David Richardson - Farmers Weekly

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David Richardson

PARLIAMENTARY CANDIDATES would love to be able to persuade the electorate what good chaps they are without voters realising what they were up to. Subliminal messages are often influential and, provided they have no evil intent, they are legal and can be effective. I wouldn”t want you to think I approve of such deviousness but spin-doctors try it regularly, so why not the farming industry?

Norfolk”s approach to this for the past six years has been to organise an event for schoolchildren during the Easter holidays to which they are encouraged to bring their parents or grandparents.

Held at the County Showground and organised jointly by the show and the local paper, the Eastern Daily Press, which ensures good publicity, the Spring Fling consists of a range of interactive exhibitions about farming and food interspersed with entertaining displays and demonstrations with a countryside theme.

free competitions

 This year more families than ever before paid 4 a head, which included a complimentary hog roast and drink, and spent the day having fun. They participated in free competitions that co-incidentally taught them how UK food is produced, how wholesome and healthy it is and how much fossil fuel is conserved by eating it rather than imports.

 Inevitably the mums, dads and grandparents were consulted on some of the answers and since they had the spending power, this was encouraged. And it worked. I have seldom seen so many happy adults and children leaving an event saying: “What a good day.”

One of the exhibitors, Greenvale Potatoes, handed out seed potatoes for children to grow at home. Others asked children to identify which food came from which farm crop or livestock.

urban people

 It still surprises me how few modern urban people, of whatever age, can identify correctly that bread comes from wheat, chips from potatoes, beer from barley, butter and cheese from cows, and so on.

But once their interest was awakened, most went on to register that the calcium and phosphorus content in milk and cheese are good for teeth and that five servings of fruit or veg a day are essential for good health.

 Some of the fruit the National Health Service recommended was, of course, imported. But much of what was necessary could be grown here, which led to another important message on food miles.

The Community Carbon Reduction Project, or CRed, based at the University of East Anglia, has a target to reduce carbon emissions in Norfolk by 60% by 2025. That”s 25 years earlier than the national target set by the government. It had mounted a stand that explained how damaging imported food could be. CRed boffins calculated that a large aircraft carrying carrots from South Africa to London emits more than 2000t of CO2 into the atmosphere.

 They also worked out that every carrot calorie delivered takes 68 calories in fossil fuel to get it here.

 Norfolk farmers could grow those carrots, CRed said, and they could produce other crops to help replace fossil fuel.

 Another serious subject was Fairtrade coffee, cocoa and tea. The Co-op, Oxfam and the Fairtrade Foundation provided excellent publicity material demonstrating how the combination of free trade, over-production and the commercial might of multinational companies were leaving growers around the world with prices below cost of production.

fair trade

The supporting literature pleaded with consumers to pay a little more to help guarantee such farmers a better living. Few could disagree with the justice of such arguments. But I would have liked to see coffee and other tropical examples matched by parallel pleas for fair trade for British and European farm produce as well.

All in all, however, a worthwhile exercise. About 4000 Norfolk people enjoyed the day and, not for the first time, representatives of other agricultural shows were there to learn how to do something similar.

 Variations on the same theme are already being arranged by a number of agricultural associations and I”d like to see the idea spread across the country.

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David Richardson

MOST FARMERS resent the disclosure of what they perceive as private business to public scrutiny. Celebrities spend fortunes trying to protect their privacy. Wealthy individuals erect fences around their properties to prevent snoopers.

Both groups become upset when they fail because confidentiality is not respected and scandal sells newspapers. Farmers have felt themselves in a similar situation and experienced the same emotions as IACS payments were made public last week in response to the Freedom of Information Act that came into force on Jan 1.

 six figures

 It is difficult to escape the suspicion that the disclosure had a political purpose – that it was convenient for the government to let it be known a few big farmers and other businesses receive sums that run to six figures. To the ordinary person such sums, which, it is implied, enrich the undeserving, seem obscene.

 They have no idea of the economics of farming, nor the costs of maintaining the countryside.

 Meanwhile, the entire farming industry feels guilty for accepting subsidies that taxpayers have been forced to contribute to the Exchequer. And the next time aid is cut the public applauds even louder.

All of which raises a number of issues. First, should the payments have remained confidential between the RPA and individual farmers? Most of us would rather that were the case, for reasons already discussed. But we have to accept it is public money and under different circumstances, in other words if members of another profession were paid large sums by the Treasury, we might insist on knowing the details.

 That”s the kind of society we live in these days. Everyone thinks they should know everything, whether it does them any good or not. So, trying to get such information suppressed was always going to be a waste of time.

More important, should farmers feel guilty at receiving aid?

Absolutely not. In my view, instead of trying to prevent disclosure, the industry should have mounted a campaign before the figures were released, to explain that while payments are, for convenience, made to farmers, they are for the benefit of consumers.

In 1947, when subsidies were introduced, they were to help hold down the price of food. In the 1970s, when Britain joined the EEC, intervention payments were to help provide food security for the member states. In neither of those cases did the aid do a perfect job. But that was the fault of the politicians who administered them, not the farmers who received them.

changing priorities

 Today, priorities have changed. The EU does not want farmers to produce the quantities of food they have delivered in the past. Instead, we are required to produce a better environment for ourselves and for wildlife. To pay for it we will receive single farm payments whether we produce food or not. Once again, the scheme is designed to benefit the public whose taxes will pay for it. Do you suppose 1.8% of the population of Britain that works on farms could have persuaded the other 98.2% to part with their cash if that were not so?

So, we will fulfil our obligations of cross-compliance, we will collect our points to qualify for the Entry Level Scheme, and we will do what taxpayers want – as interpreted by the government. In return, we will receive reducing amounts of money each year from Brussels and Whitehall. It is a business transaction like any other and there is no need for feelings of guilt.

If any taxpayer questions the validity of or the need for such payments to farmers they should be reminded that virtually every country in the world subsidises its farmers. Some do it with money, some by turning a blind eye to regulations, some by allowing farmers to exploit both labour and environment.

 And those who allege food prices are too high need to be reminded that the share of profit through the food chain is unequally divided.

Many farmers, even after their aid cheques, are lucky if they make a profit at all. Most processors are doing rather better.

 But the top retailers are making huge margins at the expense of those below them in the chain. Meanwhile, the average proportion of household income spent on food consumed at home is just 9%.

David Richardson

MY GRANDFATHER used to say he always had a bath before the Norfolk Show. He was joking, of course. He usually had one before Christmas as well – whether he needed it or not.

Bathing wasn”t such a regular habit in grandfather”s day. When I was a child we only did it as a regular thing on Friday nights. I suppose we must have been a bit smelly by today”s standards, although I don”t remember being conscious of it. If everyone was the same it probably wouldn”t have been noticed. We were guided by the old saying that too much bathing weakened you and we used a lot less water than we do now.


I was reminded of all this when I went to a science exhibition and lecture, mainly for children, mounted by the Science Park on the edge of Norwich by several organisations whose activities are concerned with water in all its forms. Contributors included The British Antarctic Survey, which displayed samples of Antarctic ice cores and as it melted you could hear gases trapped for millions of years escaping like Alka-Seltzer into the atmosphere. Other exhibitors included the Institute of Food Research, the John Innes Institute and the Teachers Science Network which, along with all the others, were trying to enthuse children to take science as a subject by exposing them to the “wow” factor.

Although it was mainly for schools, I”m a big kid and thoroughly enjoyed the occasion. I learned a lot, too, and some of it was relevant to farming. Let me share some of it.

Of all the water on the planet 97% is in the oceans and is saline. Two-thirds of the remaining fresh water, or 2% of the total, is locked in ice at the poles, while less than 1% is available for human consumption in lakes, rivers and underground aquifers. Here in the UK the average person uses 135 litres every day. That includes bathing, flushing toilets, washing the car and drinking. If these trends continue that figure seems set to rise by 40% over the next 20 years. In the USA they are already using amounts of that order. But it is not just Americans who have increased their usage. The world population has doubled since 1950, but the amount of water consumed has increased sixfold.

Closer to home, it is estimated that 80% of the world”s water is used by farmers. That average figure is clearly not correct in the UK, where most farmers still rely on rainfall. But if water becomes short in the hotter developing countries, and the number of people living in water-stressed countries is projected to rise to 3bn by 2025, their ability to feed themselves, let alone export fruit, vegetables, flowers to the west, as many do, will be compromised.

Some UK potato growers and other fresh crop specialists, who irrigate, might view that with satisfaction and conclude that it might mean higher prices and better margins. But before they become too excited they should be aware of the pressures on water supplies building up in this country, especially in the southeast.

Conversations I have had with people in the water supply business have made it clear that even long-term irrigation licences are far from secure. Such people are appalled at government plans to increase the number of houses in the southeast by at least 0.5m and possibly 1m. “We don”t have enough water to satisfy domestic and industrial demand already,” they complain. “How do they expect us to supply many more homes?”

Like it or not, they must tackle the problem. In preparation for action they are, among other things, reviewing all farm abstraction licences across the southeast. If it becomes necessary to supply the new urban customers, they will reduce or cancel licences in order to free supplies for the new housing estates. The water suppliers do not pretend it is fair, they don”t claim it is reasonable, they just say they will have no alternative.


Once again, home food production for the nation, taken for granted for so long, will be in jeopardy. Only this time it may not be possible to replace it with imports. For exporters who produce them will be running out of water, too. As debate on the policies over which the general election will be fought intensifies, short-termism on food still rules.

David Richardson

ON THE same day EU agriculture commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel was telling the NFU annual conference to expect a radical reform of the EU sugar regime, the FW study tour was in Havana discussing sugar supply, demand and prices with the Cuban minister for sugar.

Mrs Fischer Boel implied that plans to cut EU quotas by 16% and the guaranteed price by 37%, with partial compensation via the single farm payment – although not necessarily to beet growers, but perhaps spread across all farmers – would form the basis of the reform. The Cuban sugar minister, like most politicians, was reluctant to discuss bad news, but admitted lower world prices had forced him to drastically cut cane sugar production.

EU proposals are meant to cut or eliminate subsidies, to comply with World Trade Organisation demands, and stop exporting surpluses, said to be undermining prices for cane producers in developing countries. EU sugar prices are three times those on world markets, it is pointed out, and this is unsustainable. What is seldom recognised is that EU prices have not risen – world prices have collapsed. This is partly because of EU exports of over-quota sugar – produced in France and a few other member states – but mainly because of a dramatic rise in production, by Brazil in particular, which, as the lowest cost producer, is calling most vociferously for free trade.

 Brazilian lobbyists do not reveal that its expansion has taken place through exploiting cheap, some allege slave, labour and on land reclaimed from savannah and rainforest that has been identified as some of the most valuable wildlife habitat on the planet. Moreover, every acre of rainforest that is slashed and burned means a smaller carbon sink for greenhouse gases and lower production of oxygen. In other words, such expansion is contributing massively to global warming, which may be a greater threat to humanity than terrorism.

 price decline

 In Cuba sugar cane has long been the most important crop. Production of refined sugar peaked at 8m tonnes 40 years ago and was still more than 4m tonnes until 2002. Domestic use is about 700,000t and sales to other communist countries kept the economy afloat. But the disastrous decline in the world price, together with the collapse of the Soviet Union and cessation of aid to Cuba (FW, Mar 11) has made sugar uneconomic. Production has been cut to less than 2m tonnes and half of the 150 or so antiquated processing plants, often the only employment in an area, stand idle. Cuba still exports its reduced surplus to socialist friends Russia and China at premium prices. If they did not pay above world levels the Cuban economy would be even worse off.

 Cuban agriculture, like many other cane producing countries, has few alternatives to growing sugar. Much of the land is of poor quality with rocky outcrops. Indeed, it is incredible how citrus and some other fruit trees seem to thrive; the FW group were told it was with the aid of dynamite. There are a few oases of good soil with access to irrigation on which potatoes are grown. Charles Whitaker of UK management consultants Brown & Co had been to the area, just a few thousand acres, a few days before us trying to sell seed potatoes on behalf of an East Anglian co-operative. He was also retained to write an assessment of the Cuban dairy industry. Although we were excluded from viewing dairy farms, those we saw from the road appeared to be in urgent need of his best efforts.

Meanwhile, the sugar industry seems close to extinction. If the factory we visited was any guide, it is surprising it has lasted as long as it has. There appeared to have been little investment for 50 years and some of the 100-year-old tackle was still working. The same was true of the harvesters. This is what communism and Brazilian expansion has done to fellow Latin Americans.

quota cut

OK, EU surpluses have not helped, and I have always believed EU quotas should be cut, mainly from those countries that produce the surpluses, to eliminate cheap exports. But it seems to me that to cut EU prices by the amount proposed would make most European production uneconomic and we would end up as badly off as Cuba. Furthermore, I fail to understand why legislators, who claim to be as concerned with global warming as they are with free trade, seem unable to recognise the glaring contradictions in their policies.

David Richardson

HAVE YOU read Hans Christian Andersen”s fairy tales? If so you will remember the one about the emperor”s new clothes. If not, it goes like this.

There was once an emperor who always wanted the finest and most fashionable clothes. One day a couple of con men arrived at his palace declaring that they could make the finest cloth imaginable – although it was invisible to people who were stupid. The emperor inspected the “invisible” cloth and, not wanting to be thought stupid, said it was the best he had ever seen and commissioned the con men to make him a suit from the invisible cloth.

When the “suit” was finished a ceremony was arranged for it to be fitted and, not wanting to appear stupid, the courtiers all admired the invisible suit. The emperor was so impressed by their reaction that he decided to walk the streets wearing his invisible suit to show it off to his people.

The people, who had also been told the story of the suit being invisible to stupid people, clapped and cheered as the emporer paraded up and down. Except one boy in the crowd who had not heard the story. As the emperor walked past, he asked: “Why is the emperor naked?” The people quickly realised the boy was right. But the emperor, not wanting to admit he had been fooled, walked on with even greater haughtiness with his self-important courtiers behind him.

Why am I telling fairy stories? The fact is that when I hear the great and the good of British agriculture extolling the prospects for a prosperous industry now we have a reformed CAP; declaiming the potential for greater production efficiencies, promulgating the benefits of reconnecting with consumers and promoting the opportunities for providing competitively priced products for the market and not for the subsidy, I feel like that boy in the crowd.

I think to myself – is it me that”s imagining things, or is it those who continue to tell us the future is so bright? It is, of course, fashionable to be positive. And negativity is also associated with advancing age (from which I suffer) according to some young FW correspondents whose enthusiasm I would not wish to dampen. May I point out, however, that while a few individuals may be able to exploit whatever rural assets they have available and make good returns from exotic crops and cash in on niche products or specialist supermarket contracts, commodity agriculture still accounts for what most farmers are able to do. And whichever way I look at it, I see threats.

That is not to say it will be impossible to make a good living from farming. There are examples in every region of individuals and groups who have managed to build thriving businesses despite the problems that have beaten many others. I would suggest, however, that such people are relatively exceptional, have special production or marketing skills, or have farms in favourable positions beside lots of houses whose residents are willing to spend money on the food or the service they provide.

I would further suggest that many such success stories rely more on the farm buildings and a few acres around them than they do on the broad acres of arable crops or grass further afield. Again, there are exceptions to that theory. But my main point is that while there might be a good living for some from activities associated with farming that does not apply to the industry as a whole.

Moreover, DEFRA”s own Fresh Start booklet intended as an inspiration to persuade more young people to come into the industry, addresses its target audience rather hesitantly by saying: “If you see a future for yourself working full-time within the industry…” It goes on to urge aspirants to take business advice so as to understand the implications of decoupling and then suggests diversifying or taking other employment, presumably to help make ends meet.

Can you imagine any other industry selling itself in this half-hearted, but sadly realistic, way? But still the great and good predict a prosperous future. Are they like the emperor”s courtiers – simply saying it because they don”t want to offend the emperor (DEFRA) who has been cheated by con men?

Have some come round to believing there”s a decent future for only a select few? Do we need a few more little boys to point out the lack of substance in current policies?


David Richardson

WHAT FOLLOWS is meant for thosefamiliar with the mysteries of A, B and C sugar quotas and the proposals to reform the EU”s sugar regime. I apologise for using one of my columns for the self-interest of a relatively small sector (7000) of British farmers and a bigger group (20,000) of workers, but to them this is very important. So, if the rest of you would like to turn the page I will address my remarks to those to whom they are relevant.


OK, fellow growers. I will speak frankly. If you want to retain the only crop that has consistently produced a modest profit I suggest you do something about it. You are well aware that EU policy for sugar is to be changed to conform with the rest of CAP reform. You are presumably also aware that these changes, if adopted, would result in a price drop of 37% and a cut in quota of 16%.

There is a side proposal that would partially compensate for the drop in income to the tune of 60% of the fall in price. It is not yet clear whether that would be paid back to sugar beet growers, as it should, or divided among all farmers in beet growing countries. If the latter, each recipient would receive so little as to make no difference. The decision will be the responsibility of each member state, so the French, for example, might get full compensation while we in the UK might get pennies.

Given the British government”s attitude up to now (it has voted for full liberalisation with no compensation on a number of occasions) such inequity seems possible. In which case, we can kiss goodbye to the UK sugar industry. Few farmers can grow beet at 18/t, which is where the 37% cut would leave us. Those who can would be unlikely to produce sufficient roots to keep British Sugar”s six factories working. The most efficient sugar processors in Europe would grind to a halt with the loss of thousands of jobs. Ideal sites for ground nesting birds would be lost. And the balance of payments would be hit.

But it does not stop there. The main reasons given for liberalising the regime is to help cane producers in developing countries. But the African Caribbean and Pacific nations, much of whose output Britain already imports under a long-standing agreement and which supplies half this country”s sugar needs, are as upset by the proposals as we are. Their prices would also fall and they, too, would be forced to trade at non-viable world prices.


Another batch of so-called least developed countries that had anticipated benefiting from the deal ACP nations have enjoyed for 30 years are also distraught. Guyana, for example, which the new EU trade commissioner, Peter Mandelson, has been visiting, said the proposals would “mean a reduction in revenue for the Guyana sugar industry… that would lead to devastating socio-economic consequences” for the small and fragile Guyanese economy. It was hoped the visit would provide a chance to explain “these life and death matters to the new Commissioner” so the proposals could be “seriously revised”.

At a time when aid for developing nations is high on every agenda; when governments are still coming to terms with the cost of the tsunami; when Chancellor Gordon Brown claims to want to deal with world poverty through the G8 countries, which Britain chair”s at present, politicians must listen to what the cane growers are saying.

It is almost incidental that many of their interests coincide with those of EU beet growers. Yes, there will have to be quota cuts in Europe so that production matches consumption and stops exports. But the cuts should be in countries such as France and Germany rather than Britain, where we produce only half what we use.

The savage price cuts will destroy whole industries here and in developing countries and hand most of the world”s sugar production to Brazil and Thailand, where labour and the environment are exploited. Even the RSPB and Oxfam have belatedly recognised these facts.

So why was I berating you earlier? Because the number of letters to politicians telling them all this has so far been pathetic. There will be an election in a few weeks” time. Politicians will never be more receptive. For goodness” sake sit down and write your MP a letter. If you don”t you will be partly to blame if the sugar industry is lost.

David Richardson

A FEW INACCURACIES apart, I do not have a big problem with the report on The Little Red Tractor launched by the Sustainable Development Commission. As chairman of Linking Environment and Farming, I sat on the committee whose deliberations led to the formation of assurance schemes. I remember saying that the proposals did not go far beyond legal requirements and that if adopted there would be demands to improve. I am surprised it has taken so long.

But back then I was forced to concede that for most farmers even the baseline standards called for, together with acceptance of independent inspection, were as much as they would agree to. I was disappointed, subsequently, when the NFU council chose a logo more meaningful to producers than to consumers. It seemed to me then and still does that it missed the point.

The idea was to increase the attractiveness of British food, not British farm machinery. But the decision had been taken and would not be changed, so a few of us, even then, suggested hooking a green trailer on the back of the tractor for consumers who wanted something extra; phrases that have been repeated during this latest debate.

Moreover, although David Clarke, chief executive of Assured Food Standards, defended robustly the current scheme, it is clear from his and NFU president, Tim Bennett’s, responses to the SDC that they accept the need for an update. Such an exercise will not go as far or as fast as the SDC would like, but at the very least it will be necessary to make the LRT standard compatible with cross-compliance.

I suspect that would be seen as a big achievement by SDC chairman, Jonathon Porritt, even if he does not admit it publicly. His commission”s role, after all, is essentially that of a ginger group and demanding more than you expect is fundamental to how such bodies work.

So, those of us in assurance schemes can expect to have to tick a few more boxes in future. But doing so should, I hope, be no more onerous than complying with regulations already in place, compliance with which is necessary to qualify for a single farm payment.

Form filling

Certainly, that was a point I made to DEFRA officials who attended the launch of the SDC report. I explained that on our farm we now have one tractor driver, no secretary, and that the rest of the work has to be done by my son and myself. That does not leave many hours for form filling. I suggested we were typical and that they should bear that in mind as they generated yet more paperwork for us to respond to.

The key weaknesses of the Sustainability Commission”s report were the scant attention it gave to achievability and the cost-effectiveness of higher standards in the present economic climate. To be fair, one of the definitions of sustainability it mentioned was “to provide a viable livelihood for farmers, processors and retailers”. We don”t need to concern ourselves with retailers, even though some are finding it tough to live with Tesco. Most processors, too, can look after themselves. It is those of us at the bottom of the food chain who are most vulnerable to increased costs and static or falling returns.

But as much as the SDC would like it to be otherwise, there is a limited market for high environmental standards. Out of a total food UK spend of over 100bn a year, organic food, which Jonathon Porritt controversially called the “Gold Standard” and which gets more free publicity from the media than it deserves, accounts for a mere 1bn. Farm shops and farmers” markets gross 4bn, and that is encouraging. Most of the rest is bought by less discriminating consumers concerned mainly with price and convenience.

Meanwhile, retailers scour the world for even cheaper products to maintain or increase their profits while responding to that price-obsessed majority. Unless that greenhouse gas-generating trend can be controlled, accurate labelling imposed and the awful realities of production in some exporting countries becomes known, the influence of the LRT will be limited to a niche of caring buyers.

But as Jonathon Porritt said, there are many sustainable things being done “invisibly”. What farmers, the LRT and the SDC need to do is to jointly mount a sustained programme to inform consumers just what they are buying and how it has been produced. An initiative like that might get somewhere.

David Richardson

AS WE PREPARE for a New Year and, for European agriculture, a new era, some farmers are apparently clinging to the notion that they can continue as before; that single farm payments will simply replace production-based aid, albeit at lower levels, and that there is little need to change beyond a bit more belt-tightening. That is not my conclusion based on pub talk, but that reached by an ADAS survey of 1800 farmers across England and Wales.

Only 25% of those interviewed said they would manage their farms differently under the new regime. Almost 60% admitted they did not appreciate that the future would be radically different.

For the record, decoupling aid from production amounts to the abandonment of policies in force since World War II. It may lead to severe cuts in production, reversing previous plans that accepted the need for strategic reserves, even if that meant surpluses of some commodities. And on farms the priority to produce food to earn aid to supplement market values will no longer apply. The aid will arrive (provided registrations are in order) whether we produce or not.

Market prices will be crucial and if we calculate we cannot make a margin at the likely sale value, there will be no need to grow the crop or keep the animals to qualify for aid.

All of this has been published many times over recent weeks, even though, with days to go before it started, the regulations governing entitlements were not yet clear. But in view of the ADAS survey, I thought it would do no harm to repeat the basics of a momentous CAP Reform.

So, can farmers earn a profit from the market alone in 2005? Readers will have their own rules of thumb on what the price of a given commodity needs to be to leave them a margin. But the fundamentals are that the values of cereals and milk are likely to be down compared with 2003, when growers came close to profitability, and the costs of fertilisers and labour, in particular, will be significantly higher. And that says nothing of the growing expense of complying with regulations to which further restrictions on soil management and water purity have just been added.

The mood in Norfolk (and this is pub talk) is that we may have made a mistake in planting near-normal acreages of winter cereals this year but we won”t do it again unless the price of grain rises by at least 20/t. The reform of the EU”s sugar regime from 2006 is scheduled to destroy the profitability of what has been a useful crop, so beet could disappear from East Anglia soon after that. The British countryside could look very different in five years” time.

If that is the case – will the new regime survive? There are three potential threats, in my view. First, public opinion. When taxpayers discover, as the media will ensure they do, that farmers are receiving what will be portrayed as generous aid for keeping their fields tidy under the terms of cross-compliance and producing little or no food, will they be happy? Headlines will speak of “feather-bedded farmers” and the entire edifice around which the new regime has been built will be at risk as its political authors run for cover.

Second, EU cash may run out. At the beginning of negotiations on the mid term review that turned into a fundamental reform of the CAP, President Chirac of France and Chancellor Schroeder of Germany knocked out a deal between themselves that whatever the outcome the EU would not provide any more cash to fund it.

At the time the EU had 15 member countries. On May 1 this year 10 more joined and most of them, notably Poland, have big farming constituencies matched by big expectations of EU aid. But the Chirac/Schroeder deal stands. So, with such a restricted budget, how will the Commission fulfil its promises to new members while maintaining its reformed policies for old members?

The third threat, which may provide solutions to the first two, is the plan for a Mid Term Review, yes, another one, in 2008. If the problems I have postulated come about, together with others not yet considered, political pressure to change the policies about to begin will be intense.

Indeed, the USA equivalent of CAP Reform, the Freedom to Farm Act, was abandoned long before its seven-year allotted term and the same could happen in Europe. Then, just as we were getting used to the regime that starts tomorrow we would have to worry what would be put in its place.

A challenging thought with which I wish you a Happy New Year.

David Richardson

I’M NOT SURE if the folks at the Rural Payments Agency realised what a difficult and disappointing harvest we had in this part of East Anglia or whether they’ve just got their computers working better.

Either way, they were kind enough to send our IACS cheque last week, earlier than ever before, and I would like to propose a vote of thanks. The next government cheque – the first single farm payment – may not arrive until the middle of 2006 and I am not looking forward to that delay. But at least the RPA got the old system going well before policy changes caused them to abandon it.

The other matter of concern when notification of the IACS payment came was the 3.5% deduction for modulation which, although expected under the new scheme has already started under the old one. Over the next few years modulation will erode 10% from SFPs.

The amount withheld will be diverted to pay for the Entry Level Stewardship Scheme. So the only way to recover that deduction is to apply to join the scheme when it is launched in March 2005. It will be a five-year agreement, open to all with no budgetary restriction, and payments for those who fulfil the criteria will be 30/ha/yr (12/acre/yr). In other words, every 10ha involved over the term of the agreement could be worth 1500 to the farmer.

The money won’t just be handed out. Farms will have to meet environmental and other objectives to target levels to qualify. Inevitably, there will be more form-filling – on paper or electronically – so that officials can verify eligibility. But inspections, it is claimed, will be limited to spot checks on 5% of farms a year and, once established, administration will be “minimised”, whatever that means. In any event, the potential rewards seem to me too attractive to ignore and we will be applying to join in due course.

The fact that we joined the old Countryside Stewardship Scheme when it started should, I believe, help towards the required number of points, as will our long-term membership of LEAF and adherence to its objectives.

We have also, with the invaluable help of our local FWAG man, recently signed up for Environmental Stewardship. It replaces Countryside Stewardship next year and will incorporate aspects of the old scheme together with measures likely to be included in cross-compliance and the Environmentally Sensitive areas Scheme. Although final details have not yet been ratified, there is an undertaking that they will be consistent with one another.

The measures we have agreed, such as increased buffer strips, areas planted to wild bird mixtures, public access and so on, together with the hedges, trees, ponds and so on the farm already features, should, we hope, enable us to meet the ELS points target. Environmental Stewardship alone should earn us 10 times more per year than Countryside Stewardship did and, although you don”t get paid twice for the same feature, we hope that by going for the ELS as well, we shall optimise our cash return from environmentalism.

As I hope the above makes clear, the amount of EU and government money going towards improving the environment in its widest sense will be significantly greater from next year. On this farm we are treating it as another diversification and as such aim to get the most out of it. If a better environment is what the public wants us to produce, as expressed through the government, then that is what we will sell them.

There is also the possibility, in due course, of going for the Higher Level Scheme. As its name implies, it will involve even higher standards of environmental management, which will be rewarded with increased payments. But the HLS will be discretionary – not every farm will be accepted – and will have a limited budget.

Maybe it is something we will look at in due course, but for the moment I reserve judgement. Let’s get the ELS going first.

For the avoidance of doubt, it is my opinion that anyone who does not apply to join the ELS will lose government money that has been taken from them but which they are entitled to recover. At the same time, it must be accepted that participation in the scheme will be complicated and, from my experience, is made much easier by the assistance of someone who knows his or her way round the details.

I know that may sound like an adviser’s benefit and that I may be inconsistent to advocate it. But there should be more than enough cash coming out of the ELS to pay for it.


6 September 2002


Western leaders must

learn more about Third

World food production

if they are to offer

any meaningful,

long-lasting assistance

I BELIEVE many of the government ministers, administrators and their economic advisers who have been meeting in Johannesburg mean well. They care about the starving millions in the Third World. They hope their deliberations will help them. They want the policy statements they publish to provide food for the hungry. The trouble is, most have little or no practical experience or understanding of what is required and what will work.

Our own top team of Tony Blair and Margaret Beckett, whose contributions have not been reported as I write, will doubtless repeat the mantra that the West, meaning Britain among other countries, must open their markets to developing nations. The trade generated, the theory goes, will provide the wealth to build the economies of such nations and they will begin to catch up with the developed world.

The fact that many developing nations are run by corrupt dictators who cream off most of any wealth created for themselves and their cronies is conveniently ignored. Further, that by encouraging greater access for cheap commodities from such nations, they risk a run-down of their domestic production and of creating an underclass at home among those whose products the imports replace. In the current climate of globalisation that is not a risk perceived worth bothering about, of course, especially with regard to farming. But it is one that may return to haunt them if they fail to take it seriously.

I am fortunate to have travelled widely. I have visited farms in developing countries whose produce already comes here. I have seen how it is produced, packed and marketed. I have followed it all the way to the supermarket shelf. I offer a few thoughts on the flaws in some of the arguments put forward in Johannesburg.

In almost every developing country there are a few entrepreneurs who recognise the advantages of producing goods at Third World costs and marketing them to first world outlets. As air transportation systems (which use massive amounts of fossil fuel and make greenhouse gasses) have developed, such enterprises have expanded in scale and number. Often, the prime movers are expatriates. In other words, incomers ready to exploit the climatic advantages and cheap labour found in most developing countries to create agribusinesses for their personal profit.

In many ways the activities of such people are to be admired. Although it is, to say the least, paradoxical that agribusiness in the Third World is regarded by the politically correct as OK, while in the first world it is condemned. However, the main point is that while such businesses, producing commodities like fruit, vegetables, flowers and so on, provide premium employment for perhaps hundreds of local people, there are millions who do not benefit. And because all the goods are exported they do nothing to alleviate starvation in other regions of the same country.

Another favourite ploy is to call for investment in infrastructure to enable native people to produce commodities for sale to the west. I remember seeing the remains of one in Tanzania a few years ago. The World Bank had spent millions of $s setting up an enormous farm to grow maize, flattening many traditional villages as they did so. Tractors, sprayers, combine harvesters and so on had been shipped in and local people put to driving them. For the first year or two western managers supervised the growing of good crops for local people to eat as well as to export.

But then the managers left. The locals who had no previous experience with machinery and had not learned about maintenance thought it would work forever without attention. After less than a year most was broken down and left to rust. The entire area soon became deserted because the timber the native women needed for their cooking fires had been uprooted to create big fields. Their situation was worse than it had been before. For western methods can seldom be successfully imposed on Third World communities – not without continued first world supervision anyway.

By far the best way to tackle starvation is to deal with it on a local basis, a village at a time, as Farm Africa does in spite of inadequate resources. To villages that traditionally live from the produce of herds of goats they introduce better breeds that yield more milk and produce better meat. Where those same free-roaming goats have been eating saplings that would otherwise develop into trees and provide shelter and fuel close to the village, they suggest keeping the goats confined. They design cooking pots that use less fuel; yet another development to reduce the need to cut down trees and the associated risk of desertification. They help to find wells of clean water that will serve whole communities. Those are the kind of changes to which native people can relate and respond.

They are not grand gestures to be bragged about at international conferences. They require the long-term dedication of a great many volunteers to go and rough it in native villages, sometimes for years, to teach the locals better ways to survive. They also require funding. A little of the cash spent on the Johannesburg jolly would have helped a lot.

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30 August 2002


As one would expect,

the combine drivers

lot is a far happier

one now than nearly

half a century ago

Our combine drivers daughter decided to get married a couple of Saturdays ago. He told me well ahead of the date and apologised for the timing, which was "out of his hands". But he thought he ought to be there and asked me to stand by to drive the machine all day if the weather was fine. The weather was very fine indeed, ideal for combining and for weddings. So from 10am until the dew fell after dark that Saturday I was the king of the harvest.

I cant claim the job was onerous – not compared with the first combine I drove about 45 years ago. It was a 10ft cut, silver-painted Claas SF. The driver sat on a platform above the cutting table where the muck and dust billowed up from the inlet to the drum. There was no cab. We had to sit there in the middle of the dark cloud and get on with it. It would probably be illegal today, just like the 16- to 18-stone sacks bagged up and lugged about by another man on a platform behind the driver.

I used to dress up in an old pyjama jacket tightly buttoned at the neck. I tied a silk scarf around my nose and mouth in the style of a bandit. I wore stonebreakers goggles and pulled a flat cap well down over my head to join up with the rest of the protection. A few hours on that combine seat and inches of muck piled up all over you. But it was the latest technology at the time and compared with the old self-binder, setting up and carting sheaves to a stack and man-handling them all through a static threshing drum later – the system that had preceded it – we thought it was marvellous.

My thoughts wandered back to those "good old" days as I sat cocooned in my Claas Lexion, in air-conditioned comfort listening to the radio, sipping an occasional cold drink kept cool in the on-board refrigerator, checking on the computer that all was well, in regular radio contact with the trailer driver, and making external calls on my mobile phone. How times have changed.

They have, of course, done no more than keep up with the rest of society. Similar stories could be told of improvements to more conventional means of transport. But, in view of the current state of our industry, it was difficult to avoid the conclusion that whatever may be happening in other sectors we British farmers may be operating beyond our means.

However, the situation is nothing like as bad on farms in France, our fellow EU member. For a couple of weeks recently my wife and I have entertained the son of a French farming friend in our house. He was nominally here to help with the harvest but for most of the time he was with us it rained, so we gave him other jobs. His main purpose in staying with us was to improve his English before taking a degree in business administration. He said his heart was not in farming and in any case an older brother was already working with his father so he must do something else.

His father, who I have known for more than 20 years, farms in the Marne district of France, north of Rheims, where champagne comes from. The land is good and grows high yields of any crop planted in it.

So, when he brought his son to Norfolk I asked him what was happening to his profitability. "It is very bad" he replied. "We ave seen a reduction in ze last three years of 30%". I suggested he was fortunate and that the drop had been modest compared with this country. "You mean it is worse ere?" he asked "Surely not". So we compared a few figures.

His main crop, like mine, is wheat, which he finished combining on July 27 after a straight run of 10 days with no interruptions for rain. He sells his grain through his local co-op which also stores about half of it. He was not at all pleased with the £70/t he had received for what he had sold so far. He could not believe our spot price of £54.

Comparisons for other commodities told a similar story. Oilseed rape in France sold at £153/t compared with £138 in England. French harvest peas sold for £85/t whereas English crops fetched £74; and so on through the list. French prices were consistently 10-20% higher than those in this country.

The difference in area aid between our two countries was even greater. EU payments for set-aside and area aid for combinable crops are the same, of course. But in France that will come, in 2003, to £280/ha (£113/acre) while here in England well get £226 (£91.50/acre).

For protein crops the French will get £305 (£123/acre), while here in England we expect £260 (£105/acre). My apologies to farmers in the devolved countries of the UK who receive even less.

My French friend went home feeling a little happier with his lot, while I ground my teeth, yet again, at the unfairness, nay, injustice of it all.

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23 August 2002


British ministers have

failed miserably to

secure economic

sustainablity in this

country, so how are

they qualified to take

part in the world

summit on sustainable


The two-week world summit on sustainable development begins on Monday in Johannesburg. As the media have quite rightly informed us, thousands of government ministers and officials from around the world, including environment secretary, Michael Meacher, will gather at some of South Africas most expensive hotels to pontificate about the fate of poverty-stricken people, some of whom live in shanty towns only a few miles away. It is unlikely that those doing the talking will meet those they are discussing.

Towards the end of the first week, British ministers and their entourages will arrive to contribute their six-pennyworth. By what authority they consider themselves suitable candidates to give advice to the developing world is unclear. For they have failed miserably to secure the economic sustainability of either manufacturing industry or agriculture even in this sophisticated country. And whatever deputy prime minister, John Prescott, claims, his governments contribution to environmental sustainability has consisted of red tape and words and not much more. Against such a background, what hope is there that they may inspire progress in the third world?

