THE ministerial press conference at the Royal Show was, in most respects, like last years. Having toured theshowground, avoiding those areas where confrontation with farmers would have been most likely, all four ministers lined up behind the table. Once again Jack Cunningham controlled proceedings as you would expect of a consummate politician. Once again little was said that was new or consequential. Once again the permanent secretary to MAFF sat at the back of the room saying nothing. And I for one wondered if their journeys had really been necessary.
Perhaps they were, if only to provide a chance for at least one irate lady to unburden herself to Jeff Rooker at the way farmers were being treated. I did not witness the exchange, on the WFU stand, but by all accounts it was lively and loud. But we are not supposed to say such things about ministers, so I will move on.
One thing the Royal Show continues to do is attract high-powered business executives in allied industries to make annual pilgrimages to see how farming works. The fact that the show is far from reality is usually overlooked. But it does give ordinary farmers a chance to question top people, albeit in the rarefied atmosphere of their show stands. One conversation I had with an influential banker involved the 37% drop in farm incomes in 1997. He was sanguine about his advisers predictions that 1998 would probably see a further fall of about 20%. "We are in farming for the long term," he said "overall industry collateral is still strong and we will not be put off by a couple of bad years."
Which was comforting. Although it may not be the case with all banks. A Hampshire friend told how he had split an account to take advantage of better terms offered by a foreign-owned firm which had been badgering him for business. He also thought it might sharpen up the big UK bank which administered his main account. But having gone to the trouble and expense of setting up the second account he was surprised and disappointed to be told only months later that the foreign bank wished to withdraw facilities – not because he had defaulted but because the bank was not earning enough from the account.
Like a lot of farmers at the show I had a farm at home whose prospects had deteriorated over previous days. Take-all is widespread in wheat, as is septoria. And weeds which should not be there are growing out of the top of many crops. I shall be surprised if we break any records for yield in the coming harvest. There is no need to mention grain prices or the effect the high value of sterling is having on them. And I gather ex-farm milk prices have fallen, in some cases, as low as 14p/litre.
In spite of all this I found little serious pessimism as I talked my way round the showground through two days. Perhaps some farmers really do have a pot of gold saved up from the good years? Perhaps some have not yet realised how serious the situation has become? Perhaps they have decided that nothing is going to happen to change things so there is no longer any point in complaining? Perhaps those worst affected by the collapse in farm incomes were not at the show but hiding at home behind the farm-gate?
In that respect I was pleased to hear that one of the big banks is planning a conference on rural stress. People in the farm machinery business would do well to book the date, for they must be more stressed than most. According to AEA figures available at the show, tractor sales by the end of June were down 42% on last year.
In response to the growing crisis in rural areas the Conservatives have set up a shadow rural policy committee. It includes Michael Jack, shadow agriculture minister, who announced it at the Royal Show, Gillian Shephard, ex-agriculture minister currently shadowing John Prescotts Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions, and Peter Lilley, deputy leader of the Conservative Party. We can only assume the Party has concluded it needs to regain votes in the rural community, many of which it lost at the last election. Some might say it is a pity they did not take us as seriously while they were in government and had the power to actually do things.
The NFU has clearly decided the present government will do little to improve farmers lot. At the annual Royal Show press breakfast union president Ben Gill advocated a policy of self help by collaboration. Working together was the only way to deal with the power of the supermarkets, he said. They are a reality and they are here to stay, so we had better find ways to deal with them. He studiously avoided calling such groupings of farmers co-operatives, preferring to use the term farmer-controlled businesses. Perhaps this time returns have fallen fast enough and far enough to make it happen.
Nothing was new at the
Royal Show on the
political front. But the
whole shebang does
offer an opportunity to
talk to top people
Once again Jack Cunningham controlled proceedings as you would expect of a consummate