2004 farming highlights

JANUARY


Farming leaders second-guess the consequences of CAP reform and its effects, presenting various arguments to the devolved authorities and the government over which system for calculating the single farm payment would best suit each region.


DEFRA announces its preference for the more complex hybrid option in England – much to the annoyance of some unions. The government considers the recommendations of the Haskins report which recommends streamlining DEFRA but it is given scant time for detailed consideration.


Government advisers approve the planting of GM maize in the UK. Potato farmer John Morgan learns he will not receive any compensation after his potato crop was destroyed following the UK’s first outbreak of potato ring rot.


The fallen stock scheme suffers the first of a series of delays. This time Brussels is blamed for failing to give the green light to the scheme.


FEBRUARY


Tim Bennett is elected as NFU president, taking the helm from Ben Gill at the union’s agm. Mr Bennett pledges to maintain contact with those on the ground. “On one day every six weeks or so the office holders will have to arrange with a group secretary to go and talk with a member on the farm,” he said.


DEFRA secretary Margaret Beckett tells the NFU conference that a flat-rate SFP was the “fairest option for all”. “We looked at other options but nothing else worked as effectively.”


A joint-initiative between the Milk Development Council and the Scottish Dairy Marketing Company sees 500,000 invested in the “The White Stuff” campaign to promote milk.


Milk Link announces its deal with Glanbia, the Irish cheese maker, that would see it gain a stronger hold on the UK milk consumption and cheese production market. The move was welcomed by the NFU.


MARCH


New evidence emerges from the foot-and-mouth crisis of 2001, when government vet Jim Dring says the whole F&M epidemic would never have happened had he conducted a more rigorous inspection of the farm at the centre of the outbreak.


The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs select committee investigates milk pricing and supermarket profits. Safeway reckons to make 8-10p/litre gross profit on milk while many farmers across the country continue to lose money. Supermarkets defend their position but Farmers For Action chairman David Handley says figures supplied by the supermarkets do not correlate. “What I would like to see is an independent ombudsman look at their books,” he adds.


Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown raises duty on red diesel by 57%. There is similarly bad news for the biofuel industry which receives no tax break concessions.


APRIL


German biotech company Bayer CropScience announces that it is to pull the plug on attempts to commercialise its GM forage maize variety Chardon LL in the UK.


DEFRA is told by one if its own committees to base future policies directed at tackling bovine TB on the basis that badgers are involved in the spread of the disease.


The parliamentary ombudsman confirms his intentions to investigate the ban on swill feeding that left 62 swill feeders robbed of a business without being compensated.


Lord Whitty announces that DEFRA had withheld government vet Jim Dring”s statement from the Anderson Inquiry blaming “DEFRA staff below ministerial level”.


MAY


Monsanto abandons its plans to introduce GM wheat on to the world market citing “commercial decisions”.


British beef is declared as safe as any in Europe by the European Food Standards Agency which advises that British beef be reclassified to “moderate risk” on a par with countries in the rest of Europe.


Government adviser professor John Bourne hints that more stringent cattle movement controls are on the way to help reduce the incidence of bovine TB throughout the country.


Oil prices reach a 14-year high at $37 a barrel due to rising insecurity in the Middle East and increased demand in the domestic market. The rise sparks fears that farmers will once again face higher prices for a host of inputs, including diesel, fertiliser and sprays.


JUNE


DEFRA ditches plans to introduce compulsory no-spray buffer zones, but farmers are told they should be able to present their spray records for public scrutiny on request.


It is revealed that Euro MPs are set to gain a greater say in agricultural issues from 2009 once the new EU constitution comes into effect.


It’s a busy month for MPs with an interest in farming. Farmers tell the EFRA select committee that bovine TB is getting worse but junior DEFRA minister Ben Bradshaw insists that the situation is improving. Evidence is released six weeks later showing that he was wrong.


The select committee again investigates the milk industry in a bid to find out why farmers get a raw deal. “We believe the dairy companies should provide dairy farmers with a detailed justification of why it is they need to take such a significant stake of the retail price to cover their costs.”


JULY


DEFRA announces at the Royal Show that England”s farmers have just 28 days to check that their single farm payment entitlement is correct.


The Agricultural Wages Board raises the minimum agricultural wage to 5.40/hour sparking criticism from the NFU which says farmers cannot afford the rise.


DEFRA stages a mock F&M outbreak in an attempt to improve its response should the country suffer another outbreak. “This has been an extremely useful exercise played out as realistically as you could make it,” says Ben Bradshaw.


