What a 24 hours it has been. The Farmers Weekly team has been immersed in a massive story driven by a leak from whistleblowers working within the Rural Payments Agency. The full details are here:
Hilary Benn has today accepted full responsibility for the fact that 39 tapes carrying confidential farmer information went missing for sometime and no one was informed. The tapes had details about farmer names, addresses, bank accounts, passwords and single farm payment entitlements.
Most of the tapes were recovered, but not all of them. There is confusion as to what happened to them and who knew what when. It seems that DEFRA and the IT consultancy IBM that manages the data centre knew about the lost tapes in May 2009 but the RPA did not know about it until September 2009 when it conducted its own audit.
At no time had farmers or the public been told until Farmers Weekly released the story this morning. Questions have already been asked in the House of Commons today and the BBC and the Telegraph have now also covered the story.
This is a massive breach of security and puts the RPA and DEFRA on the back foot once again. DEFRA must be wondering what on earth to do next about the RPA. It is still squandering millions on an agency that is at the point of collapse. A review of the RPA is underway and it seems unlikely DEFRA will do anything drastic until that process is complete despite the seriousness of this latest debacle.
More information will be breaking on this story today on www.fwi.co.uk. We are digging hard on behalf of farmers and taxpayers.
Here is the leader that will appear in FW magazine this week giving our perspective on the latest RPA fiasco. Your views and feedback are always appreciated.
time on the RPA
It’s appropriate this week as Farmers Weekly celebrates its 75th birthday to ask what makes a great magazine? I’ve always thought there are four key traits of a truly great publication and they are: integrity, accuracy, responsibility and leadership.
In our exclusive investigation (pages 6-7) of the shambles that continues to be the Rural Payments Agency, readers can judge for themselves as to whether Farmers Weekly still lives up to these attributes after three quarters of a century offering an information service as the farmers critical friend.
Since the formation of the RPA, our reporting of the beleaguered agency has been challenging but we’ve always set vigorous standards of fair-play. We’ve been diligent in reporting the truth, guarding against distortion and have tried to offer constructive solutions to the RPA’s many problems not just criticism.
Taking the emotion out of it has not been easy. Year after year thousands of furious farmers have bombarded us with stories about late and wrong single farm payments, inaccurate maps, flawed and unstable IT systems, incompetent managers and complaints about the futile waste of public money as the RPA stumbles from one crisis to another.
It pleases no one to have to expose one more massive failure. The serious leak we received this week about missing tapes carrying confidential information about farmers is yet another nail in the RPA’s coffin. Farmers are not at risk because critical data has now been recovered but that will be small consolation for those flabbergasted by the RPA’s continued incompetence. This latest revelation highlights sloppiness and a system breakdown of a scale never seen before. Even more worrying, it is RPA’s own employees who are spilling the beans about the bad shape it is in.
As the Public Accounts Committee hearing emphasised on Monday, there is no confidence in the system or the people that run it. Even the person in charge, Tony Cooper, now looks like a man lacking the conviction and belief that it can be rescued.
Fundamental questions still cannot be answered. Why does it cost the RPA £350m to pay £1.6bn out to 100,000 farmers? Any multinational organisation facing admin costs like that would not be in business for long.
Why has the RPA had four chief operating officers in just three years and why have they all left with massive golden handshakes having achieved no turnaround in the RPAs performance?
How was it that those briefing Accenture to deliver the original IT system failed to explain a fundamental that the technology had to cope with annual changes in key information? Why is it still necessary for the RPA to employ 100 fulltime Accenture contractors on monopoly money with still no prospect of improvements in service?
Sadly the RPA was broken almost before it even began. DEFRA chose the most complex payment system it could find and layered on to it a completely useless IT programme. The reputation of this agency is now so bad that it would seem inconceivable that it could survive the review that is currently underway. Farmers and taxpayers deserve so much better.
There's less than 36 hours to go before the 5th Farmers Weekly Awards get underway in the Great Room, Grosvenor House, Park Lane, London. This year, we have 1200 guests, 45 farmer finalists, 15 sponsored categories and, for the first time, the Secretary of State Hilary Benn and DEFRA minister Jim Fitzpatrick MP are coming along with their respective wives.
It should be quite a night of celebration if last year's event is anything to go by..... BBC presenter Julia Bradbury is the host for this year and the promotional blurb describes her as a woman who likes dirty jokes and can drink anyone under the table! So that bodes well for this year. The voiceover is Alan Dedicoat, otherwise known as the "voice of the balls" from the national lottery show.
There are a few surprises in the 2009 winners line up, so it will be interesting to see the reaction from the guests on the night and the industry afterwards. Full details of all the finalists and the category winners will be available on www.fwi.co.uk first thing Friday morning along with a video and pictures from the night.
The overall theme is one of farmers on the edge of a golden era and, with an election just around the corner, now is as good a time as ever to put agriculture at the heart of the Government's economic thinking. This year's Award winners are a fabulous example of farmers grabbing the opportunities.
When I joined Farmers Weekly as editor in January 2005, I was determined to help put more pride back into the industry and encourage a more positive, confident, upbeat vibe. The Awards have helped us do just that by recognising farmer excellence, innovation and achievement. It started as a humble affair with about 450 people attending a dinner and has escalated into the big night out of the year for the whole industry.
None of it would be possible without the fantastic support of our 15 category sponsors. It is a mark of how much the event has grown and its strategic importance that our sponsors now span the whole length of the food chain.