There are said to be 14m starving people in Africa and the situation is getting worse. Here in the UK the governments deliberate neglect of farming seems likely to lead to a record area of voluntary set-aside in 2003 as growers seek a less risky option than growing crops for food. Now I am well aware that economists and politicians say these two situations are unrelated, that much of Africa is politically unstable and cannot pay for food even if there are surpluses elsewhere, that the rules say EU grain cannot be given or sold cheaply to starving people. Meanwhile those people are dying at an accelerating rate. So much for sustainable development. But perhaps the problems of Africa defy solution. I trust our happy band of government ministers and officials enjoy their luxury trip at our expense as they come to the same conclusion.

Meanwhile, back here in Norfolk we have had a better harvesting week. Once again, storms have interrupted progress in some areas, but for a few days, at least on this farm, we were able to pile grain in the barn without drying it. May that continue for another few weeks.

Reverting to the sustainability theme, I took a couple of hours off from barn work last week to attend an emergency meeting called by north Norfolk malting barley grower Teddy Maufe. The purpose of the early morning event (timed so as not to disrupt combining) was to draw attention to the fact that at £60/t or less, the crop shows a significant loss. Further, to alert maltsters to the probability that unless contracts for next year offered substantially greater premiums over feed, land will be put down to set-aside instead of planted with barley.

Norfolk grows about one-third of the malting barley produced in the UK and Mr Maufe has campaigned long and hard for better prices. But even he was surprised and pleased that in the middle of a hectic harvest well over 100 farmers turned up. As he succinctly said: "It is unsustainable when the end product (beer) is sold at a handsome profit while the basic ingredient (malting barley) is produced at a loss."

As a result of the meeting a small committee was set up to talk direct to end users and try to persuade them not to kill the goose laying their golden eggs. Its primary objective is to achieve a minimum of £80/t for next year, and beyond that to negotiate a cost-plus standard contract. I wish the committee every success. But I fear it may take more than talk to make the maltsters change their ways. For they, like so many other industries these days, are ruled by short-term thinking. They may well take the view that it is more profitable to buy barley as cheaply as possible in the short-term even if UK growers stop producing it and they have to import in the longer term.

The only language such people understand, I fear, is that which results in the non-availability of their raw materials. That means a widespread and general decision not to grow malting barley, not just in Norfolk, but also across Britain and in as many of the other countries to which maltsters normally turn. Indeed, it was announced at the meeting that a contact had already been made in Denmark, where farmers are equally dissatisfied with the prices they are receiving for malting barley. That must be an avenue worth pursuing. In any case growing malting barley at a loss is unsustainable and the existence of set-aside allows another option. Perhaps such a threat will make maltsters relent.

The trouble is, of course, that Mr Maufes comment about the unsustainability of growing barley at a loss while the end product makes profits for someone else, is just as true of a whole range of commodities. The imbalance of profitability between one end of the food chain and the other is a matter for urgent attention. The sooner it is corrected and rebalanced to be fairer for all parties, the better. Maybe malting barley will show us the way.



of growing barley at a loss while the end product makes profits for someone else, is just as true for a whole range of commodities.

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16 August 2002


Needless to say,

harvest in the eastern

regions reflects the

national picture…lots

of standstills and

lots of rain

It will surprise no one that the wet weather with which I ended last weeks column has continued. Similar conditions applied across Britain, although the isolated nature of some storms was remarkable. Travelling through Essex I saw a combine cutting winter wheat. There was a cloud of black dust coming out the back, which must mean fusarium, septoria, mildew, or whatever, and may bode ill for most wheats, as yet untouched. Three miles further north, the road, and the crops beside it, were saturated.

We had a similar experience on this farm, where we have managed to harvest a disappointing 18. 21ha (45 acres) of winter barley in the seven days since I wrote last weeks piece. We were finishing combining one field in dry conditions while we could see clearly the one next door, to which we had intended moving, was getting a soaking. Needless to say, the general rain that followed put a stop to all thoughts of harvesting for days.

As I write, we still have 8ha (20 acres) of winter barley to bring in and each drop of rain pushes the ears closer to the ground, destroying what malting quality the grain may once have had. But because of the weather market this created we did manage to sell and move the few loads gathered before the weather broke. And the price? Wait for it! An incredibly exciting £60/t was the best bid. Then deductions for screenings of £3/t were imposed on one load.

Over a weighbridge and therefore accurate, the crop yielded about 7.41t/ha (3t/acre). Comparatively speaking, I am assured, we did rather well. It is not yet entirely clear what yields we have achieved from the weathered samples brought in since, or what we might get for it, or the rest, still out in the field.

Meanwhile, if we could only get at them, many of the wheats are fit to combine. Traditionally in this area we dont reckon to start wheat until the third week in August. And although I am pleased at the possibility of being able to bring that forward, I am worried, if wet humid weather persists, that the ripe grains will sprout in the ear. The good news is that, in spite of heavy rain, our wheats are all still standing. I admit I am clutching at short straws but its about the only thing I can do at the moment.

For the price of wheat is, if anything, more depressing than that for barley. We have known for months there was likely to be a big surplus this year, forcing values down. Increased drillings last autumn saw to that and the storms may have destroyed the quality of milling varieties adding still more downward price pressure. But I was also under the impression that UK prices were supposed to be getting closer to those on world markets with ours shadowing the biggest of them all in the USA.

As you may be aware there has been a serious and widespread drought since the spring across vast areas of the Mid West. Yield prospects for US wheat, and those of most other combinable crops, come to that, have been slipping since and prices have risen sharply. Spot values in Kansas, the centre of the wheat belt, were $4.20/bushel a few days ago, almost $1 higher than they were the same time last year. There have been similar increases elsewhere. Converted to sterling $4.20/bushel equates to a few cents short of £100/t.

Interestingly that is almost exactly the price guaranteed to US farmers for wheat under the new Farm Bill, so the USDA may not have to pay out as much subsidy as first calculated. If it is true to recent form, however, America will compensate farmers for drought-affected crops under the heading of disaster aid – permissible under the WTO. But if American farmers can get £100 from the market, why must we accept £55 or less?

The answer lies in the Baltic. Former Soviet Union countries that ship out of Black Sea ports are so keen to earn negotiable currency that they are prepared to sell wheat to EU member states at under £70/t FOB. That means it leaves the FSU port at about £40-45/t; the exporter pays a levy of £15/t to get it into the EU; he also pays freight charges of another £10/t, allowing delivery to be made to, say, Spain at the agreed price.

The surplus of UK wheat means several million tonnes must be exported over the next 12 months. According to my friendly merchant, to shift it, UK farmers may have to take prices similar to those being accepted at Black Sea ports. I hope hes not talking the market down. He promised he was not. Indeed, he went on to remind me of floods across much of Europe, including the Baltic, that were spoiling crops, and of a drought in Australia that could cut production by 5m tonnes. All of which should stimulate the market. Except for that Black Sea stuff. And the deal to accept it into the EU under existing terms is fixed until January.

To cheer us up we desperately need some better weather.

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9 August 2002


When organic growers

are given hand-outs

everyones happy?

Why?Because the

sectors image is so

squeaky clean,

thats why…

Congratulations to this countrys organic farmers. Against unrestricted imports of often sub-standard goods they certainly need extra cash to enable them to continue their expensive production systems. Although I doubt the award will go far, unless something more is done to stem the flow of cheaper alternatives from abroad. That said, the allocation by government of a few £ millions to any sector of agriculture at present has to be regarded as a victory.

The media welcomed the announcement as a breakthrough for green farming. Wisely, I suspect, organic spokespeople confirmed that view, although they must be privately disappointed at the amount. But the most significant aspect of the media coverage was the revelation that the extra cash was justified because 30% of organic farmers were now losing money. "What about us?" I hear you cry. "Why cant the same argument justify help for the rest of British agriculture, a bigger percentage of which is losing even more money?"

The answer, whether we like to admit it or not, is that organic farmings public relations is better. Consumers have been persuaded by a skilled and persistent campaign over many years that organic is superior and because of that there has not been a whisper of hostility to giving those who practise it a helping hand. There has seldom been a clearer illustration that the image of most of farming needs an urgent makeover. I remain depressed that this is not being tackled and co-coordinated with sufficient vigour and expertise to make a difference.

That said, notable individual efforts are still being made across the country to try to compensate. There was one in Norfolk a few weeks ago that was excellent in both concept and execution. For the second time (it would have been the third if foot-and-mouth hadnt got in the way last year) Holt Farmers Club hosted a Sixth- Form Day on one of its members farms.

The idea was to attract as many Norfolk sixth-formers as possible to visit the farm to study aspects of its management deliberately presented to coincide with their curriculum. On the day around 250 of them, with their teachers, turned up at the event that had been masterminded by retired, but still energetic NFU county secretary, Ken Leggett.

Ken, with the help of local experts, had put together a detailed handbook on all aspects of the farm. Those included information on economics, environment, geography, employment, forestry, livestock, irrigation, machinery, allied industries, research and so on, and suggested further areas for study. Some of the teachers said it was the best teaching aid they had seen.

The young people arrived to a carefully worked out timetable and were welcomed by the guide who would conduct them round the farm. There were about 80 of these volunteers from the Holt Club, the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association, the NFU and associated trades and professions operating in Norfolk, some of whom had also sponsored the day.

Each group of students, with their teacher, was then escorted to appropriate sites around the farm where experts on particular topics waited to speak to them. The language was deliberately kept non-specialist but the information given was comprehensive, open and honest, as were responses to students and teachers questions. I was one of the escorts and I am bound to say that reactions to the excellent presentations varied according to the intelligence of the students and the enthusiasm of the teacher in charge.

However, a session was reserved for each group to have an in depth discussion before they returned to their school and my impression was that even some who had said little during the farm tour had clearly been listening and were ready to ask penetrating questions when challenged. Several of the students expressed themselves surprised and pleased by what they had learned. Reports since indicate that the teachers, too, were impressed by the arrangements and the learning opportunities provided.

As a result, at least some Norfolk students who go to university over the next year or two will take with them a better impression of our industry than might have been the case if we had not spent time with them that day. Significantly, that also applies to the teachers who participated. But the students we saw were a tiny proportion of this countrys teenagers. The kind of job we did needs to be repeated nationwide.

Not only that but public information on general agriculture to the entire population needs to be updated and integrated. Only then can we expect the kind of respect currently reserved for the organic sector. Only then might we be able to persuade government to provide for us a fairer business environment in which to operate.

Meanwhile, on this farm, even the weather seems to have ganged up on us. After the best week of the summer, which eventually ripened some of our winter barley, we started harvesting. Hours later a series of violent thunderstorms tipped their considerable contents all over us. We were at the eye of the storm and in one 3hr period we had over 50mm (2in) of rain. Since then a further 37mm (1.5in) have fallen. Need I say more?

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2 August 2002


Trying to do the right

thing down the years

has brought

farmers more

regulations, higher

costs and scant


An Opposition politician slapped me on the shoulder and said, "Glad to see youre still laying into Labour in your column, old boy. Keep it up!" Then after a guffaw: "But things arent really as bad as that are they? Eh what?" He obviously, but erroneously, thought I was one of the Party faithful. Equally obviously he was ignorant of the realities of farming – a constituency he claimed to represent.

I did my best to put him right. But he didnt listen. For whatever political points he and his colleagues may score in public, in private most of his party is as blindly obsessed as the government with WTO policies, without recognising the implications of what is going on elsewhere.

"When we were in power you were jolly positive in your articles," he continued, "ready to meet the changes that will have to be accepted by your industry. Im sure we can rely on a return to that attitude when we regain power. Jolly good! Must move on."

Later, when I had cooled down, I wondered if that was what other people think of what I write? I hope not. Yes, the man I had the misfortune to meet is a caricature politician who should never be elected for any Party. Meanwhile, perhaps I should make my motivations clearer.

For most of my farming life I have tried to do the things farmers are now being urged to do – as if the concepts were brand new and we were incapable of thinking for ourselves. And, yes, I have advocated that others, who may not initially have had the same inclinations, should do the same.

One of the first things I did when I started farming was to join a co-operative. I reasoned that membership should bring power to buy what I needed to run the farm cheaper than if I did it alone. I have been a member since, spending 18 years on the board and 13 in the chair. The same co-op helped start a potato marketing group, pea and bean harvesting groups, a training group, and a machinery ring. Most of the grain we grow on this farm is marketed through a farmer-controlled business that began as a co-operative. I believe co-operation with other farmers is a vital tool of farm management.

More than 20 years ago, when farmers began to be criticised for lack of care for the countryside this was among the first farms in Norfolk to join FWAG. Twelve years ago, as pressure group influence grew and criticism of farmers became more intense, with the co-operation of FWAG, I was instrumental with others, in starting LEAF as a national initiative. We believed it would fill the gap that then existed and help farmers combine commercial and conservation considerations. And so it has proved, to the point that the widespread adoption of integrated farming, in which LEAF led the industry, has become the aspiration of most of the food chain.

Through all those years I have been involved in the organisation of the Royal Norfolk Show where one of our consistent objectives has been to promote local food to local people. I am pleased to report that the associations activities are growing apace and beginning to make a real difference to those local food producers who participate.

I began diversifying (into TV, radio and writing) when I was 23 and have (somewhat obviously) continued with some of these, plus other newer initiatives, ever since. Some of my diversifications have been successful, others have not. But I have consistently tried to earn part of my living from activities other than straight farming.

I have from time to time written about all of the above, in my columns. Indeed, reviewing my record almost makes me look politically correct by current standards and I apologise for that! But having tried all these things, having at times had direct encouragement from government ministers to continue them, and, on the back of such encouragement, having recommended others to do the same, I now feel a sense of personal betrayal.

For I, we, the UK farming industry, have delivered what was asked of us. We have spent and still spend significant sums installing and running the systems and standards consumers demand. In so doing we have unavoidably become higher cost producers.

And what is our reward? The imposition of more regulations that add to our costs; the accusation that we swallow up vast subsidies that in truth benefit retailers more than farmers; the challenge that we must match the low costs of other countries farmers where few if any of the same rules apply and land and labour are dirt cheap; the almost unregulated importation of diseased animal products that start epidemics for which we are blamed; the expectation that we will continue to provide food for the nation at a loss while funding that production from second and third jobs.

The UK operates the worst possible double standards. Insisting on high quality and full traceability at home, but welcoming low quality with cheapness from abroad. That is why I criticise the government and why I shall continue to do so, whichever Party is in power, until justice is done.

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24 July 2002


The Chancellors

£421m/year hand-out

to agriculture will

mean nothing if those

in charge have no idea

of the best ways

to use it

THE Chancellors parsimonious present to farming last week looked grudging and half-hearted compared with his apparent generosity to education and other sectors. There are, of course, more parents than farmers, so the difference was a predictable reflection of perceived voting power. The extra £421m/year allocated to agriculture in the Comprehensive Spending Review does not match the £500m recommended by Donald Curry. And it is far from clear how much of that extra will be available to farmers, or when.

A figure of £150m, for instance, has been set aside for coastal defence, which few would deny is needed and the insurance industry had demanded it in any case. Nor is it clear how much of the new money will be spent on recycling plants for domestic waste. And animal health schemes, urgently needed to avoid another foot-and-mouth disaster, will also need funding. If these initiatives are to come from the modest amount announced, and nobody yet seems to know for sure, how much will be left to help farmers with "broad and shallow" environmental schemes? The confusion does not end there, for in spite of a pressing need for help across the industry DEFRA ponderously says it will take at least a year to work it all out and complete pilot projects currently being set up.

The truth, as I see it, is that those in charge have little or no idea what to do. Their behaviour over the past 12 months has indicated the classical symptoms of indecision. For when politicians dont know what they are doing they set up an inquiry. When they read it and still dont understand they set up another to report on the first, and so on. That is exactly what DEFRA has been doing since it was created just over a year ago and it leaves farmers, like sailors, lost at sea in a small boat, destined to pitch and yaw in increasingly dangerous currents without the benefit of a captain, a rudder or even oars to steer by. It is not a happy prospect.

For a day or two before Gordon Brown announced his verdict there were reports that farming would get over £1bn of new money in the spending review. Alas, that was not to be and the leak, presumably from DEFRA, must have been made more in hope than anticipation. But even if we had been granted that much it would have done little to turn the tide.

For total income from farming has slumped from over £6bn to a little over £1bn/year in the past five years. To return our industry to the level of viability we enjoyed in the mid-1990s, it would have been necessary for the government to allocate us at least 10 times what it did. That was never a possibility, of course, for we were always expected to cut costs and raise incomes in other ways. But one-tenth of the deficit, much of which seems destined to be diverted away from farmers anyway, makes the award look like a sick joke.

Now, under most circumstances it would be easy for DEFRA to dismiss the views expressed above as the rantings of someone with vested interests; to label my allegations of incompetence across the department merely as petulance. But it so happens that my views have been confirmed by no less a body than the All-Party Commons Select Committee whose job it is to supervise DEFRAs performance. The comments of the committee on DEFRAs annual report, published last week, are more damning than anything I could have said.

I quote: "We are thoroughly dissatisfied with the Departments annual report… The problem is that there are serious omissions and it is riddled with inaccuracies… It contains too many warm words and vague aspirations, and too few real figures against which its performance can be measured."

Interviewed about it on BBC Radio 4s The World at One, select committee chairman David Curry added that the report contained "too much poetry and not enough maths" and he went on to suggest it might be appropriate for Charlotte Church to sing it.

The select committee report continued: "But we are also concerned about administration in the department. It faces many challenges, not least of which is the need to bring together its component parts to form a department with a single sense of identity and purpose… There is evidence of difficulties such as high rates of staff turnover… We are not confident that current management is capable of meeting the challenges the department faces."

The report concludes ominously with the words: "We expect to see real improvements during the next 12 months."

And so say all of us. Whether it will happen given the prevailing attitudes of those in charge, together with lack of resources, is clearly open to doubt. For, sadly, farmers are likely to be the victims of the growing turf war between traditional Left Wing issues, like public services and Right Wing issues, like farming. Remember what happened to the mining industry when Margaret Thatcher was PM? With Gordon Brown in the ascendancy, the left wing is firmly in the driving seat.

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19 July 2002


It would be good to be

able to produce food

without subsidies, but,

with the global

economy as it is, their

abolition is just not


I wish we could survive without subsidies, I really do. Ridding ourselves of constant, distorted accusations of costing every household £16 a week, or whatever other figure tabloid journalists or DEFRA spin doctors pluck out of the air from time to time, would almost make it worthwhile.

We have heard the accusations again recently in association with the CAP mid-term review. But in a global economy that allows America to increase its aid to farmers by almost 70% and encourages retailers to import cheaply produced food from around the world, the abolition of subsidies is not realistic.

Time was when I believed it might be possible to control those imports, for government agencies to assess how food commodities seeking entry into our market were produced and if they did not comply, or at least compare, with the welfare, environmental and ethical conditions applied to home produced goods, to send them back. Needless to say, I am disillusioned. Britain does not even have the energy or the nous to install an effective system for keeping out illegal imports of meat, some of which are almost certainly carrying infectious diseases, let alone to control so-called legal imports. They may be legal, but they are not moral.

The other thing about subsidies the media has never accepted is that while they may be paid to farmers, they actually help boost retail profits. Fifty years ago there was a general acceptance that farm subsidies were to hold down the price of food for consumers. Then in the late 50s an MP called Stanley Evans accused farmers of being "feather bedded" by subsidies and the jibe, as untrue then as it is today, has stuck.

Now, by employing ruthless buying practices only available to the most powerful organisations, supermarkets have grabbed that benefit for themselves. If consumers say they do not believe it, refer them to the fact that while farm incomes have fallen, despite constant slashing of production costs, by more than 70% over five years, supermarket profits have increased. The imbalance of profitability between one end of the food chain and the other is unsustainable and a correction, involving some control of supermarket methods, is urgently needed.

But although there are few surprises among the EU proposals (we heard most of the ideas from Sir Don Curry) the most worrying aspect was the welcome given them by the British government, which clearly has no practical realisation as to how far UK farmers are behind the rest of Europe. For when you look beyond the detail, Franz Fischlers big idea is to persuade farmers across Europe to produce less food and more environment. But while the diversion of cash from production in Britain is already ahead of other EU member states its re-allocation to the new priorities is miles behind them.

And while grain prices remain at present levels the combination detailed above could lead to dramatic changes in the domestic supply/demand position. Many farmers have told me, for instance, that they intend to put half their land into set-aside this autumn. They see no future in growing grain at a loss and greater security of income in set-aside payments. Furthermore, from its negative attitude to production, they assume the government will applaud their actions. In other words, the concept of being paid not to grow things is not only with us it is expanding.

What if significant areas of the rest of Europe decide to follow the British lead? The present European surplus could disappear. Instead of surpluses Europe could quickly be in shortage with obvious implications for the balance of payments. Critics of this view will say we have no need to worry because the eastern European countries that are queueing up to join the EU have plenty of food. But they are not members yet and their production standards fall far short of what western Europeans say they want. Are the governments of member states of the EU prepared to take such a risk? Some apparently are, including our own. Others, who have a better understanding of reality, are not and we must hope their wisdom prevails over coming months.

An industrialist suggested to me recently it might help our case to suggest to politicians that farming should be treated like utilities? After all, he argued, farm produce is as, if not more, essential to people every day than water and power. Further, the companies that provide utility services are regulated as to the charges they levy and the profits they make. The only real difference between them and farming is that the government-appointed regulatory authorities are instructed to accept unavoidable costs as legitimate reasons for raising prices for services. In addition utilities are allowed to make sufficient profit to enable them to reinvest in infrastructure and stay in business in the interests of security of supply.

Why should the production of food be treated differently? Regulation is a fact of farming life and given that it is inevitable let it at least be applied in intelligent and positive ways that allow us to make profits and secure supplies. So, why not dump DEFRA and have an OFFOOD instead?

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12 July 2002


Prince Charles gave a

top-class performance

at this years Royal

Show, his calls for

change making the

queen of DEFRA look



My first prize for best performance at The Royal Show went to Prince Charles. In his speech to open the event he summed up succinctly what needed to be said about the state of agriculture.

At times like that I hanker for the days when royalty was all-powerful. As it was, the queen of DEFRA, looking a bit like a refugee from Absolutely Fabulous in a beige creation that was a cross between a dress and a morning suit, and with whom the real power lies, merely listened. But her body language indicated that some of HRHs words made her uncomfortable.

In carefully measured tones, the prince listed some of the changes needed. Predictably, he mentioned the role of organic production ("well you would have been disappointed if I had not"). But his comments ranged much wider than that. He drew attention to the depths to which farm incomes have sunk and called for closer links between all parts of the food chain and a better deal from those buying from farmers. "Consider the effect on farming incomes," he continued, "if there was a public procurement policy which meant that, wherever possible, public bodies had to buy local fresh food."

He recognised the difficulty UK farmers have in competing with mass food producers in other parts of the world. And he urged participants in the food chain to promote the superior quality, service and assurances on standards that are so important to British consumers. For "there is a real gulf of understanding between those who live in the countryside and those who live in towns and cities. It is of the greatest possible importance that we find a way to bridge that gulf and to open peoples eyes to the fact that the countryside is only as beautiful as it is because of the care and management of generations of farmers".

It was not clear from the DEFRA stands I visited at the show that those responsible for designing them had assimilated HRHs contention – that production agriculture has created the British landscape and that stopping production will destroy it. For the record someone told me that DEFRA had no less than nine stands, although I only found seven. At least we know now where some of the departments scarce resources are going.

The lavish DEFRA exhibits dealt with pesticide safety, overseas aid, environmental improvement, pollution control and rural business development with a strong emphasis on tourism. On one massive indoor display a railway train and a narrow boat had been incorporated into the touristic theme.

That particular stand appeared to be mainly staffed by good-looking girls and well built chaps in tight tee shirts and slacks. I asked one what she did in DEFRA. She replied that she and the others did not work in the department, but were from a model agency employed for the week to man the stand. Perhaps the same team had drawn up the statistical information on the display, some of which was inaccurate. The production of food for the nation and the need for a profit from producing it were clearly furthest from DEFRAs mind.

As one farming friend said to me when I mentioned this: "Ill produce whatever society, consumers, the government, or whoever, want me to produce. If that happens to be butterflies and birds, so be it. I will plant the crops and create the habitats to encourage them. But, and it is a big but, those who demand such things must make it worth my while, because I need to make a living. And that is the bit that DEFRA cant seem to get its head round."

As NFU president, Ben Gill, made clear, most of the UK farmers still left in business are ready and willing to change to meet the challenges of the new situation in which they find themselves. But he went on to point out that compared with other EU member states, we were at a continuing disadvantage. And it is not just the discrepancy in the value of the £ and the k. Every regulation that comes out of Brussels seems to be "gold-plated" in Whitehall. Every aid granted to farmers in other member states is eroded by the Treasury before it reaches us. Rural Development aid in the UK, for instance, is one-third to one-fifth of that granted in most other EU states.

But Prince Charles had it right when he said the key to the industrys problem is that "society takes food for granted". This shows, he said "how frighteningly detached too many people have become from the reality of how it is produced". He conceded that price matters to many families. "But there is a real cost involved in cheap food, to the countryside, to those who live and work there and to animal welfare."

"Let us remember," HRH concluded, "that the line between too much food and too little is very thin. This country must retain the ability to grow its own food. Situations can change in the world unexpectedly and there could come a day when the UK might be reduced to relying on its own resources once again. Let us not sacrifice long-term security for short-term convenience."

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5 July 2002


Opinion seems to

agree that, if the

weather stays

favourable, the

potential is there for

above average yields

this year

IF yield were the only factor governing arable profits most of Britain would be heading for an excellent year. My own recent travels have been restricted to East Anglia, but I have spoken to several friends who live or have been further afield and their assessments are similar to mine: Given average weather from now on the potential is out there for above average yields.

Winter wheat is looking promising, especially so after a couple of seasons when it was dreadful. This year there are far fewer undrilled patches, left because of wet planting conditions. Crop health seems OK and generally sizeable ears appear to be filling well. The fact that there are a lot more hectares in the ground after last years forced fallow on many fields is, of course, the other side of the story that, despite the promise of useful yields, will almost certainly lead to disappointing cash returns.

Winter barley looks good, too, if a little too thick for optimum yield. Thankfully, ours is all still standing despite the 20mm of heavy rain we had in a couple of hours in a violent thunderstorm a few of weeks ago. Crops have already begun to senesce providing a timely reminder that even though there is still a lot to prepare, harvest is not far away.

But root crops look best of all. The past few weeks of regular rains were just what they needed and many potato fields are magnificent. One large grower commented to me at the Norfolk Show last week that "they look too damned well", obviously reflecting the probability that yields would be high and prices low. Sugar beet, too, has recovered well from the six-week drought that began at Easter and most were meeting across the rows by mid-June, a couple of weeks ahead of the rule of thumb that says they should do so by the end of the month.

So, that is the good news. I have already referred in passing to the likely bad news about prices. But might there, perhaps, be further snippets of good news to drive away some of the gloom as harvest approaches? What about the drought across wide areas of the wheat belt of North America, for instance?

Reports suggest that northern and western states are still suffering and that yields will be seriously down, although there has been some rain in the central wheat belt and floods in the deep south. Taking all this together the USDA estimated a couple of weeks ago that the American winter wheat crop will be 5% lower than last year and 23% below the five-year average. Some areas have worsened since then and there are similar drought concerns for part of the Canadian crop.

Nearer home, recent travellers to Europe have reported drought conditions in parts of Scandinavia and floods in some former Soviet Union countries.

It is churlish to revel in the misfortunes of fellow farmers in other countries, but we live in desperate times. However, despite likely lower yields and quality in those regions, the trend of world wheat production is still upwards. Most of Europe is expecting above average crops, India could have wheat available for export, and eastern Europe, including Russia, is also said to have a likely significant exportable surplus.

Sorry! I appear to have slipped back into bad news again. Lets try for something better.

Maltsters are said to be very worried at all the talk of significantly increasing set-aside. Much of the motivation behind the talk, which in many cases has matured into firm plans, is to cut out second wheat and all barley in favour of only higher yielding first wheat. Were this practice to become widespread supplies of malting barley would be scarce and maltsters are worried they might have to pay significantly higher prices for imports. They will, no doubt, quickly realise what they need to do to the prices they offer to UK growers to avoid that.

But as I write, three days before July 1, all eyes are on the comparison in values of the k and the £. A more beneficial rate of exchange could go some way to reduce the disadvantage between the UK and the euro-zone for the next 12 months at least. Although Prime Minister Blairs trust factor, having slipped so much because of recent political events, may delay the referendum on Britain joining the euro-zone and the possibility of achieving parity.

But if, as seems likely as I write before that crucial day, the k is valued at about 65p, there will be some modest benefits for UK farmers. Area aid and guaranteed prices are fixed for the following year on that date according to the rate of exchange between our currency zones. By the time you read this modulation charges could have been more than cancelled out by the added value of IACS cheques, the guaranteed price of milk might be up more than 1p/litre, and so on.

Hardly enough to make you throw your hat in the air, but better than another smack in the mouth from DEFRA secretary, Margaret Beckett, and Chancellor, Gordon Brown.

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28 June 2002


How can farming be

seen in a positive light

by the public when the

BBC states that a

doctors intimate

relationship with a lady

vicar forms part of its

agriculture output?

THE way the popular media treats farming is even more crucial in creating public opinion than the pronouncements of ministers at DEFRA. Certainly in this spin-laden society the media ultimately controls the agenda, whether the politicians like it or not. Witness the Queen Mothers funeral/Black Rod affair.

So it is with farming stories. If they do not fit the editors prejudices they may not be written. If they are reported the opinions of the writer are uppermost. And some are even prepared to use farcical fiction and drama as well as their columns to influence opinion. Witness the recent TV mini- series Fields of Gold, co-written by Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian.

A BBC that allows such a programme to be made and transmitted is a very different organisation to the one I joined as a freelance in 1962. In those days, the UK was divided into eight broadcasting regions. Each had a specialist producer to make farming programmes relevant to that region. Almost all had degrees in agriculture. Most national and regional newspapers had farming correspondents with similar qualifications. The ration book was still a recent memory and anything the media could do to increase home food production, improve food security and help the balance of payments was considered worthwhile.

But perceptions have changed and so has the BBC. Much of todays curtailed farming coverage is put out so early in the morning that only night workers and insomniacs like me listen to it. Some of the producers and presenters have knowledge of the industry, but their priorities, dictated from above, now lie with the consumers rather than the producers of food. That is not intrinsically bad, for customers are vital to any business. But when unsympathetic presenters on general programmes put their spin on conventional farming stories they almost always end up following the path of political correctness, which is to condemn most of what we do.

This also leads to a situation in which criticising the BBC for its coverage of farming only results in a response from the corporation that our industry still has greater coverage than any other. Whether such a claim can be justified I do not know. Suffice to say that within it The Archers is classified as a farming programme.

I dont know if you are up to date with Brian Aldridges affair with the Ambridge doctors wife; the doctors intimate relationship with the lady vicar; or the vet who has been selling hard drugs on the side. If you are not you may wonder how these story lines fit in to a so-called farming programme. But I assure you there is more of that kind of thing than there is of milking cows and making silage. Perhaps it attracts listeners, but is it a fair representation of rural life?

It was just such concerns that persuaded Anthony Parkin to resign from the post of agricultural story editor of The Archers after 25 years in the job. Mr Parkin was at one time one of the BBCs farming producers and I made many programmes with him through the 1960s and 70s. Now in his 70s, he has been immersed in farming most of his life and he did his best to ensure the industry and the life he knew and loved were reflected in The Archers scripts. He loved the job and it was only the plan to introduce story lines even more outrageous than those above that persuaded him to leave. His principles would not allow him to stay.

Now hes written a book about it. Entitled Humbridge: An Everyday Story of Scriptwriting Folk, it is, in fact, a novel rather than a personal account and readers are told "all the characters are imaginary". But the name of the fictional village in which the radio soap opera takes place is clearly not an accident. And it does not take much imagination to conclude that some parts of the book were inspired by Mr Parkins own experiences in The Archers script conferences.

Its a good read and provides insights into the forces at work in the media. The main characters are a scriptwriter for the soap who moves to a village to improve his understanding of rural life and his producer, a formidable feminist with politically correct tendencies. At one point the unassuming scriptwriter in an uncharacteristic outburst accuses his boss of creating "a suburban village dominated by urban attitudes and values" and of attempting "social engineering". Could this also apply to The Archers?

The sad thing is that those in authority over us at DEFRA probably derive more of their opinions from The Archers than from real farmers. These days there is no government controlled ADAS with qualified and experienced officers to feed into and eventually run MAFF. Nor is DEFRA son of MAFF, whatever we might like to believe. It is a new ministry whose civil servants have been drawn from a range of government departments and have little or no specialist knowledge of the industry over which they preside. The perceptions they derive from The Archers may be more important than we know.

&#8226 Humbridge, by Anthony Parkin, is published by Polperro Heritage Press, price £8.95.

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21 June 2002


Cereals 2002 provided

growers with much

food for thought,

not least whether

to remain in

production or not

IT took me more than an hour to get out of the car park and onto the A17 on Wednesday evening. That should, I suppose, be taken as a measure, if an annoying one, of the success of Cereals 2002. This logistical detail apart, it was a magnificent show as the big crowd attending must have agreed.

It is an unashamedly specialist event and the entire audience were potential customers for most of the trade stand holders. There was a palpable mood of satisfaction among both groups at being at a show again after last years foot-and-mouth disaster. But few farmers looked like they might be carrying cheque books.

If they were, the most tempting opportunities to bring them out were provided by the many variations of minimum tillage tackle and big tractors to pull it. This is the latest fashion masquerading under the guise of cutting cultivation costs as well as being environmentally friendly. To be fair, if you have several thousand acres to cover with one set of machinery and it is all growing combinable crops, min till may do what its advocates claim. But if, like me, you do not have as many acres and have a root crop in the rotation, which in my opinion creates the need for a plough, min till can add to costs without necessarily increasing returns.

In these financially straitened times few farms can justify the expense of two sets of equipment. There is also the niggling worry among those old enough to have seen similar situations before of the dangers of blackgrass and sterile brome regaining a foothold on unploughed land. But perhaps I am being agronomically incorrect to suggest that possibility.

In the absence of ability, and enthusiasm, to buy much of what was on offer, I concentrated on the business side of farming. I spent a fair bit of time discussing the NFUs new model contract for selling cereals. It contains several provisions that I enthusiastically favour. Those include transferring responsibility for weighbridge charges to the buyer and greater flexibility in analytical tolerances and a statutory requirement that buyers disclose full analysis results to growers.

But I confess when I first saw the document a few weeks ago, written entirely by the NFU, I wondered how farmers were supposed to impose its provisions on merchants who had not agreed it. It takes two to make a deal. Unilateral conditions can, in my experience, be achieved only when one side is powerful enough to dominate the other. We all know instances where that happens. But few farmers enjoy that kind of power over their merchants.

At Cereals, I think I began to get to the bottom of this apparent anomaly. The NFU has been trying to agree a new and updated contract with the trade for at least five years, without success. Trade representatives have consistently claimed the existing UKASTA document is OK and that it did not need revising.

Then, a few months ago, there were rumblings across the increasingly disgruntled arable sector of plans to start a new breakaway group to fight for a better deal for arable farmers. Ever mindful of the possible erosion of its position, the NFU characteristically decided it needed to produce urgent evidence of its clout and the new model cereals contract is the result.

Some merchants, especially those with co-operative leanings, have sympathy with many of the proposals in the NFU document, although even they doubt if any deals will be done on the basis of it this year. Neither do they believe all its provisions can be delivered immediately. But there did appear to be widespread recognition that the existence of the model contract will force the trade to once again sit round the table with the NFU and that this time concessions will have to be made. The greater the pressure applied by farmers that the concepts contained in the new document be recognised, the more likely it will happen, goes the argument. If that does prove to be the case the strategy, albeit forced on the NFU by dissatisfied members, may have worked.

But underlying such details concerning the means whereby growers may improve their returns by small amounts, important as they may be, were the fundamentals of the economics of growing cereals. The question many were asking themselves was whether to grow them at all? In dozens of conversations in which I was involved during the day farmers were publicly stating their intention to increase set-aside substantially as being a surer way to secure an economic return than growing cereals.

It will only work, however, if the costs of growing those crops that are retained are drastically cut. If they are not, by disposing of labour, cutting machinery costs or rent or rental equivalent, the loss of crop sales can exceed the potential gain from set-aside. And as consultants Andersons pointed out, margins are skinny to non-existent already, even before subsidies disappear. When they do go, as they surely will, current production costs on many traditional farms will be damagingly unsustainable. The time has come to find substantially cheaper methods of producing a tonne of cereals – or let someone else have a go.

Farmers were

publicly stating their intention to increase set-aside substantially as being a surer way to secure an economic return than growing cereals.

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14 June 2002


Why do politicians

want to legalise the

killer drug ecstacy, yet

maintain the block on

commercial GM crops?

