UK joins EMU one can see an impact already as the pound remains a safe haven in the currency world.

Within different regions of the UK, the importance of the management of land and farms can be seen once more.

Farming makes up less than 2% of the UKs workforce, but it is 4% in East Anglia, 5% in Wales and 8% in Northern Ireland. Thus economic vitality depends on farming to a differing degree in the regions of the UK.

In Scotland the agricultural workforce is much more in line with the UK average, but the scale of land ownership is far greater.

It is up to all those involved in the countryside to make our voices heard. No less than the future of the rural economy is at stake.

Now is the time for

those involved in the

rural economy to make

their voices heard,

says James Laing

…the rural economy must continue to adapt to the world of soundbite politics, the global market and the information superhighway.

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TALKING POINT

18 December 1998

TALKING POINT

Farmer victims of the

unnecessarily early

new nitrate regulations

must strike back

…and heres how, from

Alan Monckton

Nitrate vulnerable zones, which start this month, will doubtless be enforced with pettifogging zeal and numbing bureaucratic rules. Why? And what can its victims do to help themselves?

The government says it has to enforce the EU rules and that is true. It does not say that it need not enforce them for another year – the deadline is December 1999, not December 1998. The early introduction is unnecessary and stupid. The government knows that the water framework directive may (and should) scrap the 50mg/1 limit for nitrates in water and that it is likely to become EU law before the end of next year.

Recent research has shown that it is based on three fallacies. First, the limit was intended to prevent stomach cancer which it does not. Worse still, a lower than natural limit may cause stomach cancer and other ailments.

Second, it was designed to prevent blue baby syndrome but its known that it is medically impossible for babies to contract the condition from nitrates. And the UK has not seen a single case of that disease for more than 25 years.

Third, it was to prevent eutrophication or watercourses becoming over-rich in nutrients. It is known that natural nitrate levels do not cause this, so a lower limit is a waste of effort.

NVZs have two functions: to reduce nitrate run-off into surface waters and to reduce nitrate leaking into aquifers. Research published this year shows that phosphates cause freshwater eutrophication. Natural levels of nitrates do not. All EU countries have a soil phosphate surplus but the size of that surplus is the only factor determining phosphate loss into streams and acquifers. Only high nitrate concentrations affect estuaries, natural levels do not; so the 50 limit is a useless limit. No estuary in England has suffered from the eutrophication for many years; that is why.

NVZs, which supply underground aquifers, are based on misguided thinking. Drinking water, at natural nitrate levels, or above, is harmless to health.

The ridiculous pseudo-science of NVZ regulations can be illustrated by considering what they do. They seek to reduce nitrate applications on farmland by about a fifth. Research shows that about 2% of nitrate applied on land emerges from land drains into watercourses, so a leaching reduction of less than half of one percent of applied nitrate will be the effect.

The main reduction will be enforced in the winter months. But that is when rivers carry the most water. The large disparity between the volume of natural water in a river, and drainage water from land drains makes the effect of land drain nitrates on the total nitrates in a river in winter almost imperceptible in nearly all cases. We dont need these expensive regulations – we have no eutrophication to cure.

So what can victimised NVZ farmers do? The farm minister should delay enforcement of the rules for a year. But before he does, an outcry is need from farmers to alert him to what damage his officials have done.

The NFU should act to obtain full compensation for all farmers in NVZ. Why should farmers pay for the governments choice to enforce the regulations a year early? Why should farmers pay for the governments incompetence in agreeing to NVZs when they had a veto in Brussels but chose not to use it?

Farmers should also pester their MEPs to act. It is their vote in Strasbourg which will count. Write to them, talk to them; how can they know your views if you dont tell them?

Why wont the EU not act without further pressure? Brussels bureaucrats are too busy apparently. They have no medical knowledge, they are bureaucrats, not statesmen. They respond only to political pressure. I suggest FW readers ensure they receive lots of it.

Why should

farmers pay for

the governments choice to enforce NVZregulations a year early?

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TALKING POINT

11 December 1998

TALKING POINT

The concept of world

free trade is totally

misguided and would

mean misery for many

and wealth for the

money manipulators,

says Stuart Pattison

Britains farming is in turmoil and American farm prices are in free fall. Why? Because of stupid political and economic obsessions with the failed doctrine of world free trade. That doctrine is still being peddled hard by Mr Blair and Mr Clinton and their rag-tag mob of followers. It is a barbarous doctrine driven by the reckless greed of the international money machine on the back of sweated labour.