This week's issue of Farmers Weekly will carry some design enhancements to improve signposting of sections and simply update the look of one of Britian's best selling business magazines. It's been four years since we changed the presentation of FW and we felt it was time to have a freshen up. The FW brand is 75 years old this June and, there's no doubt about it, it wouldn't have survived that long if the magazine had not changed along the way.
The main pages subject to a bit of a makeover are the contents spread telling readers where everything is, the columnist pages and the opening of the technical sections. We have also tried to do a better job of pointing readers to what's available on our website www.fwi.co.uk to make sure they don't miss out on all the extra content and services that's there and it's free. The magazine and website complement each other and are delivered by one team.
Those in the property market may have noticed more significant changes made to our twice a year subscription publication Farmland Market. See Phil Clarke's agribusiness blog. Business Editor and Farmland Market Editor Ian Ashbridge has led a fantastic revamp of this magazine, which includes a more modern design, better paper stock, latest farmland price data from the Valuations Office Agency and a detailed look at where land values could go in the rest of 2009. We've also strengthened our links with the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. If you are interested in subscribing call: 01444 445566 (£95).
I'm really proud of what our design and production team have achieved this year. They are now a fully fledged multi media desk handling web and print content, text, photography and video. Good design is such a subjective thing but it can make or break magazines, particularly nowadays when they are having to compete with more interactive media like television and internet.
Keeping magazines and websites moving forward in line with reader and user needs is critical. We've been doing it for years but are not complacent. And it looks as if our efforts have been recognised in the wider publishing world.
In the last week, the Farmers Weekly Group has been shortlisted for a record eight times in two major publishing and digital media Awards, which recognise and reward editorial and publishing excellence.
The weekly magazine, our website and four members of the team will be competing for the prizes next month in two separate Award schemes organised by the Periodical Publishers Association and the Association of Online Publishers. The categories are all independently judged but the competition will be fierce. Fingers crossed and we will keep you posted as to progress. Once you've seen this week's issue, let us know what you think of the design tweaks by sharing your thoughts on our forums.
Tesco may have a love/hate relationship with farmers but it would be churlish not to acknowledge the retailer as a great British success story on a global scale.
It’s pre-tax profits of more than £3bn have drawn mixed feelings. Comments from forum users on fwi.space.co.uk range from the furious “its blood money, bled from suppliers” to the pragmatic “success comes at a price”.
Those farmers supplying the retailer are justifiably proud of their contribution and connection to the Tesco brand and the benefits it brings to the national economy. After all, it is a remarkable performance under terrible economic conditions and there’s the promise of another 11,000 new jobs created through store expansion. Let’s not forget that many farm businesses are expanding too as a result of this growth.
About one third of all supermarket sales are now made in a Tesco store and British shoppers, despite the recession, are still spending on food thanks to the quality and value offered by British producers.
But we are probably at the point where its dominance has gone too far. Primary producer margins have been relentlessly squeezed for years and Tesco’s image as a bully within the food chain is renowned.
Global brands thrive when they clearly demonstrate responsibility to their customers, suppliers and shareholders. In Tesco’s case it is the suppliers that are getting the raw end of the deal. Most consumers, even in difficult times, understand that cheap prices are not everything and that fairness to farmers is vital if we want sustainable food chains. Tesco’s proposition will never be as good if its cavalier methods force too many suppliers out of business.
Paying a price to all that fairly reflects the costs of production is a reasonable request that Tesco will not honour voluntarily. Therefore the only way of ensuring a more equitable approach is to introduce a supermarket watchdog with real teeth. The Competition Commission is to make a decision on an ombudsman and code of practice for the grocery trade any day.
Chief executive Terry Leahy and his opposite number at Sainsbury’s Justin King have lobbied hard against regulation but their greed may get the better of them.
A recent YovGov poll of shoppers found that 80 per cent were in favour of an ombudsman if it led to better treatment of farmers. Some 60 per cent were prepared to shop somewhere else to support the fairer retailers It’s funny how the big boys have selective hearing. If the customer is always right, why aren’t they listening?
For more Tesco analysis see Phil Clarke’s business blog at http://www.fwi.co.uk/blogs/agribusiness/2009/04/tesco-profits-prompt-abuse-and-admiration.html
One of the biggest challenges facing us all is learning to cope with volatile markets. It's a subject that has come up a lot in discussions in the FW office in the last week or so in meetings with Mcdonalds, Dairy UK and The Grocer magazine and website.
If farmers can survive the market peaks and troughs better than they can certainly benefit long term from the great opportunities that lurk around the corner as we come out of this recession and take advantage of global demographics.
The dairy sector is probably the best example of this. Jim Begg, Director General of Dairy UK, is worried that some in the sector are in danger of talking themselves into an early grave over pricing. As more dairy farms decide to exit, it is clear that we're in danger of losing a lot of critical mass if we are not careful. This would be a tragedy as the longer term prospects for British dairy products are very good if we can just be more resiliant through the tough times.
Jim Begg believes there is more Farmers Weekly can do to build farmer confidence in sticking with it and seeing the opportunities that lie ahead. I agree that there is a future if only dairy businesses can ride out the tough times like now. We have to report the angst that's going on about milk prices here and now but we should do it in the context of the bigger picture. Global demand for milk is on a massive trajectory but we have to find new approaches to helping producers cope with the ups and downs. All ideas welcome.