How do you deal with people who use scientific evidence to support a case in which they believe, but ignore it when it backs up things with which they disagree? I am, of course, referring chiefly to politicians. They are the acknowledged experts at turning arguments on their heads if it suits them. Let me explain.

While listening to Radio 4 a few weeks ago, I heard a left wing politician say ecstasy should be reclassified from a class A to a class B drug. In other words, if he and those who agreed with him got their way, the authorities would be told to go easy on policing its use, although selling it would remain a minor offence.

"Science has proved and every teenager knows it is less dangerous than most other drugs," he claimed. "There were only about 35 deaths in the UK last year because of it and that is insignificant compared with the number of pills taken. It should be removed from the A list."

I am no expert on drugs and will not venture an opinion on whether ecstasy should be downgraded or not. Neither will I comment on the policing implications of any change. But from my uninformed viewpoint I would have thought 35 teenage deaths in a year was serious enough not to be dismissed as insignificant.

What made my hackles rise more was the fact that I had previously heard the same politician condemning as highly dangerous anything to do with genetic modification. Let me be clear – I am not using this column to promote GM products, but I must point out that, despite BBC TV fictional drama productions, respectable science has given most GM technology a clean bill of health. As far as I am aware, there have been no human deaths associated with it. Meanwhile, politicians debate legalising ecstasy, but maintains the block on commercial GM crops.

Another example: DEFRA has imposed the most stringent and costly biosecurity measures on the showing and sale of livestock following foot-and-mouth while assuring ramblers who walk across fields of animals that "the countryside is open". I concede that genuine, careful walkers are unlikely to carry disease to grazing animals. But if one happened to drop a partially eaten ham sandwich made with infected imported meat he or she could start another epidemic.

Restrictions on shows seem punitive and smack of slamming the stable door after the horse has gone. The attitude to walkers seems inconsistent by comparison. And the governments failure to deal adequately with the threat posed by illegal imports from infected countries continues to beggar belief.

Moreover, DEFRA is apparently determined to abandon any future responsibility for compensation to farmers affected by imported diseases. The policy being worked out seeks to place the entire burden on insurance companies, which are unwilling to accept the risk, or statutory levies collected from farmers. Once again agriculture will be forced to carry the can for governmental ineptitude.

As I write, DEFRA boss Margaret Beckett, her husband Leo, together with a sizeable DEFRA delegation have flown to Bali. Its a tough job but someone has to do it. The purpose of the trip to this island paradise is to persuade world leaders to act to reduce the causes of global warming. The fact that aviation fuel is one of the main sources of greenhouse gases is unlikely to be discussed. Neither, I imagine, will Mrs Beckett spend much time agonising over the increasing quantity of food being flown into Britain from other countries around the world.

Back here in Britain, TB is racing through the nations cattle herds. I am old enough to remember the successful cattle TB eradication campaign of the 1950s and the relief farmers and the public felt when it was eventually beaten. For bovine TB can cross species barriers and although pasteurisation makes milk safe there must be a growing risk to human health from the sheer quantity of infected animals now spread across the British countryside.

Evidence associating the meteoric rise in the badger population with the bovine TB epidemic is compelling to anyone who tries to farm in the worst affected areas. But it is politically incorrect to control badgers. So the risk to human health is allowed to increase while the livelihoods of countless cattle farmers whose businesses are disrupted are subjected to intolerable pressure.

But perhaps the biggest contradiction of all is government ministers insistence that they want to see a thriving agriculture as part of a vital and lively rural economy. They say this as farmers leave the industry at an accelerating rate because they can no longer survive on unsustainable incomes. At the same time, they impose more restrictions leading to higher costs making it impossible to compete with food supplies from elsewhere.

Political correctness was always anathema to most farmers. But it has now gone too far for even the most liberal to tolerate. The double standards it supports combined with the indifference to things rural that pervades those in power over us are dangerous and in business terms could be terminal for many.

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7 June 2002


Farming methods at

the turn of the century

and in days gone

by may have been

different but, ironically,

there are many

parallels with the

problems facing

farming today

Fifty years ago farmers weekly featured a columnist called A G Street. He was a trenchant and readable commentator on farming and his writings were essential reading for anyone interested in our industry.

He wrote his first book in 1931 and called it Farmers Glory. He said it was a story, but it was in reality a thinly disguised autobiography describing what he called the spacious days of farming before World War I and the depression that began soon after it, which he entitled The Waning of the Glory. In between Arthur Street told of a three-year Canadian interlude during which, as a young man, he helped break virgin prairie in Manitoba, endured extremes of temperature and lived a hard bachelors life in a one-roomed log cabin.

I read it first as a young farmer. I remember it as a good read but in my callow youth I did not fully recognise its historic significance. My copy has gathered dust on our shelves since, until recently when I took it down and read it again. I recommend anyone who has access to the book to do the same.

It begins at the start of the last century. Farming was a leisurely existence in which lowly paid workers attended to every whim of the farmer and his family. Street writes of his fathers 600 rented acres and the 23 men plus several seasonal casuals, employed to run it.

Farming in those days was done to a set pattern. Arable crop rotations were rigid and anyone who deviated was scorned. It was a good life allowing a comfortable living, lavish entertaining and tennis parties on the lawn. The lot of farm workers was less luxurious, but Street claims most were totally loyal to the farmers for whom they worked. And because of the relaxed attitude to management the men were often more in control of what went on than the farmer.

So, it was a cultural shock when, as a 19-year-old, he went to Canada and found himself doing many of the jobs he had been able to order others to do back in England. Working with horses he ploughed and seeded, mowed and threshed for endless hours when the weather allowed and then cooked meals and in winter built fires to keep out the intense cold. He lived with his boss in a cabin in which they both slept (innocently) in the same bed. Not exactly politically correct today, but thats how it was and he accepted it. Three years later he was so fond of Canadian farm life that he was reluctant to leave.

He returned to England with the intention of enlisting for what became the 1914-18 war, but was refused because of flat feet. So, for a few years he helped his ageing father run the home farm to principles established over generations. Shortages during the war held food prices high and although less labour was available, the young men having gone to war, good profits allowed the privileged life to continue. But in 1917 his father died leaving him in sole charge. And less than two years after the war was over the depression set in. It was to continue and intensify until and long after his writing of Farmers Glory.

Between 1920 and 1927 the value of most farm commodities halved. Many farmers who continued in traditional ways went out of business. Street and others sought alternative means of survival. But as he comments "hunting around for a way out of financial troubles was an expensive business."

Todays farmers can relate to those words. And they are not the only ones in the book that sound familiar. By 1927, which was also a bad year for weather, low prices had led to bankruptcies and landlords discovered they might have to manage their land themselves. Nobody wanted their farms and rents went sharply down.

Drastic action was needed. Street decided he would never be able to grow wheat as cheaply as his erstwhile colleagues in Canada. So, he resigned the tenancy of half his land, sacked most of his men, put the rest down to grass, and began milking cows through an outdoor bail. Later he started a milk round, selling all he could direct to the public. By these actions he reduced the cost of producing milk, cut out the middleman and survived. He naturally reasoned his example should be the future for all farmers.

Ironically eight years later, at the outbreak of the World War II, the British government that had ignored farmers plight during the depression, paid him and others like him to plough up most of that grass to grow crops for a hungry nation. But Street could not know that at the time, any more than we know what might be round the corner today.

But in yet another parallel with 2002, he wrote in 1931: "One of the hardest things for farmers to realise is that they are considered unimportant by the majority of the community… Today the public are being fed by foreign countries very cheaply… As a result the farmer has no pride in his occupation. The zest has gone out of farming."

…huntingaround for a way outof financial troubles was an expensive business…

…it was inreality a thinly disguised autobiography describing whathe called thespacious daysof farming…

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31 May 2002


George III had a bad

Press, but it was he

who helped introduce

many agricultural

innovations and began

the Royal Familys

continuing enthusiasm

for farming

The Kings and Queens of England have always owned great houses on large estates – land means power and rulers were expected to have both.

But although they habitually hunted great forests for venison for the royal pot, few of this countrys monarchs took much real interest in farming. It was seldom profitable and the royal coffers relied more on booty captured by sea captains seeking preferment or riches brought back by explorers, than on the production of their estates. At least that was the case until the reign of George III.

Farmer George, as he came to be called has had a poor Press. It was he, after all, acting on the advice of his courtiers, who lost the colony of America. And thanks to dramatised versions of his reign he is best remembered for periodic mental breakdowns. But he was the King who put royal finances on a stable footing by instituting the Civil List, whereby the Crown surrendered most royal estates to the state in exchange for funding controlled by parliament.

George III was obsessive about farming and the scientific developments he observed around him. Previous to and during his reign, which began in 1760, the Whigs were the most powerful political Party. This meant powerful Tory landowners were excluded from government. So they diverted their collective energies and intellects to developing their estates. It is no coincidence that Britains agricultural revolution during this period led the world and achieved so much.

George III was involved in it all. He experimented with new techniques, he debated with the farming leaders of the day, he contributed enthusiastically and often to Arthur Youngs Annals of Agriculture under the pen name Ralph Robinson. He established a number of royal farms and ran them according to the new knowledge. Norfolk Farm, Windsor, for instance, was farmed under his stewardship strictly to the Norfolk four-course rotation.

He advocated the futuristic idea at the time of catch-cropping turnips by broadcasting seed into standing wheat. He became involved in detailed discussions on cultivation methods. By devious means he imported Merino sheep from Spain and established them in England. And while there are few Merinos in Britain today his royal flocks provided the breeding stock for those later established across the Empire in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

The next enthusiastic royal farmer was Prince Albert, consort to Queen Victoria. From the time he married he participated actively in agricultural events such as shows and conferences. He exhibited cattle and pigs at the 1843 Smithfield Show, a few years later joining its governing body and later still becoming its president. Reports show clearly he that he was deeply involved with the Smithfield Club and not just a figurehead.

Prince Albert meticulously designed and erected several buildings on the royal farms, some of which remain today. The Windsor Dairy, for instance, is a remarkable example of his attention to detail, although it seems doubtful that the extravagant decoration could have been economically justified even 150 years ago.

It was Prince Alberts inspiration that led to the construction of the Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition of 1851 and he made sure that the new implements of agriculture had pride of place. The Royal Show that year was held in Windsor Great Park and he won the cup for growing the best 5 acres of turnips.

The Prince died tragically young in 1861, but at his last Royal Show that year, held near Leeds, he took prizes for Hereford and Devon cattle as well as for heavy horses.

The Balmoral Estate was bought by Queen Victoria in 1842 and the Sandringham Estate in 1862. Both have remained in royal ownership and both have a special place in royal affection. When she came to the throne the Queen asked Prince Philip to oversee the management of all the royal farms. His instincts too were ahead of public opinion when, during the reclamation of land from the Wash to add to the Sandringham Estate in the 1960s, he insisted on leaving some 30 acres as a refuge for wildfowl.

As he subsequently wrote in a foreword to a book entitled Royal Farmers by Ralph Whitlock, published in 1980, and from which I have gleaned many of the facts for this column: "The management of land is a very long-term business and the best results can only be achieved if there is confidence in continuity… It is not the ownership that matters; it is the sense of responsibility for the well being of an estate… between generations of the same family… I find the urge to improve and to develop the estates is as strong in me as in any of my predecessors."

Throughout her long life, the Queen Mother shared the same deep sense of stewardship and affinity with the land, as those involved in the many agricultural organisations she supported can testify.

The Queen, whose Jubilee we celebrate this weekend, is a farmer and country lover, too. She obviously enjoys and is comfortable with country people. She understands and appreciates our industry – rather better, perhaps, than some of her government ministers. And for that we fellow farmers should be grateful.

Congratulations Maam.

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24 May 2002


What looked to be a

welcome warm, dry

spell over Easter

turned into a

prolonged and serious

drought in the east

Regular readers may remember that I eulogised some weeks ago about the warm dry spell over Easter, how it was just what we needed after another wet winter, how it should promote spring growth and was making everyone feel better.

Little did I know I was describing the start of what became, in this area, an extended and serious spring drought.

The nitrogen we spread on the winter cereals at the beginning of it lay on top of the soil for weeks, losing some of its potency. Some of the sugar beet that I boasted had been drilled into copybook seed-beds dried out so fast it did not germinate and some that did died for lack of moisture. And after the first spurt of growth from Easter warmth it almost stopped. Not the weeds, of course. They, as always, seemed immune to the dry conditions and will be the more difficult to control.

It was only when we had an inch of rain over a weekend at the end of April that matters improved. The nitrogen has now washed down to the roots of winter cereals and they look better, if late. The sugar beet seeds that had not germinated and died had enough moisture to make them shoot and young plants that should have been established in April have emerged during May. We do not have a full plant now, but at least we avoided redrilling. But with rows of beet that Norfolk farmers describe as looking like "hens and chickens" prospects for good yields are slim.

Add to that the prices being quoted for grain off the combine in August and the continuing strength of sterling against the k and it is clear we are heading for another pretty dreadful result this year. There are strong rumours that Tony Blair may hold a referendum on joining the k about a year from now. But even if true it is not certain what the result might be. And even if it were positive it would be two more years before Britain joined and farm prices benefited.

Meanwhile, in the USA the new Farm Bill has passed through both Congress and the Senate. It provides an increase in federal government subsidies to US farmers of 62%. Based on counter-cyclical aid it sets targets for commodity prices, raising loan rates on most crops and establishing some for which they have not previously been available. If the market fails to deliver those targets farmers can claim the difference from the government. Once enacted it will insulate US farmers from low market prices and seems certain to enable the US to maintain production in the face of over-production and consequent low world prices. In other words it is bad news for those of us increasingly forced to rely on that world price.

Uninformed visitors to the countryside over the forthcoming long bank holiday weekend will, of course, remain blissfully unaware of the implications of all these problems. Certainly if this immediate area is any guide the countryside looks wonderful. Hedges are blooming, trees are budding, birds are singing. Everything in the farming world looks, from the outside, to be OK.

On this farm, for instance, we are in the middle of a bird survey conducted free of charge by the RSPB. A couple of the societys experts have walked the farm twice recording every bird they see and have at least one more visit planned before they are done, after which they will write a report. But they have already indicated that we have an excellent range of farmland birds on the farm, including some that have pleased and surprised them. They have congratulated us on the variety of habitats we have provided.

In other words, we and the vast majority of farmers like us, are doing what the government and the public say they want us to do. We are doing much of it free, for even Countryside Stewardship strips are rewarded at less than cost these days. That may be all right when the farm is making a reasonable profit. But it is another matter entirely when it is making a loss. So, are all these good works appreciated? Hardly at all – and as an industry we continue to be criticised for our "destructive habits".

Indeed, I am coming to the reluctant conclusion that some direct action is called for. Polite discussion and glad-handing politicians is not working. They simply deny our grievances and persuade the public that farmers are whinging again. Its time the truth was told in ways that attract public attention and sympathy.

That does not mean inconveniencing consumers, not at this stage anyway. But it ought to mean making life a little less comfortable for politicians when they turn up at this summers agricultural shows expecting to be treated as VIPs. Most of us will be at one show or more over the next few weeks. Why dont we prepare banners bearing simple messages on the real state of farming and the way we are being treated then turn up in our hundreds or thousands to worry ministers as they walk round. I dont know about you but I am getting fed up with being polite.

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17 May 2002


To farm or not to farm,

that is the question.

And it is a question

that more and more

are answering

with a No

Hes an old friend of a similar age to myself. I first met him in the local Young Farmers Club more than 40 years ago. He lives about 10 miles away but our paths had not crossed for a while. But we ran into one another by accident the other day and took the opportunity to catch up with some of the events since we last met.

"I expect youve heard Ive retired from farming," he said. I confessed I had not and asked him when. "Oh, nearly a couple of years ago," he replied. And he went on to explain that his neighbours had had roll-over cash burning a hole in their pockets and seemed keen to buy him out. Commodity prices had fallen and he was making little money. "I believe its got worse since," he volunteered. He had no family wanting to follow him in the business.

So, it was an easy decision. He had built a bungalow on the edge of the farm, the new owners were happy to let him to walk his dog wherever he liked and he was enjoying his retirement. "The best bit is that I have never before had so much money in the bank to spend on things I fancy," he concluded.

Its not the first time I have participated in such a conversation, nor the first time I have reported on such matters in these columns. But added to other recent events locally it made me wonder again at my own wisdom, or lack of it, for staying in the business.

For within the past few months no less than three near neighbours have decided to pull out of active farming and put their land out to contract. Between the three of them they farmed more than 485ha (1200 acres) of arable crops. And all three farms have been managed, if not owned, by young family members aged 40 or less. But they have decided they have had enough. I have not asked nor been told the details behind their decisions. Its none of my business.

But reading between the lines and reflecting the situation on this farm, which is similar to theirs, I assume they became fed up with seeing their capital diminish to support modest lifestyles. They are all young enough to do other jobs, indeed one told me he could earn more stacking shelves in Tescos than he could on the farm, and I presume they will now offer themselves on the local labour market. If they work as hard as they have at the fruitless job they are leaving they will do well.

If this were some part of the West Country or the north, where foot-and-mouth ravaged agriculture last year and TB and low milk prices seem to be doing the same this year, many might not be surprised. But I farm in the heart of "privileged" Norfolk. Surely, the received wisdom goes, farming here is still doing all right.

Well, no. It is not. The combination of appalling farming weather with resultant poor yields, and falling prices for what we produce, has conspired to leave us at least as badly off and possibly worse off than many livestock keepers in other regions. And my village is not the only one in Norfolk around which longstanding farming families are getting out while they have something to salvage.

The implications are serious and mounting. For there are inevitable redundancies in such re-organisations and several good men are looking for new jobs. They have little hope of getting them in the industry they know best, so will probably have to retrain for something outside agriculture. That may be a viable prospect for young chaps but is hardly a runner for the older ones. The knock-on effect of lower spending in village shops and so on can never be replaced. And its yet another blow to the rural communities affected.

But I must now ask myself some searching questions. Do I really believe everything will come right before long and that those who are leaving are premature? Am I allowing the fact that I have a son who would like to farm (always provided a living can be made) to distort my judgment? Do I lack the courage to take the decisive action my neighbours have taken and get out? Those questions must be asked at some stage soon and be answered.

Meanwhile, there are the wider questions that can only be put to the political leaders who have callously refused, yet again, to apply for desperately needed and wholly legitimate agrimonetary compensation from Brussels. Is the destruction of the agricultural industry what they really intend? Can it be good for the countryside they claim to want to preserve, to force hard working efficient young people to seek work in towns? Can it be good for Britain to treat its farming and food producing infrastructure as if it had no merit nor role in the food security of nearly 60m people?

But then I am passionate about British agriculture and its importance. So, am I being emotional and melodramatic over things that in the national and global context dont matter? I doubt it.

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10 May 2002

When I first read in The Sunday Times about DEFRAs plans to introduce a Bill of Rights (it has since denied thats what it is, but thats what it sounds like) for pets, I checked the date to see if it was Apr 1. No, it was Apr 28 and the article previewed a Bill that was brought before Parliament on Apr 30. There has been much comment on it from all branches of the media since. Lord Hattersley, a well-known dog-owner and long-time Labour Party member, called it barking mad. And there have been less polite descriptions of DEFRAs initiative.

It goes without saying that none of the critics of the measure, including me, advocate cruelty to pet animals. Of course, we should make sure they are well fed, well exercised and happy and it is right that people found guilty of ill-treating their animals should be punished and stopped from doing so again. Indeed, I was under the impression that the RSPCA was doing as good a job as can be done of policing such standards.

But that is not the issue. The aspect that angers me about the whole matter is how a government department which is known to be seriously understaffed and under-funded, can find the time and money for what might be described as trivial legislation when there are a host of crises affecting human beings that should be receiving its urgent attention. Unless, of course, the governments spin-doctors have advised that the "pet vote" is there for the taking on the back of such legislation.

In the same Sunday newspaper there was another article on the growth of so-called "biodynamic farming". Apparently this is an extreme branch of the organic movement and involves, among other things, planting crops according to the signs of the zodiac and burying cows horns in the soil twice a year. The earths natural forces are then said to be released and the crops and livestock produced are claimed to be healthier and tastier than even standard organic. The report claimed there were now some 80 farms being run in this way in the UK.

It further implied they were receiving grants from DEFRA to enable them to continue their mystic farming.

Now, Im a tolerant sort of chap. But my tolerance was stretched to its limits when I read those two articles. And I asked myself – where on earth is this country going? Are there really significant numbers of people in Britain who believe in witchcraft? What happened to scientific analysis? Has the government completely lost its marbles? Or is it more sinister than that?

Is the support DEFRA is apparently giving to questionable fringe interests merely a smokescreen to mask its inactivity in more fundamental areas? Are such measures taken to provide an illusion of activity to try to confuse the people of Britain into thinking ministers are doing something? For as Sir Don Curry almost admitted on the radio a few days ago his recommendations, published four months ago with URGENT stamped all over them, appear to have been substantially pushed on to the back burner.

But if, while they are waiting for Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown to come up with the £500m the Curry report called for, DEFRA ministers would like to do something worthwhile, might I suggest a Bill of Rights for farmers. Indeed, I would like to suggest a few clauses that could be included. In line with the basis for the pets charter, let us begin with The Five Freedoms.

Farmers should be guaranteed:

Freedom from poverty and stress, induced by currency distortion and unfair competition for markets as a result of bullying buyers in the UK and cheap labour together with lack of equivalent regulation applied to imports.

Freedom from interference by single-issue pressure groups that seek to change the way farmers live their lives for political rather than ethical reasons.

Freedom from harassment and inaccurate criticism by government, society and the media and the immediate correction of and compensation for any instances that occur.

Freedom to earn equivalent rewards for equivalent work and investment to the rest of society, much of which exploits its majority without recognising farmings contribution to its well-being.

Freedom from the threat of unnecessary and unjust bankruptcy because government and society fail to understand or care what happens to farmers in the misguided belief that British food is not important.

Alongside those freedoms there should be a declaration by government that it will find ways to correct the imbalance between the opposite ends of the food chain. The current situation in which suppliers are producing at less than cost, while retailers continue to post record profits, is unsustainable.

And if so-called "production subsidies" have to be reduced or removed in order to comply with international agreements, DEFRA should guarantee that an amount at least equivalent to that cut should be ring-fenced and paid back to farmers, without deduction, for other services, such as landscape care, that they provide for the community.

Finally, the government should give public recognition of the contribution farming makes to the nations health, environment and low cost of living.

That would be a Bill of Rights worth having.

Never mind a

ridiculous Bill of

Rights for pets, how

about Five Freedoms

for farmers?


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3 May 2002


From the governments

point of view it is

easy to see the appeal

of removing milk

quotas – but without

them Britains milk

markets would

descend into chaos

Yet another DEFRA commissioned report has advocated the removal of milk quotas when the present arrangements come to an end in 2008. The decision to phase them out should be taken during the mid-term review of the CAP in 2006, it says.

It needs only a little imagination to work out that those who wrote the recommendation knew well the answer Margaret Beckett was looking for. Lord Whitty could hardly contain his glee at the reports conclusions when he was interviewed on the subject on BBC Radio 4s Farming Today last week.

For those who know no better, or have not bothered to think through the implications, or do not care what happens to dairy farmers, it is easy to see the appeal of removing quotas. They cost a bit to administer, although peanuts compared with the benefits they bring. They help manage the milk market, but that is politically incorrect in a world obsessed with free trade.

But without quotas the milk markets of Britain would descend into chaos. Supplies of what is arguably the shortest shelf life commodity our industry produces would swing from surplus to shortage and back again. Many more British dairy farmers would be forced out of business and consumers would be pushed further into the hands of possibly unreliable and probably unethical imports.

A free-for-all of the kind DEFRA seems to favour would be a return to the conditions before the Milk Marketing Board was formed – only worse.

My father produced milk in the early 1930s without a guaranteed market. He had to hawk it round the village selling it for what he could get to householders who could choose to buy from any one of several other farmers in the village. My mother poured what he could not sell into separating pans, skimmed off the cream and churned it, by hand, into butter. There were no refrigerators in those days, so the butter pats were hung in pails on ropes down the well until the next Friday when mother would deliver them to Wymondham market on the bus. She returned each week with whatever the townspeople would bid, less auctioneers commission, and usually it was not enough to pay the costs.

But in the early 30s my father had only about 15 cows. Imagine not having a market for the produce of a 150-cow herd or more. The Milk Marketing Board, which transformed the situation I have described, has gone. The private dairies that replaced it have no statutory duty to buy milk from anyone. Some already import fresh milk from across the Channel because the strength of sterling makes it cheaper than buying in Britain.

If other EU countries maintained their production, as we can safely assume they would – with their governments help – British dairy farming as we know it would be decimated.

The milk market, more than any other needs supply management for the good of producers and consumers. The situation without the MMB is bad enough, as any dairy farmer will tell you. Remove quotas as well and the entire industry could implode.

Milk is not the only commodity threatened by double standards. Almost everything UK farmers produce is scheduled for similar treatment. For the political juggernaut of the WTO, backed by the United States which says "dont do what we do, do what we say", and Britain, which does anything the US tells it to do, is about to push us over the precipice called free trade. The trouble is, we may be the only western country obeying all the rules. Many of the others comply with only those that suit them.

The worst aspect of the situation British farmers face is that whereas barriers to international trade look like being progressively removed over the next few years, the regulatory burden on domestic producers is growing ever bigger. If all production standards, to do with the environment, food safety and ethics, both international and domestic, were removed, British farmers would have no choice but to try to compete with overseas suppliers, whatever their climatic advantages.

We all know that is unrealistic. The domestic consumer society in which we live and work demands ever tighter regulations, standards and assurances. The only changes we can confidently expect are that there will be more, not less, in this country and that the costs of complying will increase. So, it is inconsistent, contradictory and unfair to expect UK producers, whose unit costs are in many cases higher to start with, to compete with overseas producers, many of whom are substantially exempt from such costs. It must not be allowed to happen.

Then there is the other glaring contradiction of food miles. The British government paid lip service again last week to the need to reduce greenhouse gases and reverse global warming. But it has no problem, it seems, with promoting policies that will inexorably lead to the necessity to import more food for the people who inhabit these islands. We should be producing and processing more food in this country, not less. It would be better for the landscape, the environment, for consumers and, yes, for farmers too, but most important of all, for food security.

We should be producing and processing more food in this country, not less.

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26 April 2002


With very little help

from the Chancellor

and the chances of

assistance from the

market appearing

negligible, British

producers are once

again casting their

eyes across the

Atlantic in envy

IT had been my intention to review the Budget in an attempt to assess how far the Chancellor went towards complying with the Curry Commissions recommendations. To seek and hopefully find consolation in Gordon Browns package to offset our industrys current debility.

Unfortunately, I cannot do that. Farming was hardly mentioned in the Budget. All the headlines went to health, obviously a vitally important aspect of British life. But is food less vital?

So, unless the Chancellor was hiding his intention to come up with the £500m Mr Curry said was necessary to assist agriculture recover from its malaise, we must assume he regards food as a minor matter. If that is what he believes, he is wrong, as any doctor or dietician would tell him.

Meanwhile, as one commentator put it after the Budget: "Farming still waits in a critical condition on a trolley in a Treasury corridor." And if it does not receive attention soon, large chunks of it will not survive, sacrificed on the altar of the Chancellors indifference.

There is little more to say on Mr Browns tax and spend Budget with regard to agriculture. You have to make profits to save tax, while higher National Insurance contributions affect everyone and cancel out any modest savings.

Altogether, the Budget is probably negative to neutral for most farmers and that is not enough to persuade or enable them to keep battling indefinitely against impossible odds.

But before I leave the Budget, and more especially its author, I wonder why he enjoys such a reputation with the rest of the economy and internationally. Britains trade deficit has never been so high. Whats more, as the National Statistics Office said in its Mar 11 report the latest estimate of trend suggests the UK trade deficit is widening.

The same publication showed the negative balance of trade, excluding oil, during 2001 was almost £38bn. Oil reduced the overall deficit to just over £19bn, of which almost half was accounted for by food and drink. Domestic agriculture, popular culture now says, accounts for a tiny proportion of the economy, representing only 1% of GDP. It was, of course, 2% before ex-farm prices halved.

But by allowing farm commodity production to run down at an accelerating rate, the government is provoking the importation of processed, added-value foods at enhanced prices. I am not an economist and I do not doubt there are some from that profession who could explain that logic to me, but I remain unconvinced.

Which means we can only fall back on the market. What chance of salvation from that direction? Not much, I fear. Milk is on the skids and has slipped back below the cost of production. Pigs are sliding again after a brief spell above the line and all the practical evidence suggests that feed wheat and barley are set to plumb new lows come harvest time.

But the Economics Intelligence Unit (EIU) thinks it knows better. In a statement issued a couple of weeks ago, the unit forecast that grain prices world-wide would recover strongly this year and go through the roof next year.

Its "strong recovery" this year was elsewhere defined as a rise of 6.4%, so dont hold your breath. But in 2003, the report says, prices should increase by a further 19.4%, which would be nice if it happened.

The basis for this optimism that it claims should include most soft commodities is the units belief that the world economy is booming and that this will create increased demand, forcing up prices. But we will soon be half way through 2002 and the trend so far has been the opposite to what the EIU says.

I would love them to be right and my gut instinct to be wrong, but I fear that, like a lot of economic theories, it may not work out in practice.

Meanwhile, they have other worries in the US. For while Congress wants to increase farm subsidies above the $19bn cap imposed by the WTO, trade departments within the US government are still demanding trade barriers be lowered.

The plan, which insiders say will go through, is to provide for bigger support payments based on present production levels guaranteed through what is called counter cyclical aid to US farmers. That would provide direct payments if market prices fell below an agreed level. In other words, it is a close relative of the old deficiency payments system Britain operated before we joined the Common Market.

But if market prices dropped very sharply, as they have in recent years, the US would find itself paying substantially above $20bn, as it has in recent years, thereby exceeding the WTO cap.

USDA officials are once again burning midnight oil dreaming up new names for aid that will not attract criticism by the WTO.

Commentators admit this might make it more difficult for US attacks on trade distorting measures in other countries to stick, but at least the US government is trying to help its farmers. I wish we could say the same.

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19 April 2002


Nostalgia and boyhood

memories as

Norwichs livestock

market bows to

the inevitable

and shuts its doors

Norwich City Councils decision not to re-open the Saturday livestock market after foot-and-mouth is another blow to country life. My regret probably sounds hollow, given that we seldom use the market.

Like many more East Anglian farmers we now run a stockless farm, so have little need of it. But the market was vital to me in my early life and, out of nostalgia alone, I am saddened by its likely demise. I say "likely" because some local farmers are mounting a bid to try to save it. I am bound to say that negative noises coming out of City Hall suggest their chances are slim.

If my suspicions are correct, a tradition going back hundreds of years will end. There has been a weekly livestock market in Norwich for centuries. Indeed, an ancient charter obliges the city fathers to hold a market so long as there is need of one. But the present council deems the declining number of stock sold, combined with the potentially crippling cost of complying with DEFRAs new anti-F&M bio-security measures, as legitimate ways out of what it regards as an expensive anachronism.

So, even the capital of Norfolk, Englands premier farming county, where 12% or more of gross domestic product comes from farming, behaves like other urban communities. The livestock farmers of Norfolk will be forced either to sell direct to abattoirs or transport their animals to Newark, 100 miles away, or Colchester, 80 miles away. Where is the animal welfare lobby when you need it?

But as I contemplate the demolition of the "new" market opened in 1960, and its redevelopment for offices or flats, I cast my mind back to the old market in the city centre that I knew as a child. Nothing pleased me more on Saturday mornings than to go there with my father. I would trot around behind him as he went first to the dairy cow sale, then to the fat cattle and finally the pigs. We were involved in all of those sectors in those days and he needed to keep up to date with prices.

There was contact with other farmers, of course, and at lunchtime we went to a coffee stall for a cup of tea, a cheese roll and a currant bun. Not exactly exciting nosh but I looked forward to those rolls and buns far more than their quality deserved. They were part of the Saturday experience that I enjoyed so much.

So it was that when I was 10 I persuaded my father to sell me my first pig. It was a hire purchase deal. I paid him for the pig and the feed it consumed after the animal was sold at Norwich market. The little sty he loaned me was rent-free. The first pig sold well leaving me a clear profit of £10. I became more ambitious after that and finished two pigs that left me £8 each, then three that only managed £5 each because of the notorious pig price cycle. Undaunted, I had four next time. But one of them died giving me a timely but painful lesson.

By the time I was 12 I had decided to produce weaner pigs. My observations at the market suggested blue-and-whites would sell best, so I bought a few Wessex gilts and borrowed one of fathers Large White boars. It became a matter of pride for me to have some of the smartest and cleanest eight-week-old pigs on the market that also made among the top prices.

By the time I was 15 I had a dozen or 14 sows and would have a litter there at least every second Saturday. Norwich market was like a business school for me and I shall never forget the lessons I learned there.

By the late 1950s increasingly heavy traffic in the city centre made it impossible for the market to continue and the city council built a smart new market near the outskirts of the city. It was opened with great fanfare in 1960. Since then trade has slowly run down and DEFRAs 20-day rules have hastened the demise that was probably inevitable.

All the arguments about stable doors being shut after the F&M horses have bolted have been tried and ignored. Even the inconsistencies between England and Scotland, where movement of individual animals is permitted even after the introduction of new stock, cannot apparently be ironed out. Finished stock, it is argued, should, for welfare reasons, be sold direct to abattoirs and while choice of outlet may be reduced there could be a case for that. How finishers will acquire the store animals they need in future is anybodys guess. And opportunities for keen young men to get a toehold in farming will be denied. Norwich market will surely not be the only one forced to prematurely close its weighbridges.

One auctioneer, bemoaning the potential loss of local colour a market provides, suggested, tongue in cheek I think, that he might apply for a lottery grant to mount a pretend market each Saturday as a tourist attraction. Hed probably get it too. It might even rival Disneyland.

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12 April 2002


A walk in the glorious

spring sunshine made

it feel good to be a

farmer again –

until news from Tony

Blairs No 10 summit

came through

Easter weekend reminded me, briefly, why I became a farmer. Walking round the fields with my young dog, bathed in glorious sunshine, I was buoyed by the spurt of spring growth in autumn-drilled cereals. Even those late drilled after sugar beet looked so much better than at this time last year. And this time there were only a few bare patches that had been too wet to plant.

Spring crops, too, were full of promise, having been drilled at the right time into good seed-beds. The spring beans, drilled in early March, were emerging evenly. While the sugar beet had all been drilled and sprayed within five consecutive days into tilth better than any we had experienced for several years. We owe that to the sharp frosts we had just after Christmas.

Even the field boundaries were a joy, with clumps of primroses and a scattering of cowslips peeping through the greenery on many a bank, lighting up the budding hedgerows in which songbirds twittered as they planned their nests. Even my dog, still a playful 10-month-old, was relatively well behaved. A nice spring shower would have been welcome, but it is days like that, the sort money cant buy, which persuade me to carry on farming.

It was only when I returned to the office that I came down to earth with a bump. "Wheat off combine could be £50/t", screamed a headline. "Blair summit a damp squib" proclaimed another. So I sat down and read DEFRAs official summary of that much trumpeted meeting at No 10, held to discuss the Curry recommendations – the recommendations which Sir Don had insisted should be adopted in full and not cherry picked.

The governments response was to announce "a series of consultations on proposed policy changes". I hope I may be forgiven for suggesting that I thought the Curry commissioners had done a lot of consulting already. Yet here were Mr Blair and Mrs Beckett initiating more talk, more debate, more focus groups, of course involving a wide range of "stakeholders" to chew the same fat all over again. None of the actions they announced involved the injection into the industry of much more than pennies. Decisions on the real money required were delayed until the autumn.

Specifically, they agreed a Food Chain Centre be set up under the Institute of Grocery Distribution. But anyone with half a handle on the food industry was aware that all the plans for such a body had been laid long ago. And putting the IGD, which represents food retailers, in charge of an official body to oversee the entire food chain might be likened to asking the wolf to look after Little Red Riding Hood.

An Industry Forum, or talking shop, is to be set up by the DTI to spread best practice and sustainability throughout agriculture. In other words it probably foreshadows more regulations.

Meanwhile, DEFRA has committed itself to "a new approach to regulation to ensure changes are delivered fairly and effectively". So, thats all right then.

There is to be a new Agricultural Development Scheme targeted mainly at "collaborative ventures". The last three schemes provided grant aid to the entire farming industry totalling £7m. I can hardly contain my excitement. After all, averaged across every registered farmer, a further £2m, or even a little more, could add up to almost £20 each.

There are plans to set up a national network of "new" demonstration farms to spread innovation and good practice. Apparently, they will be based on the "New Zealand model". You may find it interesting that the New Zealand scheme was based on the British network of LEAF Demonstration Farms after representatives from New Zealand had visited this country a few years ago.

Moreover, LEAF has nearly 50 demonstration units already set up around the country showing integrated farm management, the adoption of which, along with organic farming, is another of DEFRAs objectives. Repetition, or what?

