Opinion: Small on efficiency, big on payments

Portugal is often mentioned in the same sentence as Greece as having one of the most vulnerable economies in the EU. But when the Farmers Weekly Farm Study party landed in the northern city of Porto, it didn’t feel like it.

It was busy, there were no boarded-up shops and it compared well with most other European cities. Then we travelled out of town.

The fields were tiny and many appeared to be abandoned with no sign of having been cropped for years.

Some of those that were cropped, mainly with vegetables, did not impress and we wondered why. We had the opportunity to find out from officials of the equivalent of the NFU’s local branch.

The reason for the tiny fields, we were told, was that the “Code Napoleon”, which sees land divided among a whole family when someone dies, is still strictly observed.

We suggested land reform like that applied in many European countries was needed. Our informants agreed, but said there was little prospect of it because ownership of land, however little, was seen as sacrosanct.

But why was so much land uncultivated? The answer was that EU area payments meant cropping was unnecessary. Many landowners were content to take the money and leave their land bare. Why not let it or co-operate to grow something? Because farmers don’t trust one another and will not share private information.

There were exceptions, of course, like the local man who had spent 10 years in Holland and come back to grow berries because of Portugal’s climatic advantages. He was building an empire exporting blueberries and other fruit to Holland and beyond – and making a success of it.

Another man had set himself up as a marketing agent for those that did grow vegetables. He controlled a busy collection centre and set the price for every item. His success could be judged by the nearly new Porche he drove.

As we drove south, the farms got bigger and prosperity became more obvious. One of the most profitable crops was specialist cork oaks.

The bark is stripped off them every nine years and sold to processing companies who make bottle stoppers, accounting for 70% to 80% of production, and other more exotic items.

Cork growers rely heavily on their harvests and the chairman of the cork processor we visited was listed among the 100 richest people in the world.

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But what we would call conventional farming had also changed in the South. We saw few wheat or barley crops, although there were redundant grain silos in the areas where they were once grown.

Instead, many farmers had established vineyards and olive trees to take advantage of EU grants. Further, we were surprised to discover capital grants were still available to Portuguese farmers.

An egg producer, packing half a million eggs per day, had recently received a 30% grant to build a packing station that was 50m x 80m and was only using a fraction of the space.

The rest, built while grants lasted, was to accommodate planned doubling of production over the next five years. And he was exporting eggs to Britain.

A dairy farm we visited was part-way through expanding from 350 to 500 cows, again with a 30% EU grant. He was unhappy with the price he got for milk, but thought more cows would help. When we told him the ex-farm price in Britain with no capital grants, he went pale.

And they used to call it a Common Market!

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

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