It's certainly not all doom and gloom. Global population growth and economic expansion mean that demand for dairy products will remain strong. Weaker sterling means higher single farm payments and more competitive commodity production. With low interest rates, finance is cheaper than it's ever been and input costs like fuel and power are falling. UK consumers make up one of the most developed markets for food anywhere in the world. So there's more reasons for optimism than many might think.
To help you make sense of volatile markets, look out for Phil Clarke's business blog http://www.fwi.co.uk/blogs/agribusiness/2009/04/alarm-bells-ringing-despite-buoyant-meat-prices.html
Livestock producers deserve to be confused and extremely angry. You’re being asked to pay for something over which you have no control - exotic diseases currently not originating in this country. And there’s a wealth of other measures coming in to overhaul animal health and welfare, which are a minefield to get your head around.
The NFU and other industry bodies are is rightly spitting blood over the latest DEFRA consultation on responsibility and cost sharing. It is a complex set of arrangements that aims to cut and share the cost of animal disease, improve prevention and management and build industry confidence in coping with the risks. The aims are sound, it’s the method of achieving them that is of concern.
A new independent body for animal health policy and delivery is a positive move if it enables the livestock sector to determine its own future and is truly independent. The new body could have real power if it takes over DEFRA’s funding of disease management and is run by people with a real understanding but politics needs to be taken out of the decision-making.
The idea of farmers paying an annual levy for research and surveillance of diseases, many of which are not of their making, will be hard to swallow as will the bureaucracy that comes with it. Mandatory insurance to cover unbudgeted disease costs will be even more difficult. Farmers will rail against it and as yet there’s little infrastructure to support it. Asking an insurance company to insure a business against a disease such as foot and mouth is akin to seeking buildings insurance after your home has collapsed.
These represent the most significant changes to hit the sector in years and many will be wondering whether they can survive it. There is no doubt that animal health policies need modernising. The current set up fails farmers, government and consumers because, at times, there is a serious breakdown in trust and a lack of rigour in implementation. A new strategy and vision is needed.
But why should the livestock sector foot the bill when Government is not doing enough to stop diseases coming into our borders? It cannot even guarantee safety from its own licensed laboratories as we know to our cost with the 2007 foot and mouth outbreak. The final straw continues to be its failure to tackle bovine TB effectively.
Taking responsibility is something farmers do naturally but that does not mean we get it right everyday. Biosecurity is still inadequate on many farms and a proactive approach to herd health planning is not widespread.. Remember the terrible risks taken by those who refused to participate in the bluetongue vaccination programme.
A new partnership is long overdue between Government and industry but it looks further away by the day. Forcing yet more costs on farmers that are all too frequently caused by inefficiencies by others is not a good starting point.
Let us know what you think about the changes by responding to this blog or going to www.fwi.co.uk/costsharing
Full reports from the FW team available at www.fwi.co.uk/Articles/2009/03/30/114952/disease-cost-and-responsibility-sharing.htm
Anyone who has been around agriculture a while will remember Steven Bullock with affection. He sadly died recently but memories of his contribution to farming will be remembered for years to come.
In the days when Farmers Weekly used to manage farms, Steven Bullock was an immensely important figure. He was managing director of this business for 25 years between 1963-1988 and at one point was responsible for a group of nine farms.
Our publisher had set up these farms across the Uk and Northern France as a test bed for innovation and to demonstrate best practice in a range of locations and environments. Nowadays, we do this through our farmer focus and barometer writers, plus initiatives like the Farmers Weekly Awards. The idea was that we would report back regularly in the magazine on the activities, progress and problems on farm warts and all.
Steven's role in managing the business coincded with an era dubbed the second agricultural revolution. It was a period which experienced a rapid uptake of science based innovations which changed farming methods and increased productivity. How times have changed.
In 1988 Steven Bullock moved on to take over as Director of the Nuffield Farming Scholarships organisation. That legacy continues today as Steven and his wife Gill generously kickstarted an Award scheme for former scholars who have best applied their learning into business life. The Steven and Gillian Bullock Award began in 2007 and Farmers Weekly is happy to be involved in helping select the winners each year.
Steven had many other links with agricultural. He was a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Farmers, a member of the Royal Agricultural Society, the Farmers Club, a chairman of the Sussex Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group and the Mid Sussex Farm Management Discussion Group.
Steven lived with his wife Gillian at East Holme Farm, Maresfield, East Sussex. He is survived by Gillian, his two children and many grandchildren. He was a quiet unassuming and sincere man who played a pivotal role in British agriculture.
I'd like to thank John Stones, Director of Nuffield Farming Scholarships Trust, for his help in putting this obituary together.
What's the best way of motivating a DEFRA vet? Remember these are men and women tackling some pretty tough work - Bovine TB, bluetongue, stressed farmers etc. Well, you stick them in a room together, make them play games and encourage them to find their inner self through banging drums loudly. At least that's what DEFRA seems to have done with about 130 of its staff working in animal health.
One of the vets involved rang our news editor Jonathan Riley very distressed yesterday complaining about the exercise. She was really upset and angry that what she thought would be a useful strategy day turned out to be something less serious. "We wasted an entire day playing games, mucking about and banging drums," she said. "I was appalled that taxpayers will foot the bill for this when we are actually employed to fight disesase."
