9 November 2001

Tell us how to make it pay

By Robert Davies

Wales correspondent

JULIE Thomas wants DEFRA secretary, Margaret Beckett, to visit her familys tenanted farm and say what else the couple can do to make it pay.

Mrs Thomas and her husband, Geoff, started farming at Caerlan Farm, Tonypandy, Glamorgan, in 1980. At that time, their flock of 800 Welsh ewes provided enough money to support the family. But sheep have not generated enough money for years and Mr and Mrs Thomas have had to take on other jobs too.

At first, Mrs Thomas worked as an agricultural lecturer at Usk College. Later, after her children Rachel, 13, and Rahidian, nine, were born, she started arranging Tupperware parties. "That was just to put some jam on the bread and butter income provided by the farm," she says.

To offset falling sheep prices, Mr and Mrs Thomas started selling lamb over the internet. They now sell at a farmers market as well. But the situation remains bad, says Mrs Thomas. "Even though we live in a heavily populated area, the volume of trade cannot offset the terrible prices we get for the rest of the lambs."

In some respects, Mr and Mrs Thomas are lucky. Their landlords are sympathetic to their plight, allowing the farm to become one of the first in the area to enter the Tir Gofal environmental scheme. Mr Thomas has taken vocational courses and is now a registered trainer in fencing and walling as well as a farmer.

But Mrs Thomas says it is "ludicrous" for ministers to urge tenants to earn income off-farm. "Many do not have the time and some tenancies dictate that a certain proportion of income must come from farming. We have excellent landlords, but some other tenants risk losing their homes and businesses if they go out to work."

The Thomases have also diversified. Mrs Thomas runs management and business courses in a converted building on the farm. She holds classes in a Portakabin on a variety of subjects from first aid to environmental management. The extra income feeds the family and subsidises the farm.

Mr Thomas says: "The politicians and public have no idea what is happening to farming. We have gone past the angry stage and have stopped shouting at the TV, but we are still upset when the same old platitudes about adding value, diversification and part-time jobs are mouthed again.

"Unless solutions are found to low livestock prices, paperwork and rules and regulations, the only way a unit like ours will continue is as a hobby farm supported by income from outside." &#42

EXTRA INCOME

&#8226 Tupperware parties.

&#8226 College lecturer.

&#8226 Internet lamb sales.

&#8226 Farmers market.

&#8226 Fencing and walling courses.

&#8226 Environmental schemes.

&#8226 Training courses.

&#8226 Portakabin classroom.

&#8226 Farm consultant.

Call to change definition of agriculture

"Tenant farmers have been very successful in getting their rents down," says George Dunn. "But we still have real trouble with environmental schemes – or anything that steps outside the confines of a traditional definition of agriculture."

Mr Dunn, chief executive of the Tenant Farmers Association, wants the government to change its definition of agriculture so more tenant farmers can take advantage of diversification opportunities and join environmental schemes.

Many tenancy agreements require tenant farmers to be involved only in agriculture. Furthermore, some landlords use clauses to restrict diversification on farms. This leaves tenants unable to boost their incomes by working off-farm or joining initiatives such as the Countryside Stewardship Scheme.

"The government has got to listen, understand and then act," says Mr Dunn. "Unless they do, the 40% of land area that tenant farming encompasses will be unable to take part in these beneficial schemes."

Mr Dunn has submitted evidence to the governments commission on the future of farming. The commission, chaired by Sir Don Curry, is due to report to Prime Minister, Tony Blair, by the end of the year. Mr Dunn says: "We are hopeful that our concerns will be acted upon."

Adrienne Francis