But the most astounding proposals to come out of the No 10 summit were those "to address concerns at the risks of disease from meat and other food products smuggled into Britain". The aim is to "reduce" (not eliminate) the risk. To do so the government will make a risk assessment of the threat; try to achieve greater inter-agency enforcement; strengthen intelligence; increase powers to search baggage; liaise with Europe; increase public awareness; and explore the use of detector dogs.

So, 14 months after the start of the biggest and most destructive outbreak of F&M the world has ever known, in which nearly 10m animals were slaughtered and as a result of which individuals and the nation lost billions, we are just getting around to talking about measures which most other civilised countries adopted years ago.

If past experience is any guide it will be several more months before effective action is taken, if then. Certainly when I came through Heathrow several weeks ago I saw no evidence of any attempt to increase public awareness, let alone any of the other measures under discussion. I find it almost impossible to believe that a British government could be so incompetent. And still they blame farmers.

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5 April 2002


A good climate and

cheap, plentiful labour

help Ecuadors farmers

make a living, but

boom and bust are a

way of life there

The second leg of the farmers weekly farm study tour to South America was to Ecuador. Named after the equator, which it straddles, Ecuador was the original banana republic. That disparaging nickname, now used to describe any country with economic volatility and corrupt or inept government, also reflects a significant proportion of Ecuadors agricultural production.

Although the country suffers the stigma of an unfortunate financial history, it is enjoying a period of relative stability. Inflation last year was a mere 20%, compared with triple digit figures in the past, and by the end of this year it could be as low as 14%. There is great concern among the population as to the outcome of the forthcoming presidential election. The current president, an ex-university professor with no "baggage", like needing to pay for past favours, has transformed the economy. It is not yet clear whether he will stand again or if any other successful candidate will be able to maintain the recovery.

Meanwhile, Ecuador provides a classic illustration of a country in which agriculture receives no support and for years has depended for much of its viability on the 30% of farm production that is exported. Of that part of the nations production consumed at home a large proportion takes place on subsistence farms and, therefore, never reaches a market. The rest is sold to town dwellers at prices that seemed low to the farmers weekly party, but which must leave a margin of some sort if the 4WD vehicles the bigger farmers drove was any guide.

As in Peru, the Ecuadorian climate helps and labour is cheap and plentiful. But boom and bust are a way of life. Many years ago farmers concluded that rubber trees were the most profitable crop. They planted millions of them. Then tyre makers and others discovered synthetic alternatives and the world rubber price collapsed. Next came coffee. Consumption was rising and there appeared to be scope for expansion. But tropical farmers around the world read the same predictions and also planted more coffee. Commodity markets for coffee beans have been bumping along at breakeven or loss making levels ever since.

One advantage of farming either side of the equator on deep volcanic soils and with plenty of rainfall plus irrigation from rivers flowing down the Andes is the wide choice of crop possibilities. So, when coffee failed many farmers turned to bananas. It goes without saying that they also turned sour, although production continues over a wide area. Limited exports make margins for banana growers; the rest are fed to cattle and pigs or sold cheaply to the domestic population.

One of the latest bandwagons is cut roses grown under plastic, but with no heat. The number of rose producers has increased over five years from 200 to 2000, all of whom deliver most of their carefully bunched blooms to the nearest airport for export to the USA, Russia and western Europe. Coincidentally most of those that come to Europe enter via Holland, where they immediately and miraculously become Dutch roses and are re-exported as such. Why is that story familiar?

A similar industry has built up for selected outdoor vegetables. After only a few years the area of Ecuador devoted to broccoli has risen from zero to 3600ha (8892 acres), all of it for export. As the president of Ecuadors equivalent of the NFU, but with 2m members, Rodrigo Lasso, told me when we visited his farm: "Ecuador exports more than 50 agricultural products all over the world. But we have to be careful that we do not overdo niche production and drive down prices by oversupply."

Somewhat predictably he added: "What we need is the abolition of all trading barriers and the immediate adoption of free trade through the WTO. Europe must stop subsidising its farmers."

He was a charming man and given the situation in his country such remarks were hardly surprising. But he appeared to have a blind spot so far as America is concerned. He seemed not to be aware of the massive increases in aid to US farmers being agreed even as we spoke. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that America has military bases in Ecuador and that the country is hoping for further cash aid from President George W Bush.

Looking back over our visits to both Peru and Ecuador the lasting impression is of enormous contrast. Of high tech rose growers flying their produce thousands of miles to market, farming literally next door to chaps who still hand-milked dairy cows. Of vegetable growers exporting hundreds of tonnes of product all around the world alongside subsistence farmers feeding guinea pigs in their kitchens to provide the meat in their diet. Of conspicuous wealth alongside grinding poverty.

Such contrasts breed instability. In such an environment it is all too easy to sow the seeds of revolution. Discontent is only just below the surface. And the poor are learning every day how the rest of us live. For the one thing almost every pathetic hovel had sticking up from it was a TV aerial.

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29 March 2002

With its ability to grow

crops all year round,

Peru has been called

the biggest

greenhouse in the

world. Now a

significant part of its

agricultural output is

heading for the EU

The National Geographical Society has recently discovered evidence of another Inca settlement in Peru to rival that at Machu Picchu 22 miles away. This new site, 11,000ft up in the Andes, is even higher than the ruins for which the country has become so well known over the past few years and which have made Peru one of the top tourist destinations in South America.

The Incas, who were resourceful and sophisticated builders, were also self-sufficient for food, despite the altitude of their settlements. They achieved this by creating flood-irrigated terraces that extend to unlikely heights up mountainsides; a feat only possible because of high rainfall and equatorial latitudes. Their complex constructions defy economic logic and can only have been inspired by some religious imperative. But the Incas were wiped out nearly 500 years ago, not by the conquering armies of Spain, but by European diseases the soldiers carried, to which they had no immunity.

By 21st Century standards Inca cities might seem like gigantic follies. For the substantial coastal strip of Peru is composed almost entirely of sand which, when irrigated with the plentiful water flowing west from the Andes, is capable of growing a wide variety of tropical crops all the year round. It has been described as the biggest greenhouse in the world.

Members of the FW study tour who have just visited Peru were impressed by the magnificence of the mountainous history. But they were also concerned at the potential productivity of this coastal plain. For a significant proportion of its expanding production is heading for the EU. Fortunately most crops grown do not compete directly with our temperate zone production.

Perus total land area is 123m hectares (304m acres), most of which is accounted for by the Andes. Only about 2.6m hectares (6.44m acres) is cultivated and 70% of that is in holdings with fewer than 5ha (12.35 acres). So, subsistence agriculture still dominates the sector, not least because of various agrarian reforms over the past 70 years that split up large estates established by the Spanish and redistributed the land among farmworkers.

About one-third of Peruvians still make their living from the land. And although 50 years ago agriculture accounted for nearly a quarter of the countrys GDP and more than half its export earnings, production has since slipped back. The reforms combined with political instability were largely to blame. But a period of relative stability is now forecast and changes are coming. The present government is encouraging inward investment into agriculture and ensuring irrigation is available.

Indeed there is already evidence that these changes have begun. Surveys have suggested the amount of land cultivated could be trebled. Most of this is on the coastal sand dunes for which the fast flowing rivers provide a more than adequate supply of irrigation water. And there is more potential cropland in the rain forest in the Amazon basin.

We saw some of those new developments and were able to assess their potential as we travelled the country. One 300ha (741-acre) farm along the coastal sand dunes, which was partly funded by outside investors, was, for instance, specialising in year-round asparagus production, mainly for export to USA and European supermarkets. Yields from several cuts were said to total about 25t/ha a year (10t/acre), with experimental trial plots producing up to 45t/ha (18t/acre).

Compare that with the single harvest and 5t to 7t/ha (2t-2.8t/acre) that I understand is achieved by the best British asparagus growers, plus the fact that Peruvian labour costs about £3.52 a day, and it soon becomes clear that even after air freight charges from Lima to Europe the advantage lies in Peru. And both the production and packing standards we saw matched the best in this country. The prices they were getting, FOB Lima, were about £1.23/kg.

We visited other farms producing tangerines, avocados, grapes, passionfruit and other exotic fruit and veg. On one of the biggest, owned by a man who had begun to buy back the land that had been taken from him during agrarian reform, we ran into an inspector from Marks & Spencer. He was checking on production and packing systems, hygiene standards and for any evidence of the use of child labour. If he had found the latter all potential deals would have been off. The next day Tesco was scheduled to look round and Sainsbury two days later.

It would be easy to be complacent about these developments. For most Peruvian products coming our way, with the possible exception of asparagus, appear unlikely to affect our markets. But the potential is huge. The climate allows almost any crop to be grown outside all the year round without heat and with cheap labour.

In an era of increasing globalisation we cannot afford to ignore the fact that unit costs in countries like Peru are a fraction of what they are here. And remember, Peru is the ancestral home of the potato. At the International Potato Centre in Lima we saw hundreds of interesting varieties for which a British demand might be generated. What price Maris Piper if they began coming here?


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22 March 2002


Pesticides are a vital

part of our production

armoury, but if we are

careless or overuse

them we may be

burdened with a tax to

add to their cost

I probably shouldnt admit it, but if there is one group of arable inputs I rely on more than any other it is pesticides, albeit in ever declining quantities and toxicity. I would not like to be without bag fertilisers either. But I might be able to make alternative arrangements to maintain soil fertility, whereas I could not replace what pesticides do. Not at an affordable price anyway. Incidentally I rather wish we called them Plant Protection Products, or PPPs, as they do in some other countries. The language is more friendly and in my view describes what they do more accurately.

Yet, as conventional and integrated farmers know only too well, these most vital ingredients in the production armoury, on which economic yield and saleable quality often depend, cause the greatest criticism among our customers. Never mind that most of todays PPPs are less dangerous than many prescription drugs, they have heard so many horror stories that they believe them to be true. Some are even prepared to pay 50% to 70% more for organic produce to avoid them, blithely unaware that organic production permits the use of a limited range of old chemicals. Once again the truth becomes buried beneath what consumers believe, and that is what counts these days it seems.

Meanwhile 97%, or thereabouts, of the rest of us continue to eat products which the 3% allege are drenched in dreadful pesticides. Yet most of us are living longer than people have ever lived before. Why else would pension fund administrators find it so difficult to deliver their promises?

Be that as it may, the customer is always right. And it makes good environmental, business and marketing sense to minimise applications of PPPs to crops. For if we do not, or if we are careless in those applications, we may find ourselves paying a tax on their use on top of the prices charged by suppliers. And it appears our industry and its sprayer operators are taking that message to heart. The last available figures – for the year to Mar 2001 – indicate that the number of complaints about the use of pesticides fell by 31%. Similarly the number of people who believed they had been made ill by PPPs was well down on the year before.

All of which means the Crop Protection Association (formerly the British Agrochemical Association) the NFU and others have been able to persuade the government that a voluntary approach is best, and farmers that they must improve their performance if a tax is to be avoided. But we sit at present on a political tightrope and with the spring spraying season starting it is vital we all remember the potential seriousness of failing to enhance our pollution performance. For if the industry as a whole does not deliver a record of continuous improvement, Gordon Brown will impose a tax that low prices mean we cannot afford.

The biggest bogeys, the water companies, are seeking to eliminate what is known as diffuse pollution. The sort of thing that happens when you are filling up the sprayer in the farmyard and you spill a few drops of concentrated chemical on the concrete beside the water tank. That kind of spillage can cause enormous damage to fish stocks and costs the water companies a lot to filter out. All it takes to avoid such problems is a little care, which adds little or nothing to costs. Against current returns every penny of cost has to be examined and eliminated if at all possible.

One cost still being borne on many farms is that for agronomy services. Whether we pay for it with the agrochemical or as a separate independent service we are probably paying up to £10/ha for cereals and more for other crops. Now I am not saying we can all do without specialist advice. But there may be ways to cut that charge by having fewer field walking visits, but still maintaining access to phone advice.

The number of BASIS qualified farmers and farm managers is increasing every year. And although, in a complicated and ever-changing world, it may be unreasonable for them to undertake the entire responsibility for diagnosis and treatment, their knowledge, combined with occasional expert help can cut costs.

The latest aid to those with ambitions in that direction is a CD produced by the British Crop Protection Council. Called IdentiPest it contains more than 1000 pictures together with information on a wide range of crop pests and diseases commonly found on 34 crops grown in the UK.

In other words it is a concise encyclopaedia of almost all the information a crop walker needs to identify any problem that may be found, which I have always found to be the difficult bit. For it is then easy and cheap to pick up the phone to your adviser to check on the most appropriate remedy.

The CD is also simple to use, even for me with my limited IT skills. It will certainly be kept handy in this farm office. Copies can be obtained from BCPC Publication Sales, Bear Farm, Binfield, Bracknell, Berkshire RG42 5QE. Price £35 + VAT (students £30 inc VAT).

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15 March 2002


Change, change and

more change, but we

must support our

industry leaders if we

are to get a better

deal from society

ONE word has dominated the recent advice given to farmers. It is change. Government ministers, business advisers, Sir Don Curry, pressure groups, Uncle Tom Cobley and all, are all at it. Farmers must initiate change; meet the challenge of change; embrace change if they are to survive. Because society wants something different from us. Beyond looking after the countryside better it is not immediately clear exactly what society wants. Indeed it is doubtful if society knows itself.

Some of the pressure groups think they know, although their ideas often lack practicality; the Curry Commission probably did know, although its members were forced to restrain themselves to what might be politically possible; DEFRA ministers are hardly likely to know, for they wander around in a fog, without adequate advice from a depleted and inexperienced Civil Service. And if agriculture minister, Lord Whitty, is anything to go by – falling asleep when people who do understand try to explain things to him. Perhaps someone should buy him a can of Red Bull. Perhaps someone should introduce him to a real red bull in the hope it might wake him up.

Be all that as it may, we can only accept the inevitability that however little we respect those in charge there will be change. In the way we farm; in the systems and direction of aid payments; in the relative priorities placed on what we produce. The sort of things most farmers intent on survival have been introducing for some years, in fact. There have, after all, been changes in farming every few decades since man began to till the soil. Policies come and policies go and in due course they come round to where they were before. Its a bit like playing monopoly except that on the next time round the board we may not be able to afford to buy much property, we may even be unfortunate enough not be allowed to collect £200 and lets hope we stay out of jail.

But one conclusion stands out a mile. That if change there is to be, the farmers case must be put as effectively as possible. If it is not there is a real danger of serious damage being done by a government, nominally supported by a society, which has little or no understanding of, or interest in, the implications of their proposed actions. That means we must urgently set about informing those who make up society what we produce, how we do it, and why it would be safer and provide greater food security to buy British rather than imported food.

The usual retort to that kind of statement is that it doesnt matter what we do most consumers will buy the cheapest and thats usually imported. But is that necessarily true? And have we done enough as an industry to educate domestic consumers on how we farm? The other day I came across some NFU opinion poll results collected more than 18 months ago and I doubt if the situation has changed much since. They indicated that a third of the people questioned were unable even to guess the main food crops grown in their area. Of those who did answer 70% got it wrong. Only 31%, for instance, were aware that sugar is grown in Britain.

Another poll, initiated by the University of East Anglia last April, during the height of the foot-and-mouth epidemic, posed different questions. One invited interviewees comments on the following statement: "My main concerns about F&M are to do with the stress and anxiety suffered by rural communities." Almost 60% of respondents said they agreed strongly, a further 20% said they slightly agreed and only 4% said they strongly disagreed.

The UEA asked another question in the same survey. "Who do you trust to tell the truth about F&M?" On that one vets scored highest at 45%, but farmers were second with 33%. The Food Standards Agency managed only 17%. Meanwhile, government ministers scored 3%, and 65% said they would like to hear more about agricultural issues.

Admittedly, farming had never before had such a high media profile. But the news at the time of further cases of F&M and the terrible slaughter that followed, together with allegations that farmers were to blame, was hardly positive. And yet a significant number of those interviewed were ready to believe working farmers versions of events ahead of a wide variety of other sources available to them.

That should surely be a lesson to us. That society is prepared to listen to farmers and believe what we say if we will only take the time and trouble to communicate with them. Its not good enough to shrug and leave it all to the NFU or the CLA or whoever. Yes, we need a united voice from our leaders and I have expressed plenty of opinions in these columns in recent months on how that might be improved. But the leaders need all the support they can get from the grass roots. For the entire industry urgently needs to enhance the way it is perceived by society. Then perhaps we might stand a better chance of a fairer deal as more change is introduced.

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8 March 2002


Spreading your

interests or


latter was always

the best path to

decent profits

Advancing age has compensations. Not many, its true. But experience is one – provided your memory doesnt fade. In any event Ive been remembering events that took place 45-or-so years ago and comparing them to current trends.

At that time, before my late father took me into the farm partnership, he had problems maintaining viable farming profits. That may sound unlikely given that it was so soon after the 1947 Agriculture Act and its well documented guaranteed prices. But I assure you we had hard times then as well.

My father had struggled through the 1930s on a few scattered fields. He had been able to do rather better during and after the Second World War. But by the mid-1950s he was still farming only 170 rented acres and to be frank, he was trying to do far too much on them.

We had a herd of 50 Friesian dairy cows; the heifers were reared as replacements and the bull calves taken on to beef. There were a couple of hundred breeding sows with all the progeny going for bacon. There was a flock of free-range hens producing eggs for a local hatchery, plus a couple of sheds full of deep litter hens producing commercial eggs. He grew wheat, barley, oats, potatoes, sugar beet with mangels and kale for the cattle. And as well as himself – he was a working farmer – my father employed eight men.

All that sounds crazy now, of course, when 170 acres barely qualifies as a part-time smallholding. But back then it was considered a fair size. The one thing my father didnt do was enterprise costing. The phrase had hardly been invented. And it was at the very start of the concept of gross margins on farms like ours.

It goes without saying that my father had little idea which enterprises were paying and which were not. He was, in any case, working far too hard physically to have the time or the energy to calculate such things. He thought if he worked hard and produced as much as possible, he would come out on the right side. Please dont think I am ridiculing my dear father. I am not. Almost every farmer operated like that in the 1950s.

But when I finished my education and began to get more involved with the farm it soon became obvious to me that something was going wrong. The farm was making a profit, but a small one, and it was clear that while some of the myriad enterprises father ran might be doing well, others were losing money. The problem was to identify which was which.

With my fathers permission I called in the local NAAS (later ADAS) man. Together, using the new methods of gross margin analysis, we got to grips with sorting it out. And within a few months we were able to present evidence to my father that the pigs and cows were making money but the hens and the bullocks were not; that the wheat, barley and sugar beet were doing OK but the potatoes and oats were a dead loss. We also calculated that a simplified system would enable the farm to be worked by half the labour.

Sadly, at first, my father bowed to the inevitable. He cut out the loss makers and sacked four men. Later he simplified still further by getting out of milk. Suddenly, as it seems now, the farm began to make real money and my father was able to do more management and less of the hard manual work.

It was difficult for him at first, but he came to realise that doing a few things well was more profitable than doing many things not so well. By simplifying, concentrating and specialising he was able to expand.

All of which probably reads like chapter one of some How to Farm book. But I promise you I lived through it and remember vividly the difference it made to our family business. Many others of my vintage will have had similar experiences.

The reason for recounting this story now is that contemporary advisers, finding simple specialised farms producing a limited range of crops or stock, are saying that is not good enough. You must not rely on such a small production base, they tell us. It is essential to diversify, often out of farming altogether, into enterprises for which most farmers have no training.

Indeed, we have done exactly that ourselves to a limited extent, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. These days we have the advantage of well developed costing systems that we can use to help develop business plans. We can continuously monitor cash-flow and profit on our computers. We can exercise more control than was dreamed possible in the dim and distant past.

But having seen the difference simplification can make, I remain nervous of deliberately getting complicated again. For the danger of not knowing whats what financially is not the only pitfall. There is also the real possibility of spreading your management ability too thinly. So, I do not reject diversification. But I do say proceed with caution. You could end up worse off than you were before you started.

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1 March 2002


Sick as a parrot? You

can change the

expression to sick as

a sugar beet grower

at the moment

AN unfortunate combination of circumstances have conspired to make many sugar beet growers as sick as parrots. To begin with last years spring drilling was delayed by wet weather. Ideally, the seeds should be in the ground between mid-March and early April. Last year it was May before many growers could get on the land. That shortened the growing season and prospects for economic yields.

It was a bad start to what was to turn out to be a bad year. For many growers, who had significantly exceeded their quota entitlement in previous seasons, and been paid the unsubsidised world price for those excess beet, had cut back their area to grow other crops they hoped would leave more profit than C sugar. However, the contract with British Sugar says growers must deliver to factories at least their full A and B quota tonnage over a three-year rolling average or lose entitlement to part of it. Even as long ago as last summer, therefore, some were wondering if they were vulnerable to a quota cut.

During the summer, plant health inspectors found dozens more cases of soil-borne rhizomania, or sugar beet mad root disease. The fields were identified and quarantined by plant health authorities, as usual, and banned from growing sugar beet again. But DEFRAs people took another look at the situation later and decided there was little point in trying to stop the spread of a disease which they judged now to be endemic in this country. Never mind that there is so far only one sugar beet variety that is sufficiently tolerant of the disease to grow an economic yield. The DEFRA authorities, much to the displeasure of many growers, advised the EU to let protected zone status go and growers will now have to live with it.

Meanwhile, the decision had already been taken by British Sugar to close more factories – at Bardney and Ipswich, and after the current campaign, at Kidderminster. That leaves nine plants to deal with the national crop. Dont worry, said British Sugar, the others have all been upgraded and will have no problems processing all the roots you can grow. In any case we (British Sugar) have to reduce the number of factories to ensure we remain top of the EU processing efficiency league.

But hardly had the processing campaign begun when Wissington factory in the Fens, the flagship factory normally processing around 20% of the national crop, began to have problems. The filtration units began to clog, needed constant cleaning, and for weeks this reduced processing capacity to about half that anticipated. The problem lasted from October until Christmas and there were lesser problems at other factories too. Its not clear whether the faults have been rectified totally even now.

Inevitably this led to truckloads of beet scheduled for Wissington being diverted to other factories. And the knock-on effect was felt all over East Anglia as piles of beet built up in clamps on farms rather than being delivered for slicing. British Sugar was persuaded to bring forward payment for some beet to help the worst delayed growers with their cash-flow. But there were predictable complaints that the very profitable British Sugar should not have closed so many plants and that already hard-pressed growers were once again suffering because of their ongoing economies.

As the chaos continued, British Sugar announced that because of processing problems the campaign would be extended until almost mid-March – in other words until it is time to start drilling this years crops. Partly because of this and the prospect of having clamps of harvested beet on farms, losing sugar content every day, and having to be protected from frost, and partly because of yet another wet autumn making land work difficult and damaging, many growers decided to risk leaving some beet in the ground until after Christmas. After all, they reasoned, global warming should ensure we didnt get much really cold weather and the soil they grew in should be the best place to store them.

But we had two weeks of severe frost after Christmas and the unharvested roots became frozen through. Since then during the mainly mild and often wet spell some of those roots have deteriorated and begun to rot. On this farm we had 8ha (20 acres) like it although after hand sorting them we did manage to get most of them into the factory, but it was touch and go with some loads. Many others were not so lucky. As I write some growers have substantial areas still in the ground and, having inspected them, British Sugar has said they cannot be processed. Still others have sent loads to the factory only to have them rejected and returned to the farm.

All in all, it is a very bad situation indeed for some and one they can ill afford. For not only will they not be paid for acres of sugar beet expensively grown, they may also lose quota entitlement for future years. And after a year as bad as 2001 for virtually everything farmers produced, that must seem like the last straw. Parrots dont get sicker than those sugar beet growers.

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22 February 2002


Holding strong beliefs

doesnt necessarily

make them right –

witness Tony Blairs

world trade policies…

I WAS listening one Saturday morning to the Today programme on Radio 4. Lord Roy Hattersley was being interviewed about the National Health Service. "We must all understand that if we want a health service as good as that in Germany, we will have to pay for it. That means higher taxes. You cant have one without the other," he said.

"But the Prime Minister seems to believe," said the interviewer, "that it is possible to bring about improvements in the NHS without raising taxes. Are you suggesting hes saying things he doesnt really believe?"

"Tony Blair is one of the most honest politicians I know. Its not that he says what he doesnt believe. Its just that what he believes is wrong," replied Lord Hattersley.

Ive concluded that comment is as true of Mr Blairs beliefs on agricultural policies. In this country and on virtually every leg of his grand world tour, he trots out the same mantra. His answer to every problem is trade liberalisation. Get rid of farm subsidies and all will be well with the world. And he seems to believe what he says.

Meanwhile, distorted by the unjustified strength of the £ sucking in imports of all kinds, Britains balance of payments is at a record deficit. Within that, the food trade gap, now nearly £10bn, having risen from £6bn five years ago, accounts for one-third. Everyone says Gordon Brown is a marvelous Chancellor. But he has presided over this increasingly negative trade balance and no one holds him to account. Meanwhile, our manufacturing and agricultural bases continue to disappear.

Britain will one day have to pay for that and its already started. Many retailers are now purchasing abroad instead of buying British. Marks & Spencer, to name but one, for instance, who used to pride itself on the high proportion of home-made goods they sold. Commercially they stuck to that policy too long and it landed them in trouble. Today it purchases an increasing proportion of goods from countries where labour is cheap and the £ buys more value. Its fortunes are improving and cheap imports have helped.

The directors of M&S are merely bowing to free market pressure. But their decision has put thousands of British workers out of jobs. And their success is based on exploited cheap labour in countries where living standards are low. Are those overseas workers gaining from supplying our markets? Well, they have jobs and thats something. But trade liberalisation for them means continuing to work at low pay. If they ask for more the manufacturing base will move to the next country where workers can be exploited. The shareholders of M&S gain, of course. But is that what Tony Blair is telling the Africans and the Asians? I think not.

Recently it has been reported that James Dyson, the high-profile producer of innovative vacuum cleaners, is to move his production to the Far East. He says he doesnt want to do it but can no longer tolerate the high cost of operating in this country. His main competitors, who already manufacture in Asia, avoid such costs and to stay in business he has to join them.

Meanwhile, UK manufacturing output to the end of 2001 was 6.4% lower than 12 months previously – the biggest fall for 10 years. As one enlightened commentator put it "Global free trade stands to impoverish the developed world, ravage the Third World and destabilise both".

And at the heart of it all is agriculture. Farmers cannot, even if they wanted to, move their land to the Far East. They could, I suppose, emigrate and export their production back to Britain. But that would lead to the abandonment of farms and to radical changes in managed landscapes and rural communities at home. I didnt think that was part of the overall plan but that is the way we seem to be heading. But Tony Blair cant seem to see what is obvious to so many.

Even the satirical magazine, Private Eye, in its regular Down on the Farm feature, has had a change of heart. For many years the column was a thorn in the side of the institutions of agriculture. But in its most recent edition (Feb 8) the anonymous author "Gumboot" takes DEFRAsecretary Margaret Beckett to task on her governments attitude to farming and free trade.

He points out that their policies "rest on a tragically simple error" – that food is too expensive. But what consumers pay for in supermarkets, he goes on, is mainly packaging, haulage, advertising and supermarket profit. "Farmers produce our indigenous food for a farmgate price of £12bn. Consumers spend £60bn buying it and a further £30bn eating out. The farmer value in our food is literally pennies; a loaf of bread 4p; a pint of milk 12p; a lb of mince 20p.

A years supply of vegetables can be bought from a farmer for £17; the entire diet for just over £200/head. Meanwhile Tesco turns over more than the whole of agriculture. "As for subsidies that so cripple the British taxpayer, they amount to £54/head a year." If a previously prejudiced Private Eye can work it out, why cant Tony Blair?

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15 February 2002


The main thrust

of the Curry


have to be taken

seriously by farmers

whether we agree

with them or not

IF I had previously heard Sir Donald Currys speech about his commissions report to the NFU conference, and not read it, I might have written a different column last week.

As Devon delegate, David Hill, commented it sounded subtly different from the printed version. For in spite of Sir Donalds assertion that what he said was all in the report, the speech was more positive and more persuasive. It must be the way he tells it.

But I would still have reservations about relying on increased modulation for the bulk of the necessary funding. What worries me is the uncertainty surrounding Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Browns willingness to double up the 10% modulation proposed. If that could be guaranteed and there was a genuine chance farmers would get back more than they lost, Id be happy to give it a go. But if the Treasury refuses to cough up we would be docked 10% and, after administrative costs and siphoning off into other rural activities, receive perhaps 2% or 3% for environmental work.

Meanwhile, most of our competitors in the rest of the EU might still be receiving full area aid, or be modulated by a lower amount. British farmers, already stuck with the severe penalty of differential currency values cannot tolerate further discrimination and yet be expected to compete successfully for our own markets.

To his credit, Sir Donald did stress his recommendations should be adopted as a package and not selected piecemeal. But governments tend not to be much influenced by such requests. They prefer to cherry-pick the easiest and cheapest options, then brag about how they have responded to expert recommendations. I would be thrilled to be proved wrong but I fear something similar may happen this time.

However, and this cannot be denied, the main thrust and direction of the Curry recommendations have to be taken seriously. Whether we agree with them or not, whether they are right or not, they represent what the government and consumers think they currently want from our industry. It is, of course, tempting to dismiss and reject those proposals we do not like as nonsense. And I for one will continue to try to point out to the powers-that-be the error of their ways. But as individual farmers we may find it marginally more positive to go with the flow – at least until policies are changed.

The main problem, of course, is that responding to the Curry challenges will cost money and take energy. Following the last few dreadful years both commodities are in short supply on most farms. Nor does the immediate future appear to hold promise of improvement. As Sir Donald said at a subsequent Press conference, there is a policy vacuum at present. Ministers, he conceded, had been waiting for his commissions report but now they should get on and act on its key aspects.

DEFRA secretary Margaret Beckett appeared to take this on board and said she and her team would be considering the issues and "before Easter" would publish a steering document on how DEFRA would proceed over coming months. Whether her interpretation of urgency coincides with ours may be another matter. But although her message was similar I thought I detected a slightly more conciliatory tone at the NFU than she had used at last months Oxford Conference. Perhaps it was my imagination; perhaps she had had a rough night; perhaps she was changing her style according to her audience; but it seemed to me her speech was more sympathetic on this occasion.

But the most interesting speaker at the conference was Franz Fischler, EU agriculture commissioner. The majority of the policies that are supposed to rule our lives come from Brussels although our non-membership of the k often leaves us disconnected.

He spelled out what this disconnection means. In the past two years, he told the audience, European farm incomes have gradually increased. "Last year farm incomes across Europe rose by 2.7%. In the UK things have been altogether more difficult. To a large extent that was due to the crises (foot-and-mouth and the strength of sterling) that have hit the UK so seriously," he said. He clearly believed many of our problems would disappear or at least decline if Britain joined the k.

With Mrs Beckett beside him Mr Fischler also pointed out that Britains expenditure of EU funds on agri-environmental measures had been "little used". This was a dig at the UK governments reluctance to add matched funding to EU cash. And although he did not say it openly, it reflected the fact that this country has saved £bn on EU rebates and pocketed most, rather than spend it on agriculture or the environment as the EU intended.

The commissioner revealed that he had recently conducted an opinion poll across Europe to find out what people wanted from agriculture. It had revealed that they want it to be multifunctional – producing food, but also maintaining rural communities and enhancing the environment. "Farmers are also part of our society and their needs have to be kept in mind if we are to ensure our farming is sustainable," he said. Mrs Beckett and Messrs Brown and Blair, please note.

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25 January 2002


Plans to turn Britain

into a Nitrate

Vulnerable Zone smack

of EU bureaucracy

gone mad – again

I TRUST you have completed and returned your Nitrate Vulnerable Zones questionnaire. If you havent, youd better be quick because its got to be posted by Monday (Jan 28) for your views to count. After that the new regime will relentlessly take shape ready to be implemented next December.

Isnt it grand to be involved in open government? We have had almost three whole weeks to decide and respond, giving our choice between 80% or 100% of Britain being designated an NVZ in 11 months time. You might be forgiven if you concluded there was insufficient difference between what looked like a fait accompli to bother filling in the form.

To be fair, the proposed measures as they stand should have little effect on most arable farmers. The requirement to keep records of fertiliser applications is not onerous. Any farmer worth the name keeps them anyway. Similarly, the planned restrictions on spreading dates are not unreasonable. Few would want to do the job during the banned periods. Moreover, as both the Fertiliser Manufacturers Association and ADAS have pointed out, the maximum quantities of fertiliser applied are, in most cases, within current best practice recommendations.

But there would be concerns if, as so often happens, the EU or more likely the UK government chose to gold plate the regulations and or tightened up on permitted applications in a few years time. Sadly, that could well happen as single issue pressure groups, who appear to be writing most of DEFRAs policies unhindered these days, are given further free rein.

But the biggest losers from what is now virtually certain to become yet another stick to beat us with will be livestock farmers. Many will be faced with the substantial costs of providing extra slurry storage, and if they have insufficient eligible land on which to spread it or farmyard manure will have to find other farmers willing to take it off them. There are hints in the documentation that limited help may be available to part-fund such arrangements, but it is not specific and like other similar aid in the past it will probably be cash limited.

Indeed, it would not be too rash to suggest that this will trigger yet another exodus of UK livestock producers who decide they cannot take any more. That, in turn, will suck in more imports of added value livestock products from other EU and third countries where NVZs and the like have never been heard of. And it will reduce the demand and, therefore, the price of UK grain grown for animal feed.

It will not, as the naive person who wrote the totally inadequate consultation document suggests, lead to UK consumers paying more for their food and to that cash finding its way back to farmers. The author used organic produce as the example of how that would happen. He/she presumably was not aware of the fundamental economic fact that it is supply and demand, not production costs, which decide end prices as some organic farmers are now discovering.

But the most ridiculous aspect of this entire issue is that none of it is necessary. For there is no reliable scientific evidence that more than 50 parts per million of nitrate in drinking water poses any hazard to human health. Five hundred ppm might cause concern, but not the 50 to 100ppm that may be present in some UK water. Many public supplies are below the statutory 50ppm in any case.

That arbitrary figure, which was literally plucked from the air by some EU official during the 1980s, was adopted because of suggestions that nitrates in water caused blue babies and stomach cancer. The facts are that the last blue baby born in this country was about 50 years ago. The mother lived in a house whose drinking water came from a private well into which the juices of animal wastes had leaked. There has never been a case of blue baby syndrome linked to public water supplies. Meanwhile, the limited evidence that exists linking nitrates in water to stomach cancer suggests levels somewhat higher than 50ppm provide protection from the problem.

Yet, here we are, preparing to spend billions of £s and ks across Europe, risking driving yet more farmers out of business, in the erroneous anticipation of preventing a health problem that does not exist. Furthermore, the majority of the water society uses goes down the plughole or to flush lavatories and is not drunk at all. As John McEnroe might have said "They cannot be serious".

But they are. And when DEFRA minister Margaret Beckett was questioned about the nonsense of it all at a Press conference a few weeks ago, she conceded the lack of scientific justification but dismissed it as being too late to change now. If it was going to be changed it should have been done years ago, she said.

Its all about politics, of course, and the fact that a few other EU member nations have already been through the pain of compliance and are determined the rest of us should follow suit. But can that be a sane reason to spend vast sums of taxpayers and farmers money? What a way to run 15 countries.

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18 January 2002


The organic debate

engaged some


contenders at this

years Oxford


One of the highlights of the Oxford Conference earlier this month was the debate in the Oxford Union. It was a cold evening and the room was freezing. The lady president of the union, clad in an elegant evening dress and with bare shoulders, must have been perished. But the subject and the manner in which it was debated warmed up the rest of those present.

The motion was that: "This House believes that by 2010, 30% of agricultural land should be certified as organic". The date and the percentage were clearly copied from a speech made at an RSPB conference last July by Renate Kunast, Germanys agriculture minister, in which she declared them her objective for Germany. DEFRA secretary Margaret Beckett shares fellow feelings with her. They held a private meeting to compare notes only last week. So, it was particularly relevant for the subject to be debated in a British context.

Speaking in favour of the motion were Patrick Holden director of the Soil Association and Lord Peter Melchett, the associations political adviser. Opposing were ex-agriculture minister, John Gummer and Oliver Walston. Both sides debated vigorously, although the prize for humour went by a sizeable margin to Gummer and Walston. But between the gales of laughter many good points were made and they included excellent contributions from the audience.

The opposers said organic farming was not the best way to produce food – merely a different way that appealed to the sensibilities of a limited number of consumers. They also pointed out that organic production was not all its proponents claimed. For there is a list of 17 chemical products that may be used on organic crops, some of them old fashioned and known to be toxic. They also drew attention to the fact that organic livestock farmers are permitted to use antibiotics if traditional remedies for illness fail.