The news team is trying to investigate the complaint to see what DEFRA were really trying to achieve...... if it was an effort to be motivational and build a team spirit then poor old DEFRA officials have backfired again.
It's been a frustrating couple of days in the Farmers Weekly news room. We've been waiting for weeks for the set aside consultation announcement, which was hastily made yesterday. The team has tried to work with the DEFRA communications machine to ensure we have some advance warning of the launch of the document so we can do justice to it in print as well as online. Planning ahead editorially is crucial if we are to give the right amount of pages to the right things.
The soundings from DEFRA were entirely positive to this idea. They would tip us off when it was coming and we would ensure adequate coverage was given to this crucial consultation process. Well, it won't surprise you to know that DEFRA once again failed to play ball. We don't expect them to organise their schedules around the media but we do expect them to be mindful of the most effective ways of communicating these initiatives to the farming industry. Despite all the reassurances, promises, planning and negotiation, the set aside consultation came out of the blue yesterday morning with no advance warning when we had virtually wrapped up the issue of the magazine for this week.
That's why there's only one story and leader given over to the topic in print this week, although more to come in the weeks ahead. It's moments like this that the website comes into its own. We'll be running daily stories about the consultation process on the site and healthy forum debate with farmers about the nitty gritty of the proposals.
This is a one off opportunity for farmers to influence future Government thinking and policy on the thorny issue of marrying production and environmental needs. So everyone should be encouraged to participate in giving their views on the options. If DEFRA is to be convinced that the voluntary approach is feasible, we need farmers to engage enthusiastically with the environmental debate. Otherwise we will be forced down a road of compulsory set aside at great expense to the industry.
Natural England wants 70 per cent of all eligible land to be included in future ELS, while at present only 50 per cent is covered. This is a major ask and requires those farmers already involved to renew their ELS and many more to sign up. Communication of all this is a major challenge as ELS doesn't have the best PR at the moment and future changes to it make it sound even trickier to take on not easier.
One of the key planks of any future approach will be around more targetted ELS activity. This means farmers choosing the right options for their own geographical location ie the best approaches to deliver maximum benefit for the environment depending on individual circumstances. Sir Don Curry, who chairs the Government's set aside policy group, told me yesterday that this will require more agronomists and environmental advisers, well briefed in all new ELS options, to be available to guide farmers in the right direction.
The consultation lasts 12 weeks so there is plenty of time for us all to get our heads around the issues. Our job is to make sense of all the policy speak that overloads the process. Just the title of the consultation document is enough to put anyone to sleep. It reads: Environment Standards for Farming - Consultation on proposed changes to standards on cross compliance Good Agricultural & Environment Condition (GAEC) and related measures.
What a mouthful.
Talk about making Government more accessible to the people, this is an example of where the bureaucrats pay lipservice to the words user friendly. The document is heavy going and not that accessible for farmers. It will take the NFU and others quite a while to decipher.
Let us know your views on the forums.
We’re in danger of sounding like a well worn record on bluetongue vaccinations.
But it seems the message FW, vets and others keep giving has not yet sunk in. If you have not seen the bluetongue disease in your area, do not assume you won’t.
Too many UK farmers still believe they can avoid vaccinating because they have no experience of the disease. Thousands of vaccine doses have been wasted, terrible risks taken with the national herd and vets have been left to pick up the bill.
Bluetongue has not been endemic in this country thanks to the sterling efforts to vaccinate by 80 per cent of farmers in the south east and east anglia. They built a firewall of protection that saved the day last year but it is dangerous to rely on the actions of a few when the responsibility should lie with the whole farming community..
Midges are already active in some parts of the country and we need everyone to get behind the jab campaign before turning out livestock. The threat is still there either through windborne incursion or via animals legally brought in from the Continent.
Anyone in any doubt about the risks simply has to look at the devastation in France where 20,000 holdings were hit with BTV8. Look at the map of Europe in this week's issue of the magazine and you will see that the UK fares better that most other countries on the various bluetongue strains.
This year, we should be concerned about BTV8 and the new BTV1 strain because the latter is blighting France farms and threatens to come across the channel. The cold weather is no guarantee to stopping the spread. Vets are warning that midge larvae and possibly adults could have survived the cold snap. It only takes a few days of milder weather for breeding to start with a vengeance and we’ve already seen some of that in the last couple of weeks in the south.
In protecting your farm by vaccinating, you are helping to eradicate the disease nationally. Unlike TB, bluetongue is a problem we can tackle head-on and is not a burden we are forced to live with.
Those who vaccinated their stock last year will simply need to administer a single jab again this year with the booster. Those who did not should give two doses with three weeks in between. Farmers in the south are being encouraged to vaccinate against the BTV1 strain as well.
Taking effective control now and acting collectively demonstrates real understanding of the disease. More importantly it sends a crucial signal to Government that farmers are in charge of their own destiny.
We're on a mission this year at FW to improve our market prices and trends information because farmers keep telling us it's critical stuff. There's work going on behind the scenes to find out exactly the best way of doing this online and in print. This includes spending quite a lot of money on reader/user research... you can never do enough talking and listening to the customer... even if it does cost a fortune.
One of the key things to emerge from research is farmers wanting more interpretation of what's happening in the markets and what it all means for the farm business. So we've taken a leaf out of the BBC's book and tried to emulate the Beeb's popular business editor Robert Peston and his blog with regular updates from the FW equivalent our Global Markets and Economics Editor Philip Clarke.