Experts suggest bovine TB has spread further into wildlife populations than previously thought. A Central Science Laboratory report criticises DEFRA for failing to tackle the disease in wildlife species other than badgers, saying deer could pose a significant risk.


DEFRA is also under fire from another quarter: MPs criticise the Cattle Tracing System, branding it inefficient, and old-fashioned.


AUGUST


Clouds gather and a spell of bad weather sets in across the country.


Six farming organisations take the unprecedented step of joining forces to issue a statement highlighting the problems facing British milk producers. The statement calls for new ways of selling milk, saying plans for a national milk selling agency must be given serious consideration.


In what is described as an “historic” move, Dairy Farmers of Britain forks out 75m for Associated Cooperative Creameries. The takeover propels it into third place in the UK milk processing league, behind Arla Foods and Dairy Crest.


A DEFRA-funded study rejects claims that supermarkets are profiting from farmers’ misery – even though it admits that the gap between farm gate and retail prices has widened. Low farm prices have been passed on to consumers, says the London Economics document.


Low incomes and borderline profits mean one-third of organic farmers are undecided whether they will still be farming organically in five years time.


SEPTEMBER


The wettest harvest in living memory leaves crops across Britain battered and uncut. Farmers in many parts of the country – especially northern England and East Anglia – are forced to write off crops that lie rotting in the fields. The crisis prompts farm leaders to ask DEFRA to bring forward area aid payments. A DEFRA spokesman says the department is monitoring the situation closely. It later prioritises payments to rain-hit farmers, and seven out of 10 receive support before Christmas.


The future of 8000 rural jobs is left hanging by a thread after MPs pass the government-backed Bill to ban hunting with hounds by a majority of 152 votes. Thousands of hunt supporters gather in Parliament Square to protest at what many people regard as an infringement of their civil liberties.


As British Food Fortnight gets under way, organisers say European competition rules banning the use of state funding to promote regional food in its area of origin are a nonsense.


OCTOBER


Supermarkets come under renewed pressure to hold milk prices during the coming autumn amid fears that rationalisation in the supply chain could undermine farm incomes. All three major processors pledge to keep October milk prices unchanged.


At the Labour Party conference in Brighton, Lord Whitty tells farmers they must invest more in co-operation and get involved further up in the food supply chain if they are to strengthen their bargaining position with the big retailers.


Farm incomes in England are forecast to drop by 58% over the coming year and become increasingly unpredictable, according to a study by accountants Deloitte and Touche. Producers must gear themselves up for a rollercoaster ride, says the firm.


Mariann Fischer Boel wins the backing of the European Parliament to succeed Franz Fischler as EU farm commissioner. But co-ordinators from the parliament committee describe her performance as weak, calling on her to be much more combative.


Government plans for its entry-level environmental stewardship programme are held up in Brussels as the EU Commission tries to force DEFRA to tighten up on nitrate rules. The EU says attempts to limit nitrate use do not go far enough, but the stewardship programme eventually gets the go-ahead.


NOVEMBER


Pressure mounts on the government to carry out a new investigation of events leading up to the 2001 F&M crisis after farmers weekly unearths video footage of the pig unit at the centre of the disease outbreak. The footage – viewed by senior vets, peers and MPs – shows that the farm in question had been allowed to decline into a parlous state, despite a number of visits to the farm carried out by government inspectors leading up to the outbreak.


Beef producers slam plans to introduce a new compensation regime for diseased cattle. The proposals would give fixed values for all categories of animal – including pedigree stock.


DEFRA finally confirms that farmers with fields smaller than 2ha (4.9 acres) will escape the requirement to have a 2m margin next to hedges and ditches. Any hedges planted after Jan 1, 2005 will also be exempt from the rule for the first five years of the scheme, says Lord Whitty.


Food imports have risen by almost 25% since the early 1990s, government figures reveal.


DECEMBER


A fresh outlook is evident as Smithfield Show kicks off at London’s Earls Court. Government rural adviser Donald Curry unveils an initiative designed to attract new people into farming and help producers who want to retire to leave the industry with dignity.


The government announces that beef from older cattle will be allowed back in the food chain as it confirms that the Over-30-Months Scheme will be dismantled in the latter half of 2005. The scheme will be replaced by a system of testing for BSE for cattle born after Aug 1, 1996.


GM crops leap back on to the agenda after the results of a four-year study says that herbicide tolerant crops can provide more efficient weed control than their conventional counterparts. But anti-GM campaigners say GM crops would still cross-pollinate with non-GM crops.