The proposers spoke of the rising demand for organic produce in recent years that had led to a retail turnover in excess of £800m last year and to a projected £1.2bn this year. They appeared to hold out an olive branch to conventional farmers who, they implicitly conceded, they had criticised in the past. And in spite of the over production of organic milk and some meat products, which were only temporary in their view, they pleaded with conventional farmers to join them. For 75% of organic produce consumed in Britain is imported and this countrys farmers should be supplying organic food to this countrys consumers.

Its a persuasive argument, until you look a little deeper. A fair proportion of imported organic, produce, such as oranges, bananas, grapes and the like, cannot be grown in the British climate in any case. And much of the rest comes from countries where organic production is more generously subsidised than it is here or is grown by exploited native workers who receive a fraction of the wage paid in Britain.

Both situations allow produce to be marketed at significantly lower prices than would be viable in this country making it more attractive to supermarket buyers. The different standards for organic production that may, or may not be in force in the exporting country of origin are often conveniently ignored. That 75% of imported organic produce is therefore not as easily available to UK growers as is often portrayed.

Incidentally, the result of the Oxford Union debate was about a dozen voting in favour of the motion and the rest of the room – about 250 I estimate – voting against it. I had expected more would have voted for organic expansion. After all it is a sector that has done better than most in recent years. But when it comes to business the hard- headed Oxford delegates are no fools. They presumably concluded the organic market will remain a niche and that there would be little profit in significantly increasing production.

A recent survey by Mintel would appear to confirm their skepticism. According to Mintels opinion poll the proportion of British adults who believe organic products are safer than conventional equivalents has fallen from 22% in 1999 to 16% now. And among young people – 15- to 24-year-olds – that figure has fallen from 20% two years ago to 11%. And Mintel, like many before them, speculates that the organic boom may be coming to an end.

So, as they set off for their annual conference in Harrogate next week, organic farmers should perhaps pause and think through their enthusiasm for universal conversion. For over-production of any commodity leads, inevitably, to lower prices. And without substantial premiums organic farming is not viable.

Far better, it seems to me, to modify production methods, if not already done, to the half way house of integrated farming. This economises on inputs and helps conserve the countryside, while holding unit production costs down. Further, I believe there is a growing market out there for local produce, grown to known and declared standards, whether organic or not. And bulk commodities that are fully assured and traceable will soon be the only ones for which there is a ready market. That direction, to my mind, holds greater promise for farmers than expanding organic.

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11 January 2002


At the Oxford Farming

Conference, Margaret

Becketts attidude to

subsidies was markedly

different to that of her

American counterpart

MARGARET Beckett wants British farming to succeed. Not only that, she wants those engaged in it to thrive and prosper. The DEFRA minister made this clear last week. But the only problem is that we can expect little help from the government and her ideas for achieving these objectives leave much to be desired.

The "headmistress" was speaking at the Oxford Farming Conference. The fact she appeared at all was a coup for the organisers – ever since she took the job last June, she has done her best to avoid events with farming in their title.

But on the second day of the conference she came to speak, if not to listen. Mrs Beckett swept into the hall like royalty, her fashionable red coat swaying. And Cumbrian foot-and-mouth victim and perfect gentleman Alistair Wannop, who was answering questions at the time, gave way to the Very Important Lady.

Within minutes she was telling a surprisingly subdued audience that sustainable development was the key role of her department. Farming could play a part in that, but it would have to change – massively and quickly. And, having recently returned from Doha, where the likely impact of climate change was considered, she said it would be dramatic and come earlier than previously thought.

"We expect our children and grandchildren to be affected and science now predicts further major change in our own lifetimes," she said.

I explored that with her at the subsequent Press conference in the context of the fast accelerating world population. In the interests of domestic food security, would it not be appropriate to assess the amount of food required in this country that should be produced at home? That followed a similar question in the main hall that I judged she had not adequately answered. For my impertinence I had my wrist sharply slapped. But she did concede that climate change would create changes in world food availability. However, it would still not be appropriate to make such an assessment. Was it the minister or was it me being inconsistent?

She was obsessed with cutting EU and UK farm subsidies. "The pressure to reduce market-distorting subsidies is probably at an all-time high," claimed Mrs Beckett. This did not quite chime with the motherly US secretary for agriculture Anne Veneman, who the previous day accepted that with world markets in their present state there was a need to support agriculture. Her concern wasnt so much the amount of subsidy paid to farmers, but what it was paid for.

Mrs Veneman wanted to avoid trade distortion. But when I asked if she would have any problem with redesignating existing EU aid from production to the environment or some other approved target she confirmed: "The US could not object to that. Its what we have done ourselves."

It was the first time it had been said so openly. It recognised the way the US is aiding its farmers and it put a different slant on Mrs Becketts subsequent claim about the pressures on subsidies.

Meanwhile, Mrs Beckett had a list of solutions for the farmers who, she admitted, were suffering difficulties.

She urged us to try new products and grow new crops that did not compete with cheaper imports. She told us to open farm shops and make direct sales to consumers. She advocated diversification and recommended co-operation.

Few would deny such ideas are part of the solution. Indeed, many farmers, myself included, have already tried most of them. But she failed to recognise that most of her solutions were niches and may already be overdone. Further, that although some of the activities mentioned might add pennies to a farmers income, most need £s to survive. Mrs Beckett clearly has no concept that you cannot sell a truck load of wheat or sugar beet at a farmers market; that most animal products have to be processed in factories; that new crops do not appear like gifts under the Christmas tree; that food production remains the essential core to most farm businesses.

She also descended to the hackneyed rhetoric of so many who do not understand our industry when she said governments would not continue to subsidise "goods that are not wanted by the marketplace". Which goods are these? The EUs food mountains and lakes disappeared long ago. Today there are barely sufficient surpluses to create a respectable strategic reserve.

And while UK farmers supply 80% of the indigenous raw materials for nearly 60m British consumers, as well as contributing to export earnings, she must not be allowed to perpetuate the myth that nobody wants what farmers produce.

I say again, the environmental and other goodies UK society wants from farmers are the byproducts of production agriculture, not the products. Run down that production too far and this countrys landscapes will change. The effect on tourism would be catastrophic, never mind the risk to food security. Britain needs its farmers and what they produce. It is the governments job to provide as level a playing field as possible to enable us to compete. Judging by her speech last week, Mrs Beckett does not yet understand that concept.

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28 December 2001


The last 12 months

may have been a year

to forget, but what

steps are being taken

to prevent a repeat of

similar disasters?

FOR a year that began with eager anticipation, 2001 has been a pig. That, unfortunately, is an insult to pigs. In retrospect, it was foolish to expect the first year of a new millennium to be any better than the last few of the old. But I suspect that the symbolism of changing from nineteen hundred and something to two thousand and something else got to most of us to some extent.

The year turned out, as we now know to our cost, more notable for its disasters than opportunities for laying the foundations of a new and optimistic future.

We should probably have expected problems when the Millennium Dome got off to such a dodgy start. When something with so much pre-publicity turns out to have more hype than substance it should be a warning.

But then, as each catastrophe followed the last, the year deteriorated into chaos as religious fanatics attacked targets in the US and the western world decided it must declare war on the terrorists lair.

I wonder how many of the revellers at last years Hogmanay parties would have believed all this years events were even possible if they had been predicted to them? Who knows what will yet happen to the world economy as a result? How many intensely personal tragedies has each national or world scale happening involved?

Farmers, like the rest of society, have been affected by these national and international calamities – some more than others. But alongside them British agriculture has experienced its own catalogue of problems from which it has yet to recover. And, as we now prepare to enter another year, many in our industry will be asking themselves if some of those events could have been prevented.

Probably the most universal was the wet weather. It followed an equally wet back end in 1999 from which we are still suffering. And the question most will be asking themselves is how long will it go on? The truth is nobody really knows. But having attended a lecture by a meteorologist from the University of East Anglia, a few weeks ago, I am forced to concede the evidence that global warming is a reality is becoming more convincing.

Average temperatures have increased alarmingly recently in comparison with the relative stability of the previous few hundred years. Moreover, if the trend established over the past 20 to 30 years continues, Britain could be almost subtropical by the end of this century. Quite what this would do to rain, wind and sunshine is unclear. But circumstantial evidence points to more of the same as happened over the past couple of years. Those jokes about growing rice may not be funny, after all.

Could climate change have been prevented? Well, not by British farmers alone it couldnt. The facts are that even if every nation in the world adopted the Kyoto protocol immediately, it would only slow continuing change over the next 50 or so years. It would not reverse the problem. That would take much more drastic action. But given that the worlds biggest producer of greenhouse gases – America – has so far refused to agree to the protocol, the likelihood appears to be an acceleration of warming. And repeats of autumns and winters like the last two years could mean most UK farmers will be in serious trouble.

Certainly the most horrific, tragic and long lasting agricultural disaster was the foot-and-mouth epidemic during which all previous records for the disease were broken. The answer to the question on whether it could have been prevented must be an emphatic Yes. For whether it was caused by legal or illegal imports of infected meat, or by the escape, deliberate or otherwise, of the virus from a UK laboratory (a persistent rumour still doing the rounds) it involved deliberate human intervention and should not have happened.

As for its spread, once released, to more than 2000 farms over the course of eight months – not all were preventable, but many were. Cases could certainly have been restricted to a fraction of that eventual number, as could the costs of compensation and the serious knock-on effects to other industries, were it not for the tardiness, ineptitude and inefficiency of officials at MAFF, now DEFRA.

But instead of dealing with these internal shortcomings the guilty ones seem more intent on blaming farmers. If another, similar, costly, tragic episode is to be avoided such problems must be tackled urgently and contingency plans prepared.

Affecting all farmers through 2001 have been production costs that were in many cases greater than returns, in spite of DEFRAs claims of an upturn. In other words, to use one of the governments favourite words, in business terms most farms were not sustainable. Could that situation have been prevented? Not totally because world prices collapsed; but if British farmers had had the benefit of a more level playing field and been treated fairly by the government, which refused even to apply for EU funds held ready for such emergencies, the potentially ruinous effects on many UK farmers could have been reduced significantly.

None of us knows what 2002 will bring. But heres hoping its better than 2001.

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21 December 2001


It can be quite a

moving experience

when a young and

beautiful character

comes into your life

I first met her six months ago. Since then we have become close. Although I wish I could be sure her feelings for me are as strong as mine for her. It is a little disconcerting at times that she seems ready to show affection to any number of people. Perhaps as our relationship matures she will become more loyal to me. I have to keep reminding myself that she is very young – far too young for me, probably. But while I am well aware that I could end up being hurt and that feelings such as mine can cloud sound judgment, I admit I am besotted.

Her name is Pearl and when we met, it was love at first sight. Her blonde hair, her big brown eyes and her affectionate nature, had me captivated from the start. But I had no idea that in such a short time she would become so important in my life and demand so much of my time. And although I have tried to explain this turn of events to my usually tolerant wife, and seek her approval for the liaison, I am not yet convinced that she accepts fully my reasoning, especially when I insist she shares our house.

There are times when I can do anything with Pearl and she will do anything for me. But there are other times when her youthful, playful ways really make me angry. I try not to show it, because that would upset our mutual path towards true devotion. But so sweet is her basic nature that it is impossible to remain angry with her for long. And even if I speak sharply to her she never seems to bear a grudge.

We regularly take long walks around the farm and although I concentrate mainly on Pearl, it has given me an ideal opportunity to check the crops. I have not been so well informed on some details of the farm for years. And when the weather is bad or the distance to be covered makes walking impractical she comes with me in the car. She loves the stereo and the heater. Unfortunately shes not a good travelling companion because she tends to go to sleep quite quickly. But then my wife does that too.

Everyone who comes to the farm knows whats going on between Pearl and I, but I have so far avoided taking her out among strangers because I am not sure my friends would understand. And while I am happy to put up with her little foibles I dont want her to embarrass me by misbehaving in front of them. In any case Im not sure I am yet ready to publicise our relationship, at least until I can be sure it will last. I have had other, similar partnerships during the course of my life and while some left happy memories, others did not work out.

But I am optimistic that Pearl and I will be together for a long time; that if I am patient she will grow out of her youthful enthusiasms and her propensity to play girly games with others. Because as well as being beautiful she is incredibly intelligent when she puts her mind to a challenge. All she really lacks is concentration on the subject in hand. Whether I am skilled enough to get the best out of her, or whether I should send her away for a spell at a finishing school, I have not yet decided.

Meanwhile, we have already had a lot of fun together. And while I sometimes worry about her youth it has helped make me feel young again. I had forgotten how to play games and act daft. But Pearl has brought that out of me and I feel better for it. I just hope she doesnt find me too old and boring when she becomes more mature.

But I am still concerned about Pearls relationship with my wife. At times, when they are both on good form, the atmosphere around the place is excellent. But at other times, when my wife is feeling grumpy and Pearl is in one of her silly moods, the situation is not quite so satisfactory. I suppose my wife resents being eased sideways in my affections. But I honestly believe it is possible for a man to love two females at once. All it takes is a bit of understanding. And contemporary society, which admittedly is mainly populated by people much younger than we are, now accepts it as the norm.

And so, as our thoughts turn to Christmas in this most difficult of farming years, I am looking forward to further developing my relationship with this new female in my life. I hope and believe my wife will come round to accepting her eventually, especially if she stops borrowing her shoes. And sometime in the New Year, or the year after that, I like to envisage the three of us – a kind of ménage a trois – sitting happily by the sitting room fire in quiet and peaceful contentment.

A seven month old Yellow Labrador bitch surely shouldnt represent a serious threat to a marriage.

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14 December 2001


AS Ben Gill writes in a conclusion (oddly titled an envoi) to Lord Henry Plumbs autobiography* Lord Plumb, is a man with the common touch. "Rarely can you find someone," he says, "who is at ease with the smallest farmers and equally at home in the City with leading financiers or in Downing Street with the Prime Minister." Anyone who has known Henry, as I have for nigh on 40 years, will agree with that. Just as impressive is his ability to remember the names and backgrounds of people has not met for years. He is universally recognised as a "nice bloke", and those social qualities have stood him in good stead throughout the remarkable career he outlines in his book.

To record all his titles and involvements would take up the page. But some of the most notable include: NFU president from 1969-1979; president of COPA 1975-1977; MEP for the Cotswolds 1979-1999; president of the European Parliament 1987-1989, and so on. Along the way he was knighted and later made a life peer. Not bad for a boy who left school at the age of 15 during the Second World War to help his father work the family farm.

Like many farm lads at the time, and for several years after the war, Henry felt his place was on the farm helping to produce food for the nation. Shortages and ration books made it an honourable thing to do. His "university" was the Young Farmers Club where, among other skills, he learned public speaking – and hes "never stopped since" (his words, not mine). He took a great deal from the YFC, including Marjorie, his wife of more than 50 years, who was Warwickshire county organiser.

But a few years later his world collapsed around him when his father died suddenly at the age of only 58. He was "thrown in at the deep end" – an experience which was to be repeated many times during his career.

For a while he concentrated on running the farm and rearing a family. But he was soon persuaded by older Warwickshire farmers to become involved in the NFU. In 1959 he was elected to the council and four years later became the youngest ever vice-president. The rest, as they say, is history.

Reading his book brought back many half forgotten memories of farming in those days. For instance, the foot-and-mouth epidemic of 1967 and the Northumberland Report written about it. Henry Plumb was a member of the committee. They wrote firm recommendations on the handling of any future epidemic. His frustrations at the present generation of government officials and their apparent inability to learn the lessons of 1967 come through loud and clear.

Another parallel between his time in NFU office and the present was the serious decline in farm incomes by 1970. Those were the days of Farm Price Reviews negotiated in Whitehall between MAFF and the NFU, when the government held the purse strings of agriculture even more than they do now. He makes the point, as he did in the negotiations that year "- in the 10 years to 1969, average real incomes had increased by 46% while farm incomes had increased only 7%". So, whats new?

He was NFU president when Britain joined the Common Market, soon after which British guaranteed prices were being paid in green £s. This complex device enabled the rest of EU to be insulated from the inflation rate in Britain that was 22% by 1975. Its effect was to cut the value of UK farm prices, compared with most of the other member states, by up to 30%. In demanding better treatment for agriculture he says: "We were not asking the government to enrich the British farmer – we were imploring it to safeguard the nations larder" – sentiments that are just as relevant today.

Green £s have gone. Instead we now have currency differences that also cut the value of UK farm prices by about 30%. Moreover, if you think back through the years of Britains membership of the European Club, British farmers have been disadvantaged by one or another such scheme for most of them. So, whats new again?

In spite of those problems with European membership, which Henry blames more on successive British governments, of both blue and red persuasions, than he does on Brussels; he has always been a committed Europhile. He still believes Britain, and its farmers, are better off in than out. He further believes that eventual membership of the k is inevitable and necessary. Meanwhile, he is convinced that British farmers have been penalised by our cool relationship with the EU. In other words, he may call himself a Conservative, but he does not support the European stance of his Party leaders.

Nor do his political affiliations stop him recounting some irreverent observations about the shortcomings of European (and UK) political figures. The book is full of the anecdotes and down-to-earth observations of the farmer Henry Plumb has always been, in his mind, in spite of reaching the very pinnacle of the political ladder. Whats more, its a good read.

*The Plumb Line is published by the Greycoat Press (18.99).

The autobiography of

Lord Henry Plumb is

rich in farming wisdom

and insights…and its

a jolly good read

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7 December 2001


Politicians could learn a

great deal about

farming history – from

Ancient Egyptian times

right up to World War II

LAST weeks Crops conference at Chilford Hall, near Cambridge, was one of the best I have attended. It didnt solve the economic problems of arable farmers. It was never likely to do that. But it did discuss them and challenged preconceptions. And it pointed possible ways to at least some of the solutions. The speakers were excellent and it was a day well spent.

One of the speakers was Robert Gooch, of the EU consultancy, Eurinco. He speculated on policy changes for agriculture from the mid-term review of the CAP. And he drew attention to the history of and reasons for governmental involvement in farm policies. UK governments have, since the 16th century, he said, adopted free trade when imports are cheap and supported prices to maintain production when imports were expensive. He was referring particularly to the Corn Laws imposed and abolished by turns from the Middle Ages onwards.

It set me thinking about the lessons politicians could learn from history if they would take the trouble. The first example I could remember was long before the 16th century. Recorded in the Book of Genesis it is the Biblical story of Joseph in Egypt who advised the pharaoh to store grain for seven good years (in the first ever intervention stores) in preparation for seven lean years. It paid off, and Egypt was able to feed its own people and sell grain profitably to other countries.

There are numerous stories of grain being used and tithes being levied on grain from the Roman Empire onwards. Back then and until a couple of hundred years ago, agriculture was the major industry. But gradually, as populations migrated to towns, there developed a struggle between the producers of food, who needed to get reasonable prices for commodities, and urban consumers, who wanted to acquire them as cheaply as possible. English governments as far back as the 12th century imposed penalties for importing or exporting grain according to supply and demand at the time.

The Corn Laws we learned about at school were introduced in 1571. At different times, to fit different circumstances, they involved bounties being paid on exports and occasionally on imports. The Corn Laws were attacked by Adam Smith for interfering with the natural course of trade. But as Arthur Young confirmed they had virtually eliminated price fluctuations and, by encouraging farmers to expand production, had brought about a steady fall in prices.

Various amendments were made to the Laws every few years, according to circumstances, such as the Napoleonic wars that coincided with a series of poor harvests, until 1846 when Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, repealed them. Panic set in but it was not until the fast expanding production of North America could be transported efficiently across the Atlantic in the 1870s that the absence of the protection provided by the Corn Laws became serious. Farming became a disaster from then until the outbreak of the First World War, during which exports were once again controlled and grain prices guaranteed.

This policy ended in 1920. Imports were again freely allowed and agriculture went into deep depression. It lasted until 1939, when Adolf Hitler drove his tanks into Poland and caused the Second World War. At which point farm prices increased and farmers were able to make a profit again. Two world wars in such quick succession must have taught the politicians of the late 1940s that feeding the nation should not be left to chance nor be reliant on imports.

They decided to try to stabilise the farming industry by introducing legislation under the 1947 Agriculture Act, which at least held things relatively steady for several years. Although by the early 1970s most of the steam had gone out of that policy and if Britain had not joined the Common Market in 1973, farmers would have suffered badly. As it was there was a food shortage in the second half of that decade, brought about by a mixture of climatic and political problems.

Most farmers are old enough to remember the years since and to recognise that we are now back in a depression as deep as the 1930s. And the lessons of those years and repeated experiences are clear. Farming and food availability are cyclical. Sometimes the weather has a hand in the cycle, more often it is governments. Behind the governments are two groups of people – the producers of food who have been squeezed to a tiny minority who ask only for reasonable prices for their goods and urban consumers, who dominate the population and have become distanced from the realities of food production. They take food for granted and demand that it be cheaper every year.

Populations and production may have increased. But the fundamentals remain. In order for consumers to enjoy food security it is necessary for farmers to receive economically sustainable prices. The balance of the struggle is weighted so heavily in favour of consumer power that in a free market, food producers are bound to lose. It is the duty of enlightened government to hold the balance between producers and consumers. Free trade is not appropriate. All it does is create volatility of prices and, eventually, supplies. &#42

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30 November 2001


There is no guarantee

that organic conversion

will be rewarded with

success because

organic premiums

depend on the product

being in short supply

A FEW weeks ago I participated in a debate arranged by land agents Bidwells in Tattersalls sale ring at Newmarket. I felt I should have trotted round before speaking to the 200 strong audience in the buyers seats. And it was interesting to speculate which oil sheiks might have sat in those seats before we arrived. Come to that, which famous stallions now at expensive stud might have trodden the ring in which we speakers sat?

The debate was essentially intended to compare the long-term viability of organic and conventional farming systems. Leading on behalf of organic production was Peter Melchett, seconded by EU consultant Peter Fane, while Nuffield scholar Guy Smith and I stood up for conventional farming. For the record, we claimed that integrated farming was the new conventional. We considered the fact that LEAF now has 15% of UK farmland in membership and claims to have influenced the systems of at least a further 70% proved our point.

Lord Melchett, who is part way through converting his 364ha (900 acre) north Norfolk farm to organic and is a policy adviser to the Soil Association, took it all very seriously.

We, on the other hand, felt that to make it a more interesting event, a little humour was called for and indulged in a few jibes, not all of which were entirely relevant to the subject in hand. It was all good stuff and I am pleased to say our side won decisively.

But the decision whether to convert to organic is a serious business. And, as I tried to point out in the debate, there is no guarantee it will be rewarded with financial success. For if you take out the emotion, as well as the commitment it takes to farm in that difficult and old-fashioned way, the organic farmer, like any other, still has to make a profit. Yes, there are grants to help during conversion, although they are not as generous as in some other EU countries. But after conversion the organic producer gets no more government aid than conventional farmers and can only recover his higher unit costs from the market.

And that is where they can come unstuck. Organic premiums have been substantial, but they are now at risk. Take milk, for instance. A few years ago, when the ex-farm price for conventional milk was low as 16p/litre, many dairy producers decided to convert to organic on the basis of promises of nearly 30p/litre. But now many of them are in full production only about half can find markets at that price. The rest have to accept nearer 20p – the same as conventional farmers are getting.

I have not studied the accounts of such unfortunates, but I imagine they must be losing serious money. On the other hand, conventional producers can probably now show a small margin at 20p.

The problem is so severe that, in an effort to preserve the profits of organic milk producers who are receiving a premium, the Soil Association is advising those contemplating conversion not to.

And milk is only the first commodity to be so affected. The great rush of farmers seeking to convert over the past few years, encouraged by increased grant aid and fed up with declining margins from conventional operations, must mean that some fruit and vegetables will soon face similar risks. The Soil Association has also warned that organic beef is in danger of over-production.

With 70% to 80% of organic food consumed in this country being imported, logic suggests this should not happen. But that thinking fails to recognise retailers readiness to import organic produce from abroad, despite often lower organic standards, as long as it is cheaper. And because other countries, in Europe and elsewhere, reached over-capacity before the UK, and/or because some of them receive ongoing grants, they are willing and able to undercut UK production costs.

Moreover, when Tesco announced recently that it wanted to dramatically increase its turnover of UK-grown organic food it added that this would enable it to cut prices to consumers. It seems unlikely that Tesco will be prepared to trim its margins, so the assumption must be made that it will seek to cut the prices it pays to growers. All of which implies another profit squeeze for the organic producer.

The fact is organic farming is a diversification from conventional. As such it is producing for a niche market, albeit a substantial one, and subject to the laws of supply and demand. Like all niches it can easily be overdone. The volume of imports has encouraged organic advocates in the past to persuade as many UK farmers as possible to join their club. Many have responded. But, as they are now finding, demand for organic goods is finite and perhaps a lot smaller than they imagined.

If I was an organic farmer I would not be urging my neighbours to copy me. Rather, I would be warning them to stay out of it. For it is only by maintaining a shortage that the premiums necessary for organic farming will continue to be paid.

The decision

whether to convert to organic is a serious business. And, as I tried to point out in the debate, there is no guarantee it will be rewarded with financial success.

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23 November 2001


The full cost of last

seasons crop failures is

still being calculated,

but the early indications

do not point to a bumper

year next season, either

OUR accountants are calculating our results to last Michaelmas. I am not looking forward to what they discover because I already know that profits, or the opposite, will be worse than last year.

Grain prices may have gone up a bit since 2000, but yields and the area harvested were both down. You only had to look at how much unoccupied space there was in the barn at the end of harvest to know cash returns would be disappointing.

The wet autumn and winter of 2000/01 took their toll. And although we, somehow, managed to get our intended autumn drillings completed, not all survived. We might have been better copying some of our neighbours, who stopped trying to drill after mid-November last year.

Then again, we had one field of winter wheat drilled on the frost after sugar beet was lifted in late January, which yielded better than fields we forced in three months earlier. So, you could argue either way and those farmers who did not drill autumn corn did little better with spring crops. They were still having problems planting as the wet continued through April.

But most fields of winter corn in this predominantly Grade 3 land area had big patches that never made it to harvest. And although where crops did survive yields were respectable, those bare patches dragged down the average. We, anyway, were left with an out-turn insufficient to cover costs inflated by the appalling soil conditions. I can only be grateful we sold a significant proportion of the harvest while values were still about £80/t. Will we see as much again this year?

Our prize for worst crop of the year was won by spring beans, nominally grown for seed. Both yield and quality were dreadful and we ended up selling them for pig feed. Soya beans, on the other hand, did better. Grown on this farm for the first time this year and harvested in late September, they are still sitting in the barn. But they appear to have yielded a bit over 2.4t/ha (1t/acre). They, too, are for seed, and we have been told the germination is OK. Which means, together with the seed premium and the area payment, the crop should do about as well as wheat, but with obvious rotational advantages. In any event, we will try another field next year.

Perhaps the nicest surprise of the year, albeit a modest one, is the sugar beet. Drilled very late, it could easily have been a disaster. But although it is yielding far short of a record, it has caught up remarkably to produce near average yields and sugar content. The biggest ongoing worry with the crop is that harvesting is behind schedule. Why? A combination of wanting to leave it in the land as long as possible to maximise yield, and another wet autumn making harvesting slow and difficult.

Add to that the inexplicable extraction problems being experienced by British Sugar, especially at their flagship Wissington factory in the fens, and the resulting knock-on effect to other factories which, as a consequence, are having to process extra beet and you will see that sugar beet problems are not over yet.

Furthermore, the delayed campaign means slower payment by British Sugar and less money in the bank than anticipated. And although it will get there eventually, always assuming we get the crop lifted out of the still saturated land, cash flow is adversely affected.

Now, as we turn to ploughing in muck and preparing land for planting to sugar beet and other crops next spring, I am sorry to say that on some fields we are turning up the remains of the mud we buried last year. Its not wet but it has that sort of stained appearance and I wonder what effect it may have on next years crops. It is, I fear, unlikely to do them much good. The legacies of last winter may not be over yet.

Not that this winter, so far, has been much better in this area. Once again we have had well above average rainfall, although there have been a few fine spells when we have at least been able to catch up with some of the work. But, as I implied on this page a few weeks ago, if this is the weather pattern of the future there is an urgent need to find other viable cropping systems, perhaps entirely new crops, to replace those that are becoming so difficult. I hope and trust the much-diminished UK agricultural research sector has this high on its agenda.

Meanwhile, like everyone else in this sad industry, we are looking around for another diversification to try to earn some money. I read that advice is free from ADAS and we shall probably take advantage of that. But I am not optimistic that such advice will be all that valuable. For if ADAS is recommending the same things to every Tom, Dick and Harry, it seems likely they may soon be overdone. But coming up with your own innovative ideas isnt easy either.

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16 November 2001


American farmers are

offered a great deal of

protection by their

government. If only it

was the same for their

British counterparts…

BY the time this appears in print, statements on the success or otherwise of the WTO ministerial meeting in Doha, Qatar, will have been issued. I am writing this before those communiqués, so I may get it wrong.

But I suspect, despite all the bold words since the World Trade Center was attacked (about it now being more important than ever to reach a global trading agreement), that little progress toward the declared objectives will have been made. If that is the case, farmers may take some comfort in the likelihood that more acceptable compromises will have to be sought.

For many of the leaders of WTO member states, dragged on by the determination of the US and encouraged by academics whose proposals are being debated, are still confused over the implications of what they think they are trying to achieve. I will not comment on the important arguments on drug patents, software licensing and intellectual property.

Farming policies are our business, however, and in trade negotiations they have always been difficult. That may be because they should not have been included in the first place.

Call that comment unrealistic if you like. And I concede our industry cannot escape all the WTOs proposals – to cut import tariffs, reduce production subsidies, limit export aid, and so on. But consider some of the contradictions and distortions between what some countries say and what they do. And think of the effects on our industry, environment and food security if some of those proposals are adopted.

The US has said it wants the world-wide abolition of production-based aid to agriculture. Such aid distorts trade, US representatives say, and it must be brought to an end. Meanwhile, the US Congress has pushed through a Bill that will substantially increase government payments to US farmers, via something called counter-cyclical aid, for the next 10 years.

A cynic might think the US is saying one thing but doing another; that it is determined to ensure its farmers remain in business to export to the rest of the world but equally determined to make it as difficult as possible for other countries to export to the US. The US seems to think free trade is one way only.

Here at home, we are constantly reminded the CAP costs more than half the EUs income and that is undoubtedly true, because agriculture is much the largest industry over which it presides. We are not so regularly reminded that the CAP, for the second year running, has substantially under-spent against budget. Nor are we told how the cost of supporting agriculture across the EU can be put into more meaningful perspective.

But as George Scales reminded FW readers in his letter last week, the actual cost of providing food security for the EU amounts to just 1.6% of GDP – which Franz Fischler described as good value for money. It is a truism to say you can prove anything by selecting statistics. Would that the statistic just quoted were as well known as some of the others.

By its recent pronouncements, the UK government – one of Americas staunchest allies in the trade talks – clearly wants to industrialise UK production agriculture, making it more efficient and able to compete on world markets. Ministers are apparently still labouring under the delusion that this is possible. They have yet to learn that, because the world market is the last resort of most vendors and market prices, based on supply and demand, have nothing to do with production costs.

At the same time they want farmers to reduce inputs, leave wildlife habitats uncropped, and conserve the beautiful British landscape, virtually as our contribution to the society that contributes 1.6% of GDP to help us. The aid currently allocated to environmental enhancement would have little effect if farmers did not contribute the lions share of the costs from other resources.

The UK government, by the imposition of strict production standards, implies it wants UK consumers to be able to buy home produced food and be assured of its safety and traceability. But it also argues for greater access for foreign food, most of which, by definition, cannot match the ethical standards of home production. The government is presumably happy for farm workers, farm animals and the environment to be exploited in exporting countries, so long as British consumers are not aware of it.

Worst of all, the government, citing WTO proposals and further CAP reform, continues to threaten the removal of most farm aid at a time when even the most efficient agri-businesses are already finding it impossible to produce sustainable profits.

Now it may be that cleverer people than me can reconcile this list, which is by no means comprehensive, and show how apparent opposites can be integrated into a viable future for UK farming. A challenge, perhaps, for the Curry Commission on the future of farming, and I look forward to its report.

But unless and until someone can convince me how these contradictory policies can be made to fit together, I for one will feel bound to resist them and try to get them changed.

The government is presumably happy for farm workers, farm animals and the environment to be exploited in exporting countries, so long as British consumers are not aware of it.

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9 November 2001


Only a Confederation

of British Agriculture

can persuade the

government to

implement policies that

will help real farmers

DEFRA seems to be taking a perverse delight in adding insult to injury. In more agricultural terms they are not only defecating on agriculture, they are rubbing it in. And its not just livestock farmers who are suffering. Arable operators are getting it, too.

Not content with inaccurately blaming farmers for foot-and-mouth, rather than admitting their own incompetence, they have now cut welfare disposal compensation to levels so low as to virtually guarantee that farmers who have to use the scheme extensively will be forced out of business.

And having ignored the scale of the arable crisis, caused by the weather, low world prices and currency distortion, because the UK is not in the k-zone, they refused to apply to the EU for £57m automatic compensation to help make up the difference in ex-farm values of crops.

Meanwhile, ministers trot out their usual line about farmers having to change their ways. The implication of such statements is that we are subsidy junkies and that there is no justification for our anger. The government, they suggest, has done more than it needed to help the industry and now farmers must help themselves. They say nothing of the unlevel playing field on which this is supposed to happen – a playing field that appears to have a one-in-four slope against farmers and down which blows a continuous force 10 gale.

So often are the misleading messages repeated that much of the sympathy the industry gained from F&M has been eroded – just as DEFRA wants. For farming is far from top of the departments list of priorities. Mrs Beckett is more interested in the world environment and making her mark in the Marrakesh climate change talks this week than in the plight of cattle producers in Cumberland or wheat growers in west Suffolk. Only last week she announced a £50,000 grant to fund a new project on climate change in South Africa.

That is not to say climate change is unimportant. Indeed, it may have serious implications for us all. But ministerial willingness to spend time and money on matters of peripheral and long-term interest to UK, while they neglect the urgent and growing crisis at home, illustrates where their real interests lie, namely where they will get what they regard as the best publicity for themselves and their government.

For modern politics has more to do with spin doctoring than with governing the country with fairness and vision. It is a game our industry has failed fully to comprehend and we are regularly beaten in the battle for the hearts and minds of British people. Moreover, this defeat in the PR stakes and our inability to persuade public opinion to back mainstream agriculture is the biggest single failing of our industry.

In this age of instantaneous electronic communications, image is vital. Many of those who brief against us have mastered the art of attractive image creation and they tackle it with enthusiasm and dedication. Some of the single-issue pressure groups with interests ranging from conservation in general, birds in particular, animal welfare and, disgracefully in my view, colleagues who farm organically, have been successfully spinning against the rest of us for years. It has reached the point where the government takes advice from such narrowly focused groups on the broad future of our industry. They sit on commissions, almost to the exclusion of real farmers. From their minority positions they control the farming policies imposed on the silent majority.

I will not try to attribute specific blame for this failing. If anything, all of us who have sat mute while falsehoods were being perpetrated are responsible. And there is no doubt those who represent the various interests of our industry have done their best. But, at the risk of offending some who have worked their socks off in the interests of agriculture, I have to say their efforts have not delivered what was required. If they had farmers would not have such a dreadful image, nor would we be falling still further in public esteem, while DEFRA plots against us.

So, if the old order does not work a new one must be tried – unless, that is, we are prepared to stand by as our industry sinks and eventually disappears beneath the waves of world competition. The only hope I can see of tackling the tide of anti-farming spin and reversing it is for farmers, landowners, the supply trade, the merchants, indeed all who rely on agricultural prosperity for their livelihood, to unite around one public relations initiative.

That does not mean existing representative bodies should be removed. They will continue to be necessary to lobby for specific factors that affect their sector. But 60% to 70% of issues are common to all and a small, economical, fast moving, pro-active body to which all existing bodies should subscribe could be set up to deal with the presentation of such issues to the media. Some have dubbed such a body a Confederation of British Agriculture. Others prefer to call it an agriculture council. But dont lets waste time arguing about the name. Lets get the thing set up and working. Its almost too late already.

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2 November 2001


Any plans DEFRA

officials may have to

abandon traditional

markets will have

a serious impact on

the social lives of


fire. So, father decided to have a walk round the farm instead. It was a gorgeous warm June morning so the walk was an attractive change of routine. And he set off with his Lurcher bitch called Fly to walk the crops. After a while he came to a field of wheat infested with wild oats. Chemical control of such weeds had not even been dreamed of in those days and that morning he had sent one of the men to start pulling them by hand.

But there was no sign of the man who should have been there. Wondering if something might be wrong father set off across the field. In the middle of it was a pond – or pit, as we call them in Norfolk – surrounded by trees. When he got close to it he saw the wild oat puller, fast asleep under the shade of a tree. Fly saw him, too, and bounded across to the prostrate figure and licked his face. As my father caught up with the dog, the man woke, pushed the affectionate bitch away, blinked his eyes and saw him standing there.

"What are you doin here?" he said truculently "You should ha been in Norwich."

The rest of the conversation is not recorded but whatever it contained the experience did not change fathers habit of going to market on Saturdays. It was an essential part of his way of life, valuable as much for the contact with contemporaries as for the deals he did or the market information he picked up.