Phil has started his own blog and he aims to provide analysis, interpretation and commentaries so the business information that's available is made more relevant and understandable to UK farmers. ,
You can chip in with your own thoughts on what's happening by responding to Phil's blog and it would be great to give him some feedback as to the usefulness of what he's doing. This is unchartered water for us at fwi and it would be good to get some encouragement and constructive feedback to spur us on. What areas of business would you like Phil to cover? What's got you baffled or confused? Let's see if we can cut through the minefield of bureaucrat and banking speak and make some sense of it for you.
It's beautiful down here in sussex with snow laden South Downs and a picture opportunity around every corner. But it's havoc on the roads and schools are closed. The south east is gridlock so most of the FW team has not been able to make it in to the office in Sutton, Surrey today,
We're managing to get the news to you and pictures by working remotely. There's a good selection of snow pictures already at http://www.fwi.co.uk/community/photos/februarysnow/default.aspx Share your stories about the weather and pictures at fwi.space.co.uk. The best pix may make it into the magazine too.
It looks as if London could be worse than other parts of the south east. My daughter tells me it's at least seven inches deep outside her door and the wheels of some parked cars can hardly be seen under the snow drifts.
The weather service on our site is not right at the moment but there are people working behind the scenes right now to try to fix it so bear with us. The big challenge comes tomorrow, particularly if the weather is still this bad and we struggle to make up pages for the magazine going to press on Wednesday. Fingers crossed the snows ease off tomorrow.
If we were to collect all the farmer knowledge and experience about bovine TB together, the result would probably be a pretty heavyweight and useful book. That's why I'm keen to encourage farmers to participate in a bit of research.
There's an important study going on by academics at... it's a bit of a mouthful...... http://www.veeru.reading.ac.uk/ They've been commissioned by DEFRA to compile a history of bovine TB in England since 1980. The idea being that such information will serve as a framework to interpret analytical studies on the disease.
Farmers, vets, agricultural advisers and auctioneers are needed to help pull the information together because the researchers want to hear from people who have been directly involved with Bovine TB. They are looking for experience-based knowledge that may contribute to a better understanding of the outbreak and possible risk factors.
To kick-start their work, they've launched a confidential consultation process in the form of a short on-line tick box questionnaire. It's vital that as many people as possible with direct experience of the disease take part so please have a look at the survey and add your pennyworth..... You never know, it could make a difference to long term decisions about the management of this terrible disease.
I've received an interesting letter today from Anthony Bamford, chairman of JCB - the only remaining British manufacturer of tractors. It is the same letter he has sent the Financial Times and DEFRA and its calling for Government to announce clear actions to support British farmers and help them boost production.
Sir Anthony is currently in South America on business otherwise I would have liked to have developed this further with him today. But we will certainly be running this story on the website and in the magazine coming out Friday.
His gripe is that since Labour came to power in 1997, Britain's food self sufficiency has reduced to 60% and, in his words, "DEFRA remain indifferent" about it. The JCB chief is worried about billions of unnecessary food miles being clocked up as we import indigenous foods such as potatoes, apples and sugar, causing congestion, road infrastructure costs, pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
He complains the strong support that used to exist for farming has shifted to a focus on rural affairs. Yet the agri food sector accounts for 6.9% of the total economy and provides 3.6 million jobs which, incidentally is more than four times as many as the UK car industry. According to Sir Anthony, the agri sector could generate even more revenue and jobs if DEFRA did its job.
The letter finishes with the following:
"British farmers are some of the most productive in the world - Mr Benn should immediately announce clear actions that support them in boosting production, and make 100% indigenous food self sufficiency a priority."
Don't know about you, but I was pretty impressed that the chairman of a business so troubled by the current economic downturn in the construction market should take the time to back Britain's farmers. But then why should I be that surprised? It turns out Sir Anthony is also a farmer himself..................
It's been months in the making, but it's here. We've had a few days of delivering a new look home page for our website www.fwi.co.uk and, fingers crossed, it seems to be working ok. That means over the next few weeks we will be rolling out further changes to improve our overall service to you online.
Our aim is to make online information more accessible to farmers by taking advantage of some amazing new advances in web technology. Our old site was popular but not always the easiest to navigate. So we consulted farmers through extensive research and have made adjustments to the proposed new design based on your ideas, advice and needs.
We think the result is a livelier, faster changing, more interative website that's able to keep pace with the changes going on in the industry. Feedback so far has been very positive but it's pretty early days as only the home page is different. You should see more sections changing design shortly and there will be an accompanying video explaining step by step how you can best use the site.
The FW editorial, sales and marketing teams have got some exciting things planned for the site this year so watch this space.
As always, we are eager to hear what web users think. Your feedback is essential.So let us know by replying to this blog or write to the online editor Julian Gairdner on his blog at www.fwi.co.uk/community/blogs/juliansblog/archive/2009/01/07-new-look-fwi-home-page.aspx.
Could the New Year be ushering in a fresh, more confident and conciliatory mood from Government?
This week, 500 rather stunned folk attending the Oxford Farming Conference actually heard the Secretary of State Hilary Benn say:
“The future of the world will literally depend on farming”. http://www.fwi.co.uk/Articles/2009/01/07/113715/oxford-conference-landowners-welcome-ministers-change-of-heart.html
Overall, it was a rather tame speech but sprinkled within it were a few glimpses of a more positive, supportive tone and a definite attempt at reasonableness. Benn reminded us that the best way for the UK to ensure food security will be through strong, productive and sustainable agriculture and trading freely with other nations.
