Opinion: Farmers should have permanent counter-cyclical aid

Hedgerow growth this year has been exceptional, to the extent that through August some briars grew across narrow lanes, causing danger to unwary cyclists and pedestrians.

What the legal position is if someone were to be injured now the EU has forbidden trimming until September, I’m not sure. Odds are it would still be seen as the farmer’s fault.

But the positive aspect of this is a bumper crop of autumn hedgerow fruit. I can seldom remember seeing hedges hung so profusely with hips and haws, sloes, elderberries and blackberries. Oak trees are full of acorns, horse chestnuts of conkers, despite disease affecting their leaves, and so on. And the orchard suggests it will be a good year for apples and pears.

I have never subscribed to the myth that a big crop of berries in the autumn means a hard winter to follow. How can a tree or a hedge become a weather forecaster? The phenomenon surely has to do with the weather that has gone before – such as rain and warmth through the summer – not something that may happen in the future. The berries on the hedges must have benefited from the same mix of weather that this year produced better crops in the fields they surround.

For the record, I am not making any prediction about the coming winter. But this year’s generally helpful weather (ignoring for the moment isolated but tragic incidents of flooding) compared with the previous few years’, which produced mediocre yields across the country, should alert politicians and remind economists of farming’s vulnerability to – and reliance on – the weather. And I don’t just mean what we get here in the UK (if we are still a United Kingdom by the time you read this).

As we are regularly reminded, we participate in world commodity markets these days. Favourable (or unfavourable) weather for crops in the USA, South America, Australia and Ukraine can have dramatic effects on the value of commodities in Britain. As we know to our cost, the weather has been generally favourable for most crops across much of the world this year. The fact that our domestic weather has also been pretty good is virtually insignificant, although it perhaps contributed to the collapse of prices.

And so British farmers are expecting returns for this year’s harvest to be below cost of production – because of good weather – following a fall in farm incomes last year averaging 17% (FW Business, 5 September) because of bad weather. It sometimes makes you wonder whether we’re in the right business. And yet we are busy planting seeds to harvest next year anticipating – hoping – that in the interim the situation will improve.

But will it? Believers in climate change suggest more extremes of weather in future that will likely make farming even more difficult. And political pressure remains and may be intensifying to cut back government support for farming – support that has kept many farmers in business through recent years and without which they would have gone bust. Meanwhile, paradoxically, we are urged to invest more, increase production to feed more people and conserve the environment.

Given all these imponderables and challenges, I believe farmers should have permanent counter-cyclical aid to be paid out in bad times and withdrawn or reduced when margins improve. There is such a scheme in America and they are the world’s biggest producers and exporters of commodities. Why not something similar in Europe? I know I’m swimming against the tide. But only dead fish float downstream.

David Richardson farms about 400ha (1000 acres) of arable land near Norwich in Norfolk in partnership with his wife Lorna and his son Rob.

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