Paperwork & downpours…
Red tape and wet weather
have combined to make an
exasperating combination at
West Town Farm recently.
John Burns reports
RULES, regulations, and form filling have driven Andrew Bragg to distraction over the past six weeks, and a punishing spell of wet weather has added to the pressure.
Apart from delaying spring cereal drilling and increasing the risk of mastitis in the dairy herd, it forced him to spend hours on the phone trying to locate organic silage or hay for cattle brought back indoors full-time on full winter feeding.
Failing to find any fodder, he had to obtain special derogations from the Soil Association to allow him to feed 40 big bales of non-organic silage that would briefly exceed the permitted daily proportion of non-organic dry matter.
The bad weather also meant less excuse for neglecting office work and form filling. The list of forms, and the complexity of some of them, is staggering. Those he has dealt with recently include IACS and IACS 22 (new field numbers), MQ15 (changing direct sales quota to wholesale), Organic Aid Scheme (one form for every field concerned), Organic Farming Scheme, and Countryside Stewardship.
On top of this is the detailed recording required under organic certification rules. Like most other farmers, Mr Bragg finds this paperwork, and the growing volume of legislation and controls, increasingly burdensome, especially when there is so much else to do.
"There just seems no end to it. Last year I had to fill in a form to get the forms to fill in for the Organic Aid Scheme. I really do think that if New Labour and MAFF want these green initiatives like organic farming and Countryside Stewardship to work, there needs to be better communication between departments. At present there is none."
The latest nightmare, he says, is the new rules about safe handling and disposal of old asbestos roofing sheets. "I do not think most farmers are yet aware that these new rules make it almost prohibitively expensive to demolish old asbestos-roofed buildings."
As part of a drive to make his farming system more efficient, Mr Bragg hopes to remove some old buildings and replace them with "machinery-friendly" designs. For the past year he has been negotiating with his landlords, the Church Commissioners, over a rent review and also details of his plans to replace some of the structures at his own expense.
Subject to ratification by HQ, his rent will be reduced. But that cost-saving has already been wiped out by the statutory award on farm workers wages and the 80% rise in diesel prices in the past year.
While negotiating which buildings he will be allowed to remove and replace, Mr Bragg has been getting quotations for their demolition. Stunned by the size of potential bills, he sought explanations. The main costs, he was told, were precautions to safeguard workers health from the possible asbestos hazard during demolition work, and the expense of disposing of asbestos at a licensed tip.
"Even though I am a tenant I am having to finance all this myself. I know I have to farm more efficiently and that modern buildings will be necessary to achieve that. But, with these sorts of controls coming from all directions all adding to costs, I just do not know which way to turn. Any advice on the asbestos question would be very welcome."
As reported last time, Mr Braggs enthusiasm for kale has been firmly restored and this years 3.2ha (8 acres) of Maris Kestrel (non-organic seed) was sown on Apr 3. Winter wheat is looking good apart from a few patches of charlock now in flower. Mr Bragg is trying hard to take a relaxed attitude, consoling himself with the fact that the weed is very popular with the bees.
All but 12 lambs have been sold. They are being "taken to the wire" to get maximum weight within the contract specification, without getting too fat. Grading results have been excellent and prices held constant under the forward contract. New prices which run from May 1 are still being negotiated. His last batch of lambs averaged £61 after deductions of about £4 a head. To date the average is £60 net.
Four heavy cull ewes sold in Exeter market recently made £142. The flock was due to be shorn this week.
A claim has been made for Countryside Stewardship work done last winter. The payment will be about £3600. "Very welcome," says Mr Bragg, "but it has cost me well over £8000 plus a lot of my time to get it. It needs emphasising that it is at best a contribution towards costs, not in any way a source of income."
Clearing the decks…the recent spell of wet weather has let Andrew Bragg make inroads into the never-ending office work.
• West Town Farm, Ide, near Exeter, Devon, a 65ha (160 acre) farm rented from the Church Commissioners. Farmed organically since July 1992 by Andrew Bragg.
• Plus 26ha (64 acres) of owned land three miles away, in conversion to organic; 8ha (20 acres) of organic land on an FBT, one mile away; 4ha (10 acres) of organic grass keep five miles away.
• 80 to 85 dairy cows, plus followers, 320,000 litres milk quota.
• 75 Dorset Horn and Poll Dorset ewes lambing in November.
• 10-year Countryside Stewardship project on 91ha (224 acres)
• Free-draining, mainly sloping land, some steep.
• Triticale and spring barley grown for feed.
• Three full-time staff.