Opinion: Confident farming outlook may be misplaced

Was it just me or were others also surprised at the relatively optimistic findings of the NFU’s recent confidence survey?

Of the 658 members interviewed, only 49% reported declining profits. Disastrous commodity prices across most crop and stock sectors of the industry might have suggested more would have experienced such declines. Indeed, you could have expected that many would have complained of desperate and unsustainable losses.

Yes, further down the list of respondents’ replies, 7% said they feared their businesses would not survive and a higher proportion – some 20% – of dairy producers were expecting their enterprises to fail. Many in the arable sector shared their lack of confidence.

Happiest for the short- and medium-term outlook were graziers and poultry producers; the latter benefiting, no doubt, from lower feed prices causing most of the problems for cereal growers.

Interestingly, 69% of respondents named regulations as one of the main negatives affecting their businesses. Rightly or wrongly, in or out of the EU, I fear the regulatory burden is one we will have to bear for the foreseeable future. The litigious society in which we live and work will demand it.

David Richardson
David Richardson farms about 400ha (1,000 acres) of arable land near Norwich in Norfolk in partnership with his wife Lorna and his son Rob

Looking to the future, the survey detected a “generally optimistic outlook” for the medium term.

What evidence there was for this was not clear, unless it was based on the possibility that so many farmers will have gone out of business within three years that shortages will force up prices to more economic levels.

As someone once said, the difference between an optimist and a pessimist is sometimes that the optimist doesn’t know all the facts.

In any event, whichever candidates are elected to lead the NFU in a couple of weeks will face challenging issues. How best could they bring about the changes necessary to rebuild declining confidence and profitability?

They could, of course, take a lesson from French farmers and block motorways with burning tyres. Sizeable chunks of French government cash has being pumped into farmers pockets as a result.

Will that happen here? There’s already plans afoot for a march on Westminster, so it might – but the British government tends not to react like the French. And Defra has a 25-year horizon with its planned food policy which hardly matches the urgency required.

The new NFU leaders might, therefore, start by using Tesco’s embarrassment following the GCA’s expose of its nefarious practices to demand the support of British retailers. They could promote to consumers, both household and corporate, the impeachable provenance and freshness of home production. Further, how much more healthy and environmentally friendly and better value it is than many imports. 

They should use the Tesco case to emphasise the vulnerability of British farmers to “big food” and to the real possibility that domestic supplies are at risk. The fear of similar exposure to that meted out to Tesco should inhibit other big retailers from similar sharp practices.

As past NFU and IGD surveys have showed, most British consumers trust farmers, but they don’t always trust farming. In other words, they support us as individuals and a profession but are not so sure about our industry and some of its fellow travellers.

Christine Tacon’s watershed judgement must be exploited mercilessly by our new leaders, whoever they are, to producers’ advantage. But such an initiative will need the united support of ordinary farmers.

As an industry, we are not good at promoting and marketing our produce, preferring to “leave it to the union”. This time it could be do or die.

 See also: David Richardson wins Lifetime Achievement Award

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