The main beneficiaries of world free trade will be a small number of unaccountable commodity traders who make a profession out of destabilising world commodity supplies and prices for their own ends. That will spell disaster for farmers, rich and poor worldwide.

A free market in agricultural products will destroy food security where it exists and hand over control of farming and food marketing to financiers, speculators and other well-dressed crooks whose hands never touch soil.

Those countries that can do so (the majority) should aim for food self-sufficiency.

On the altar of world free trade, managed markets have been dismantled. For all the criticisms of quotas, they are a great deal preferable for farmers than the bankrupt madhouse of unregulated free markets grotesquely distorted by power groups. The entirely predictable collapse of the Freedom to Farm scheme in the USA is further evidence of the need for managed farm markets.

Britain used to have an excellent system of deficiency payments for many farm products while producing enough temperate food for home consumption. That was a sensible policy which provided stability and a floor price. Free markets do not provide a floor price; on the contrary, they drive farmers into bankruptcy.

The deficiency payment scheme was eventually undermined by widespread over-production encouraged by intensive farming and former Conservative prime minister Ted Heaths sell-out to Europe.

The deficiency payment scheme was the nearest Britain has been to fair trade pricing because it took costs of production into account. It was a cost-plus system that was responsive to the market.

Nothing currently on offer from the EU or the WTO comes anywhere near fitting the bill. Neither do we have any home-grown solution. Meanwhile, the competition watchdogs lack the guts, or political will, to smash the monopoly powers of the multiple food retailers, many of whom financed the present governments election campaign. Thats why we have seen no action on the Food Standards Agenda or in tackling supermarket abuse of power.

The ludicrous notion that the government can, or should, delegate its responsibility for the success of British agriculture to either the fools paradise of the EU doomsday machine or to the commodity trader-dominated jungle of world free trade is dangerous, irresponsible and potentially disastrous for this country.

How can fair trade principles be adopted in the developed world to ensure the prices farmers receive for their products are realistically related to the production costs incurred?

Free trade has been tried and it has failed. For the past 50 years or so, British governments have regulated food production without any sector in the food supply chain exerting any disproportionate economic power. Now the balance has become weighted against food producers. In short, government failure to break the monopolistic powers of the multiple retailers is now working against the national interest.

How much money do farmers organisations need to pay New Labour by way of bribes in order to get their case heard? Would £3m be about right?

The entirely predictable

collapse of the Freedom to Farm scheme in the USAis further evidence of

the need for

managed markets

in farming.

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TALKING POINT

21 August 1998

TALKING POINT

How can the new farm

minister Nick Brown

make farmers

feel loved again?

Geoffrey Hollis has a

few tips

SO farewell to the Enforcer, welcome to the Political Fixer, as the Financial Times described new farm minister Nick Brown. Personally I was rather pleased about Dr Cunninghams promotion, chiefly because I had forecast it in this column as long ago as May. But will his replacement be up to the job?

Letters to FW have suggested that Mr Brown, being a very urban person, is unqualified to be farm minister. However, he has several plus points. First, anyone who can keep the parliamentary Labour Party under control should be good at wheeling and dealing in the Brussels corridors.

Second, he is a close associate of Chancellor Gordon Brown, which has to be good news for agriculture. In any case, it is probably not too important who occupies this post since all the crucial decisions affecting farmers incomes are now taken elsewhere.

CAP spending is decided by majority voting in Brussels. No one country is strong enough to have its way, as was demonstrated by the defeat of France over the amount of set-aside next season. That though, is good news for UK farmers since our government would soon cut farm subsidies if it had the option.

As for the support schemes for farmers, where the government has discretion the amount spent on them is being squeezed.

The latest public expenditure plans for the next three years showed that spending on social security is out of control and that has forced a cut in the agriculture provision. The first victim of this squeeze has been the calf processing scheme.

Runaway spending on welfare hits farmers in another way because it causes interest rates to be higher than they otherwise would be.

That pushes up the value of the £ and depresses farm prices and subsidies.

So instead of worrying too much about the ability of Nick Brown, farmers should be hoping that the new secretary of state for social security, Alistair Darling, succeeds in curbing expenditure on benefits where Harriet Harman failed.

There is something though that Nick Brown could do to cheer up farmers. He could make them feel loved again. Dr Cunningham may have liked farmers but if so he kept it well hidden.

