7 April 2000

BORROWINGS BOOM AS INCOMES PLUNGE, WFUDELEGATES TOLD

More than 100 members keen to discover the key to the

future attended the Womens Food and Farming Union

National Conference last week

A well attended WFU conference heard John Page, head of Agriculture, Barclays highlight the difficulties UK farmers are facing with their lowest incomes in real terms since the war.

"Farming is not making enough money to cover living costs and for adequate reinvestment into the industry," he told delegates, informing them that bank borrowing is up to a peak of £8bn. Arable farmers are borrowing three times their cash, with pig farmers borrowing on average a whopping 10 times (in some cases this has even reached 35 times).

Mr Page said the action farmers should take in the future is:

Cut every cost, then cut it again, win every penny of bonus you can, grit your teeth and survive for the time when the cycle turns upwards.

Positive factors for 2000 are that the Asian economies are recovering, relieving the downward pressure on world food prices; world commodity prices may be on the increase led by oil and the US $ may weaken pulling sterling down against the euro.

Graham Wynne, chief executive of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, spoke of his desire for farmers and the RSPB to work and lobby Whitehall together in a practical, innovative and rational way to create models for a sustainable environment. "We should seek for more common ground on environmental issues," he said. "Leaders of farmers organisations must find an intelligent way forward."

The public must pay for a multifunctional countryside. There must be hefty subsidies for farmers to deliver what society wants and incentives for management of hedges, wide grass margins, thick hedgerows, etc. He urged farmers to "be there now, ahead of the game. Proactive action is needed from the farming community – we do not want to be dragged along."

Asked whether the RSPB would be prepared to trial GM crops on its farm in Cambridge, Mr Wynne said the answer was a definite no. Not an encouraging answer for the next speaker on the podium, Colin Merritt, biotechnology development manager of Monsanto who started his talk by saying he preferred the name Genetically improved crops for his chosen subject.

In the afternoon the case studies on Women who make things happen – women who have made a huge difference to their own business and to the British agricultural industry – made inspiring listening.

These included Karol Bailey, who spoke of her experiences of turning her 13ha (33-acre) tenanted farm from 100% wholesale to 100% retail with her farm shop, telesales and e-commerce. Meryl Ward told members about the setting up the British Pig Industry Support Group and its progress over the last 18 months.

WFU members were told that anything is possible – if you cant go over the hurdle, go round it, they were advised.