25 February 2000

WHY WALSTON IS RIGHT,

BUT WRONG

Dispensing with agricultural support payments altogether would strike at the core of the industry and

decimate the rural community. That was the response of the two winners in the Farmers Weekly/NABIM

1999 essay competition for young agriculturalists. The question they sought to answer: "Was Oliver

Walston right to suggest all subsidies should be banned?" Edited versions of their essays follow

OLIVER Walston is right, area subsidies must go – but some kind of subsidy is required to preserve and sustain the countryside and community as it is.

Worldwide, farming is in depression due to over-production of grain. Area subsidies help to keep up profits for British agriculture, but they make the problem worse by giving farmers an incentive to put down a larger area of their land to grain, pulses and oilseeds, upping production even more.

Science has played a big part in over production; it has brought with it chemicals and fertilisers for just about every yield-affecting problem farmers have faced. But it has also created problems. Early chemicals were extremely primitive and research did not extend much further than determining if they actually worked or not.

It was soon found out how much damage they did to the environment, but it took much longer to find the damage it did to the farmer. Modern chemicals are so advanced that they boost yields considerably, further adding to the grain mountains. Over the past few years, farmers have suffered a lot of flak over pollution to the environment and GM foods are the latest science-related problem.

In his television series, Oliver Walston said the government was prepared to subsidise farming, but not other industries in decline, such as coal mining. But for mining there were reasons not to subsidise it, not just no reasons to subsidise it. Something better had come along in the form of gas and nuclear energy. It was readily available, cheap, versatile, more environmentally friendly and safer to produce and use.

Furthermore, mining left huge scars in the form of slag heaps all over the surrounding countryside, whereas farming conserves the countryside. Coal was a non-renewable energy source and extracting it was not viable, it did not make economic sense to carry on.

Our farm, Berwick Hall Farm, at Abbess Roding, Chelmsford, Essex, is mostly grade 2 land. The farm is about 138ha (345 acres) and we farm 20ha (50 acres) on a farm business tenancy and further 32ha (80 acres) on a share-farm contract agreement. Cropping is linseed, potatoes, rape, beans and wheat.

Potatoes are labour-intensive, so the farm employs my dad and two full-time staff, plus me, my mum and others to work on the harvester and grading line. In the winter, this means there are enough pairs of hands about to keep up with conservation, and maintain our machinery and buildings.

Over the past few years, new hedges have gone in around the boundaries of some fields, along with 6m margins and new trees. The farm has joined Natures Choice, The Countryside Stewardship Scheme and the Assured Combinable Crops Scheme, all having strict environmental demands.

I think subsidies should be structured more towards the ratio of full-time staff to acres and the amount of environmental work carried on the farm. This could lead to a fall in the amount of unemployed claiming benefits.

Also, grants should be provided for proper training, to cut down on the accidents that occur on farms. With the right training most farms would be able to diversify or enhance their surroundings to keep staff busy in the winter.

Bigger farms, especially those that grow only cereals, could manage to employ a larger workforce and adapt to different crops quite easily. With less former subsidy crops, such as wheat, being grown under a different scheme, there would be less over-production and the world price would go up, possibly leading to intervention being abolished.

If Oliver Walston wants to say all subsidies must go, that is fine by me. But I think his farming would suffer severely or even go bankrupt. Agriculture in the UK would be in serious financial difficulties without support and it is a way of life that is unique to the industry. We are feeding the nation as well as being custodians of the countryside. &#42

Some form of support is essential, so why not base it around labour employed per acre, suggests Andrew Metson of Abbess Roding, Essex.

By Andrew Metson