That provides an opportunity for Mr Brown, since he only has to make a few warm gestures to create a good impression.

For example, as soon as he gets back from his foreign jaunt, he should try to be photographed on as many farms as he can. Dr Cunningham set a record in rarely setting foot on a real farm so Mr Brown would make a big impact by this trivial device.

He could also follow the method Frank Dobson uses to placate doctors and nurses. He could tell farmers that he would love to spend more money on them, if only he werent stopped by the wretched Treasury.

He might also consider an equally simple and inexpensive ploy to win friends in his new areas of responsibility. Gillian Shephard, during her brief time as farm minister, broke with all precedent by greeting visitors in the waiting room, rather than having them ushered into her presence as was the normal procedure.

That worked like a charm. Although she never gave any real concessions away, her visitors left the ministry feeling they had had a good hearing from a considerate person. Worth a try, Nick, I think.

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TALKING POINT

26 June 1998

TALKING POINT

GENETIC modification in agriculture is justified by its proponents on two main points. First, it is argued that only GM crops can meet the needs of the worlds ever-expanding population in a sustainable and environmentally friendly manner.

That claim is unproven whereas studies have shown, with better management of resources and minimal chemical inputs, yields from land in developing countries can be tripled using conventional crops.

A second more fundamental justification of GM is that it represents a natural extension of traditional breeding methods, only it is more precise and safer.

Many have expressed doubts. Prof Philip James, Food Standards Agency advisor, warns that: "The perception that everything is totally straightforward and safe is utterly naive. I dont think we fully understand the dimensions of what were getting into." These reservations are at odds with what one hears from MAFF and the biotechnology industry.

Genes, the inherited blueprints of life, exist and work in groups as an integrated whole within an organism. Breeding between closely related forms of life exchanges variations of the same genes in their natural groupings, thereby bringing out the best or desired traits that have been finely tuned to work harmoniously together by millions of years of evolution. Even this however can have its problems such as Moulin wheat.

In contrast, GM allows the isolation and transfer of only one or a few genes between unrelated organisms. GM plants and animals start life in a laboratory where artificial units of foreign genetic material are randomly inserted into the host which, to a lesser or greater degree, always disrupts natural genetic order and function. Also, GM brings about combinations of genes that would never occur naturally.

The artificial nature of GM does not automatically make it dangerous. It is the imprecise way in which genes are combined and the unpredictability in how the foreign gene will behave that results in uncertainty. In a post-BSE era, it should be logical to think twice about using a technology that blatantly violates well established natural boundaries. But people are rushing into the field with a badly thought through technology.

GM crops have produced very variable yields. A US company is paying millions of dollars in compensation to cotton farmers after severe crop failures. Crops engineered to produce their own pesticide not only kill pests but also natural predators such as ladybirds, lacewings and pollinators.

In the long term, GM is incompatible with low-input, sustainable farming methods such as integrated crop management. According to the NFUs Biotechnology Working Group: "In general, it can be said that scientists do not have a complete understanding of natural ecosystems. It is therefore impossible to predict accurately the effects of large scale releases of genetically modified organisms."

The only safe use of GM in its current form would appear to be clinical applications which by nature and necessity do not result in the intentional release of viable GM organisms into the environment.

Consumer pressure has forced processors and retailers to resource raw materials to ensure a full range of GM-free products. Imports into the EU of GM soya, maize and oilseed rape from North America have already suffered substantially.

So, by staying GM-free the UK will not only avoid the inevitable health, farming and environmental problems which basic science and mounting evidence tells us will arise, but also enjoy a premium and security in the market.

Feelings about

genetically modified

crops have been

running high. Better to

be safe than sorry and

stay GM-free, advises

Dr Michael Antoniou

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TALKING POINT

29 May 1998

TALKING POINT

Farm minister

Jack Cunninghams

vision of a cheap and

competitive agriculture

is utterly flawed,

according to

Malcolm Read

&#8226 Malcolm Read is a tenant farmer operating on 260ha (650 acres) near Salisbury, Wilts, with his brother and two sons. They have a 110-cow dairy herd and grow winter cereals. Their farm is part of the Countryside Stewardship Scheme.

The call for a ban on the use of antibiotic growth promoters by the House of Commons agriculture select committee must have caused anxiety not only among livestock producers but cereal growers like myself.