He wants British farmers to produce as much food as possible providing it is what consumers want and is grown in way which safeguards the landscape and environment. Few could argue with that. He accepts that encouraging production must go hand in hand with protecting the environment and reconnecting with consumers. But where does the balance lie?
Contrary to reports, we learned that Benn does “not want to reintroduce set aside” but does want to explore small percentages of land to be farmed in an environmentally friendly way while still allowing production. This careful choice of words is noted but it is still not clear what he actually means. The devil will be in the detail, although we have been promised that there will be “a sensible outcome that commands widespread farmer support with rules and incentives that you can understand and implement”. Let’s hope this is a genuine effort towards lighter touch regulation although there will be many mistrustful of the language used.
And Benn has acknowledged the inadequacies of some decisions taken in Brussels. He’s on side with opposing the soils directive in its current form and he’s still fighting with us on the disastrous pesticide proposals. He concedes that EID for sheep might have been a good idea at the time but the costs now outweigh the benefits. On GM, he is keen on trials and wants to move the debate away from theory. There is even a pledge to push Europe on clearer country of origin labelling to stop shopper confusion over where an animal was born, reared and slaughtered. Anaerobic digestion rules will also be adjusted so that manures and slurries will no longer be viewed as waste when used as fertiliser.
Suddenly it feels like someone in DEFRA listened. When the facts changed, Benn said he was prepared to change too. Let’s judge the Secretary of State on his actions not his words. His message was upbeat, clear and encouraging. It was a fair opener to what will no doubt be a tough year. As the Oxford Farming Conference highlighted, there is plenty of optimism about. Exploiting opportunities can deliver great growth but volatility continues apace in 2009 so managing risk must be everyone’s number one mantra.
Well, the rest was great while it lasted. Although it seems many of you didn't have much time off during the Christmas holiday. The FW poll completed by over 2000 users of our website asked how many days off you had during the festive period. Almost 1000 users, as of today, claimed to have had not a single day. Although 18% (372) ticked the "more than 7 days" category. Whatever break you managed to achieve, we hope it was enjoyable with the family.
For many, Christmas and the start of a new year is a special time to reflect on what's just gone and what's about to happen in the next 12 months. Some of the FW team will be off to Oxford tomorrow for the start of the Oxford Farming Conference to do just that - a spot of looking ahead.
As one of the OFC directors, I'm hoping that the programme we've put together for this year's event is inspiring and practical for the 500 delegates attending. The Oxford conference is always the most strategic event in the farming calendar with international speakers, the secretary of state and a lot of debating and networking. Sometimes we come in for a bit of criticism because the programme and event is not seen as relevant enough for farmers. Well, we have several audiences for this one - farmers, policy makers, consultants and advisers to the industry, suppliers and young people starting out in agriculture. It's hard to please everyone.
This year, we've tried to split the two days up into several themes to try to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. The themes include: the politics of farming; market forces at work; how to profit from consumer choice and improving communications and image.
Oxford wouldn't be Oxford without a bit of theatre. Michael Heseltine is the post-dinner speaker tomorrow night and, by popular demand, the Oxford Union Debate returns on Tuesday night. HRH Princess Anne is scheduled to meet Oxford scholars on Wednesday. So plenty for us to get our teeth into. Look out for live reports, pictures and maybe some video on www.fwi.co.uk from Tuesday morning onwards.
If you're going along to the event, let's try to meet and chat and let us know what you make of it. If you're not attending, why not let us know what you think of it anyway at www.fwispace.co.uk?
Happy New Year
'Tis the season to be jolly, even when others make silly suggestions like we should be eating kangeroo burgers instead of beef this Christmas. That's the proposal from Australian scientists who want us to consider switching to a marsupial diet after researching ways to combat climate change. There's some logic in the idea.
Apparently, eating kangeroo meat makes sense because they don't emit much methane. Their dominant gut flora are acetogens, not methanogens like cows and these convert hydrogen into acetate, a fatty acid used as an energy source. According to an article in FW's sister publication New Scientist, a cow is said to emit up to 600 times as much greenhouse gas as a kangeroo. The differences between species are pretty alarming:
* kangeroo 2635g CO2 equivalent per head per year
* sheep 141,540g CO2 equivalent per head per year
* beef 1,670,340g CO2 equivalent per head per year
Concern for the climate isn't the only reason behind the research. Eight per cent of the energy spent by a ruminant's metabolism goes on creating methane. If livestock stopped making the gas, the energy saved could be diverted into making more meat and producing healthier animals. .
In New Zealand, boffins have decoded the genetic sequence of one of the main methane producing microbes in sheep and cow stomachs. By understanding the genes, they hope to find a way of knocking out the microbes that cause methane. It's clever stuff and we're likely to see more results on the work later next year.
Eating kangeroos isn't that mad. Australian Wildlife Services in Canberra calculate that replacing one third of their country's sheep and cattle with kangeroos would cut cattle emissions and reduce Australia's entire greenhouse gas output by three per cent. Kangeroo products are widely on sale in Australian supermakets and the market is said to be worth something like AU$250 million. Has anyone tried it - what does it taste like?
