More than two-thirds of British farmers would like to see a limit imposed on the support paid to larger holdings, according to a poll run on FWi.

Over 2300 took part in our Question of the Week – the highest response rate ever – with 77% believing that large farmers should have their support payments capped.

The result flies in the face of government and NFU policy.

Three times in the past – first with the 1992 MacSharry reforms, then with Agenda 2000 and then with the 2003 Fischler reforms – UK agriculture ministers have fought off plans for a cap on support, arguing that it would be discriminatory and create more bureaucracy.

Penalise farmers

“We continue to oppose capping, which would penalise those farmers best able to compete in a more global market,” said a DEFRA spokesman.

Despite this, the idea is back on the agenda, with EU agriculture commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel hinting that a €300,000 (£204,000) ceiling will be part of her 2008 “health check” of the common agricultural policy.

Farmer organisations have given a mixed response to the outcome of the FWi poll. Soil Association director Patrick Holden said he too favoured some sort of limit being placed on individual farmers’ receipts.

“There has always been a social component of taxpayer support for farming,” he said. “As farm size increases there are economies of scale, so it is appropriate that there should be a reduced rate of support for those enjoying those advantages.”

Tiered approach

He preferred some sort of tiered approach, with progressive cuts for those receiving larger single farm payments. “This perspective has an added importance as we seek to reverse the long-term decline in the farm workforce. As oil starts to run out, we will need more labour-intensive, localised farming systems.”

Pippa Woods, chairman of the Family Farmers Association, agreed that some form of “tapering” was desirable to overcome the inequities and stave off the bad publicity that could come from making bloated payments to already rich landowners. The fact that support now took the form of a single farm payment would make it simpler to manage such tapering.

But NFU policy director Martin Haworth said the NFU was still opposed to any restrictions relating to farm size or subsidy receipts. “Perhaps the 70% who favour capping believe it will mean they might get more money themselves. That is clearly not the case, as any savings will go straight back to Brussels.”

With fully tradable entitlements, it would also be easy for businesses to restructure themselves to avoid being capped. “This runs counter to the whole idea of keeping farming decisions separate from subsidy issues. Land agents and solicitors would be the only ones to gain.”

For more on single farm payments, see our special report.

FORUM COMMMENTS

“Could someone explain to me what the definition of a large farm is? Is a 2000 acre mixed family farm large? Is a 1000 acre arable farm run by one farmer large? Is a farm that draws, say, £250,000 in subsidy payments that employs 25 people large?” – Frank the wool

“I wonder if everyone voting for capping is assuming, or hoping, that the cap will apply at a level just above what they are getting themselves.” – farmerbill

“If ‘large’ is to be defined by SFP receipt, most specialist fruit and vegetable producers would be considered small as they have little or no historic entitlement. Some have very high turnovers and areas.” – Eamonn Harris

“Where will the money saved by capping go? I am sure that Gordon Brown and many others will do everything possible to get their hands on it. It would then probably be removed from agriculture altogether.” – AllyR

“I’m against capping. It just leads to pressure to artificially divide holdings to maximise the subsidy take. Best keep things simple, I say.” – Pigeon

Have your say on the SFP capping issue!