Today we dont have cattle or sheep on this farm and, by using the various published and electronic sources of arable crop intelligence that are available, I do not feel the need to go to market regularly. But I do meet an old farming friend for lunch most Saturdays when we talk over the past week and the next week and anything else that is current. Weve been doing it for more than 40 years and I know we would both miss it if it stopped. For, just like those who still go to market each week, we value the contact and the chat as much as the friendship.

Everyone needs friends to whom they can speak freely and who, often by simply listening, can help resolve problems that may have arisen in their lives. That, after all, is the basis of the Samaritans philosophy. And for many farmers the market is the most natural place for that to happen.

So, the rumours coming out of DEFRA in the wake of foot-and-mouth disease, that officials would like to close most markets, are of great concern. Unfortunately, because resourceful auctioneers, faced with empty pens and movement restrictions, have introduced other temporary ways of trading animals, DEFRA and its advisers seem to believe traditional markets are unnecessary. In any case they blame the rapid spread of F&M around the country on the movement of stock that had passed through markets and this cannot be denied. But they put forward the view that the removal of markets would avoid such spread in future. What they should, of course, be tackling is the root of the problem – the importation of infected meat.

Just how the DEFRA people think market values might be established in the absence of auctions is not clear. After all, most direct-to-abattoir sales are based on prices first established at markets. Nor is it obvious how the ownership of store stock, reared in the hills and traditionally sold to lowland farmers for finishing, could be transferred. Indeed there are so many services rendered by auction markets for which there are no viable alternatives that it is impossible to envisage the livestock industry without them. Yet again, by promoting their demise DEFRA betrays its ignorance of how our industry works and what makes farmers tick.

But, as I have suggested, the social significance of markets is at least as important as their role in the auctioning of livestock. The government would like to believe that the answer to every problem could be found in information technology; that farmers could just as easily run their businesses, buy their requirements and market their produce via the internet. In theory, that may be possible in some cases. But that impersonal, electronic concept ignores the lonely life of many modern farmers. It takes no account of their need for contact and conversation with others with similar problems. The permanent removal of the market from their lives could prove to be the last straw for some. It must not be allowed to happen. &#42

MY late father went to Norwich Market virtually every Saturday of his working life, whether or not he needed to buy or sell anything. One Saturday many years ago, when farmworkers normally did a six day week, he set the men to their jobs, had his breakfast and got in the car to go to market. But the car, an ancient Standard with inadequate brakes and the registration number VG8329, wouldnt start, a not uncommon occurrence in those days as older readers may remember.

He tried cranking; he tried pushing. But the engine would not fire. So, father decided to have a walk round the farm instead. It was a gorgeous warm June morning so the walk was an attractive change of routine. And he set off with his Lurcher bitch called Fly to walk the crops. After a while he came to a field of wheat infested with wild oats. Chemical control of such weeds had not even been dreamed of in those days and that morning he had sent one of the men to start pulling them by hand.

But there was no sign of the man who should have been there. Wondering if something might be wrong father set off across the field. In the middle of it was a pond – or pit, as we call them in Norfolk – surrounded by trees. When he got close to it he saw the wild oat puller, fast asleep under the shade of a tree. Fly saw him, too, and bounded across to the prostrate figure and licked his face. As my father caught up with the dog, the man woke, pushed the affectionate bitch away, blinked his eyes and saw him standing there.

"What are you doin here?" he said truculently "You should ha been in Norwich."

The rest of the conversation is not recorded but whatever it contained the experience did not change fathers habit of going to market on Saturdays. It was an essential part of his way of life, valuable as much for the contact with contemporaries as for the deals he did or the market information he picked up.

Today we dont have cattle or sheep on this farm and, by using the various published and electronic sources of arable crop intelligence that are available, I do not feel the need to go to market regularly. But I do meet an old farming friend for lunch most Saturdays when we talk over the past week and the next week and anything else that is current. Weve been doing it for more than 40 years and I know we would both miss it if it stopped. For, just like those who still go to market each week, we value the contact and the chat as much as the friendship.

Everyone needs friends to whom they can speak freely and who, often by simply listening, can help resolve problems that may have arisen in their lives. That, after all, is the basis of the Samaritans philosophy. And for many farmers the market is the most natural place for that to happen.

So, the rumours coming out of DEFRA in the wake of foot-and-mouth disease, that officials would like to close most markets, are of great concern. Unfortunately, because resourceful auctioneers, faced with empty pens and movement restrictions, have introduced other temporary ways of trading animals, DEFRA and its advisers seem to believe traditional markets are unnecessary. In any case they blame the rapid spread of F&M around the country on the movement of stock that had passed through markets and this cannot be denied. But they put forward the view that the removal of markets would avoid such spread in future. What they should, of course, be tackling is the root of the problem – the importation of infected meat.

Just how the DEFRA people think market values might be established in the absence of auctions is not clear. After all, most direct-to-abattoir sales are based on prices first established at markets. Nor is it obvious how the ownership of store stock, reared in the hills and traditionally sold to lowland farmers for finishing, could be transferred. Indeed there are so many services rendered by auction markets for which there are no viable alternatives that it is impossible to envisage the livestock industry without them. Yet again, by promoting their demise DEFRA betrays its ignorance of how our industry works and what makes farmers tick.

But, as I have suggested, the social significance of markets is at least as important as their role in the auctioning of livestock. The government would like to believe that the answer to every problem could be found in information technology; that farmers could just as easily run their businesses, buy their requirements and market their produce via the internet. In theory, that may be possible in some cases. But that impersonal, electronic concept ignores the lonely life of many modern farmers. It takes no account of their need for contact and conversation with others with similar problems. The permanent removal of the market from their lives could prove to be the last straw for some. It must not be allowed to happen. &#42

The social

significance of markets is at least as important as their role in the auctioning of


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26 October 2001

Anyone who works for

DEFRAout there? If so,

please take the time

and trouble to read the

following words

A FEW dry days have enabled us to start catching up with autumn drilling. The land is still turning over like leather and slugs are having field days among the clods. But both winter wheat and winter barley are growing nicely and I am pleased to report that following months of dark frustration my sunny disposition has returned – at least temporarily.

So much so that I want to help our friends at DEFRA understand farming better. Oh, I know they are sometimes impatient with our industry and would be happier if we were not part of their portfolio. But it is only fair to try to explain to them what kind of people farmers are, what makes us tick and why some of the policies they are following will not produce sustainable outcomes, either for food supplies or the environment.

I doubt from DEFRAs public pronouncements that they read farmers weekly. They would surely be better informed if they did. So if anyone knows an official who works for the organisation, perhaps they will be kind enough to tear out this page and pass it on. I will keep it simple so that even they can understand.

The agreed policy of all government ministers is clearly, from recent pronouncements, including those of Lord Haskins, to continue to drive down ex-farm prices until small and inefficient farmers are forced out of business. Large, efficient farmers, the theory goes, will then take over the land vacated by the outgoers. These expansionists will benefit from economies of scale and will be able to produce livestock and crops profitably in open competition with farmers around the world and, crucially, without subsidies. The logic is persuasive. The economics come straight from the textbook. The only snag is it wont work.

If DEFRA readers are still with me and would like to follow further I will examine those theories. First, big farmers can thrive at current world prices without subsidies, which account for about 30% of gross income on most farms. It does not stack up. Export sales, while being vital to some countries, are essentially the market of last resort after domestic needs are satisfied. Prices have little to do with costs of production in the country of origin. They have nothing to do with the costs of production in importing countries. So those countries that exploit land and labour and ignore animal welfare can undercut our costs and survive.

As accountant Deloitte & Touche recently pointed out, its 500-acre clients averaged only £2500 profit last year, including all subsidy payments. Without those subsidies they would have made huge losses. The bigger the farm the bigger the loss and the current year seems set to get worse.

Further, the concept that, having displaced small farmers, big acreage operators will willingly farm at a loss is nonsense. It may be true that some small farmers are more interested in a country lifestyle than they are in making big profits. But the expansionists got where they are by being sharp businessmen. If farming profits fail to recover they wont hang around producing food at a loss. Theyll sell up and move into another industry where profits can be made.

Britain would quickly find itself in a position where farming became an even more marginal industry and land would become difficult to sell or let. Eventually, and given the scale of the current crisis it could happen sooner rather than later, land would be abandoned and revert to scrub. The countryside would change radically. Hedgerows would remain untrimmed and grow across country lanes. As set-aside has shown, nature abhors a vacuum and many more arable fields than at present would grow thistles instead of wheat. Grass would not be grazed nor cut for hay or silage and great chunks of the British landscape would be unmanaged and unattractive.

At the same time food production would decline, from the 60% of all that consumed by 60m people at present to perhaps 50%, perhaps 30%, perhaps less. The difference would have to be imported and while there are some who would be happy to rely on even more imported food, in spite of the health risks and inferior methods by which it may have been produced, the effects on the UK trade balance would be severe. For as the population of the world increases, imported food will not stay cheap and Britain already faces a serious balance of payments crisis not least because of increases in food imports. That in turn could threaten government expenditure previously intended for health and education and/or mean increases in taxation.

I realise, of course, that such matters are the Treasurys business, not DEFRAs. I also accept that neither farming nor agriculture is named in the title of the department. But environment is mentioned and so is food. And as I hope I may have begun to persuade any of its employees who might read this, both depend on a managed and viable farming industry. Furthermore, without that the many and varied rural affairs referred to, which seem to take up most of DEFRAs time and attention, will founder.


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19 October 2001


Is rhizomania East

Anglias version of foot-

and-mouth? It may be

on the rise but its

certainly not as

serious as that

SEVENTEEN years ago the first UK case of rhizomania, or root madness, in sugar beet was discovered between Thetford in Norfolk and Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk. This autumn, following aerial surveys during the summer and subsequent site testing, 57 cases have been confirmed, all but two of them in Norfolk and Suffolk. The two counties normally account for between 45% and 50% of the entire UK sugar beet crop.

Our own farm has so far escaped. But this year there are half a dozen cases within a five-mile radius, some of them harvested by the same contractor who lifts our crop. Its getting too close for comfort and it is now almost certainly a case of not if, but when, we get it.

Like foot-and-mouth disease it came in from abroad. Not on illegal imports, but almost certainly on seed potatoes imported from Holland. For rhizomania is carried on soil and few grammes can contaminate a field. And although the disease may take years to reach the stage of showing visible symptoms, once discovered the field is banned from growing beet.

The containment policy of which this is a part, almost uniquely adopted in this country, is the botanical version of bio-security, but might also be called shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. Because you can be pretty sure the virus will have been spread by machines across the field in question and on to others through soil clinging to them.

Even so, the measures adopted by the ministrys Plant Health Division and endorsed by British Sugar and the NFU, have significantly slowed the spread of the disease. Last year only eight cases were confirmed in this country after many more the previous year. But this years wet, late, spring followed by high temperatures in July, led to the rash of cases confirmed this autumn. Water and heat are the two factors the disease likes best and which ensure its rapid spread. If this is global warming beet growers are in for a rough time.

Rhizomania first reared its ugly head – or should I say ugly root, for it looks like a Rastafarians hairstyle when fully established – in Italy. By the time it reached Britain, having travelled up through Europe via France, Germany, Belgium and Holland, the disease was endemic in Italy. So, about 17 years ago I went to Italy to see what it looked like.

It clearly had potentially serious effects on both yield and sugar content, but the Italians shrugged their shoulders and carried on growing sugar beet, as before. The foci of infection grew only slowly, they told me, and with their good land, high temperatures and flood irrigation they could still produce economic crops. Meanwhile plant breeders were busy developing tolerant varieties.

In subsequent years I went to the Beauce region of France, just south of Paris, and to Holland to check further on the spread of rhizomania. In both places a laissez-faire attitude had been adopted and crop rotations had not been changed. The rhizomania-tolerant varieties farmers were growing at the time were yielding significantly less than conventional ones. This relaxed approach has continued across most of Europe, and, indeed America where rhizomania is now a growing problem. Moreover, it is estimated that countries like Holland and Belgium, where they have a tight rotation with sugar beet grown every second or third year, around 90% of the arable land is now infected. The disease stays in the land for many years.

It is worth noting, however, that in all of those European regions that I visited the soil quality and the weather have always enabled sugar beet growers to produce higher-yielding, and, therefore, more profitable crops than we can normally achieve in Britain.

Given Britains relative disadvantages, therefore, I agreed with UK attempts to stop the disease spreading. The original measures included spraying off entire infected fields with glyphosate, putting the land down to grass and taking them out of the arable rotation. This has since been modified to spraying off infected spots and banning the growing of sugar beet on the field.

In other words the regulators have bowed to the inevitable and modified their attitude as the disease spread. It is estimated that some 2% of the land that grows sugar beet in this country is now infected. Which compares favourably with the situation in other countries and has given plant breeders more time to perfect rhizomania-tolerant varieties that are now comparable with non-tolerant ones.

It is not just hope which leads me to suspect the plant health regulators will soon modify their approach again in the light of this years experience. For although British beet growers have cleaner land than most others around the world, it is now clear that rhizomania is endemic in this country. Furthermore, now that around 70% of sugar beet is harvested by contractors there is no practical way the spread can be contained much longer.

Some commentators have said rhizomania is East Anglias version of foot-and-mouth disease. But in truth, with the help of plant breeders and some flexibility by the plant health authorities, it need not be that serious.

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12 October 2001


Margaret Becketts

speech to the Party

faithful in Brighton

took ones breath away

in the scale of its

inaccuracy and


LAST weeks FW accused DEFRA minister Margaret Beckett of being an Alice in Wonderland after her speech to the Labour Party Conference (Opinion, Oct 5). But could it have been more sinister than that? For it had all the hallmarks of a stitch-up, of a minister spouting spin-doctors words to an agreed agenda intended ultimately to lead to the virtual demise of farming. Either that, or she has learned nothing about British agriculture since she was put in charge of it in June.

Her speech was hectoring, like a headmistress lecturing naughty children. She told farmers (few if any of whom were in the hall) that they must "change or die". Her message was intended to impress the party faithful, not the industry she was bullying. Farmers are "out of tune" with those on whom they depend for markets, she told her audience. "What society as a whole wants from agriculture is changing, and changing irrevocably," she said. "The…European public will… no longer permit farming simply to carry on as before, let alone pay for it, whether through taxation or through high consumer prices."

There were seven minutes of such stuff and the insults and inaccuracies regarding UK agriculture left me gasping. They implied, among other things, that we fail consistently to change; that we are using management and marketing systems years out of date and that we do not respond to market forces. I wonder how she thinks we have survived until now? For farming is about constant adaptation to economic, environmental and market circumstances as well as government policies.

In recent years, for instance, our industry has introduced a comprehensive range of commodity assurance schemes to improve the safety and ethics of products and to give consumers confidence. Specialist farmers have geared up to produce, process and pack to the highest standards for supermarkets whose demands are insatiable.

Responding to economic pressures, our industry has introduced contracting arrangements to enable the most efficient operators to expand the area under their management and cut unit costs. Farmers facing declining or non-existent margins have set up machinery rings through which they share tackle.

Farmers have diversified into thousands of different schemes to try to make enough money to continue producing food for the nation at less than cost. Some have sold produce at farmers markets; others have opened their own farm shops; most have produced for specific market demand. It could be argued that they have done two jobs and worked twice as hard simply to carry on farming. But they have done it and in so doing have, in effect, subsidised the nations daily food. Meanwhile, more than 50,000 workers have been shed in the past two years alone.

Those farmers who resisted change have already left the profession. Some who have recently declined to accept what they judge an unacceptable ongoing challenge are planning to do so. Those who remain, and the numbers are declining daily, know very well they must embrace change and at an accelerating rate. They do not need Mrs Beckett to belittle their efforts or intelligence and add further to their unjustified poor image by publicly adding to the list of lies and half-truths about them.

Furthermore, and this is the most breathtaking aspect of Mrs Becketts speech, the main reason many farmers have been forced out of the industry is because government incompetence, or if you follow my argument, victimisation, has made it impossible for them to earn even the statutory minimum wage and left them no alternative.

The catalogue of ineptitude combined with what I now suggest may be a stitch-up is endless. Consider one or two examples. As NFU president Ben Gill told Mrs Beckett at the Labour Party Conference, EU area aid to cereal growers has, over the past five years, increased by 15%. Meanwhile, here in the UK, because of currency differences cereal aid has fallen by 18%. The EU foresaw the possibility for inequality when it set the policy and invited member states to apply for compensation for farmers. UK cereal growers are eligible for £57m that must be applied for by the end of October or it disappears into the black hole of the EU budget. There is no sign that anything is being done.

The disaster of F&M goes on in spite of government assurances since May that "it is under control". But unbelievably there has been no visible tightening up on illegal imports of possibly infected meat and other produce. You can still walk through immigration channels at ports and airports carrying all kinds of potentially lethal substances.

If Osama bin Laden wanted to indulge in germ warfare, and God help us if he does, he could simply bring in the bugs in a suitcase. Experience suggests he would be unlikely to be stopped and inspected.

Mrs Beckett and her government should get their own house in order before they cast aspersions on an honourable profession that has endured more unjust criticism than it can tolerate. Give farming a fair chance and it will deliver the goods. Treat it like a contagious disease and it will collapse, taking great chunks of the economy with it.

Farming is about constant adaptation

to economic,

environmental and

market circumstances as well as



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5 October 2001


If the talk of war

proves correct then

British farmers could

see a return to the

golden period last

experienced between

1939 and 1945

VISUALISE the scene. A group of ageing farmers, pints in hand, stand in a bar chewing the fat over the latest crisis to hit agriculture. They complain that prices have collapsed, regulations have increased and profits have disappeared. The predictable conclusion to the discussion is that to put things right "we need another war".

None of the participants actually means it, of course. Nobody in his right mind would. But they remember the farming prosperity between 1939 and 1945. They remember being classed as vital members of society. They remember that what they, or more probably their fathers, produced was wanted by a grateful populace and an even more grateful government. Farming in those days provided job satisfaction as well as profit. And while the horrors of war are anathema to all right thinking people, those aspects hold obvious appeal.

Well, it looks like those insincere wishes for a war may be granted. The events of Sept 11 in the US make widespread conflict virtually inevitable. Furthermore, we are warned it could go on for many years and that the world will never be the same again. It is probably bad taste to even discuss such matters, but it is difficult not to speculate if it might be beneficial to British farming.

Not that some other industries wait long to exploit tragic situations. The papers are already full of stories of companies who have raised prices or taken other measures calculated to enable them to profit from terrorism. Such reactions are a classic response to disaster and we do not need to look far from farming to see it in action. British bakers have announced an increase of 20p/loaf because of the poor wheat harvest. The modest rise in the price of milling wheat since last year might justify a rise of about 1p. But with news of an imminent war flying around there seems little doubt the baking industry judged this would be an auspicious time to announce the increase. And the media, with more serious matters to investigate, appear to have bought their story without too many questions.

So, how will agriculture be affected by these events? I doubt if anybody really knows at present and with military strategies to consider and troop logistics to plan its a fair bet few people in authority have given such questions much thought. The mainly Christian west, after all, has been living through a period of unprecedented plenty where food is concerned. Officials may assume, for the time being, that this will continue without interruption. Parts of the Islamic east may not have had it so good, but thats another story.

If that were the official view – and I confess I have no reliable information that it is – it would be dangerously complacent. I cannot perceive how an armed conflict of the magnitude predicted will not disrupt the production and distribution of food.

Furthermore, when the main focus of the battle is populated with innocent civilians, many of whom already face starvation, there will be inevitable and necessary calls for massive food aid. If the conflict spreads the need for aid will spread. And if the west fails to adequately respond to such needs, perhaps even if it does, more compatriots of those who terrorised US targets will be ready to die for their cause.

In short, food security, both domestically and internationally, must be at the heart of the war strategy. That, in turn, means the policies of the WTO, which seek to globalise agricultural trade, must be urgently reviewed. It would be irresponsible in the extreme at a time like this to press on with a plan that would inevitably lead to vast regions of the world relying more heavily for their daily food on imports.

Moreover, if the war does go on for many years there may be insufficient food available in the world to meet all demands. We have already seen the grounding of crop spraying planes in the US because of fears that terrorists might use them to spread toxic chemicals or lethal diseases. What effect might that have on yields? What other precautions might have to be taken which would affect food production? Who knows? But contingency plans must be made, as they were during World War Two, and that means taking measures to ensure people are fed.

Which brings us back to Britain and its food policies, if they exist. For it could increasingly be argued that the food produced in this country is in spite of, not because of, the government. Lord Whitty wittered on again last week about DEFRA being more about being green than about producing food. Indeed, he and his colleagues seem determined to run down production in agriculture. Have they not read the history of World War Two and how farmers saved the nation from starvation? Have they not watched the TV news telling of the military build-up to massive and long-term conflict? Have DEFRA ministers or other members of government any understanding at all of the strategic importance of the industry over which they preside?

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28 September 2001


They may have had an

Indian summer in India,

but we certainly didnt

in Norfolk…

A month ago forecasters felt guilty about the weather they were predicting and, presumably because they disliked being the bearers of bad news, suggested there would soon be a sustained improvement. An Indian summer in mid-September, they said, indicating there would be several successive warm, dry days. It was a comforting thought as I looked out at the harvest we still had to do and the contract combining I hoped would earn us a little extra income.

Since then we have done a few hours of combining between periods of rain. As for the Indian summer, perhaps they had one in India, but not in Norfolk. Rain clouds have passed over us with monotonous regularity, each tipping out its contents. Three millimetres of rain one night, 5mm the next, 9mm after that, then back to 2 or 3mm again, and so on. And that followed a 48-hour period at the beginning of the month when we had well over 50mm.

The result? One of the most frustrating Septembers I can remember. We did very little and most of what we did do will not have earned us a penny. We had a few attempts at finishing the spring wheat at almost any moisture content just to get it done. But we still have not finished. As I write there are about 2ha (5 acres) to do. And the way the weather is going Im not confident that Ill be able to sing truthfully "All is safely gathered in" at the Harvest Thanksgiving on Sunday.

I gather from friends in other parts of the country that they have not had it quite as wet. In fact, up to the middle of the month some areas were said to be crying out for a decent soak – but not here. We needed to sub-soil several fields that had suffered from dreadful drilling conditions last winter. But the land is far too wet. Even if our tractor tyres could get a grip on the flooded topsoil, the sub-soiler blades would cut through it like a knife through cheese. And if you cant get the land to shatter I always think its a pointless, not to say expensive, exercise.

We have managed to cart pig muck from the heap to the fields where its to be spread prior to drilling sugar beet next year. We find it difficult to justify using expensive hired spreaders to cart the stuff several miles on the road. It is in any case too early to spread and plough it in. Wed end up with weedy seed-beds next spring. But even that was a tricky job and we had to stop work a few times when the land got too wet so as not to create ruts with the tractor and trailer wheelings.

Drilling winter wheat and barley has also been delayed by the weather. The light land boys have scored again. But those of us with stronger land have found that minimal cultivations have not worked. Pull a cultivator or discs across it and all you get are strips of wet soil which harden into clods. Plough it, as many have done, and it comes off the breast like liver. Forcing a seed-bed from either is unlikely to be effective. And yet the seed urgently needs to be drilled.

Is it global warming? Are we going to get autumns like this every year from now on? If so, what changes can be made to management systems to avoid the poor yields and bare patches experienced this year? As one normally relaxed neighbour put it when he called into our office the other day during a particularly heavy downpour: "Why do we bother?" How serious he was I dont know but he was so fed up he said he might leave farming and find something less stressful to do. He is not the only one.

And it is not just the weather. News that shipments of grain are coming in to the UK from the Ukraine and other Balkan states at delivered prices that undercut ours simply adds to the depression. When we then discover such grain can qualify for UK assurance schemes and the associated premiums, in spite of a total lack of auditing, depression turns to anger.

Meanwhile, on this farm weve just had the returns relating to malting barley delivered in August. Some loads, when sampled at the maltings, were said to be 0.1% high on nitrogen and the price was docked £3/t. No discussion, no negotiation; just a smaller cheque for commodities about which we have only the maltsters word that they were marginally below spec and which will in any case have been tipped onto the same heap.

We took it up with the merchant. I sympathise, he said, but there is nothing I can do. They treat us as badly as they do you. And so the injustices go on, with farmers and traders, already in financial difficulties, being exploited by brewers and retailers making enormous margins. We used to live in a country where decent business ethics ruled most transactions. Sadly that no longer seems to be the case. And we, among the smaller businesses of Britain, are the victims yet again.

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21 September 2001


A recent report by an

accountancy firm

makes depressing

reading and there is

little light at the end of

the tunnel either

East Anglian accountant, Larking Gowen, which specialises in agriculture, recently issued its latest assessment of the industrys profitability based on actual results achieved by its clients (Business, Sept 14).

Its report makes depressing reading, although unsurprisingly to anyone involved, it is similar to the one they published last year – only worse. The calculations are based on financial years to last October or this March and with the current year expected to show even worse returns, Larking Gowen says: "There is little to be optimistic about for the regions beleaguered farming industry".

Profits have fallen by 75% since 1996, says the firm. The majority of farmers are earning less than the statutory minimum wage, are effectively now working for nothing and are facing the toughest conditions since the 1930s. And this in a region popularly believed to be among the most prosperous in the country, where most farm production revolves around substantial acreages of arable crops including wheat, barley, sugar beet and potatoes and which has so far remained relatively unscathed by foot-and-mouth.

David Missen, a partner in the firm, comments: "There has been much talk of diversification being the salvation of the farming industry – however we believe such cases are few and far between."

He went on to point out some of the pitfalls. Diversification is usually capital-intensive and five years of falling profits means few farmers have sufficient funds; it is seldom a viable option for tenant farmers whose investment will ultimately revert to the landlord; it is available only to those with appropriate resources of capital, buildings, services and location. There is little sense in opening a roadside shop miles away from a major road.

The report concluded that almost all farms would have shown a loss last year if it were not for IACS cheques; that while direct costs are being reduced, overheads are still rising; that profits are continuing to fall.

Quote such a report to government ministers and you will get the standard reply dictated by the spin-doctors. It will begin with the catchphrase coined by Sybil Faulty when faced with one of Basils outbursts: "I know, but its the same for all farmers everywhere; commodity prices have collapsed and theres nothing I can do about it." British farmers have heard that so often they have begun to believe it.

But it is only half true. Yes, world commodity prices have collapsed. But America, whose policies in the mid-90s were largely to blame for the collapse, responded by throwing cash at its farmers in order to ensure their survival, while at the same time intimidating other countries, especially the EU, from doing likewise.

Even now, under George W Bush, who after the unimaginable terrorist attacks clearly has appalling and more urgent matters on his mind, there are proposals on the White House table to introduce counter-cyclical aid to US farmers to guarantee their prices at profitable levels. Who knows what will happen now, following the carnage, but if approved it will provide $19bn a year (about £13bn) to US farmers, or three times more than they were scheduled to receive under the 1996 Freedom to Farm legislation. And that is without "emergency aid" which, if past experience is any guide, will be added during the year.

But the situation on this countrys farms is significantly worse than those in the USA and the solution lies substantially in the hands of UK government ministers. Do you remember, for instance, the much trumpeted and very complicated Rural Development Aid announced by MAFF a couple of years ago? Farmers (and just about everyone else in the British countryside) were to share £1.6bn. The fact it was spread over seven years was glossed over and that all of it was to come from Brussels and none from Whitehall was written in small print.

When calculated on a per hectare farmed basis the amount allocated to Britains rural areas was 15th out of 15 in the league table of member nations. Assuming Britains share a hectare was 100, France got 250, Germany 300, Ireland 500, Austria 1300,Finland 1500, and so on. It is not entirely clear on what basis such allocations were made, except perhaps perceived need (hence the higher amounts to countries with more mountains and forests), the determination of those negotiating and, most likely of all, previous claims history. In which case not only is the present Labour administration to blame but also the previous Conservative government.

It is almost certainly too late to get our allocation increased, for to do so would mean reducing the sums allotted to other countries and I doubt they would wear that. But the implication, as if we didnt know, is that British agriculture has been getting a raw deal compared with other EU members for years. They also imply that when politicians weep crocodile tears over our plight, they are indulging in the worst kind of hypocrisy. They have been, or are still, responsible for the shabby treatment meted out to British farmers. And it does not surprise me one bit that when the NFU, on behalf of a BBC programme, invited farmers considering emigrating to France to register the fact on its web-site, there was an avalanche of responses.

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14 September 2001


The government has

turned its back on

British food production.

But encouraging crops

for green fuel would do

its electoral image no

harm at all

It has become clear that the government is not interested in the food production potential of British agriculture. Never mind the fact that UK farmers still produce 80% of the indigenous food commodities consumed by the domestic population. The perception continues and is gaining ground in the Treasury and elsewhere that it is cheaper and causes less trouble to import most of our food.

That perception is wrong and seriously inconsistent with demands for assurance and traceability. It must be urgently reversed by the united efforts of the entire agricultural sector. Meanwhile, farmers would do well to explore alternative uses for land that meet with more approval.

Areas to which the government pays lip service are the enhancement of the environment, the reduction of greenhouse gases, compliance with the Rio Treaty on climate change and other international conferences on the subject. Moreover, Chancellor Gordon Brown allowed special concessions to green fuels in his last budget. So, presumably he believes such matters are important – if only to impress voters.

But both he and the rest of the government fight shy of Draconian measures to cut fuel usage as proposed by some pressure groups. The reason is clear. They know the car is a convenience few electors want to give up. How much more acceptable it would be to keep our cars running if a significant proportion of fuel could be provided by environmentally friendly means. It would appeal to traditionalists who hanker for the old days when 20% of Britains farmland grew a fuel crop – hay. It would also enable this country to comply with EU proposals to reduce fossil fuel usage currently being formulated in Brussels.

Just a pipe-dream? Well, no it isnt. According to The British Association for Bio-Fuels and Oils it would be possible to produce 10% and probably more of this countrys fuel needs from farms. Furthermore, some other states within the EU are already heading in that direction. They are achieving this by reducing or abolishing excise duty on bio-fuels which, in turn, makes production and processing economic. By setting a zero rate Germany is on course to produce 1m tonnes by 2003 and Austria, Italy and Spain are following suit. France has a variable duty but still produces well over a quarter of a million tonnes. Here in the UK virtually nothing is being done to develop what could become a vital industry for the country, never mind its potential impact on farming.

Its not a new story, of course. Rudolf Diesel, the German who invented the diesel engine about 80 years ago, said at the time it could be fuelled by vegetable oil. I went to Austria about 10 years ago to look at bio-fuel developments there. Because of their governments genuine interest in the environment (allied to the fact that they had no North Sea oil or gas, no doubt) they were further advanced then than we are now. But there are new and pressing reasons for the UK government to look at the idea again.

One is foot-and-mouth disease. For you cannot slaughter 4m animals without freeing up a great many acres of land. Not all of it will be suitable for growing industrial rape as a feed stock for bio-fuel, of course. But some of it will and if an embarrassing surplus of grain is to be avoided, a viable alternative crop needs to be introduced urgently.

One answer might be to put a greater area down to set-aside. But we already have almost 600,000ha (1.5m acres) of set-aside and while I am the first to admit the environmental benefits gained from some of it, I also concede that a lot of it looks a mess. Far better, surely, to use more for the production of genuinely green fuel. But neither farmers nor processors can afford to do it without government assistance in the form, at least, of a zero excise duty together with a commitment to keep it that way for several years. If the Chancellor can cut duty for lead-free and low-sulphur fossil fuels why cant he do it for rape, or as I proposed to rename it a few months ago, canola oil for bio-fuel?

But that is not the only possibility. Short rotation coppice, burned through appropriate boilers, can generate electricity. Although I do detect a real reluctance from industry to fund the necessary plant – perhaps because the government does not take it seriously either. The possibility of using surplus straw in similar situations has hardly begun to be exploited. And what about windfarms? In some countries there are hundreds of them. Indeed the revenue from propellers in the sky over their land has kept many Danish and German farmers solvent. Here it takes years and piles of money spent on lawyers just to get planning permission.

The point is they all need land. They are all environmentally friendly and should fit in the green box of the WTO. They should all qualify as legitimate diversifications. If the government doesnt want food, does it want green fuel and power? If so lets hear more of whats going to be done about it.

If the Chancellor can cut duty for lead-free and low-sulphur fossil fuels why cant he do it for rape, or as I proposed to rename it a few months

ago, canola oil

for bio-fuel?

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7 September 2001


Now is the time for all

those who derive their

income from agriculture

to pull together in an

effort to reverse

Richardsons theory of

accelerated extinction

MY bedtime reading over the harvest period has included Darwins The Origin of Species. I had not read the actual document before, although, like most people, I was aware of its main propositions concerning natural selection and the survival of the fittest.

First published more than 140 years ago, it landed like a literary bombshell into a world that believed in the literal story of creation in seven days as told in The Book of Genesis. A measure of the scale of Darwins scientific and intellectual conclusions at the time, based entirely on observation, is that the discovery and analysis of DNA, well over 100 years later, confirmed most of them.

One of his theories was that the extinction, over time, of the weakest or worst adapted species is inevitable. That as climate changes, competition for food or habitat increase, the strong survive while the weak eventually go to the wall. This, he concluded, was the explanation for surviving creatures which were similar, but not identical, to others that had disappeared. These similarities also showed how closely related species evolved in slightly different ways in different continents and climates.

Darwin, a scientific giant of his age, was courageous in publishing his theories to a world that ridiculed them and accused him of heresy. I do not claim the foresight of Darwin, but reading his book suggested satirical extensions of his ideas which, with a bit of lateral thinking, might be relevant to agriculture today.

The evolution on which Darwin theorised took place over millions of years in conditions dictated by natural phenomena. Each area of the world became separated by oceans and the then isolated species evolved in the way most appropriate to the conditions in which they found themselves. It would be interesting to speculate what would have happened to some of the worlds most attractive species if globalisation and the physical transmission of diseases between continents had occurred. Could they have competed? Would they have survived? Who knows?

Which brings me, rather clumsily, to Richardsons theory of accelerated extinction. For farmers on this tiny island have become an endangered species. The paradox is that it has happened at a time when, in spite of Darwins observations on the inevitability of extinction, the preservation of species is regarded as paramount. If you are a gorilla, a natterjack toad or a rare orchid, millions of people and dozens of governments will dip into their pockets to try to preserve your habitat and ensure your survival. But if you are a UK farmer, producing food for the nation, you are perceived as unimportant. Whats more, the extinction of such a minor species is acceptable.

Now it may be, if Darwin was right, that some animal species and UK farmers will eventually become extinct. In which case efforts to save them are a waste of money and time. But I happen to believe it worthwhile to try and save all these species if at all possible. Furthermore, in the case of UK farmers, I strongly believe, given a fair and reasonable economic climate, they can compete long-term with any farmer in the world, not least because they are capable of adapting to their environment. In addition, they are vitally necessary to the future feeding and well being of the rest of the UKs 60m inhabitants.

But there has been precious little recent public recognition of such potential benefits and UK farmers are in danger of being wiped out. Not so much because of natural phenomena over millions of years, like Darwins animals, but because of political expediency across the limited land area of Britain, over a mere handful of years. Hence my theory of accelerated extinction.

And among the factors which will bring this about, if nothing is done to stop it, is the different political climate experienced by many of the competitors of UK farmers. Most of these operate in more favourable economic environments not now experienced in this country. So, while Darwins theories speak of the survival of the fittest and natural selection, Richardsons theory instead points to the survival of the luckiest and the inordinate power of short-term, short-sighted policies.

But we must always remember that, unlike natural phenomena over which man has little or no control, economic environments created by political forces are capable of being changed. Farmers must persuade both the public and politicians that they are as valuable, if not more so, than the natterjack toad.

To do that will require the united effort of all who derive their income from agriculture – not just farmers, but the supply trade, the machinery trade, the feed industry, the food industry and so on. Farmers on their own account for less than 2% of the population. As such, they hardly register on the political Richter scale. Add in all the others and farmers find themselves at the heart of an industry employing around 14% of the population.

If all could only work together to lobby government and influence public opinion, as they should, we would be a real force to be reckoned with, capable even of reversing Richardsons theory.

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31 August 2001


Wheat yields are about

the only thing to be

cheerful in a politically

hostile and

uncaring climate

I keep trying to find things to build up my optimism. Like the fact that, on this farm, we seem to be getting yields of wheat rather better than we feared, despite the dreadful weather through the year. Like the modest and faltering firming of market prices for cereals which may mean we can factor in values in the low £80/t rather than the mid-£70s as previously expected. If we get a sustained period of dry harvest weather and can avoid using the diesel-fuelled grain drier, we might break even on some fields.

But I am constantly reminded of the political context in which farmers have to work. And that kills any optimism that may begin to flicker into life.