Anyway, enjoy your beef, lamb and turkey this Christmas.....
Farmers Weekly would like to wish all web users, readers and advertisers a very merry Christmas and prosperous 2009.
The FW team are busy completing the combined Christmas issue for this Friday December 19. We've pulled out all the stops to deliver a great festive experience for magazine readers. There's something for all members of the family including:
* One of the biggest ever tractor tests
* A review of 2008
* A family Christmas quiz
* A look at how four farm businesses have changed in 10 years
* Seven pages of winning pictures from our www.fwi.co.uk photo competition. www.fwi.co.uk/community/photos/shortlist2008/default.aspx
* An EID special for the livestock sector
* Plus lots of news and views from our columnists
As always, we want to hear from readers about how we can continue to make the magazine useful to you for the challenges you face in 2009. Your comments on our content and ideas for future coverage are always welcome. Simply let me know by replying to this blog and I'll let you know how we can respond..
The arrival of single payments in the bank accounts of Scottish and Welsh farmers this week must have been a huge relief. But there’s no early Christmas present for the vast majority of English farmers, who will have to wait for weeks for their money.
While the later timetable for English payments was predicted and planned, it still feels like an unlevel playing field in which the English are put at a distinct disadvantage.
The RPA has promised to handle 75% of English applications by the end of January and 90% by the end of March. Yet 80% of Welsh farmers should have had their payment this week, with £183m of claims being processed. The Scottish Government should have paid out £223m this week, covering most producers in the region, and it has pledged to handle 95% of applications by the end of December.
The timing just before Christmas is good for confidence building and planning, as cash flows are tight and there are still many farmers with serious business concerns as they look ahead to 2009.
But the legacy of past RPA misdemeanours still haunts the English system. Few can forget the real pain of 2005/6 when the introduction of new IT and a more complicated payment scheme caused chaos and brought in tens of thousands of new applicants.
Three years on and the RPA still seems to be catching up, despite all the promises. The situation this year certainly looks better than last, but let’s not tempt fate simply because farmers have got such low expectations from the whole process.
No sector should be treated like a second-class citizen and it’s time the RPA raised its game and found a way to match the performance of the Scottish and Welsh.
Gordon Brown has had a lot to say about government doing the right things for small business in times of adversity by paying promptly. His daring rescue plan for the banking sector required fresh, innovative intervention – exactly the kind of response that’s required to inject new vigour into government agencies, too.
The RPA describes its mission as "to be a customer-focused organisation delivering high-quality services". That’s a bold statement for an agency that since its inception has struggled to deliver anything to deadline and in a way that suits the customer.
Belief in the RPA remains woefully low, so some effort to restore faith in the system has to be a priority. Hopefully, the agency will pull out all the stops to honour its pledges and prove us all wrong this time.
We've always been in favour of voluntary measures by Government to get farmers to co-operate? For us, it's about the industry taking charge of its own destiny and keeping regulation as a last resort. Certainly, that has been the FW message on bluetongue vaccination. Our focus has been to get farmers to see the seriousness of the risk, encourage them to take responsibility by vaccinating and avoid the disease without Government having to force mandatory action.
At first, it looked as if this approach was working. From East Anglia, along the south east and right into the west country, farmers have shown great judgement in comprehensively vaccinating to create a strong firewall against bluetongue coming in from mainland Europe. But elsewhere there has been a very different picture with large areas of Wales and the north not acting collectively and prepared to take ridiculous risks with their own and other livelihoods. The reasons given range from farmers completely convinced the virus won't hit their area, through to fears that vaccinating animals puts them at risk of adverse reactions and abortions.
This week, the question is raised again - should the English and Welsh Governments follow Scotland's lead and make vaccination compulsory?
One of the arguments in favour of voluntary arrangements has always been that Government has historically got more co-operation from farmers when it is less heavy handed. Too much regulation with stiff penalties if you don't comply simply winds many farmers up.
There have been worries that there are not enough Government vets in the UK to help deliver a swift and efficient nationwide vaccination programme and the thought of Government vets turning up on farm uninvited troubles many. In France, there has been terrible spread of the disease because they have not been able to administer the vaccine quickly enough and that's in a country where action has been obligatory.
The Germans think we are crazy not to protect our livestock. They argue that annual vaccination must be vigorously maintained for several years before anyone can talk about possible eradication and that anything less than 80 per cent of livestock protected against bluetongue means we will not control the disease.
So what do you think? Has the softer voluntary approach failed? Is mandatory vaccinating the answer in the long run? How can we get more farmers to embrace vaccination? All ideas welcome please.
Tomorrow we are expecting to hear more from the EU on whether there will be a tightening of controls against bluetongue. Read more here http://www.fwi.co.uk//Articles/2008/12/01/113320/eu-vets-set-to-decide-on-bluetongue-controls.html
Farmers make great photographers. This week we've been swamped by entries for the FW photo competition so much so that our email system is pretty clogged up. I'm not complaining but thought I'd try to encourage those people thinking of entering to upload their own pictures on to our website direct as a way of ensuring your snaps do actually get through.
In just the last seven days, we've had over 1000 pictures sent in and they are fantastic. There are six categories in this year's contest with £100 prize money on offer for the best picture submitted in each. The categories are:
* Arable scenes
* Livestock scenes
* General farm activities
The closing date for entries is next friday November 28 and for now the best way to get the pictures to us is by uploading them direct to our website at www.fwi.co.uk/photocomp2008. Don't worry if you think it might be tricky to do. There are instructions on the web page on how to put them on the site.
