Determination to rebuild farming businesses devastated by the foot-and-mouth crisis and coping with some of the wettest weather in living memory are the twin themes of our
special focus on the north east of England. We explore the impact of both factors on
the fragile profitability of the regions livestock and arable producers and look at the
scope for diversifying farm income. Written by Wendy Owen. Edited by Mike Stones
Farming in the north-east
has a bright future provided
producers are allowed to do
what they do best – farm for
top profits, Kevin Littleboy
tells Wendy Owen
PLEASE let us get on with the job, is the plea Vale of York grower, Kevin Littleboy makes to bureaucrats at home and abroad. "Arable farmers are trying to farm commercially and to please clipboard regulators and environmentalists," says Mr Littleboy. "But its doing no one any good. Farmers must be allowed to get on with it."
Many would love to develop environmental features but, on grade one and two land, its financially impractical, he explains. "One solution would be a clear divide between commercial crop producers and arable farmers whose main concern is for the environment. Such farmers would need full support but is the public willing to pay?"
Farming has suffered more within the past three years than at any other time in living memory, acknowledges Mr Littleboy whose own land, Howe Estates, Thirsk, North Yorks, has been flooded six times within 12 months. "For the first time, I have been unable to lift all my potatoes. Wet weather coupled with disastrous prices have made this a difficult season for arable farmers in the Vale of York and further north."
Mr Littleboy, who is an FW Farmer Focus writer, has nothing but sympathy for livestock farmers devastated by foot-and-mouth, which has affected his own sheep unit in a small way. But he believes the crisis has obscured the plight of growers.
A big help would be changes in tax laws to allow farm profits, when they arrive, to be carried forward in a good year to sustain the business should prices fall. "It needs a change of attitude and we must recognise the need to sell grain at a price to cover our costs," explains Mr Littleboy. "Its no good being told to reduce fixed costs because we have done that – with devastating effect on the work-force and the countryside."
Tax changes could also boost the development of alternative crops, which could make a big contribution to the rural economy. "There has been much exciting work on alternative crops but no company will invest in factories to process such crops until farmers grow them and farmers wont grow them unless they have a ready market. We need a strategy to make alternative crops a reality."
Oil-producing plants, used to make bioplastics and products for the health and beauty market, deserve a particular boost. "The great drawback with oil is that it is subject to heavy taxation. The government and the European Commission should give a lead and cut these taxes."
He also underlines the importance of producing arable products for specific markets. "Ask your grain trader which varieties are most popular with customers. Find out what time of year he wants the crop, although plan delivery to fit in with cashflow." Grain markets will be increasingly influenced by world markets, he says.
"We have a very efficient and professional arable sector which can only benefit our industry. But we must take charge of that industry and ensure our voices are heard when decisions are being made. We must also get more involved in the food sector from plough to plate," says Mr Littleboy.