The other day, for example, I was driving the combine and listening to the news on Radio 4 while the regular driver had his lunch, when Lord Larry Whitty was interviewed about the future of agriculture. I always used to associate the name Larry with a lamb which featured on childrens radio programmes when I was a child. DEFRAs Larry has a similar voice to the lamb in question, but thats as far as the comparison goes. I suspect he is a wolf in sheeps clothing, appointed to soften up farmings lambs for slaughter.

Again he repeated the mantra that the vast sums of government money pumped into farming every year have got to stop. Farmers must rely on market forces because direct payments are blunt and ineffective instruments by which to manage the industry, he added.

If ever there were a blunt instrument it is market forces as currently applied to UK farming. Our industry is subjected to intolerable and unsustainable injustices by an over-valued currency reducing farmers returns by 30%. The same overvalued currency makes it more attractive for retailers to import food than to purchase it from domestic producers. It suffers under a costly regulatory regime to which most of our competitors are exempt. And it is administered by a government whose actions and words indicate it would like to eliminate as many farmers as possible because they are too much trouble.

Through all of this it is implied that farmers have brought these problems on themselves. Foot-and-mouth, swine fever, BSE and other calamities are farmers own fault because of the way they responded to CAP. We should stop whingeing and get on with adjusting to the inevitable future. There is sometimes a mention that there might be a little more aid for environmental work and diversification but that, it is suggested, should only go to small-scale farmers. Big farmers dont need it and should not expect it. Meanwhile, unaware, presumably, of the contradiction in their words, our political masters recommend we get bigger to cash in on the economies of scale.

So, are farmers to blame for their own plight? Readers of this column will give a predictable answer. But independent viewers of the 4×4 programme on Channel 4 television the other night will have made up their own minds. The programme showed a vast warehouse at Heathrow Airport full of suspected illegal imports. There were pictures of rotting meat from exotic parts of the world falling out of cases and admissions by the one man in charge of checking it all that there was no way he could do an adequate job. Moreover, one of the airport managers claimed he had written to former farm minister Nick Brown long before the outbreak of F&M in February, warning him of the undermanning and inadequate checking of such packages at the airport. He had specifically told MAFF that he feared something like F&M might get into Britain via such packages. He has not yet received a reply. And still they try to blame farmers for the epidemic.

It is the deliberate, constant and usually unjustified criticism by government officials that is most debilitating to people who are already struggling financially. One of its indirect results is the disastrous fall in numbers of agricultural students attending colleges and universities. Young people who might normally have registered for a farm management course read such comments, as we all do, and are put off by the poor prospects they indicate. Plenty choose, instead of agriculture, environmental sciences, rural development, flower arranging, and so. The number of pure agriculture students at many establishments can be counted on your fingers.

Have Lord Whitty, Margaret Beckett or Tony Blair considered the implications? I doubt it. But if it continues it will amount to the loss to agriculture of a generation of young people. For few young farmworkers are joining the industry either.

Come the next food shortage – and come it will – this country could find itself without the skills necessary to rebuild food production. Think of coal. Do you believe the UK coal industry could be redeveloped with the limited specialist skills that remain? I suggest it could not and after a few more years of the current treatment, the same will apply to farming.

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24 August 2001


DEFRAs rate relief

proposals to encourage

diversification might

prove to be as big a

fiasco as the


Stewardship Scheme

I honestly cannot think of anyone among my farming friends who has not expanded, diversified or both. Almost every farmer in Britain has been acutely aware of the need to enhance his or her income for the past five years, if not longer.

In fact, MAFF statistics have referred to non-farming income in comparison to "income from farming" for years in justification for allowing straight farming profits to decline.

So, pundits who lecture farmers on the need to make those same changes, as if they were new ideas, are either out of touch or deliberately insulting our industry. Moreover, there are probably far more farmers legitimately wondering whether to give up the unequal struggle of farming which, in the present economic climate, amounts to subsidising consumers, than are, or should be, contemplating more diversification. For most of those with the resources – both physical and financial – appropriate to diversification are already doing it. And splitting management expertise too many ways can be counter-productive.

But DEFRA and others have shown their lack of understanding and/or imagination by once again giving tired advice as if it were the newly discovered Holy Grail. Furthermore, they have compounded their ineptitude by trotting out yet another solution first put forward many months ago. They have proposed, to encourage new diversification among farmers, that new enterprises should qualify for business rate relief. Not for all of it, as originally proposed, but just 50% for five years. Meanwhile, if local authorities choose to be generous they will be able to exempt the other 50%.

Given the financial constraints under which most local authorities work, and the perceived lack of importance of farming in the economy, it would be unwise to hold your breath anticipating further relief from most councils.

But by far the worst aspect of the proposal is the discriminatory way in which it is planned to be applied. For farmers who showed initiative before the current crisis in agriculture (not just F&M) are to get no such relief.

If they pay business rates now they will be required to continue to do so. Indeed, there are rumours in some parts of the country that rating officers are about to get tougher on farm premises used for other purposes, but not yet rated, because they regard them as an untapped source of revenue.

So, very soon, presumably, we shall have farmers attempting to produce diversified goods or services from farm premises, some of which may be fully rated, some of which may be benefiting from a 50% relief, and some of which may be paying no rates at all. The unfairness in that situation is plain to see. And given that most activities that can be adapted to farms are small niches, it is obvious, if some are given preferential treatment to set up and develop, while others pay full rates, there will be casualties.

I cannot believe that this is the intention of the proposed legislation. It is just that nobody has thought through the implications. Quite likely too, that cash limitation is so severe that there is insufficient available to do the job sensibly or properly. It is, in other words, yet another example of the penny pinching attitude of DEFRA to farming. They would deny this, of course, and point to the vast amounts of cash being spent on F&M.

To which I would retort that the epidemic, its origins and management are the governments own responsibility and have little to do with UK farmers except they and their livestock are the chief victims.

The rate relief injustice is not the first of its kind. A few years ago there was a similar anomaly over funds for Countryside Stewardship. Like rate relief, it was a cash limited scheme. Like rate relief it was something to which the government paid lip service. But it ended up causing more damage to the countryside than if it had never been introduced. May I remind you that at one stage there were twice as many farmers applying for a Countryside Stewardship Scheme as were being granted them. The reason – there was not enough money in the kitty.

Worse still, it was the farmers who had already taken measures to improve the conservation on their farms who were being rejected "because government money must be spent on providing the most public good". So what happened? To my certain knowledge some farmers ripped out conservation features already established to qualify for the scheme, thereby depleting the environment and delaying any conservation enhancement until after their new scheme had matured.

Fortunately, the MAFF people in charge at the time saw the error of their ways and after a few unsatisfactory years funded the initiative more fully to the advantage of both farmers and the environment. My fear is that this rate relief proposal could turn into an even bigger fiasco than Countryside Stewardship. It should not be too late to correct this error and to enable all UK farmers to compete on a level playing field, at least here at home.

By far the worst

aspect of the proposal is the discriminatory way in which it is planned to be


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17 August 2001


Its a strange co-

incidence that criticism

of government handling

of the F&Mcrisis has

been accompanied by

juicy, anti-farmer leaks

I dont know if government spin doctors released F&M compensation figures to the media. They could only have come from DEFRA, whether provided innocently or not. But leaks have occurred consistently whenever government handling of the crisis was criticised. The juicy detail that 37 farmers were likely to receive over £1m was a gift to headline writers.

Having picked up the story in the first instance, some hacks have since relented. We can only assume their research into the capital value of pedigree livestock exceeded that of DEFRA. Or perhaps they were sore at having been taken for yet another ride. For some of them have pointed out that valuations are independent. That the situation has, from the beginning, been claimed by government to be "under control". So any mismanagement must be its own responsibility.

Further, it has been made clear there is no compensation for loss of income. The allegation that F&M costs have already amounted to more than the profit made by the entire UK farming industry last year says more about the amount of capital tied up in farming, the tiny returns to be made from it, and the almost terminal state of some sectors, than it does about the size of some claims.

DEFRAs recent insistence that all livestock farmers must insure against F&M in future instead of relying on government is a joke. My broker told me long ago that insurance companies will cover against the possibility of an accident but not the probability. If the latter, premiums are prohibitive. Imagine what underwriters response would be to the events of the past six months, plus the likelihood of increasing quantities of meat and other livestock products coming to Britain from areas of the world known to be infected with the disease.

The NFU has published a series of reasoned proposals which, if implemented, would go a long way towards limiting the risk of re-importing infectious diseases. The response from DEFRA has been a deafening silence. The response from the Prime Minister in speeches made abroad can only be described as crass in their insensitivity.

On his visits to both Brazil and Argentina he is reported to have told political leaders that Britain was ready to help their faltering economies by importing more from them. He congratulated them on their free trading principles and deplored the lack of enthusiasm for the WTO among some of our EU partners. What Europe needs is the same kind of inspired leadership as exists in South America, he seemed to be saying.

It cannot have escaped his attention, or that of his advisers, that the main exports of the countries he visited are agricultural. Furthermore, that F&M is endemic in both. What presumably appealed to him was that production costs of food are lower than in the UK and Europe. What he obviously missed (or did he?) was the exploitation of land, labour, environment and animal welfare which takes place in order to produce and be able to export at low prices. So much for ethics. So much for environmental concerns. So much for his own countrys farmers who will be driven out of business by his double standards and his obsession with free trade.

In the unlikely event that the Prime Minister, who, it is reported, is already planning for a third term in office, reads this, may I spell out once again the dangers his policies imply. For by seeking the short-term benefits of still more cheap food from world markets he will destroy the domestic production base.

Farmers in Britain, even those with large acreages who seem to be thought immune from economic pressures, saddled with the regulations and overheads of living and working in this country, cannot compete with the exploitative methods employed in developing countries. It may appear that such trade is beneficial to workers, but having visited many of the countries concerned it is clear to me that the only people who gain are the corporate bosses and the often corrupt governments. Workers continue to be exploited as before.

Quite apart from the inconsistencies of Mr Blairs approach, claiming to want to protect citizens rights, the environment and so on in Britain but ignoring similar concerns abroad, if the price is right, there is the matter of food security. The Prime Minister has often claimed global warming and climate change are realities. That must mean the production of crops world-wide will change. It may be easier. It may be more difficult. Either way there will be a period of adjustment which could take many years.

Meanwhile, world population is set to rise by 50% in the next 40 to 50 years. It will rise by 10% to 15% by 2010 when Mr Blairs third term could end and food shortages may already have begun to show. I suggest it would be politically expedient for him to take the statesmanlike long-term approach to farming rather than rely on dubious short-term political gain. For the balance of payments could look very different if shortages drove up the price of imported food. And tourists are unlikely to want to visit Britain if most farms have been abandoned and the landscape is down to set-aside.

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10 August 2001


Dismal circumstances

at every corner greet

this seasons harvest,

accompanied by public

ignorance and petty

official obstructiveness

p, which was fit and dry and ready to come. Then there was a scattering of ears across all fields that were still a week to 10 days short of ripeness. I suspect they were almost blind tillers until one or other of the heavy rains we had during the summer revived them. Fortunately those ears were virtually the same moisture as the main crop. And then there were the tramlines, either side of which were plants that were still green, caused by the wide wheels we were forced to leave on the sprayer later than usual this year because of the wet spring.

We opted for majority ripeness in deciding when to begin and so there are green grains in otherwise dry samples. Which means they are not pretty and will not win the malting barley contest. But fan sucker-blowers on perforated towers are keeping the heaps aired and sweet. So, perhaps its not too serious. Indeed I am more concerned at the low yields. I had hoped light, easy draining land might score this year. Not in this area. And although prices have come off last years bottom they are still too low to leave a margin with such light crops.

Friends further south tell me they are already well into wheat and that yields are better than feared. Here in Norfolk most are several days away. Then we can look forward to a really testing time for men, machines and tempers. A combine dealer told me recently he expected some of his best spares business this year would be for rear stub axles. He was convinced several would be twisted off in deep ruts left by sprayers and fertiliser spreaders. Thats when "combine rage" will reach its height.

Meanwhile, I have already been the victim of road rage while leading our combine from one field to another. I was driving the escort car in front of the machine, all lights flashing according to regulations, when, among other more reasonable traffic, I met a Mondeo coming too fast in the opposite direction. I leaned out of the window, frantically waved the young driver to slow down. When he didnt I eased the car towards the centre of the road to emphasise the danger. I got a mouthful of abuse in spite of trying to tell him a combine was just behind me. He didnt listen. Instead he appeared to be preparing to jump out and thump me. Until the rather large combine bore down on him, that is, when he thought better of it and drove his car up a bank out of the way.

I have had several similar experiences. All of them here in the middle of Norfolk where it might be assumed there would be at least a little knowledge of and sympathy for farming. Not any more, it seems.

At least we have avoided the fate of a friend near here. He manages two farms about 40 miles apart which both use the same combine. Being an upright and law-abiding chap he went by the book and asked police permission to drive his combine, accompanied by an escort vehicle, between the two. The majority of the journey could be travelled on A-roads. To his amazement permission was refused.

The abnormal loads officer told him the public could not be subjected to such inconvenience and that if he wished to move the combine he would have to employ, and of course pay, a haulier with a low-loader. The combine would not be any narrower, of course, but the lorry would be a few mph faster and this would not annoy other road users quite so much.

We must assume the officer was only interpreting instructions from seniors. We must assume he was not doing it out of spite. We must also recognise such developments as more evidence of our declining economic importance and the low esteem in which food production is now held. On one hand we are forced by economic necessity and government edict to get bigger. On the other, society erects petty barriers to our success at every turn. Who loves us? Who feels they need us? Who cares? Not Margaret Beckett – shes away on her holiday for five week

THERE has seldom been a harvest I have anticipated with less pDavleasure in 40 years of farming. Appalling weather, low prices and inevitable losses have hardly excited my optimism. As I write, we are still waiting for fine weather to let us finish the last few acres of winter barley.

We had the usual teething problems with the combine, in spite of the professional service supposed to prevent such frustrations. They are, of course, more than just frustrating, they are expensive. They undermine efficiency and stop harvesting while moisture levels are low, risking a change in the weather and unwanted drying costs. But some problems cannot be foreseen. As our old combine driver used to say "They dont break down when you arent using them."

The other frustration was variable ripening. Most of our winter barleys had two, if not three stages of growth. There was the main crop; ears buckled over almost ready to snap, which was fit and dry and ready to come. Then there was a scattering of ears across all fields that were still a week to 10 days short of ripeness. I suspect they were almost blind tillers until one or other of the heavy rains we had during the summer revived them. Fortunately those ears were virtually the same moisture as the main crop. And then there were the tramlines, either side of which were plants that were still green, caused by the wide wheels we were forced to leave on the sprayer later than usual this year because of the wet spring.

We opted for majority ripeness in deciding when to begin and so there are green grains in otherwise dry samples. Which means they are not pretty and will not win the malting barley contest. But fan sucker-blowers on perforated towers are keeping the heaps aired and sweet. So, perhaps its not too serious. Indeed I am more concerned at the low yields. I had hoped light, easy draining land might score this year. Not in this area. And although prices have come off last years bottom they are still too low to leave a margin with such light crops.

Friends further south tell me they are already well into wheat and that yields are better than feared. Here in Norfolk most are several days away. Then we can look forward to a really testing time for men, machines and tempers. A combine dealer told me recently he expected some of his best spares business this year would be for rear stub axles. He was convinced several would be twisted off in deep ruts left by sprayers and fertiliser spreaders. Thats when "combine rage" will reach its height.

Meanwhile, I have already been the victim of road rage while leading our combine from one field to another. I was driving the escort car in front of the machine, all lights flashing according to regulations, when, among other more reasonable traffic, I met a Mondeo coming too fast in the opposite direction. I leaned out of the window, frantically waved the young driver to slow down. When he didnt I eased the car towards the centre of the road to emphasise the danger. I got a mouthful of abuse in spite of trying to tell him a combine was just behind me. He didnt listen. Instead he appeared to be preparing to jump out and thump me. Until the rather large combine bore down on him, that is, when he thought better of it and drove his car up a bank out of the way.

I have had several similar experiences. All of them here in the middle of Norfolk where it might be assumed there would be at least a little knowledge of and sympathy for farming. Not any more, it seems.

At least we have avoided the fate of a friend near here. He manages two farms about 40 miles apart which both use the same combine. Being an upright and law-abiding chap he went by the book and asked police permission to drive his combine, accompanied by an escort vehicle, between the two. The majority of the journey could be travelled on A-roads. To his amazement permission was refused.

The abnormal loads officer told him the public could not be subjected to such inconvenience and that if he wished to move the combine he would have to employ, and of course pay, a haulier with a low-loader. The combine would not be any narrower, of course, but the lorry would be a few mph faster and this would not annoy other road users quite so much.

We must assume the officer was only interpreting instructions from seniors. We must assume he was not doing it out of spite. We must also recognise such developments as more evidence of our declining economic importance and the low esteem in which food production is now held. On one hand we are forced by economic necessity and government edict to get bigger. On the other, society erects petty barriers to our success at every turn. Who loves us? Who feels they need us? Who cares? Not Margaret Beckett – shes away on her holiday for five week

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3 August 2001


A lot of homework on

Peru and Ecuador –

the destination of the

2002 farmers weekly

study tour – is being

done by the trips

organisers in an effort

to update their

schooboy knowledge

Schoolboy vulgarity and pub quizzes are the usual sources of information about the main destination for next years farmers weekly farm study tour. Questions like where is Lake Titicaca? (Peru, of course) and what is the capital of Peru? (Lima) are all most people ever learn of the third largest country in South America.

The two biggest nations in this beautiful and still relatively undiscovered continent are Brazil and Argentina. I have travelled to both over the past few years and developed a fascination for that continents colourful characters, magnificent scenery and, especially, its agricultural potential.

So, towards the end of February and into early March 2002, I shall be leading our annual farm study tour, first to Peru, then to Ecuador. Finally, for those who want to tread in the footsteps of Charles Darwin where he developed his theories on The Origin of the Species, there will be an optional trip to the Galapagos Islands.

Like the schoolboy I once was, my knowledge of Peru and Ecuador is limited. But, as with all these tours, I have been doing my homework to ensure the journey will be worthwhile, both from the point of view of a tourist and farmer.

I am heavily reliant on the experiences of a couple of previous tours arranged by the Agricultural Travel Bureau which is putting this one together. We shall, for instance, be visiting the historic Inca sites at Machu Piccu – a must for anyone visiting Peru. But we shall also spend time at the International Potato Centre near Lima.

Based around the fact that Peru was where the so-called Irish potato originated, the centre has a world wide reputation and is a focus for scientific experimentation on the crop. Its declared objective is "to bring about sustainable increases in the production and utilisation of potato, sweet potato, and other roots and tubers".

Moreover, roots and tubers play a vital role in the diet and economy of the entire Andean region. Jim Godfrey, a past chairman of the Potato Marketing Board of fond memory and a British trustee of the centre, recently visited Lima and has kindly ensured that our party will receive a warm and productive welcome.

Having read the centres informative and well produced handbook, I am even more keen to visit. The book contains the wise words of many world leaders in relation to food in general and potatoes in particular. One, attributed to ex-US president Jimmy Carter, reads: "Most of todays wars are fuelled by poverty, not ideology. Thriving agriculture is the engine that fuels broader economic growth and development, thus paving the way for prosperity and peace. There can be no peace until people have enough to eat." Just so.

But potatoes are only one of the farm commodities the FW party will be able to study. For agriculture is Perus predominant economic activity. Cotton, sugar, wheat, maize and coffee are all widely grown, as well as exotic and conventional fruit and vegetables for export to Europe. Many are irrigated from rivers and streams which run down towards the Pacific from the mighty Andes.

The livestock population includes llamas and alpacas as well as more predictable (by British standards) cattle and sheep. All are included in the proposed itinerary.

Ecuador, so named because the Equator passes through it, is one of the smallest countries in South America. Here again it is probably best known for its strangest places. Mount Cotopaxi, for instance, the worlds highest active volcano. Like Peru, Ecuadors economy is overwhelmingly agricultural in spite of the fact that only 5% of the land area is cultivated.

Even so, agriculture and horticulture contribute significantly to export earnings. These days they include roses grown on huge holdings for US and EU markets, bananas and other fruits, dairy produce and timber from the extensive forests. Visits to some of the farms involved in such production are planned.

We shall also attend produce markets used by the native Indian farming population to buy and sell their produce.

Travellers on previous ATB tours have described the lush green rain forests, the rolling hills and fertile valleys to be found in Ecuador. They were also enthusiastic about the farmer hosts they visited in Peru and Ecuador. They could not have been more friendly or open in answer to the travellers questions, apparently. Next years trip will take in many of the same hosts and holdings.

In some of the farming areas we will visit in both countries there are few modern hotels. Accommodation in such places will be in luxurious estancias converted for the purpose, giving guests an insight into the way of life which existed prior to the land reforms which broke up the large estates.

From my reading and from listening to others who have already done this tour, I believe this will be one of the most colourful, instructive and enjoyable trips we have ever undertaken. I dont know about you, but after all the problems of 2001 I reckon I shall need a break by early 2002.

If you would like to join the party, please contact Jill Lewis at ATB, 14 Chain Lane, Newark, Notts NG24 1AU (0870-442 3290).

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27 July 2001


Margaret Becketts

blueprint for the future

is not as contentious

as might have

been predicted, but…


Dear Mrs Beckett,

I was unable to attend the RSPB conference at which you spelled out your vision for the future. However, your press office was kind enough to send me a copy of your speech.

I was somewhat apprehensive, given the forum you chose for your first major policy statement. Please understand I am not antagonistic to the RSPB. Indeed, I enjoy excellent relations with the organisation. But I did wonder if you would devote most of your attention to birds leaving little time to discuss agriculture. In the event I was agreeably surprised. But I still seek clarification on some issues and would like to take you to task on a few others.

You clearly recognise, already, that the industry at the heart of your responsibilities is in big trouble. Moreover, you said in your speech that farmers must have a better deal. I thank you for that, although I question the starting point of average farm income for last year which you quoted. You said it was £8500. I believe it to be nearer half that figure with many farms losing money. In other words, the situation may be twice as serious as you conceded.

But I was encouraged by your declaration that "we (the government) are committed to facilitating the development of competitive and diverse farming…within the framework of sustainable rural development. This means…recognising its role as guardian of three-quarters of our land and bedrock of rural communities…also agricultures relationship with wider society, in particular the consumer."

Through LEAF I advocated for 10 years a similar approach to farming policies; to farm economically, with care for the environment; responding to consumer demand and enhancing marketability. So, we agree thus far. But I would point out that the word "sustainable" has many meanings. One of them is profitability. For if a farm is not profitable it will not be sustainable for long. Which, as the farm income figures above imply (whether you are right or I am right) and the accelerating exodus from agriculture prove, is the situation many farmers are in at present.

You also spoke of plans to divert more production aid to environmental aid. As a long-term advocate of cross compliance, I approve the trend. But you must understand that if the policy of modulation, used to help fund the change, means aid is diverted from farming and into other rural activities it will do nothing to stop the rot. The plain fact is that agriculture needs all the aid it is currently getting, and more, if a semblance of the present industry is to survive. To convert 100% of area aid to conservation based aid, via cross compliance, would help. But merely stating, as you did, that CAP cash invested in rural development will have increased from 1% in 1997 to 15% by 2005 provides little comfort to those being modulated.

The facts are that when all costs are counted there are precious few farms in this country that can even now make a sustainable margin at present commodity prices and aid. Nor will they be able to do so in the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, the Americans, chief authors of the WTO proposals on whose altar British farmers are being sacrificed, are pushing through a new Farm Bill. If successful it will give virtually open ended support to US farm commodities with no production restrictions. The estimated cost to the US Treasury is more than $30bn per year. The Freedom to Farm Act under which US agriculture is nominally run today forecast five years ago an annual payment to American farmers of only one-fifth that amount.

For US agriculture cannot survive at present world commodity prices either. And the US government is doing what is necessary to keep its farmers in business while telling the rest of the world to do what it says, not what it does.

You said in your speech that the CAP was a blunt and ineffective instrument for the control of markets. I agree, but I suggest that market forces, when they are manipulated by the US and others, are even more blunt. The WTO says it aims to help Third World economies by opening First World markets to them. In theory, that is a correct policy and many farmers would subscribe to it – provided it is not allowed to unfairly undermine our markets and profitability with goods produced through exploiting land, labour and the environment and without the ethical, health and safety assurances demanded of British producers.

Furthermore, I suggest that British agriculture today, disadvantaged as it is by the value of sterling, is the equivalent of a Third World economy trying to operate within a first world cost structure. You said price support and production controls were outdated mechanisms and that UK farmers should be "helped to adjust with transitional payments". I put it to you that UK farming is unlikely ever to be able to adjust to the combination of unfair practices, some of which I have tried to describe. Your policy options, if a significant domestic agriculture is part of your long-term plan, must include either compensation or protection from such competition.

Yours sincerely,


You clearly recognise, already, that the industry at the heart of your responsibilities is

in big trouble.

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20 July 2001


As the machinations

of the growing number

of EU officials becomes

increasingly complex,

less importance is

being devoted to

member states

agriculture industries

They do it differently today, but when Britain joined the Common Market in 1973 agricultural policies and prices were agreed by the Council of Agriculture Ministers each spring. In those days, I often found myself in Brussels for these annual shindigs, which often lasted all night. With a bunch of other insomniacs from Britain and other member states, whose multiple languages added to the confusion, I tried to interpret and report the latest package to farmers back home.

It was usually chaotic. Ministers from one country or another, and sometimes EC officials, would constantly come down from their chamber and offices on the 13th floor to brief reporters in the ground-floor Press café which was littered with the detritus of journalism and media. To begin with, the decision-makers would state their immovable positions on key policies. But by the middle of the night, or the night after that, with red eyes and tired voices, they would explain the concessions they had made were a victory for farmers and common sense.

I remember then using phrases like "this tower of Babel" and "can this be the way to run Europe?" But in spite of my reservations on how it was done, I believed then and I believe now that it is logical and inevitable that Britain should work with the rest of Europe.

The world is getting smaller in trading and security terms. We have more in common with Europe than the US. And there ought to be a way of uniting contiguous nations. I still hold that view, although I admit that a trip round some of my old haunts last week tested my resolve.

I joined a party arranged by the Farmers Club which visited the European Parliament as well as COPA and NFU offices. It quickly became clear that the addition of more countries since I was a regular visitor to what is now styled the EU had made matters much more complicated. It began with six members, increased to nine when Britain, Denmark and Ireland joined, then grew to 12 and now 15 member states.

Interpretation, which was always a major problem accounting for one-third of EU staff, is in danger of swamping the administration. To some of us in the Farmers Club party, understanding what was happening felt a bit like swimming through slurry. And 12 more nations have applied for membership. They wont all be allowed in at once, some may not be allowed in at all, but the majority will eventually become members, adding still more to communications difficulties.

But the even bigger problem facing the EU is that whereas everybody wants the union to expand to bring in the applicant countries, most of which are middle Europeans, nobody wants to pay the cost. Aspirants may say their main interest is in the security of being associated with a powerful group of countries, but they also expect their domestic farm prices, among other things, to rise and be guaranteed as in the existing EU. And although every MEP, EU official and farmers representative we spoke to recognised the problem, none had any solutions.

One farmer MEP told us that earlier the same day he had tried to promote a debate in the Agriculture Committee of the European Parliament on the growing crisis in agriculture. He repeated some of the arguments he had put and we were satisfied with the points he made. But he had apparently been told by other members of the committee, not of his political persuasion, that he was talking nonsense. The committee went on to spend the morning discussing honey.

Faced with UK political disinterest and/or lack of understanding of agricultural issues, our party had hoped the situation in Europe might be better. Perhaps we were too quick to criticise on the basis of limited experience, but we left Brussels feeling depressed. Agriculture is clearly not as important there, or here, as it used to be. Rural Development is the theme today, in Europe as in Britain, and farmers may, or may not, have a part to play in it.

The last official we spoke to was Corrado Pirzio-Biroli, the senior civil servant to farm commissioner Franz Fischler. He confirmed much of what we had already heard. He also, indiscreetly but unsurprisingly, told us that the Treasury ministers and the foreign ministers of member states are our biggest enemies. No Treasury minister wants to spend more on farming and every foreign minister wants to promote free trade. Furthermore, the majority for the CAP within the commission had vanished.

But he conceded that in his view there was still need for a significant production agriculture. Which was about the only time we heard such a statement all day. A faint glimmer of hope there, perhaps. However, he made no bones about his view that farming organisations across Europe were less effective than they were and than they should be. And that at a time when our industry is facing greater threats than ever before. More effective farmer representation is clearly urgent and overdue.

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13 July 2001


It is politically incorrect

to ask for government

aid in this day and

age…but how else can

our rapidly declining

industry survive?

THE NFU has spelled out the accelerating decline of British farming. NFU president Ben Gill showed that over a rolling two year period the exodus is increasing. In the 24 months to the end of June, 51,300 farmers and farm workers left the industry. That was 10,000 more than for a previous two year period on which the NFU reported some months ago. Bank borrowing is at a record high of more than £10bn; total annual income from farming is down to £1.88bn from more than £5bn in 1996.

Analysed further those figures show that dairy farmers made an average of £7500 margin in the year to February 2001; cereal producers made £4400; hill farmers £3500; while lowland sheep and beef men were in the red. Those figures were after UK and EU subsidies had been accounted for. Remove the aid, as current UK policy anticipates, and, unless world commodity prices rise substantially, the entire UK farming industry will be trading at a loss. Can total meltdown be far behind?

Does the government know? Does the government care? I will not attempt to answer those rhetorical questions. But it should be clear, even to an administration with so little understanding of our industry, that if it wishes to retain farming in this country it must claim and distribute all the "agrimoney" available from Brussels to compensate for the monetary discrepancy between sterling and the k. And if it finds it philosophically difficult to increase production aid, it must increase conservation and marketing payments. Further, it must do them now to avoid yet more destruction of Britains farming heritage.

I shall be criticised for once again calling on the government to save agriculture. The politically correct approach is to make trading arrangements to save yourself. Fine. I will come to possibilities for that in a moment. But some things only government can do. And creating a trading environment in which all UK citizens have a reasonable chance of matching the production costs of legitimate competition is one of them. On that crucial matter the government has failed to deliver.

Meanwhile, some farmers are finding ways to help themselves in spite of the severity of the problems. Encouragement, in the shape of development grants, is available to those with enterprising and innovative ideas. I learned about some of these at the Home-Grown Cereals Authority the other day. Necessarily, the authority confines its modest grants to concepts likely to increase sales of UK cereals. And that, of course, includes livestock products which use cereal based feeds.

This year the HGCA has helped 14 firms. They include a number of pigmeat and sausage producers who have developed niche markets, a rare breed egg producer who has established demand for different types of eggs, as well as another firm which markets liquid egg catering products, a Yorkshire pudding and dumpling maker which prepares ready meals, a couple of organic firms, one specialising in flour and the other in breakfast cereals; a brewer of lager beers, a treatment for muscular pain involving bags of cereals heated in a microwave being placed on the affected area and a low caffeine coffee/barley blend in which members of my own family were involved (thank-you HGCA).

Each of the initiatives had developed ways to add value to UK-produced farm commodities. Each was pioneering new ways of reaching beyond the farm gate towards consumers. Each was taking the indeterminate risk of investing time and money on ideas which might turn into a gold mine, but which might fail. But they were having a go and good luck to them.

A few days later I went to Marks & Spencer to hear about their latest initiative to market local seasonal produce. Responding to what the company perceives as growing demand among its discriminating food customers for more home production M&S was launching a number of specialist products. Salt Marsh lamb, for instance, produced by a Carmarthen farming family beside the sea. That is said to give the meat a special taste appreciated by connoisseurs and attracts premium prices. When this years limited supplies are finished M&S will follow on with other regional lamb specialities.

Having already been instrumental in reviving the Aberdeen-Angus for its quality beef supplies, M&S has turned its attention to the Beef Shorthorn. It is, of course, almost a rare breed and 12% of the national herd has been wiped out by foot-and-mouth. Nevertheless, M&S believes its special taste makes it worthwhile to build up numbers to supply the significant niche of customers prepared to pay extra for it. The store has also introduced "Air-aged Scotch beef" which it guarantees has been hung for 28 days giving improvements in texture and flavour. And it is expanding its organic range of fruit and veg.

All of which is marvellous for the few dozen farmers who will supply the supermarket and I salute their joint enterprise. But such niche initiatives with M&S and other supermarkets, and there are hundreds around the country, are not and, by definition, never can be, the solution for the majority of farmers. That majority provides the basis for the horrifying statistics with which I began. For them government action is still the only hope.

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6 July 2001


A public inquiry into the

foot-and-mouth crisis is

vital, given the

rumours, half-truths,

accusations and

obfuscations of the

past few months

My feet are fresh, my knees dont ache and I feel less tired than I normally do at this time of year. The reason? The cancellation of agricultural shows. This week I would normally have been at the Royal as I have every first week in July for the past 40 years. Call me a masochist, but I miss it dreadfully; a minor victim of foot-and-mouth but so fortunate compared with many.

Most of us will manage to survive the absence of this summers enjoyable events, although for some agricultural societies the loss of income may prove hard to bear. But for individuals still stuck in infected areas, with livestock movements still restricted, or worse, with only memories of stock slaughtered because of the presence of F&M among them or nearby, life will never be the same again. The election is over and the popular Press has become bored with reporting F&M. But the crisis and the pain continue, with three to five new cases each day.

Latest forecasts suggest the disease could still be active until the autumn. Some say it could extend well into winter. Others say the infection may have been in this country as early as last autumn. I dont know. But I am certain, for the satisfaction of those wiped out as well as for the protection of future generations of farmers, that we should be told the truth. Despite Margaret Becketts lack of enthusiasm, I believe a full public inquiry is vital, even if it does cause Tony Blair embarrassment.

He may not be the only one who wants to avoid raking over the rumours to uncover facts. Some farmers and dealers may be less than keen to discuss their role in spreading the most serious animal disease ever to hit this country whose total direct and indirect cost to Britain has been put at an incredible £20bn. Tough. If those individuals are guilty they should be exposed, just as fully as the cowboy slaughterers, the inept administrators, and the indecisive politicians.

After the 1967 outbreak which, in retrospect, was insignificant compared with the current epidemic, there was a full inquiry which concluded with firm recommendations to deal with any repeat occurrence. Few of those recommendations appear to have been heeded this time. I have wondered since February whether they were even considered. But if we cannot learn from experience, how can we learn? And mistakes made over the past few months should provide a series of valuable, not to say expensive lessons.

In addition, an inquiry would provide an opportunity either to discount or to prove the many rumours that are circulating. Was the government suspicious that F&M was present in the country before last Christmas? If so, why did it not announce it and take precautions earlier? If not, why were MAFF personnel phoning round trying to locate railway sleepers for funeral pyres as early as December and January?

What is the truth on vaccination? Was it seriously considered? If not why was permission sought from the EU to use it? What were the factors which persuaded ministers to persevere with the slaughter policy? Had any of this to do with the fact that the Prime Minister desperately wanted to hold a general election in May or, at the latest, early June? Or were the slaughter policy and later the extended contiguous cull adopted as a means of reducing the UKs livestock population which had grown to unmanageable proportions within the EU?

If those and other stories, circulating widely for months, can be proved to be only the figments of overactive and stressed imaginations, fine. Let us hear the facts. But if they have some foundation, the full story must be made public and some heads must roll. What is not acceptable is to simply brush them under the political carpet and pretend they do not exist. There is smoke. We need to know if there is also fire.

Particularly those who grieve, whose stock have been killed and whose livelihoods have been destroyed, need to know. Some have been treated abominably with slaughtering teams arriving unannounced on their farms. The slaughter has taken place in ways that would have resulted in prosecution under any other circumstances and many farmers have had to wait months for compensation. They, at least, deserve to know the truth.

So, do I believe the rumours are true? I fear some of them are. For they have been confirmed in phone calls letters and emails from sufferers who have explained to me in graphic and harrowing detail the heartrending experiences they have endured at the hands of officials. Some of those officials were from overseas and could barely speak English. I will not identify my correspondents, for their problems are not yet over and I would not want to risk reprisals.

The only people who will come out of this mess with honour are the charities and help lines which have listened and in many cases helped with cash aid, those who simply could not cope any more. Congratulations to them and on behalf of the victims, thanks to all who have contributed to their funds.

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29 June 2001


Very few crops of sugar

beet look as though

they will yield up to

standard, but it looks

as if long-suffering

farmers will be forced

to grin and bear their

financial losses

WHEN you write columns for a few years, try as you might to keep things fresh and different, they can develop a certain predictability. So it is that over recent weeks friends have ribbed me about my repeated reference to the relationship between the growth stage of sugar beet and the Royal Norfolk Show.

"Its a good job theres no Norfolk Show this year because theres no way beet will meet across the rows by the time it should have been held and you wont be able to assess the crop," is typical of the comments made.

For those who may have missed previous references and who dont grow sugar beet, the rule of thumb for judging whether a crop of beet is going to yield up to standard is whether or not the leaves touch one another across rows 20in apart by the end of June.