After all intensive pig and poultry producers are our best customers. A great deal of home-grown wheat is used to produce this popular white meat. A friend who has worked with broilers for several years reckons that by introducing antibiotics into the feed it is possible to keep twice as many birds on the same floor space as would otherwise be possible. So an antibiotic ban would halve the production of birds until new houses could be built. That would have a dramatic effect on the retail price, which is one reason why the minister will be in no great hurry to introduce a ban.

There is however another reason. Last October he issued a Press release which amounted to his vision for farming. His big idea is that he wants us to become more competitive, chiefly by having our subsidies slashed. That is the real reason why he will not apply for the CAP agri-money package. He seems to think that if we are squeezed hard enough we shall realise his dream of creating a leaner and fitter farming industry in Europe, capable of conforming with GATT/WTO aspirations and the like.

But now that intensive white meat production has been put into the spotlight, it can be seen as a perfect example of the sort of food producing industry implied by the ministers vision. It is highly competitive; it receives no subsidy; and it delivers a very cheap product for the supermarket customer. But it can only function by putting antibiotics into the feed. The minister is therefore caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. How can Dr Cunningham, who banned beef on the bone, possibly ignore the possibility that feeding antibiotics to intensively reared animals could lead to the creation of antibiotic resistant "super-bugs".

But on the other hand, if he acts to ban these growth promoters, he will have to admit that his dream of a more competitive farming industry, producing cheaper food with less subsidy input, was a foolish fantasy. So while the minister ponders what response to make to the select committees recommendation would do the least damage to his already shredded credibility, farmers, and particularly their leaders, would do well to take the initiative in this matter.

We should realise that food safety and, just as influential, the perception of food safety, will prove to be a far more important factor for food producers in the future than trying to pursue the highly nebulous concept of competitiveness. NFU leaders, who seem to be currently obsessed with trying to dance to the ministers tune on competitiveness and the next WTO round, should realise that this agenda stands discredited in the light of the antibiotic feed supplement controversy.

Competitiveness is a sterile, negative, and indeed malign concept in the context of food production. It can lead only to a series of dead-end situation, like the controversy over antibiotic feed supplements; like the question of whether beef should be produced with the aid of hormones, or milk with the aid of BST, or indeed whether genetic modification is a good or a bad thing.

Take away the insane concept of competitiveness in farming and we can forget all of these things. Now that we are able to supply the public with as much food as they require, we should be able to concentrate on supplying better quality food. We should not be put under misguided pressure to supply cheaper food and, most of all, we should not have to put up with the likes of Dr Cunningham, whose arrogance is matched only by his ignorance.

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TALKING POINT

26 December 1997

TALKING POINT

Lumping all farms

together as victims of

harsh times takes the

limelight away from the

farm categories who

really do need help,

avows Marie Skinner

&#8226 Marie Skinner farms 180ha (445 acres) of arable land in Norfolk. Cropping includes cereals and sugar beet and farm diversification includes a conference centre and livery yard. She sits on the NFU cereals committee and HGCA board.

Keep Britain Farming, says the NFU and all farmers agree wholeheartedly. But, what does the statement really mean? Are we demanding the right to keep producing food across the country? Or, do we want a guarantee that all existing farms survive?

The difference is critical. Small, family farms of all types are disappearing at a rapid rate. Although the farms may be gone, the land is still farmed.

Despite enormous drops in farm incomes, there is no sign of land becoming unwanted.

Agriculture is not on its knees. Agriculture UK is a thriving industry. It has built up enormous reserves over the good years which means it can survive for some time in todays leaner and harsher climate.

The NFUs recent declaration of doom and gloom is wrong. It is dishonest to deny the good years that have existed, particularly in the arable and dairy sectors. Lumping all farmers together as victims risks undermining the case for helping those farmers who are suffering extreme hardship and distress.

Three categories of farmers deserve public sympathy and government support. First, the hill farmers who are suffering, not because this year is bad, but because it comes after many, many years of struggle and low incomes.

Second, beef producers hit by the BSE disaster. They have had two years of suffering in which their businesses have declined, regardless of what they have done. They face a future which is uncertain and over which they have no control.

Third, small, family, lowland farms. However hard they work, they cannot compete with the economies of scale of their larger neighbours. Their fields and farms, that have sustained families for generations, are seen as ripe for take-over by ambitious agribusinesses. Their precious holdings are being gobbled up at an alarming rate. Overnight they disappear, another livelihood gone. Whole farms turn into just another field on a large estate.

