I have attended (or should I say, survived), six Burns’ suppers this year. Having a speaking part at five of them ensured that it wasn’t all fun and whisky for me.
However, the Wigtown Burns Club’s annual dinner deserves a special mention as I was asked to propose a toast – to “trade, town and agriculture”.
To the uninformed, there may not seem to be a lot of connection between agriculture and the other two. But, in a sparsely populated area like Wigtownshire, those three things are what keeps everyone working.
See also: Rural depopulation is like rust
Mrs McQ and I run a relatively small family farm. But when you stand back and look at the bigger picture, then it’s possible that we’re keeping lots of other people in work.
The people who are working at the local machinery dealers, vets, accountants, feed merchants, banks, hauliers, fuel suppliers, electricians, plumbers and builders – they all get a share from our small business.
If any one of those local businesses are relying on us to keep them in business, then they are going to struggle. But thankfully there are hundreds of small businesses like ours. We all work together to keep the rural economy going.
I explained to the company at Wigtown that over the last 42 years there has been one rule of thumb that has remained constant. That is that every pound of subsidy I receive from the European Union and the UK gets turned into 50p of profit for my business.
Of course, over the years we’ve tried all different ways to manage our land and our livestock in order to make larger profits. But, whichever way we have tried to do it, the subsidy rule of thumb has hardly ever changed.
Last year our farming business brought in around £60,000 of various different support payments and you will not be surprised to learn we made a profit of… £30,000.
Many years ago, when headage payments formed the basis for farm support, it was no different. We piled on more livestock to attract more subsidy and we applied more chemical fertiliser.
The result was, the animals were stressed by overcrowding, the rivers were polluted by run-off, my children rarely ever saw me and the high volume of low-grade product we were all dumping onto the market kept prime-stock prices low.
But, we brought in £50,000 of subsidy in those days and – yes, you’ve guessed it – our business made a profit of £25,000 a year. We were just fools being kept too busy.
The farmers who are currently putting up electric fences and piling more sheep and more fertiliser onto their farms must be too young to remember those days.
There are some who are saying that farming will have to survive with less support payments in the future.
Based on 42 years of experience, I’m pretty certain that, if my support payments were halved to £30,000, then my business would eventually make a profit of £15,000. My business would go into decline and the wider rural economy would also go into decline.
So, let’s stop talking about reducing farm support in the future. And let’s have some respect for the towns and the trades that depend on agriculture.