23 August 2002

HARDEST DECISION OF ALL

Getting out of farming is an issue more and more farmers

are having to contemplate, as government support

evaporates and prices hit rock bottom. Here Lincs

farmer Leonard Morris reflects on having to make

the hardest decision of all

MAKE no mistake, getting out of farming is the hardest thing Ive ever had to do. When youve lived and worked on a farm all your life, you know every corner of every field and youve modified equipment to do just what you want it to do, it is an awful decision to have to take.

For our family at South Kyme Fen, near Lincoln we could have kept going until the money completely ran out, hoping things would improve. But weve taken the plunge now in the hope that we can keep our options open for the future.

Mum and Dad started farming here the year they got married in 1953. They rented land from grandfather, who had bought the original farm, and built the business up by buying land and taking on four of the 24-28ha (60-70 acre) farms that were on the fen at the time.

We now own 120ha (300 acres) of heavy silty clay loam and have a tenancy on another 80ha (200 acres) of light land at Woodhall Spa. We also ran a three-year contract farming operation on 80ha (200 acres) with a neighbour until this summer. It has been a family farm with father still involved in the combining.

So after having completed a three-year HND in Agriculture and 22 years of farming, finishing has not been easy. Ive always been in farming, I love doing it and didnt want it to go this way. But with falling prices and no government support we knew we were on a knife-edge. The two wettest years ever known in succession really brought it to a head.

But by getting out now we hope weve got the option of coming back in later, if things improve. We wouldnt be farming in our own right, but we could maybe share farm as part of a group, running a tractor and a few bits of kit.

Id always wanted to give our children the option of farming. This way I think there is still a chance that they could do that. A lot could happen between now and the time they are old enough to become involved.

So how have we gone about things? Good advice has been invaluable. Around Christmas 2000, with nothing drilled and the overdraft creeping up, the bank manager urged us to have one of the government funded farm business reviews done.

He recommended a very good local firm and we had an excellent chap do the review, someone with a real practical farming perspective. We really valued that. Other people have not had such helpful reviews where they havent had a good adviser.

We were faced with three options – carry on until the money runs out, hoping that something would improve; contract out some of the land to cut costs; or contract it all out, sell all the kit and look for other work.

It all coincided with what Id been thinking deep down. I could see that we could not carry on as we were. The prices were so low that we were relying on something happening outside our control to make ends meet and that is something we couldnt guarantee. The only figures we could guarantee, the market price at the time, would have meant us making another loss. It made no sense to carry on scraping a living, because that is all it was.

For a while the middle route looked the best bet. The Woodhall land is 13 miles away, so contract farming made sense. But by January this year, when harvest prices had tumbled to £50/t and even the high 40s was being discussed, we realised even that was not an option. Farming at £50/t is a waste of time, its costing us money to do it.

I think I had known for a while that we were on a knife-edge, £50/t wheat made it very clear. We had to set about radical change.

Target date

With the contract agreement due to end in September that became the target date. The Woodhall land is being contract farmed and with 16ha (40 acres) of high value crop permitted with irrigation were hoping someone interested in that will farm the rest of the land too.

A small field at South Kyme has been sold to help reduce borrowings and all the farm machinery has been sold. Some of the kit, like the MB-Tracs, made good prices, others less good. But it averaged out to realise what we anticipated.

The home farm is going out to a neighbour on a five-year FBT with a three-year review. Its not at the rate we hoped for, but it is probably reasonable given the market. Since we decided to go down this route theres 1000ha (2500 acres) come available around here, which has depressed values.

So that leaves us with the overdraft to work at, which means me going out to work. That is definitely the most challenging bit of it all, looking for a job.

I am a practical person, used to coping with changing situations and adapting to a multitude of jobs on the farm. Looking at doing one thing is going to be tricky.

So have we taken the right path? Even if crop prices had been higher I think we would have still ended up in the same position, maybe just another three years down the line. So, yes, were doing the right thing. It hurts and I wish it wasnt this way. But at least were keeping our options open for the future.

