3 November 1995

Opportunism a key to survival

THE survival of hill farming will depend on finding opportunities for marketing new products.

That was the blunt message top Welsh economist Michael Haines took to the annual conference organised by the Royal Welsh Agricultural Society, and Welsh Institute of Rural Studies.

Prof Haines, the Institutes director, admitted that most farmers continued to reject the idea of supplying the multiple market for tourism, public access, habitat preservation, recreational activities and unpolluted air.

"Most farmers have disregarded them because it has paid too well to produce a single product – food," Prof Haines said at Glynllifon College in Gwynedd.

But farmers must now realise that government policy towards the rural areas increasingly questioned the central role of farming in sustaining a viable community.

"The target will in future be rural people, not farmers. It is as part of a total rural economic strategy that hill farmers will survive – not by fighting a last ditch struggle to sustain a level of support which must be as much a dream as my lost youth."

Rest and recreation

For most of the city-dwelling population the marketable products of the hills were rest and recreation, and only incidentally lamb chops. It would be unwise to rely indefinitely on the goodwill of the long-suffering taxpayer.

The taxpayer, who originally paid subsidies to hill farmers for food production, no longer saw why he should do so. The threat was enormous, especially as the contribution to hill farmers incomes was proportionally much higher than to set-aside and other payments to lowland arable farmers.

Already some of the support package was in the form of socio-economic payments designed to keep an indigenous population on the land, both to sustain the rural infrastructure, and prevent dereliction that might offend the weekend tripper.

Paying farmers to provide non-food benefits like access and conservation was much more acceptable than other forms of support, which the tabloid press could taint with the spectre of feather-bedded farmers, he said.

It was no longer enough to focus on farming alone, which would not sustain a living rural community in the hills.

Robert Davies