If the NFU wants to help those farmers most at risk, it must support policies that will specifically help family farms, even if those policies are unpopular with large area, high subscription-paying members.

If keeping farmers on the land is a priority, existing support must be paid at a higher rate for smaller units than for large. It must make sense to modulate payments (within individual countries, not within Europe) so that the rate of payment per hectare or per head remains, but is lower the bigger the size of the farm.

Support payments have generated surplus cash on the largest units in the past few years. Money that has been used to expand those units and has, in turn, fuelled the rapid increase in rents and land prices. Subsidy cash has acted against the interests of small to medium-sized farmers, putting expansion out of reach of the very businesses most in need of more land to remain viable.

If the NFU continues to use hardship cases to claim sympathy for the whole industry, then it must defend its small farmers. It must fight for them having special treatment. If necessary, at the expense of the large.

Larger farms should reflect on the fact that strong family farms form a solid basis to agriculture. They provide the ballast that gives the whole industry strength and stability. The fortunes of all areas of farming are interlinked. If the bottom falls out of the industry, those at the top will eventually feel the effects.

The implications should be obvious to the NFU, they must look after the family farm in every area of negotiation. The NFUs slogan for 1997 was "Keep Britain Farming", for 1998 it should be "Keep Farming Families Farming".

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TALKING POINT

26 September 1997

TALKING POINT

Lurking in the bushes along the road to CAP reform are 15 European finance ministers. Theyve all got long lists of urgent issues, particularly relating to health and old age, which need every penny they can find. And theyre casting covetous eyes on subsidies for growing most of Europes food. They also know that the enlargement of the European Union will bring large bills for rural support.

When commission president Jacques Santer introduced his Agenda 2000 to the European Parliament in the summer, he made great play of alternative methods of supporting those who work on the land. This raised questions as to why we need to subsidise or compensate the farming of all of our land, including the very best, which is some of the finest in Europe.

Missing was a sufficiently strong emphasis on the needs of areas where support is necessary – particularly in our more remote regions. Here, the spending of taxpayers money could and should realise a greater benefit for the countryside and for our population as a whole. It isnt good enough to talk about "the integration of environmental goals into the CAP."

However, the news wasnt all bad. It was particularly important that the commission president himself introduced the CAP reforms. This meant that the package was supported by the full College of Commissioners. Had the job fallen to farm commissioner Franz Fischler, the debate on progress might have been confined to the Council of Agriculture Ministers.

In that august body, our minister, Jack Cunningham, is ploughing a lonely furrow, in harness with the commissioner and with the ministers from only two or three other countries. Their aim is the right one – to bury outdated policy and to prepare the ground for a rural policy for the 21st century which is relevant to the needs of the sector, of Europe and of the world.

The Agenda 2000 paper emphasises three critical points. First, a further shift away from price support. In future, support should go to people and places rather than through commodity price subsidies. This is important because we now expect rural areas to deliver substantial social, environmental and recreational benefits as well as our food. Second, greater emphasis on food quality and regional diversity in food. There are many examples of diversification into local and specialised food and other products. The potential for delivering such choices is enormous, given the right changes in European policy and funding. Encouraging traditional and niche crops, along with local processing and proper marketing, will be good for the countryside and for rural employment.

Third, bringing environmental goals into the CAP. Most important, the plans, if implemented in full, will ensure vital and sustainable environmental measures are introduced, through targeted agri-environmental schemes and changes to the related structural policies.

Countryside Stewardship, which the Countryside Commission conceived and started, gives farmers grants for conservation management alongside commercial farming. It has proved farmers will deliver environmental goals if the structure is right for them to do so. But hitherto, this and other schemes have had to compete with ridiculously high commodity subsidies.

The real battle for Britains countryside is to convince Europes finance ministers that these policies are valid, urgent and good value for money and must have a sufficient share of the cake alongside the need for more hip operations and for pensions reform.

From this battle ground we must emerge with a living countryside that meets the demands of people and the public purse, while maintaining viable, sustainable rural businesses. Future generations will not thank us if we fail to win this vital battle.

Farming must compete with health and old age issues in the battle for support, says Richard Simmonds

&#8226 Richard Simmonds is chairman of the Countryside Commission, and co-author of the Cork Declaration on Rural Development. He trained as a surveyor, farms in Berkshire and has forestry interests in Scotland.

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