20 February 1998

Demoralising

wont work

tactics

on us

ASK Exmoor beef and sheep farmer Maurice Vellacott why he pickets supermarket distribution centres, abattoirs, and meat processors at night and his reply is passionate.

"We feel caught like a rat in a gin trap. The government is out to disillusion us by piling costs and regulations onto us while allowing imports of produce from places that dont have those extra costs and rules.

"They have set out to demoralise us and disorientate us and they intend to keep bashing us until most of us throw in the towel and leave it to a few big farmers who the supermarkets can control."

Mr Vellacott is adamant such tactics will not work. "Theyll find such resilience in the farming community that theyll have to go back to the drawing board. There is no way we are going to give it up. No government in the world is going to finish me off."

Picketing results

The results achieved by picketing have been encouraging, he believes. "Things like interest rates we can do nothing about. But we can do something about the double standards the government tolerates. British store cattle, produced on the hills, are the best in the world for finishing. But all our efforts are being undermined by rubbishy imports. We have to come up to such standards and extra costs are added nearly every week, but the market is taken by substandard imports."

The farmers on the pickets are good farmers, not hangers-on and rabble-rousers, he says. They have taken to picketing because the NFU and MLC, both of which take money from them, have not delivered what they needed.

"They should have acted long ago about the scandal of imported meat being labelled British because it was cut up here. And they should be monitoring imports now. But they arent; so we are doing it ourselves. There are thousands of farmers behind us.

"We are knocking on everybodys doors to make sure they realise that if British farming is in trouble, the allied industries will dry up. The present scale of imports must increase the trade deficit to a point where the whole nations economy is damaged."

Government talk of cutting production subsidies and paying for environmental management leaves him worried. Mr Vellacott has not joined the Exmoor Environmentally Sensitive Area scheme because financial circumstances force him to farm in a way which would not fit the rules.

But he has joined the Countryside Stewardship hedge scheme. Maintaining hedges and fences takes much time and money. "Trouble is, I dont make money doing hedges; I put money into them, even with the grant." So any switch to paying for environmental management must be properly costed or it will fail, he warns.

Visitor impact

Worried about talk of a 50% increase in visitors to the West Country, he fears farmers role will change. "Theyre going to turn us into park keepers. I dont want that. Its bred in me to produce food."

Mr Vellacott and his colleagues accept that farm size will probably have to increase. But they want to see it happen in a controlled way. "Im sure there are farmers who would welcome a retirement scheme and it might help me to expand. We need cheaper grass. I take a lot of rented grass and weve been hammered during the last few years with dear grass keep. Perhaps a way could be found to avoid extensification payments forcing up grass keep prices, or perhaps a look at the different ways of taxing grass lets incomes would help," says Mr Vellacott. &#42

In the third of our regional specials, highlighting the key

issues facing farmers throughout the UK, John Burns profiles

farming in the south-west. Disillusioned by the lack of help

from government, farmers despondency has rapidly changed

to determination to act in their own defence

VELLACOTT ENTERPRISE

&#8226 Grass: 80ha (197 acres).

&#8226 Woods: 2.8ha (7 acres).

&#8226 Rented moorland: 45ha (113 acres).

&#8226 Grass keep: 80ha (200 acres).

&#8226 Suckler cows (Angus/Friesian and Devon/Friesian): 122.

&#8226 Devon/Friesian followers to expand the herd: 40 .

&#8226 Charolais bulls: Three.

&#8226 Swale and Nelson Welsh ewes: 450.

&#8226 Mules: 200.

&#8226 Nelson Welsh ewe hoggs: 200.

Determined to keep their farm come what may: Maurice, Judy and eldest son Mark Vellacott.

Determination to survive …and finish paperwork

MAURICE Vellacott married Judy in 1971 when he was 21. The couple bought a cottage and renovated it while keeping 30 ewes and three suckler cows on rented grass.

Supplementing their income by working for other people, they built their flock up to 160 Mules.

In 1984 they sold the cottage, borrowed heavily, and bought Tabor Hill, an 80ha (200-acre) farm near North Molton, Devon. "We had six years of high interest rates and took a financial hiding," says Mr Vellacott. Then, in 1990 the house roof blew off. For 15 months they lived five miles away, put a new roof on the house themselves, and did all the internal restoration. Three years ago, fire destroyed 90% of their buildings and fodder.

"Last year we thought wed turned the corner," he explains. "We had more and better calves and lambs than wed ever had and it should have been a cracker of a year. But we met a falling trade last autumn and I brought the last 50 buss calves (suckled calves) back from the sale because I wasnt going to accept 50p/kg for them. Weve also still got some store lambs left."

Eldest son Mark worked at home until last year when he went to work as a welder with a farm buildings firm. But he is now back home because the firm is short of orders. "Theres plenty of work but its not worth doing because we get nothing back," says Mark.

Their daughter works off the farm and youngest son Tim, 13, who is keen on farming, helps after school. Mrs Vellacott is just as determined as her husband to keep the farm. Her responsibilities include completing the paperwork on time. A constant worry is the loss of income and penalty that would follow any failure to complete a complex form with complete accuracy on time.

There seems no end to the new and ever-changing rules, and it puts a great strain on family life, says Mrs Vellacott. But they have still managed to keep their sense of humour – just.