There is a scientific basis for the rule because it is important that there is complete leaf cover as early as possible to preserve what moisture there is through a possibly hot, dry July. It is also important for the broad leaves of the beet plants to smother weed growth because, by this time, it is not normally possibly to do much about mechanical or chemical control.

Sadly, the leg pulling comments are correct. Very few crops of beet have so far reached the necessary standard, although I did see a few that would come close as I drove through the fens the other day.

For the rest, and that includes ours, leaf cover is a couple of weeks away in even the best of the crop. And wherever the land was flooded or damaged by tractor wheelings or otherwise less than sweet, the plants are still barely beyond seedling stage. As we say in Norfolk they look like "hens and chickens".

Obviously, it is all the result of the wet winter, the late spring, and delayed drilling until several weeks later than optimum. Then, as if adding injury to insult, a few days ago we had a severe hail storm. The poor little plants were battered and bruised and development has been put back another few days while they recover.

At least they are not suffering from drought as seemed possible before the mid-month rains. We had well over 2in over a weekend. The hail came in the middle of it.

It adds up to the fact that we are unlikely to achieve anywhere near average yield. If that is repeated across the country, Britain will fail to fulfil its A and B sugar quota for the first time in years. More to the point, growers like us will fail to fulfil our budgeted income.

And its not just sugar beet that will let us down. Winter cereals are looking pretty sick as well. On the train to London last week, I looked left and right most of the way and saw far too many crops in which you could see a mouse run if one were there. And that at a time when flag leaves should be at their most luxuriant and, tramlines apart, you should not be able to see the ground at all. There were numerous patches all the way to London on both sides of the train where there was no crop at all.

And it may be best not to mention the spring cereals because some of them appeared to be at growth stages normally expected in early May, not late June.

Pundits have predicted the national yield of wheat may be down from 16m tonnes last year to 12m or even 11m tonnes this year. Certainly I would expect yields on this farm to be down by that kind of percentage and, although I understand Scottish crops are looking much better, similar conditions to those which prevail here in East Anglia are fairly general all over the rest of the UK. One way and another, in spite of the modest rise in some commodity values, farm incomes are set to slide even lower this year than last.

Once again, after we thought we had exhausted possibilities, it is necessary to search for any cost savings that can be found as well as exploiting any earning opportunities, whether to do with food production or not. A few years ago we would not have bothered. The odd few thousand on expenses could be absorbed, the possibility of earning a few £s by offering a service or selling something at the gate would have been considered too much trouble. Now such activities can mean the difference between a profit and a loss, success or failure, survival or bankruptcy.

In the jargon it is called diversification. But in reality it would be more accurately described as seeking out every earning possibility, farming or otherwise, including any grants that may be going, and exploiting them to the full.

The sad thing is that in spite of massive efforts by many, a significant proportion of our industry will fail. It isnt fair. But we just have to bite our lip and get on with it – or throw in the towel.

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22 June 2001


The need to feed Third

World countries

provides a powerful

argument to speed up

research and field

trials of GM

crops, a London

conference was told

The election stopped me reporting it, but even three weeks later, some things said are buzzing round my brain. It was a high-powered conference on genetic modification at the University of London at the end of May. One of the main reasons I went was to hear the world famous Nobel Peace Prize winner, Norman Borlaug. Unfortunately he was unwell and could not be there, but my disappointment was tempered by the written paper he sent and the qualities of other speakers from around the world.

The organisers had been at pains to produce a balanced programme in which doubters had equal billing with believers. They had also persuaded top scientists and agriculturalists from abroad to explain attitudes to GM from their perspective. I thought I knew most of the arguments for and against GMs, but that conference added to the list.

One of the most memorable contributions came from Margaret Karembu, who lectures at Kenyatta University in Nairobi. "Africa takes its lead on GMs from Europe," she said. "In my country 40% of the population is starving." She went on to say that GM crops could contribute significantly to alleviating the problem. Unfortunately, Kenyan farmers, "who are not illiterate", read in newspapers, on the internet and hear on the radio of the dangers allegedly posed by GMs. That makes them reluctant to plant what could be life-saving crops.

"The problem is," Dr Karembu went on, "western pressure groups who make such allegations are speaking from a point of view of satisfaction; but my people are hungry." She demanded greater responsibility from GM critics whose opinions – not facts – are influencing public acceptability of the technology in Africa. "Organic (traditional) farming may be OK for some in Britain, but it has failed my people and will not feed the ever-increasing population of the world." She was a powerful speaker and her lecture silenced several present who had expressed different views.

Tackling a current UK preoccupation, Rosie Hails of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology at Oxford said field trials of GM crops were essential. The associated risks were minimal, she told the audience, and it was only by conducting such trials that we would be able to assess any environmental dangers.

Conventional agriculture, in which many changes had taken place concurrently, had never been pre-assessed for environmental impact, she said. Now some of the problems were beginning to be realised. Testing GMs before widespread adoption was a better and more cautious way forward.

She felt there was a need to tease out which change in farming practice had caused which damage to the environment and wildlife. But because all had happened at once, this was almost impossible. The other challenge both farmers and environmentalists should resolve was that different farming practices would favour or damage different types of wildlife. It was necessary to decide the relative value of a skylark to a beetle. A system that increased the numbers of one might decrease those of the other, and vice versa. Those were the kinds of biological trade-offs that had gone on since time began.

Another fascinating speech was made by ex-US presidential candidate George McGovern, now US Ambassador to the FAO. In a presentation full of political rhetoric and very much in favour of the technology, he reminded us that Jenner had introduced cowpox-based vaccination against smallpox in 1821. "There were cartoons of people growing horns because they had been treated with bits of cow and many demonstrations against it," he said. "But it finally became accepted and millions of lives have been saved." GM technology could lead to similar dramatic benefits for mankind.

But Mr McGovern did concede that it had been a mistake to leave most of the development of GM technology to the private sector. It would have been more acceptable to more people if the public sector had been funded to do it, he said. He called for public sectors world-wide to be better funded now in order to be able to correct the mistake.

This theme was developed by Sir Robert May, president of the Royal Society and formerly the governments chief scientist. "The anticipated trickle-down effect from international corporations is not working as well as its advocates predicted," he said. "There is a need to redress the balance between private and public science sectors." He went on to emphasise the need for more food in a very few years. "We could not feed todays population with yesterdays agriculture and we will not be able to feed tomorrows population with todays agriculture."

We must develop another green revolution, he said, one that would produce food for a rising population and combine it with conservation of the countryside. He implied that GM was likely to play a part in that development. But when challenged to say whether it was guaranteed safe, he replied: "No scientist will ever say anything is totally safe because we do not know. We can only assess risks based on information available. On that basis, it is very unlikely to cause either health or environmental problems and we should move research forward with care."

I thought I

knew most of the arguments for and against GMs, but that conference added to the list

I thought I

knew most of the arguments for and against GMs, but that conference added to the list

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24 September 1999


Whatever the weather

has done to make the

cereal harvest

difficult, sugar beet

growers can have few


THE first few sugar beet lifted each season look small and disappointing in the clamp. We growers compare them in our minds with the last to go to the factory the previous winter, which were fully mature before lifting.

Those lifted this week on this farm were certainly a fair way from achieving optimum weight. Left in the ground they would have grown on until winter frosts stopped them about the end of October. But in the twin interests of shortening the number of days deteriorating beet clamps sit on farms in the New Year, and getting wheat drilled into cleared land in reasonable time after beet are lifted, most growers will sacrifice a bit of early yield.

This year in particular, potential yields look high enough to allow that luxury on most farms and still fulfil A and B quota. Test digs, carried out by British Sugar before the campaign began, suggest root weights, sugar percentages and sugar per root are all significantly up on last year and the five-year average. In other words, whatever the weather may have done to frustrate the cereal harvest its been good for sugar beet and there is a big crop out there waiting to be lifted.

Prices, on the other hand, will be down a few £s per tonne; yet another victim of the strength of sterling against the k. But at least they are not as disastrously down as those for most other farm crops. Sugar, like wine and a few other commodities, have so far escaped reform by the CAP. Which means EU guarantees still apply, even if they have been eroded by currency differences. And with a good crop in prospect the beet may help make up a little of the deficiency left by other enterprises.

It is a pity, then, that British Sugar and the NFU beet committee cannot agree terms for the future. These are spelled out in the so-called "inter-professional agreement" which is re-negotiated or updated every few years. The current round of negotiations has been going on for at least a couple of years without settlement. And, although I am not privy to details, the situation appears to be like that between a rock and a hard place. Neither side seems prepared to move and the NFU has initiated the machinery to oblige MAFF to appoint an official arbitrator.

Without going into the areas of disagreement, which are only relevant to beet growers, there is clear NFU resentment at British Sugars monopoly position. Meanwhile, British Sugar appears determined to maintain its profits in the knowledge that beet growing is an attractive option. What neither side seems to have accepted, is that negotiation implies compromise if agreement is to be reached.

I am not the only sugar beet grower to fervently hope that agreement can be reached between the NFU and British Sugar before the full arbitration procedure is triggered in a few weeks time. It would cost both sides a fortune in lawyers fees; it would be a dirty fight and create even bigger divisions than exist at the moment; and with a binding determination out of the hands of the two parties it is almost certain both would end up disappointed. It could be the worst of all solutions and I for one make a plea that a serious attempt be made as a matter of urgency, if necessary with the assistance of a mediator, to reach an agreement all can live with. We have enough problems in our industry at present not to need this unnecessary distraction.

Meanwhile, last week I went to see an experimental field of GM sugar beet which escaped the attentions of eco-terrorists. Grown as part of the national GM environmental monitoring programme on a friends farm, it was to be lifted and destroyed before the start of the processing season to ensure no single root reached any of British Sugars factories to "contaminate" the non-GM sugar in its silos.

In that respect I sympathise with the processor. For, in response to media manipulated public opinion, its sugar buying customers have said they will not accept product containing any trace of GM. British Sugar has no choice but to comply with their wishes.

However, back to the field, part of which had been drilled with GM seed and part with conventional. The conventional area had been sprayed five times at a cost for materials of £108/ha (£44/acre) with residual herbicides. Although it was not a dirty crop, there was a scattering of weeds as well as several weed beet.

The GM seeded area had been sprayed once with 3 litres/ha of Roundup at a cost of £8/ha (£3/acre). There was about the same density of weeds as in the non-GM part of the field for after the spraying in early June some weeds had come again. It was not, therefore, bereft of bio-diversity but there were no weed beet. The Roundup had eliminated them completely.

My friend had been in Denmark a few days previously looking at GM trials. Guess what? One of the organisations actively co-operating to run the trials was Danish Green Peace.

Without going into the areas of disagreement, which are only relevant to beet growers, there is clear NFUresentment at British Sugars monopoly


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5 February 1999

Government concerns

about the food trade

gap have been

replaced by the

worrying attitude that

domestic food

production is not

important, a mood

change which seems

to be strengthening


Regular readers will be aware that I favour farming systems which recognise and respond to the wishes of consumers and taxpayers.

Many farmers have done just that, more because of their own reading of the market-place than any urgings of mine. Some have gone for farm assurance, to the disdain of some of their neighbours, in an effort to demonstrate the safety and credibility of their methods. Others, or perhaps many of the same, have adopted integrated farming, reduced their inputs and their unit costs, and at the same time improved the sustainability and profitability of their systems. A minority have gone to the extreme and converted to organic.

Today the vast majority of food from British farms is the safest and most ethically produced in the world. Those farms produce about 70% of the UKs requirement for commodities that can grow in our temperate climate. Only a few years ago we were being urged to produce more to help close the "food trade gap" between imports and exports which at the time was said to be costing Britain £6bn in goods from abroad which could have been produced here.

You do not hear much about the trade gap these days. It has been replaced by a sinister trend towards the perception that domestic food production is not important, that we can easily import anything we do not produce at home, that there are more pressing priorities for the countryside.

I have become gradually aware of this over a long period. But the first time I registered the strength of the mood change was last November. The Financial Times leader, after Nick Browns £120m aid package to cattle and sheep farmers was the trigger. As I quoted in this column the following week it said: "We do not want to prop up production. We want the countryside as a thing of beauty and ecological sustenance in which food may or may not play a part. Farmers can earn their money more usefully; not by tonnage of output, but by footage of hedgerow or dry stone walls or acreage of wild flowers."

Whether the FT led government opinion or government ministers disclosed their views to the FT leader writer I cannot say. All I know is that I picked up more of the same vibes during December and then, much more blatantly, from Alan Meale at last months Oxford Farming Conference. Mr Meale is an under secretary at the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions. His speech stressed the value the government placed on the countryside, the importance of sustainable development, and the declining importance of farming. In short, he was setting the scene for a change in the role of our industry.

When asked a question about the reform of the CAP he showed his true colours even more clearly. The government was enthusiastic for reform, he replied. It was vital that the cost of the CAP be brought down. The government would argue in the negotiations for the best interests of rural communities and achieve the best deal possible for UK farming; and then came the bombshell: "So long as food production is not at the forefront of farming policy."

A couple of weeks later the Labour-dominated Commons agriculture committee published its assessment of the need for CAP reform. It continued the same theme. "The economic importance of agriculture is declining," it said. It called for greater national responsibility for rural policy within the EU. And its main concerns were for the competitiveness of UK agriculture, to promote more diversification away from traditional farming, to maintain the appearance of the rural environment, and to retain rural employment which may be directly or indirectly related to agriculture. The production of three-quarters of this countrys daily food, you will notice, was not even mentioned.

Clearly, politicians, the leader writers and their economic advisers take it for granted that there will be sufficient food, and to spare, whatever happens; that the surpluses of the past few years are now a permanent feature; that shortage of any commodity is a thing of the past. Are they right? If production here at home were to fail or decline could we not import adequate supplies from abroad? Would it be cheaper to do that anyway? You can almost hear the discussion in your imagination, concluding with the fact that there are fewer and fewer farmers each year, so even if the industry gets into difficulty their votes are irrelevant.

Politicians have short memories and most of them have little interest in, or understanding of, the realities of our industry. They have been persuaded that food supplies are secure and they have no concept that maintaining the countryside how they want it would be impossible if the land were not properly farmed. There is an urgent need for high-profile public debate to explain this to the legislators. This will begin at the Sentry Conference at Chilford Hall, near Cambridge, on Feb 18. Entitled The Countryside: Pleasure Park or Factory Floor? The conference is co-sponsored by farmers weekly. Many decision-makers will be there. Perhaps you should be, too. Phone 01473-658058 for details.

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2 October 1998


Farm economic theories

are riddled with

misconceptions and

policies based on them

make little sense

Most people cling to opinions and prejudices once formed or inherited. It is never easy to change minds and it is often seen as irresponsible to question received wisdom. Such comments are especially true of economists who claim access to some holy grail containing secrets denied to the rest of us.

That economic theories change from generation to generation, because the previous batch led to the current crisis, diminishes their confidence not one jot. Their intellectual superiority allows a vantage point from which they look down and pontificate.

There are exceptions. Not least in farming. People like John Nix whose latest Farm Management Pocket Book (the 29th) has just been published. His economic theories are tempered with common sense and humanity. It is the economists with the ears of governments, who advise politicians, who believe their all encompassing ideas should be adopted around the world, who worry me. And the easier communications become, with instantaneous e-mails flying through the ether, the more dangerous they can be.

Current received wisdom on world farming, proposed by economists and accepted by politicians, is that free markets are the most efficient method by which to deal with food production. Allow farmers to produce what they want, when they want. Remove all barriers to international trade. Let supply and demand dictate prices. Taxpayers, the theory continues, are fed up with paying enormous subsidies to farmers. So, get rid of subsidies and let the market sort out the rest. There will be casualties but agriculture needs rationalising and here is an opportunity to do it.

Policies like these were the drivers of the GATT agreement; they guide those now preparing for the next World Trade Organisation round, and they were behind the Freedom to Farm legislation introduced in America in 1996. The EUs Agenda 2000, if and when adopted across Europe, will also move us in the same direction although not as far as the USA and others would have liked.

The first misguided perception in the above, and one which is repeated regularly by the media, is that farm subsidies benefit only farmers. Subsidies were introduced originally to hold down the price of food for consumers, and most still do. How, otherwise, would it have been possible in the UK to arrive at a position today where a basic diet costs the average household just over 11% of its income?

The second misconception is that the market forces theory, held by so many economists, works for the benefit of either producers or consumers. Freedom to Farm has been going in the USA for only a couple of years and similar measures have hardly started elsewhere. But look at what has happened. Production has gone crazy. America is attempting to export food all over the world at rock-bottom prices and its own farmers are going bust in droves.

In Austria and Australia, Britain and Brazil, Canada, Denmark and right through the geographic alphabet, farmers are on the streets demonstrating against low prices which deny them the ability to make a living.

Thats right, say the smug economists. Its tough that some of those people will go out of business, but consumers will benefit from lower prices (they clearly reckon without the ability of supermarkets to maintain retail prices despite lower costs) and their taxes will not be used to support an inefficient industry.

Perhaps they have not thought through the inevitable consequences. Although rationalisation will occur around the world, in the short term the response to unprofitable commodity prices will be a cut in production. That in turn will create shortages and prices to consumers will rise at least until the next cycle starts.

Countries with low production costs, such as the United States, will export to others which can afford to pay. Countries with higher production costs will have to import and become dependent.

The volatility of returns will, over several years, reduce the farming industry in countries like Britain to a tiny fraction of present numbers. Many marginal farms will become uneconomic and will be deserted. The rest will be farmed in big blocks by massive machines and few workers. It will be the only way to survive in farming.

How this image of the future can be reconciled with the governments declared objective of a thriving, farming based rural economy, in which the countryside and everything in it is cared for by traditional family farmers, is a mystery to me. I can only conclude that politicians have no understanding of where the economists have led them.

It is already too late for the worst hit. But it may not be too late to help the rest of us by urgently recognising where present policies are heading and changing course. I am not asking for huge guaranteed prices; just reasonable protection from countries and buyers who use their great strength to bully primary producers. I am not demanding enormous subsidies; just a little more help to comply with the often excessive, BSE-inspired, requirements of food safety.

I am not expecting consumers to suddenly begin to love us. I just want a fair representation of farmers contribution to the well-being of the countryside and the nation in general.

The first misguided perception, and one repeated regularly by the media, is that farm subsidies benefit only


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25 September 1998


Now it has joined the

EU, Finland is learning

to live between a rock

and hard place.

The Great Bear, Russia,

although not the force

it used to be, is

ever-present. And then

theres Brussels…

An antique cannon is the first thing you see when you drive into Gustav Rehnbergs Finnish farmyard, about 50 miles west of Helsinki. Its been there since 1917 when Finland finally achieved independence from its neighbour Russia.

For many years the barrel pointed towards Moscow – in case the Russians decided to come back. These days it points towards Brussels – but it would take only a moment to realign the barrel to its original target should the need arise, he assures you.

Mr Rehnberg has an ironic sense of humour. But his irony sums up the situation in which Finnish farmers find themselves three years after their country joined the EU.

Before that the Finnish government, like most others around the word, paid generous subsidies to its farmers. They were higher than in other countries to allow for the fact that farming from about the same latitude as St Petersburg north to the Arctic Circle is more difficult.

Moreover, there was an established system for fixing farm prices to ensure farmers incomes kept pace with the rest of society.

Each year the trade unions would negotiate with the government a standard percentage by which wages should rise. Whatever was decided, farmers prices would be raised by an equivalent amount. It cost a lot in taxes, but was considered necessary to maintain the countryside and the rural economy in a healthy state.

When Finns voted on whether to join the EU most farmers foresaw the dangers of the removal of this system and an estimated 80% voted against. The 20% of farmers who voted for membership were, like the majority of the population, more concerned with national security than farming viability.

They believed membership of the EU would give them that security, so Finland joined and began its transition towards full membership of the EU.

Since then, as the country has gradually come under Common Agricultural Policy rules, farm commodity prices have virtually halved and are set to fall further as the full implications of the EU come closer. Inevitably farmers incomes have followed suit and the dreadful weather this year has made a serious situation potentially catastrophic.

In southern Finland there has been two to three times as much rain as normal and the grain harvest is a month late. When I was there during a rare fine spell, combines were out cutting wheat at up to 30% moisture. Even in a normal season it is not unusual to do it as 25% and Mr Rehnberg is in the habit of budgeting more than £23/t to dry his grain every year.

But he at least had just finished combining when I was there on September 13. In fact, he had already drilled most of his autumn corn several days before and it was emerging from his fertile clay soils.

It is necessary to drill by mid-September in this climate, he said, to get crops well-established before the harsh winter sets in and to avoid yield loss next harvest.

He was either better-equipped or more fortunate than most of his neighbours in southern Finland. Many had a lot more to do and the water-filled ruts made by combines and grain trailers across stubbles full of grass weeds showed how difficult harvesting had already been, let alone would be, as they struggled to bring in the rest of their crops.

Fifty miles east of Helsinki, Karlo Schildt still had half his harvest to do. Virtually all his fields are surrounded by forest and his land runs down to the Baltic Sea, so his crops take longer to dry than in Mr Rehnbergs open valley.

In any case he was relatively philosophical about the late harvest and the low prices. With the confidence that comes with old money, he expressed himself still pleased that Finland had joined the EU. We have to protect ourselves against Russia, he said, explaining that Finland cannot tolerate being ruled by the Great Bear ever again and the EU will give protection.

Even so, in Finnish farmers position, faced with the probability of having to live with near world prices in a few years, I would be concerned about future profit possibilities.

Their costs, as already explained, are likely to be higher than the rest of Europe for geographical reasons. And their yields, because of their shorter growing season, not a lack of skill, are lower. Average out-turn of winter wheat, even on the above-average farms which I visited, were said to be between 6 and 7t/ha (2.42-2.83t/acre). Yields of other crops were said to be similarly lower than those we would expect on the best farms. And although the transitional arrangements negotiated by the Finnish government allow national aid to be paid for the time being, in a year or two it will have to stop.

Perhaps Finnish arable farmers will go back into livestock; perhaps they will be forced to rely even more heavily on timber – most already have more hectares of trees than crops; perhaps environmental payments will rise to replace some of their lost income.

But farming in this beautiful country does not seem set to get any easier.

Even so, in the Finnish farmers position, faced with the probability of having to live with near world prices in a few years, I would be concerned about future profit possibilities

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18 September 1998


It was a bad week with

almost every sector of

the industry under

pressure. First pigs,

then eggs and finally

the sheep have BSE

scare. Traditionally this

time of year used to be

known as the silly


I was privileged to attend the retirement party for Norman Coward. Held in the great hall at Midland Banks head office in the City, it was a gathering of the great and good in British agriculture.

The fact that so many made what, in some cases, were long trips to the Capital was a fitting tribute to a man who has earned universal respect during his years as head of the farming team at Midland Bank.

That applies whether you banked with him or not. He will be much missed, although I suspect he may pop up again somewhere. He is too young to retire completely and his particular skills should not be lost to the industry, particularly in its present state.

In fact there were a few good natured jibes about the timing of the retirement and the inevitable handover of a few problems to Norman Cowards successor, Steve Ellwood. This set the tone for many of the conversations I had during the evening.

You have been around for several years, one home counties farmer said, have you ever known a situation as bad as this?

And we went on to compare notes on most sectors of production. The only one we could think of which was not in trouble was potatoes, but they had a couple of bad years before this one.

I had shared a taxi to the event with a couple of chaps from the egg industry. They told me that the three biggest egg producer-packers in this country were losing about £500,000 a week between them. That cant go on for much longer, they said.

The pig trade is already in a state of what some referring to as meltdown.

The leader of one of the organisations representing the trade told me he expected a 25% fall-out of pig farmers within a matter of months. Another spoke of the news which hit the newspapers a couple of days later, that American pig producers had set out their stall to topple the Danes as the worlds biggest exporters of pigmeat.

Britains pig farmers will doubtless be caught in the crossfire. The industry is used to peaks and troughs, but not as deep nor as regularly as recently. If industry leaders, not prone to exaggerate, are right the worst is yet to come and there will be more casualties to follow Arthur Simmers Scottish disaster. The knock-on effects of that collapse was yet another topic of conversation.

That morning on the Farming Today radio programme and later on Today it had been announced that sheep may have their own strain of BSE, which may pose another hazard to human health. That this was based on historic tests on only nine sheep, none of which had BSE, was almost disregarded by the media.

Some at the Midland Bank party thought it was another story that would run and run. Others thought "food scare fatigue" had set in and it would die as quickly as the bone-in beef ban.

One industry leader said there were a number of reasons for the announcement that morning.

The first was that Prof Almond, who had released the story to the press, wanted more government funding for research and could think of no better way to persuade ministers than by starting another scare.

This was compounded, he suggested, by Sheila MacKechnie of the Consumers Association, who supported the scare because she was worried the Food Standards Agency might not be included in the forthcoming legislative programme.

Then there was the BBCs early morning ratings war with Chris Evans Virgin radio programme, which was in danger of toppling John Humphrys as most required listening.

Newspaper circulation battles combined with the silly season for news and the habit of editors to choose soft targets which could not bite back with writs were other factors which got it lots of attention.

The news that MAFF chose to ignore scientific advice to set up a database for cattle seven or eight years ago was still only a rumour.

There were a few people there who were smiling. They were the ones with substantial sums of cash (there are always some, even in the worst crisis) who circled, like vultures ready to pick up pieces of information to turn into profit.

Maybe they are courageous; maybe they are foolish. That judgement will depend on how their investments turn out. Perhaps their activities will become the foundations of farming empires which last for generations. That, after all, was what happened in the 1930s and some of those empires still survive.

Without the benefit of hindsight I wonder what the neighbours thought of what was happening at the time?

The saddest comment that evening was from the man who said his organisation, which represents a particular group of farmers, was buying groceries for some of its members because they could not afford to buy their own.

On the way to the exit I ran into the farmers weekly Editor. "Any chance you might be able to write something a bit more cheerful over the next few weeks old mate?" he asked.

The industry is

used to peaks and troughs but not as deep or as regular as recently. If industry leaders, not prone to exaggerate, are right, the worst is yet to come…

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14 August 1998


As banks prepare to

forceclose on a growing

number of farmers, new

ways must be found to

further trim costs

An accountant friend called in the other evening. After the usual small talk I asked if she was busy – in the assumption that this was not a peak period for her profession. "Oh yes, very busy," she replied. "Im visiting farms most days on investigation cases for banks."

I asked what she was investigating and the predictable answer was whether or not the farmers in question were viable and can survive the slump in commodity prices.

"And what are you finding?" I asked. Ethics prevented her from giving me details. She didnt even tell me which banks she was working for. But she did say her view was that some of the farmers she had been asked to visit would not be allowed to continue for much longer.

After harvest, she thought, their bankers would take action.

"Why are they waiting until after harvest?" I asked rather naively.

"Thats easy" she said. "Once harvest is over there will be grain in the barn for them to sell. Banks cant organise a harvest. They like that job completed before they foreclose."

I cannot claim to have been surprised because it has been obvious for some time that farmers with heavy borrowing and/or skinny collateral would find themselves in difficulty. But I was still horrified that what I had feared was apparently starting to happen, in spite of protestations by bankers that the industry as a whole is well funded.

Doubtless that is true, but for the minority of individuals for whom it is not, this may be the end of their dreams. For there is little hope of a significant short-term recovery in commodity prices.

That is not just my opinion. The HGCA in its Weekly Digest, dated Aug 3, said that there was little chance of anything other than a sterling-driven small recovery in cereal prices this season and that the result could well be a year of further record low prices. So, not much comfort there. But if it is any consolation the reasons for our plight are external and beyond our control.

The same HGCA Digest went on to explain that the £86/t average price during last season was worth far less in real terms than the £27/t average received in 1970. Moreover, the authority has calculated back from present sterling values and concluded that the price of wheat in 1973 would, at 1998 values, have been well above £300/t.

"Even taking into account the positive effect yield and direct aid payments have on revenue an acre, last seasons results were at 30-year lows," the report continues.

The high prices grain growers were so pleased with only two years ago, the report shows, were well below those of most of the 1980s.

A reflection of the improvements in efficiency farmers have achieved in 25 years – improvements which have finally been overtaken by a combination of currency imbalance and high world stocks.

And cereals are only one commodity to be suffering in this way. Pigs are similarly claimed to be at a 60-year low for profitability (or more realistically loss) and seem set for a continuation of poor returns. According to MLC last week, the expectation is for a high of 87p/kg dw for UK adjusted spec during September and a low of 85p. By next March the MLC forecasts the possibility of a slight recovery to a possible high of 92p and a low of 86p.

Big deal! With production costs on most units running at or above 100p there is little room for optimism in those predictions. Stories of farmers getting out of pigs are multiplying by the day as are rumours of major producers claimed to be in trouble.

Meanwhile, as Tim Bennett, deputy president of the NFU said at Milk Marques annual meeting the other day, the prices farmers are being paid for milk are unsustainable. That sentiment surely applies across most commodities. The sums of money disappearing into the blue yonder, or more likely into someone elses pocket, are astronomic.

As Poul Christensen, chairman of Milk Marque pointed out last week, every penny a litre is worth £140m across the UK.

Similarly, every £1/t grain growers lose represents £23 to £25m that have disappeared – try multiplying that up by the number of £s weve lost! Every £1 a pig the farmer loses adds up to between £15 and £16m knocked off someone elses costs. A similar multiplying factor applies as it does for most things we produce.

Figures like that are difficult to relate to at farm level. We are not used to dealing with such huge sums. But having adjusted the budget for our farm here in Norfolk downwards on a number of occasions through this year and having just completed the exercise for 1999, I can confirm that the result at farm level is more shocking and more personal.

We thought we had cut costs as far as possible last time we tackled it. But we will have to find some more to trim from somewhere if we are to achieve even close to break-even next year.

What I had

feared was apparently starting to happen, in spite of protestations by bankers that the industry as a whole is well funded.

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17 July 1998


THE ministerial press conference at the Royal Show was, in most respects, like last years. Having toured theshowground, avoiding those areas where confrontation with farmers would have been most likely, all four ministers lined up behind the table. Once again Jack Cunningham controlled proceedings as you would expect of a consummate politician. Once again little was said that was new or consequential. Once again the permanent secretary to MAFF sat at the back of the room saying nothing. And I for one wondered if their journeys had really been necessary.

Perhaps they were, if only to provide a chance for at least one irate lady to unburden herself to Jeff Rooker at the way farmers were being treated. I did not witness the exchange, on the WFU stand, but by all accounts it was lively and loud. But we are not supposed to say such things about ministers, so I will move on.

One thing the Royal Show continues to do is attract high-powered business executives in allied industries to make annual pilgrimages to see how farming works. The fact that the show is far from reality is usually overlooked. But it does give ordinary farmers a chance to question top people, albeit in the rarefied atmosphere of their show stands. One conversation I had with an influential banker involved the 37% drop in farm incomes in 1997. He was sanguine about his advisers predictions that 1998 would probably see a further fall of about 20%. "We are in farming for the long term," he said "overall industry collateral is still strong and we will not be put off by a couple of bad years."

Which was comforting. Although it may not be the case with all banks. A Hampshire friend told how he had split an account to take advantage of better terms offered by a foreign-owned firm which had been badgering him for business. He also thought it might sharpen up the big UK bank which administered his main account. But having gone to the trouble and expense of setting up the second account he was surprised and disappointed to be told only months later that the foreign bank wished to withdraw facilities – not because he had defaulted but because the bank was not earning enough from the account.

Like a lot of farmers at the show I had a farm at home whose prospects had deteriorated over previous days. Take-all is widespread in wheat, as is septoria. And weeds which should not be there are growing out of the top of many crops. I shall be surprised if we break any records for yield in the coming harvest. There is no need to mention grain prices or the effect the high value of sterling is having on them. And I gather ex-farm milk prices have fallen, in some cases, as low as 14p/litre.

In spite of all this I found little serious pessimism as I talked my way round the showground through two days. Perhaps some farmers really do have a pot of gold saved up from the good years? Perhaps some have not yet realised how serious the situation has become? Perhaps they have decided that nothing is going to happen to change things so there is no longer any point in complaining? Perhaps those worst affected by the collapse in farm incomes were not at the show but hiding at home behind the farm-gate?

In that respect I was pleased to hear that one of the big banks is planning a conference on rural stress. People in the farm machinery business would do well to book the date, for they must be more stressed than most. According to AEA figures available at the show, tractor sales by the end of June were down 42% on last year.

In response to the growing crisis in rural areas the Conservatives have set up a shadow rural policy committee. It includes Michael Jack, shadow agriculture minister, who announced it at the Royal Show, Gillian Shephard, ex-agriculture minister currently shadowing John Prescotts Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions, and Peter Lilley, deputy leader of the Conservative Party. We can only assume the Party has concluded it needs to regain votes in the rural community, many of which it lost at the last election. Some might say it is a pity they did not take us as seriously while they were in government and had the power to actually do things.

The NFU has clearly decided the present government will do little to improve farmers lot. At the annual Royal Show press breakfast union president Ben Gill advocated a policy of self help by collaboration. Working together was the only way to deal with the power of the supermarkets, he said. They are a reality and they are here to stay, so we had better find ways to deal with them. He studiously avoided calling such groupings of farmers co-operatives, preferring to use the term farmer-controlled businesses. Perhaps this time returns have fallen fast enough and far enough to make it happen.

Nothing was new at the

Royal Show on the

political front. But the

whole shebang does

offer an opportunity to

talk to top people

Once again Jack Cunningham controlled proceedings as you would expect of a consummate


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12 December 1997


The bone-in-beef ban

was the final bombshell

to hit an agriculture

already hit by a host

of other afflictions

Suddenly farming is in crisis. Its not that we didnt recognise problems simmering below the surface. They have been obvious for months.

Its more that they, plus a few unexpected ones, all boiled over in the space of a few days.

And an industry still basking in the final euphoria of the devaluation of sterling five years ago has been jolted into the reality of its revaluation since the beginning of this year. I will not detract from widely held sympathy for beef producers whose plight is appalling. But a phone call from a grain merchant bidding me £70/t for feed barley and £75/t for the wheat left in our barn reinforced the gravity of the situation for arable farmers.

We had held off the market in the hope of a price recovery. But as we now know movement has been in the opposite direction since harvest and I am having to adjust my expectations of the value of our remaining stock.

And just as we were coming to terms with the officially predicted drop of 37% in total income from farming for 1997 (which the NFU says is nearer to a fall of 47% when family labour is discounted) the latest BSE bombshell dropped. Whether the removal of bone from beef can be justified by a one-in-50 million chance of infection with new variant CJD I am not qualified to judge. Furthermore I will keep my trenchant but unqualified opinions to myself.

Meanwhile the end of the export ban drifts into the future rather than getting closer. I can understand why tempers flared and Irish burgers ended in the dock at Holyhead. In short the entire industry is in trouble, which is as unusual as it is disconcerting. Either horn or corn can normally be relied on even if the other is in the doldrums.

This time we have been hit by a double whammy and even those farms where there is a balance between crop and stock will be lucky to see either doing well. And as the NFU has said there is almost certainly worse to come. There is no sign of recovery in any commodity and unlike last year next year wont even start reasonably.

Appeals to government to try to limit imports sucked in by the strong pound have so far fallen on deaf ears. Ministers are clearly not worried about farmers. They say the beef sector has had £3.5bn compensation for BSE, and the rest of the industry has received excessive area aid. They believe we can live on our fat and see no need to help – even by applying for EU cash to which we are entitled and which other countries farmers have already received.

Farm minister Jack Cunninghams new advisory group provides a clue to his priorities. It numbers 10 in all and contains four economists plus one other minister, also from an economic background; two conservationists; one head of a consumer group; one special political adviser and one farmer.

The farmer, John Cousins, also has environmental leanings among which is the chairmanship of the Suffolk Wildlife Trust. No problem there; I claim to be a bit of an environmentalist myself. But it is impossible to escape the conclusion that the practicality of farming and the reality of the problems discussed above may be swamped by other interests. But I wish John Cousins well and hope he has a loud voice.

But while most farmers are sinking deeper into the mire the price of land stays buoyant. I was treated to lunch the other day by one of Britains biggest land agencies. When I raised the question of land prices I was told it was expected they would stay at or close to current levels for at least two years. How can that be, I asked, with profits disappearing from all types of farming enterprise?

"There is no shortage of money" came the reply "and we have several potential buyers for every decent farm that comes available. You have to remember," my informant continued, "that some farmers did very well a year or two ago. They invested wisely, the stock exchange has grown enormously, and some of that profit is now being used to buy land.

"Substantial amounts of roll-over money are still looking for a home, especially since the Chancellors Green Budget left a capital tax loophole which may be closed next spring. And then theres the City which is awash with money."

He went on to tell me of the six-figure sums earned by large numbers of individual money managers from commissions and takeovers over the last couple of years. Many of those individuals want to invest in farms and their main priorities are often the house and the shoot. Hence the high price of land which is even less relevant than usual to its profitability.

We live in a free country and I would not want it any other way. But, as Ian McNicol, the new president of the CLA, said at the same land agents lunch "it sends out the wrong signals". For anybody reading the property pages of newspapers would naturally assume that all was very well indeed.

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