LOOKING AHEAD, it is hard to be too optimistic, say our regional representatives. Uncertainty remains over the detail of the environmental and other hoops they face.

On the plus side, there is a feeling that with farming facing massive change and growers under increasing pressure, more cross-industry co-operation is on the cards.

Indeed, even DEFRA”s attitude seems to be warming with the prospect of its whole farm approach, some suggest.

“One thing is clear,” says Giles Blatchford in Dorset. “DEFRA is taking a much more supportive and pragmatic approach than MAFF ever did.”

However, official information, such as the recent SFP and cross-compliance booklet and the RPAs digital farm maps, is emerging far too slowly. “We are only being drip fed,” he says.

In some areas, the government is as confused as growers over the impact of CAP reform, Alastair Home-Roberts in Shropshire believes.

RENT NEGOTIATIONS

In trying to re-negotiate a rent for some National Trust land he farms, where someone else grazes 120ha (300 acres) of grassland, advice on registering it and agreeing on set-aside has been impossible to come by, he says.

“I have tried umpteen times to get an answer from DEFRA and the RPA and through agents, but it seems they are as lost as we are. Nobody really seems to know what is going on.”

In Essex, Allan Stevenson, who grows his potatoes mostly on rented land, faces similar uncertainty.

“We”re suffering from acronym overload, what with the SFP and FVP [Fruit, Vegetable and Potatoes] entitlement. It”s all too complicated. “The rules have barely been written and I have spent ages trying to understand them. But our cropping decisions are already made.”

“DEFRA is in a desperate muddle and still learning,” adds brother Robert. “It seems they put up one set of rules just to get a reaction and then change them.”

For Mr Blatchford, however, whose livestock are mostly on permanent pasture, the SFP holds few fears.

“Cross-compliance hasn”t turned out to be a major threat. Compulsory 2m margins from the edge of hedges would have been very expensive. As they are now, from the centre of the hedge or 1m from any river bank, they offer a good opportunity for biodiversity.

“We always try to contour drill and we already have some beetle banks.

“I”m looking forward to seeing the smallprint in the ELS and HLS. But I”m a bit worried that we could soon have bobbies crop walking, rather than on the beat.”

In Cornwall, Daniel Richards is grappling to get to grips with the changed support concept. “It”s causing us a headache particularly with the negative crop entitlements issue concerning double cropping.”

 Many Cornish growers are seriously thinking of reducing their cereal areas, especially of spring barley, he adds.

CAP reform and the move away from production-based support will dramatically change the face of British agriculture, Lincs-based Ben Atkinson believes.

“The effects will only become evident with time. What will the future post 2012 hold? What will the countryside look like as the attack on country living continues and ancient traditions, such as hunting, become history?

“I just hope that we can continue to re-structure ourselves in a manner that will allow us to be profitable in a world market with little or no support.”

EXPANSION OPPORTUNITY

Richard Kane”s reaction in Northern Ireland is to seek every opportunity to expand. “I”d like to see a bit more land coming on the market. Ideally I need to get to 500 acres.”

Paul Temple is pleased to be chairing the European COPA/COGECA working party on cereals and oilseeds. “My NFU work takes up quite a bit of time, but it allows me to see the other sides of industry that I wouldn”t otherwise.

“We can”t ignore the fact that the rest of the farming chain is also under a lot of pressure. Major retailers are pretty ruthless.

” The Cereal Liaison Group, bringing together a wide range of players, is a useful forum for airing post-CAP reform problems, he adds. “There”s little doubt that we are in for a rocky ride.

” On the plus side, UK agriculture is well placed environmentally, he believes.

“It is quite easy to argue that our production is sustainable. Our yields year-on-year are rising. Our soils are in good order and don”t suffer much erosion. You can”t say that about other parts of the world, like Brazil for example.”

UNANSWERED QUESTIONS

However, having read DEFRA”s latest cross-compliance document, he says there are still plenty of unanswered questions. “We still await a set-aside handbook despite our cropping beginning last August and the negative list entitlements are still very unclear.

“Rules will always be shifting according to ministers” whims.”

In Scotland, Ian Moncrieff is cautious of commenting too firmly on the SFP scheme. “There could be a lot of demons in it, so I”m wary of planning too many changes now and being caught out by small details that could trip us up.”

2005 pointers

Clearer political signposts need

Still confusion on SFP detail

Less than ideal cropping start

Rising input prices big concern