The case for why the past 50 years have left a bad legacy for UK farming

Subsidies have harmed the agricultural sector making farmers lazy thinkers and too far removed from their customers, argues Matthew Naylor.

“I believe that the last 50 years have left a poor legacy for anyone starting out in farming today.  While farmers throughout the globe face a time of great opportunity, most of the UK farming industry is now too frail to rise to the challenge.  It’s like entering a three-legged race while shackled to your Great Aunt’s arthritic ankle.

You may consider that since I wasn’t in attendance in 1957 I am an unreliable witness.  But in the last decade we have seen the lowest prices for three generations combined with rock-bottom trust from consumers in our production methods.  What an inheritance for any young person who was courageous or naïve enough to ignore their careers advisor’s advice and enter farming. 

This will be why we have too few new entrants; the industry is mainly run and staffed by people beyond the recognised retirement age and their parents. 

There is a Chinese proverb which says that pain which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.  These tough conditions have bred an ambitious breed of market-focused young farmers.  They are like this because of the industry’s challenges during the last decade and not despite them.  Young people have social and economic mobility and access to travel and education in a way that previous generations didn’t. While everyone agrees that these are good things, they have largely been built on a cheap food policy from successive governments.

Policies created in Europe in response to the Second World War helped the economy but eventually proved harmful to farmers.  It was necessary after the war to give support payments to raise productivity, improve efficiency and lower food prices but these payments should never have been in the form of production subsidies.  They drove a wedge between farmers and consumers. 

The guaranteed market turned an industry of entrepreneurs into lazy thinkers.  Direct support payments should have been withdrawn in the 1970s when farming was prospering and before we became an industry of subsidy junkies.  Farmers started to believe that the taxpayer was their customer rather than the person pushing the trolley. 

We became an industry fixated with lowering costs and gaining scale rather than raising quality and building brands.  We stood behind tractors and hid underneath cows leaving the supermarkets to get on with the serious and expensive job of marketing, building consumer confidence and investing in distribution networks.  Our neglect means that retailers ultimately hold control over our profitability (or lack of it).

Subsidisation denied us the chance to learn skills to deal with tough trading conditions in a global market.  I believe that UK farmers could have competed in a free market without subsidy if we had not been constantly disadvantaged by the interference and incompetence of own government and its departments.  Why, instead of creating the Rural Payment Agency, did they not focus on their responsibilities to provide us with biosecurity and proper investment in research and development instead? 

Failure to invest in research means that much of the technology and mechanisation to grow good crops comes from abroad now.  So does much of the manual labour working on farms.  We are retaining very little of our gross turnover in our domestic economy. This is why our farmland and food processors are steadily being bought up by foreign companies.

Is the government addressing these matters now?  Are you kidding? We even have a tax system which makes it virtually impossible for a young person, however talented, to have a hope of owning farmland of their own. 

The focus on large scale, low volume commodity production and extensive methods has depopulated farms and reduced our contribution to the rural economy.  This lack of diversity means that we have failed to support machinery manufacturers, research institutes, agricultural colleges and small retailers. Now they are gone.

There is a tradition to hand on your farm in better condition than you receive it.  Most farmers can rightly claim that they have done this with their land.  I do not believe that the same has been done with our industry as a whole.”

* Matthew Naylor is an FW columnist who grows potatoes, cut flowers, vegetable and flowering bulbs in partnership with his father Nev in Lincolnshire. He is a Nuffield Scholar who will be speaking at the Oxford Farming Conference in 2008.

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