15 March 2002

Government policies condemned

by all…

Last week farmers weekly ran a series of seminars across

the country for specialist arable producers. The

BASF-sponsored meetings at Perth, York, Coventry,

Newmarket and Winchester raised a host of issues. Here

Charles Abel pinpoints farmer sentiments

ARABLE farmers across the land are united in their condemnation of government policy, but far less scathing about the efforts made by the NFU.

In a survey of specialist producers attending the farmers weekly/BASF "Brave New World" seminars last week, half branded the governments support for arable farming as very poor, 40% poor and just 10% average.

Not a single one of the growers who represented a total of almost 40,000ha (100,000 acres) of cropping had a good word to say about the governments support of arable farmers.

One grower from the south summarised the sentiments of many: "We need a government that understands farming, that has a farming policy and that is prepared to take more control of farming issues within the EU."

At a simpler level an East Anglian grower wanted a government to just recognise that farming is about food production. "What we need most of all is a government with the will to see home-based agriculture survive," agreed another Yorks grower.

But support for a breakaway Arable Farmers Association, to push for the sectors interests instead of the NFU was firmly split.

An overwhelming 81% rated the NFUs support for arable farming as average, poor or very poor. But they were evenly split on whether they wanted a separate Arable Farmers Association. Of the 48% favouring such a group many said it should remain under the NFU umbrella.

"Remember the miners," warned a Tyneside producer. "Look at what Thatcher did with their unions – divide and rule. Its the last thing we want."

But many want the NFU to take greater account of arable issues, particularly more professional lobbying. "Too often it seems like a lot of amateurs trying very hard, instead of a group of professionals getting results," said a Midlands producer.

Several meetings identified the need for a national pro-farming public relations initiative. At Mildenhall, near Newmarket East Anglian growers felt this could make a major contribution to combating imports and restoring confidence in farmers. "We need much better PR for the arable sector, both with the nation and with government."

Many thought anti-farming lobby groups were far more effective at getting their message across. "They seem to have a more professional approach," said a grower from the south attending the Winchester meeting on Friday.

One particularly business-focussed producer felt the industry also needed to look closer to home. "As well as needing a weaker £, farmings main problem is that it has been too profitable and got too used to a high standard of living and now it hurts. We need to make the whole industry younger and more dynamic," he suggested.

&#8226 Currency shift – Two out of three growers cited currency change as the single thing that would do most to help their arable businesses. Many wanted k entry at around 70p, one ambitiously hoped for 85p and another even longed for parity (100p)! Others will be satisfied with a stronger k while keeping the £, while some were prepared to see the £ devalued. Such sentiments are no surprise – for each 1p shift in the exchange rate UK farming would benefit by £100m. 84% of growers felt the UK would adopt the k one day, 14% soon and just 2% never – a major shift from earlier sentiments that it is a question of "if" rather than "when" the UK joins the k.

&#8226 Government support – Several growers are still looking to government to protect their interests, mainly through responsible policing of assured produce standards. "We need government to educate the public, especially about non-assured imports," said one.

Other things growers want include:

&#8226 Black Sea cereal shortage.

&#8226 Freedom from paper-shuffling.

&#8226 Level playing field with farmers worldwide.

&#8226 Simply being able to see some light at the end of the tunnel.