7 September 2001

Bowland cash withdrawal is a severe blow

A DECISION by DEFRA to withdraw "hard cash" funding for the Bowland Initiative has been described as a severe blow for farmers in the Lancashire area.

John Welbank, who heads up a team leading the pilot scheme, says DEFRAs decision is a blow especially when foot-and-mouth had hit the heart of the region.

"We had a waiting list of 200 farmers needing our advice prior to the May outbreak of F&M here and that number has substantially increased since then.

"If ever we needed DEFRAs financial support its now," says Mr Welbank.

Around 130 Lancashire farmers have benefited from almost £900,000 worth of capital grants over the last two years through the regional project now being hailed as the most successful of its kind.

And equating that figure in terms of total investment – including farmers contributions – shows a cash injection of £3.5m into a vast range of north west farm and rural projects.

The Bowland Initiative, which has been paid for with Objective 5b funding, has been a runaway success. It promised to deliver immediate help to farmers and has remained true to that commitment.

The long list of capital grant schemes undertaken by the project include a new sheep milking enterprise (£38,000), several livestock housing applications (each receiving over £25,000), development of a yogurt plant (£28,000), conversion of a barn for "bunk" accommodation (£35,000) and expansion of an on-farm livery business (£4000).

In addition, the project has won funding to pay for 735 training days for farmers covering a wide range of new skills including home butchery, conservation and game management and even how to run a farm shop and holiday cottage business.

The scheme covers 82,000ha of Lancashire – from hill and upland farms in the north to the fertile lowlands of the Fylde and the Lune Valley.

"One of the aims of the project was to see if it was possible to integrate the delivery of grant aid to farm businesses across several independent agencies," says Mr Welbank.

"We aimed to look, in a holistic manner, at the business, the environment, the social and the training side of individual farms in one session. Its not possible to deliver a business package that will succeed without linking it into whats already happening on the farm or what is being proposed."

In the early days of the project it was clear that many farmers were nervous of a "bolt-on" environmental package that was a condition of being awarded a business grant.

"But we have proved that if the environmental packages are delivered correctly they are perceived by farmers as a source of positive cash flow," says Mr Welbank.

"We will not impose any environmental package on a farm that has a negative impact on cash flow."

The Bowland Initiative has become a master at "farmer hand-holding". It recognises that many farmers find the complexities of environmental grant applications off-putting – something that often creates apathy and a reluctance to become involved.

Those who apply for capital grant receive a detailed appraisal of their farm which includes an environmental stock-take.

"We sit down with the farmer and go through the range of environmental grants available.

"The aim is to come up with an environmental package that will fit in with the existing farming system, draw in positive cash flow through a grant scheme and link-in with the rest of the business plan," says Mr Welbank.

Lancashire County Council remains the projects main financial "partner" and has committed substantial funding to pay for running costs. Various district councils, English Nature, Countryside Agency, Environment Agency and the North West Development Agency are also providing financial input.

Mr Welbank does not believe there is a widespread feeling among farmers in the region to quit the industry.

"The livestock sector was under great strain before F&M and now that situation has been made more acute. But if farmers can, in some way, regenerate their businesses and still farm, I believe there is a definite willingness to carry on."

Semi-retirement packages have been popular. A compensation cheque to pay for a more environmentally-friendly way of farming is a "half-way house" thats appealing to many farmers.

These packages are being provided through the Countryside Stewardship Scheme and offer an annual income for specific types of environmental management.

"The payments for this type of scheme are likely to be conditional on lower stocking densities and reduced fertiliser use but will provide an annual payment over 10 years ranging from £40/ha to £160/ha.

"These schemes enable farmers to stay on the farm but to wind-down their business and receive income for environmental management."

Forestry planting is also becoming popular. The Woodland Grant Scheme, Better Land Supplement and Community Woodland Supplement can provide an "up-front" lump sum for initial planting. These projects then follow through with payments under the Farm Woodland Premium Scheme which can pay an annual sum of up to £240/ha for up to 15 years.

"There are so many incentives to suit specific requirements of diversification – and that includes semi-retirement. But you have to appraise the farm as a whole to achieve an overall picture of exactly where the income will come from under any proposed restructuring," says Mr Welbank.