Missing out on a handy agri-environment sum

19 June 1999

Wolf word is threat to our subsidies

Prompted by a NFU survey, Stephen Carr dreads the implications of modulation, while John Pawsey challenges the publics perception of todays arable farmer.

Like any normal farmer, my first reaction, when asked to fill in a questionnaire by a worthy body like the NFU, is to chuck it straight in the bin and get on with something useful. The only thing that might prevent me from doing this is the lure of a prize draw for a must-have fashion accessory like an NFU anorak.

On this occasion though, I didnt even need the carrot of a key fob to fill in their questionnaire. I grabbed my Biro and raced through the questions as if my business life depended on it. The theme was a topic on which my business life does depend: modulation.

Has such a boring word ever threatened large British farmers with a more hideous fate? Who ever thought up the term modulation deserves congratulation.

It sounds as mild as mothers milk, as meek as a lamb. But it is a wolf word in sheeps clothing. Ever since I first heard the idea mooted as part of Agenda 2000, the implications of modulation have filled me with dread.

Why? My farm business has been built on subsidy. I have always completely ignored exhortations from Ben Gill and previous NFU presidents to become more market orientated. Every cropping decision I have ever made has been governed first by what subsidy is guaranteed and only second by what a commodity might be worth at the end of the growing season.

Developments over the last few months have only reinforced this behaviour and ironically it is the NFU who is to blame. While already very depressed commodity prices have been driven still lower by the rise in sterling against the euro, the NFU lobby successfully ensured that subsidy payments have been protected by an agrimoney compensation package. Dont get me wrong Im not complaining, but while we have seen new crop wheat prices fall below £70/t for new crop, the IACS payment is guaranteed at £238.34/ha.

So I reached for my Biro. Would you favour the UK using the modulation option could be answered Yes or No. As No didnt seem expressive enough I added Please God in front of the No box and then ticked it.

Next I was asked what modulation ceiling, calculated in euros, would I consider appropriate? This was a very tricky question because the euro today will only buy you 64p while, at its launch six months ago, it would have bought you 70p.

It doesnt take a genius to work out that if the euro goes on losing value at this rate by the year 2006 it will be worth nothing. So I just wrote Could I be paid in sterling, please?

The next teaser was What proportion, up to 20%, of payments above the modulation ceiling would you consider should be withheld?. At this point I started to think of the machinery I would like to buy and the buildings I would like to improve if only I could afford it. So I wrote 0%. Would I be in favour of a very low proportion of direct payments being withheld to generate extra funds for a rural development programme? Since only a very low proportion of direct payments would need to be withheld from my farm before my profit became a loss I ticked No.

Finally I was asked for my name – but the form said that this was not essential. I thought that if it was not essential to give my name perhaps it was not essential that I own up to being a large farmer pleading for no modulation. So after Name I wrote Very small farmer with a strong sense of fair play towards deserving big farmers.

I await the results of the NFU questionnaire survey with bated breath.

Missing out on a handy agri-environment sum

UK FARMING is in crisis! Unfortunately, when we have done well in the past we have whinged, and crying wolf has meant that we have failed to capture public support when we need it most, and that support is needed now.

It is therefore encouraging to read the RSPBs report, The Future of Livestock Farming in the UK, to find that they now recognise that the consequence of farmers going out of business has an impact beyond just another man in the queue at the Job Centre. To have the membership of the RSPB behind you is support indeed, but how long will it be before they write the same report for arable farmers.

Most peoples perception of arable farming in England is of continuous wheat waving beneath the open skies of East Anglia, where monoculture is king, supporting the desired rotation and tired old adage of winter wheat, winter wheat, winter cruise. It is of farmers scurrying around enormous machinery while they rip out the hedges to ease the turning circle of the new combine, a place where wildlife just gets in the way. Unfortunately arable farmers are judged by the few bad examples, and however sympathetic we are to our surroundings and no matter how well we conduct ourselves as countrymen, the general perception of the arable farmer is that if it moves, hell spray it.

Talking of bad examples, earlier this year the vision of Oliver Walstons farm in his programme on CAP reform (you remember, the one where he completely forgot to reform the CAP) would certainly perpetuate the Great Plains of East Anglia myth.

It was easy to understand why he failed to appreciate the bio-diversity of his own farm, however limited, when his only responsibility to his inherited acres seemed to be to make as much money out of them as possible, whatever the environmental cost.