Who knows, if farming picks up, if there is some dramatic change, the family could be back farming the land in the future. I certainly hope so! &#42

After 22 years of farming the decision to quit is tough. But realism is needed to protect asset values and preserve the possibility of returning to the industry in future, says Lincs farmer Leonard Morris.

I feel that the farming industry has been completely let down by the government. Being part of the EU was supposed to put us all on a level playing field, but by not claiming the last agrimoney compensation we are at a disadvantage to other EU states.

By not supporting our agricultural industry and by letting cheap imports into the country, it feels like the government is trying to force us out of business, as this would be cheaper for them.

Yet agriculture is the most important industry there is. After all we all have to eat. Look at the US. After Sept 11th it recognised the importance of food security and the risk of importing deliberately contaminated food, and is doing a lot to maintain home production. But we are being forced to produce to higher standards while imports with unknown standards are undercutting our prices as well as bringing in pests and diseases.

Supermarkets are not helping. They now control such a large proportion of our markets they are dictating the prices we are paid. The consumer does not seem to realise the proportion of the retail price the farmer gets is getting smaller while our costs are still increasing.

The minimum wage is another nonsense. When the miners took on the government they were fighting about higher pay from a reasonable level. Most farmers dont even get the minimum wage. Yet there is no uproar about that.

And all the time the burden of bureaucracy grows ever greater. If you spend three weeks on the combine now, youll come back to find the farm office 3ft deep in paperwork. With farmers doing more fieldwork themselves, because they are farming more land with less labour, you just cant keep up with it.

Most people dont mind doing the paperwork if they can see there is a point. But with so much of it there doesnt seem to be a point. Look at crop assurance. What is the problem they are trying to overcome? Have we had 1000 people go down ill, because cereals were grown the wrong way? No. Yet that is far more likely with imported produce.

Whos to blame for farmings demise?

Do you share Leonards views? Is the government waging a stealth war against British agriculture? Tell us what you think. Write to Charles Abel, Arable Editor, farmers weekly, Quadrant House, The Quadrant, Sutton, Surrey, SM2 5AS. Tel 020-8652 4923, fax 020-8652 4005 or e-mail charles.abel@rbi.co.uk

Have your say

&#8226 Wettest two years on record.

&#8226 Appalling crop prices.

&#8226 No level playing field.

&#8226 Cheap food imports.

&#8226 Renting land out, kit sold, new job sought.

&#8226 Scope to return in future.

Selling off machinery and a small field, putting the main farm out to a 5-year FBT and contract farming further land at Woodhall Spa has put finances on a firmer footing. Now its time to find a new job.

MB-Tracs made good money, other machines less so and the combine, which failed to make reserve price, was retained to harvest this years crop rather than use a contractor.

Leonard Morris lives at White House Farm, South Kyme Fen near Lincoln with his wife Maurene and their children Stephanie (12) and Michael (9). He was a farmers weekly Farmer Focus writer from 1996 to 1999 and is a keen farming photographer.

Leonard Morris

Alternatives

&#8226 Diversification. Considered – but how can you diversify when you are at the end of a no through road on the fen and the land is no good for growing anything other than what youre growing already? Also, we are not close to a large urban population to draw people from.

&#8226 Countryside Stewardship. No better. We were told straight off that there was no point applying, because we wouldnt have enough points to be eligible, because we were in the wrong area. If we were on the Wolds it would have been different.

&#8226 Emigration. A possibility, having had some experience in New Zealand and Canada. But their climates are even more extreme than ours, so not a move I would favour.

&#8226 Expansion. Land needs to be local and there was no more available when this was a viable option.

&#8226 Co-operation. Nice in theory, but depends upon willing neighbours and also means no scope for non-farming work to generate extra income needed to reduce overdraft, given that farm profits are negligible whatever the scale. Plus Im worn out and want a rest.