Many thanks for the phenomenal response. The best pictures will be published in print over christmas as well as appear online.
OK, I’ll come clean. I’m a Tesco shopper at least twice a month. In farming, to admit you spend a sizeable chunk of your income with Britain’s biggest and richest retailer is rather like owning up to a having a nasty infectious disease.
The anger that surrounds Tesco within the industry is growing by the day. Many, like me, love to shop there but continue to be increasingly concerned that the tough tactics of the past have turned into something so much worse. Tesco’s actions now amount to aggressive bullying of suppliers and the current situation is untenable.
The retailer is fired up by a need to maintain profit against the worst downturn for years, plus continuing price wars with Asda and discount chains Lidl and Aldi. It is urging its cash strapped customers to buy its cheaper own label products ahead of branded food and it’s adopted an almost farcical assault on the very people who can help it during tough times – suppliers.
In the last week, a number of farmers have told us that through no fault of their own they have been brought to the brink of ruin by the superstore giant. There are examples of appalling bad practice in every sector – fresh produce, dairy, meat and vegetables.
There have been allegations of upfront payment demands, contracts cancelled at late notice, unilateral price cuts and heavy handed negotiations with third parties. Farmers are suspicious, confused, deeply troubled and terrified to challenge for fear of losing the business instantly It strikes me as demeaning that one of the world’s greatest business success stories and prominent UK brands should risk widespread condemnation because of greed.
Tesco’s turnover at £28bn is over half the total EU agricultural budget at £52bn. It’s annual profit of £2.85 bn is equivalent to £55m a week.profit, that is £328,000 profit every hour. It’s therefore not unreasonable to assume that competitive pricing for shoppers can be achieved at the same time as doing sensible deals with suppliers. Tesco can still make an exceptionally healthy margin and it does not need to cripple farmers at home and abroad along the way.
Tesco insists everything is above board and proper. In a patronising statement, it reminds us it cannot afford to jeopardise long term relationships and a sustainable supply base. Yet all the signs suggest that many of those long term relationships are already under threat. So why is there such misunderstanding between the retailer and farmers and can anything be done about it?
The Competition Commission has promised to create an ombudsman to police relationships between retailers and suppliers but there’s no guarantee it will have the teeth to really help farmers.
In the meantime, keeping the pressure up in a united challenge to Tesco may be the industry’s only hope. FW is collecting evidence of dodgy practices to encourage more responsible behaviour and improve dialogue. If you have any experience of retailer power going too far email email@example.com or call 0208652 4915. All comments can be anonymous and will be treated in the strictest confidence. As Tesco likes to tell us, every little helps.
A trip to Tesco this week showed that on six out of nine food items the retailer was actually more expensive than farm shops. Our chief reporter Johann Tasker bought meat and vegetables from farm shops in Essex and carried out a price check comparison with Tesco on November 5. He found that on dry cure bacon, a leg of lamb, topside beef, leeks, onion and desiree potatoes Tesco was substantially more costly. Only on broccoli, carrots and savoy cabbage were they cheaper.
In the words of Anthony Davison of Bigbarn.co.uk, "We have got so used to supermarkets saying that they are cheaper, that we believe them. It's actually a load of crap."
Next week, local food hero John Geldard from Plumgarth's hub in Cumbria, is introducing a major new report on what needs to be done to enable farmers to fully exploit local food opportunities in the UK. We need a revolution in the way this is handled and quick.
Douglas Wanstall, winner of the Farmshop.co.uk Local Food Farmer of the Year in the FW Awards last week is a shining example of how to do it. In just a few years, he's teamed up with other Kent producers and is supplying a phenomenal amount of fresh produce and meat to retailers, hotels and restaurants. He's also cracking public procurement by winning some impressive contracts with hospitals in the London area.
We've got to find ways of spreading these messages and sharing this know-how far and wide. And we must work harder at dispelling some of the myths shoppers have about farm shop grub being pricey. With the recession top of mind, this is a positive line that needs much better promotion nationally and locally. .
In just 24 hours, the world may be a very different place. A new US President will be on his way to the White House and, if we're to believe the polls, it looks as if history will be made with the first black candidate, Barack Obama, voted in. The US elections are a bit like Marmite for the British public - you either love it or hate it - there's no in between.
At yesterday's team meeting, the FW journalists decided to wade into election fever too and give it a bash online with a focus on how the two candidates view farming and their differences in agricultural policy. We had no idea whether anyone this side of the pond would be remotely interested.
Kansasfarmer, a regular fwispace user from the US, has plenty to say about the election and is a big fan of McCain's running mate Sarah Palin from Alaska. UK farmers, it seems, are pretty interested too judging by the response to a thread on the forums and our short video made by FW's economics and global markets editor Philip Clarke. At the last look, the FWi poll on "who would you like to see win the US election?" was showing 27% for John McCain and a whopping 73% for Barack Obama.
Some might say the swing is not surprising given that the Democrats had twice as much money to throw at the Obama campaign and their guy doesn't seem to have put a foot wrong. What a cool, unflappable campaigner.....
If he makes it tomorrow, he's going to need all that calm leadership to sort out the mess in the US and pretty quickly. As we discovered all too recently with the financial crash, America's problems can infect the UK big time if not addressed properly.
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