I suppose that one could excuse his violent metamorphosis from countryman to businessman when the CAPs no longer needed production-based subsidies financially encouraged him to destroy any existing habitat on his farm.

Ironically the habitat he destroyed could have locked him into a system, an arable equivalent to the one that he himself suggested for hill farmers, and similar to the one the RSPB advocates for livestock farmers, that would ensure that he got paid for managing and expanding habitat in the future.

The management of these habitats, recognised by the RSPB in the case of livestock farmers, costs money and due to the present economic crisis in the farming industry we desperately need agri-environment schemes to protect the habitat that we have left.

The problem we all have is that although the present Government would like you to think that they are red with a strong green influence, the environment costs too much money because of the unique UK Rebate. The Government are unwilling to access EU funding for agri-environmental schemes because almost all of the funding available to the UK for these schemes has to be match-funded, and if unspent, the Government is able to claw back 71p in every pound.

The consequence is that, when comparing our performance with other EU member states, we find that our environmental contribution is pretty poor. In 1997 the UK estimated spend on agri-environment schemes was 70 million ecus compared to Frances 287m, Austrias 509m and Italys – yes Italys – 560m. In agriculture we are badly missing out on money that is available and enjoyed by other Member States.

At a time of food scares, genetically modified crops and rural depression, the perfect situation for the Government to get rid of the Rebate has been created to build a new confidence for an environmentally sustainable UK farming industry.

Give us the money that we are entitled to, to transform our under-funded and oversubscribed agri-environment schemes. Who knows, in 2001 Oliver Walstons harvest supper could actually be spent on a rug next to a beetle bank in the middle of a field in Cambridgeshire, rather than having to go to France to find some living countryside.

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&#8226 Aubourn Farming has acquired the UK farming interests of FPDSavills. The enlarged business will now manage 16,000ha (40,000 acres) of farmland for clients. Aubourn is now the specialist farming division of the Savills Plc Group.

&#8226 Sainsburys may unwittingly be importing GM soya from Brazil and labelling it as non-GM, according to a report in Gazeta Mercantil, a Brazilian newspaper. Officially, Brazil is the worlds last stronghold of non-GM soya. Unofficially, Brazilian farmers are smuggling thousands of tonnes of seed across the border with Argentina. There is now an estimated 250,000ha of illegal GM soya in the country.

&#8226 Austria has taken the decision to ban the use of Bt-maize, Monsantos GM maize that resists attack from the corn borer. The decision was taken despite the European Commission giving its approval, so the Austrian government will now have to submit scientific reasons for the ban. Greenpeace welcomed the decision and pointed to growing evidence that the variety also kills the larvae of the Monarch butterfly.

&#8226 Whether you are looking for a new sprayer, or strobilurin, the place to be is Sprays and Sprayers at Whittlesford, Cambridgeshire, on 29 and 30 June. Both will be much in evidence at Europes biggest working demonstration of sprayers. See the official guide in Crops 22 May. Admission £6. Contact: Tracey Dockerill 01223 494147.

&#8226 The supply chain initiative on modified agricultural crops (SCIMAC) believes the announcement that Wiltshire grower Fred Barker has destroyed his field of GM rape will not detract from the long-term benefits of the farm-scale trials. The decision to spray off the crop came from the trustees of Captain Barkers childrens estate in Wiltshire. The Soil Association had threatened to remove their accreditation from 100ha (250 acres) of organic land on the same farm.

&#8226 MAFF are conducting field trials on the farm in Wiltshire where soil-borne wheat mosaic virus (SBWMV) was found at the end of April. The trials will assess the impact on yield and look at ways to limit the spread of the disease. Trials will also be undertaken to compare resistance of different varieties. The disease is similar to barley yellow mosaic virus and anyone who suspects they have seen symptoms of SBWMV should contact their nearest MAFF office.

&#8226 A sweet tooth need no longer go with a fat belly, according to genetic engineers in Holland. They have developed a sugar beet plant which produces a more complex sugar molecule that tastes the same but cannot be easily absorbed by the body. Dutch scientists believe it will be a dream come true for many wannabe slimmers who cannot bear to give up the good life.

&#8226 A farmer on the Isle of Wight has been found guilty of spraying illegal chemicals onto a field of sweetcorn destined for Tesco. Colin Boswell, a former NFU delegate and adviser to MAFF, used the chemicals on his 1997 and 1998 crops before being investigated by the Health and Safety Executive. He consequently lost his contract with Tesco, suffered a £500,000 loss last year and has put the farm on the market.

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