8 October 1999

Rent appeal fuelled by fears over farm income

Politics, as well as technical issues, are coming to the

fore at West Town Farm. John Burns reports

IN the past six weeks, organic farmer Andrew Bragg has watched with dismay the rapidly deteriorating financial and political situation in farming and allied industries and has decided it is time to make a stand on both fronts.

"At present rent levels I wont be here in three years time even on 29.5p/litre for milk plus payments under Countryside Stewardship," he says.

He started getting 29.5p/litre for his milk in April 1997. Since then, wages have increased by 6%, fuel and other costs by 10%. "Exeter market reports show that between September 1995 and today barren cow prices fell from £510 to £295, calves from £85 average to £25 average, lambs from £40 to £28 and good killing ewes from £24 to £18.

"Landlords must take on board that costs are up and incomes down. All tenants have the right to seek rent reductions and should not be afraid to do so."

Mr Bragg has served a Section 12 notice on his landlords, the Church Commissioners, seeking a reduction in rent. "It is a formal way of saying I want a rent review and I mean business." Any outcome will not apply until September next year.

He has also decided to get more involved politically and even in direct action. "Our local farm supplies and machinery firm is closing after 60 years.

"Many farms round here are for sale or the tenants are suddenly giving up. The big estates will take more in-hand and the IACS payment for set-aside will continue to be the baseline for rents."

Much hardship could be avoided if more of the £2.2bn paid out in direct support each year was subject to modulation, to favour smaller farms, and diverted to environmental type payments, he says.

"The NFU, CLA and the government have all got to respond with some humanity to the growing agricultural deprivation and decline in the West Country and find some acceptable form of modulation."

A proposal using field size and boundary type (News, Sept 3) would be welcome, he says. "The scheme is just the sort of idea that would help the small West Country farmers with their many small fields and lots of hedges."

Meanwhile, crops and fodder for winter feed have to be harvested and stored, breeding stock maintained, and next years crops sown.

His 4ha (10 acres) of organic triticale yielded 18t, and is being fed, rolled, to the dairy cows as a midday feed. A further 12ha (30 acres) of spring barley on first-year in-conversion land produced 25t which went to Devon Grain Co-op.

The barley was undersown with a ryegrass/red clover mix so a high stubble was left. The field was then mown, and the mix of straw and herbage big-baled after wilting.

Organic rules allow only very small amounts of first year in-conversion fodder to be used. It will mean feeding no more than 20 bales a month. Other big-bale silage includes 70 round bales of third-cut from 10ha (24 acres) of ryegrass/ white clover ley. Being from second-year conversion land it can comprise up to 50% of a diet.

One job delayed by the weather until this week was some ryegrass/white clover reseeding. The field had been ploughed, worked and left to allow weed seeds – especially docks – to chit before ploughing and preparing the final seed-bed.

Milk production is the main earner at West Town Farm. Mr Bragg aims to keep the herd as close to 90 cows as possible. Being short of suitable buildings, he recently bought in 12 bulling and in-calf heifers to supplement the 12 others already on the farm.

Four of the latest batch came from an organic farm at about £600 each. The other eight were bought at a non-organic dispersal sale for £280-410/head.

Soil Association rules allow up to 10% of the herd to be replaced each year by non-organic heifers. But they must be on the organic farm for at least three months before their milk can be sold as organic, though the heifers themselves will never qualify as such. &#42

FARM FACTS

&#8226 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.

&#8226 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; 10ha (25 acres) of organic grasskeep five miles away.

&#8226 85 to 90 dairy cows, plus followers, 320,000 litres milk quota.

&#8226 75 Dorset Horn and Poll Dorset ewes lambing in November.

&#8226 10-year Countryside Stewardship project on 91ha (224 acres).

&#8226 Free-draining, mainly sloping land, some steep.

&#8226 Triticale and spring barley grown for feed.

&#8226 Three full-time staff.