Opinion: All this ‘paper farming’ makes you boggle-eyed

One of Oliver Walston’s favourite jokes was about how the most common occupation-related medical condition among farmers was retinitis – otherwise known as “tunnel vision”.

It was a typical Walston broadside in that it felt insulting but also made you think. Another eyesight condition farmers might be prone to is being “boggle-eyed”.

I was pondering this the other day as I scanned the list of acronyms that accompanied my latest Defra missive about the endless options and permutations that make up Countryside Stewardship.

From AB1 to WTF2, it was enough to make you dizzy.

About the author

Guy Smith
Farmers Weekly Opinion writer
Guy Smith comes from a mixed family farm on the north-east Essex coast, which is officially recognised as the driest farm in the UK.  He has held the position of deputy president at the NFU and served on the boards of FACE, HGCA and Landskills New Entrants Committee.
Read more articles by Guy Smith

See also: Opinion – we’re at the mercy of vicissitudes

This risk to farmer eyesight from form-filling is not as modern as you might think. The First World War saw farmers relying on the postal service for significant amounts of income.

Panicked by the prospect of food shortages, the Lloyd George government introduced a number of instruments to encourage production.

One was the Wheat Production Act of 1916 whereby farmers could apply for compensation if wheat fell below a target price by declaring on a form how many acres they had grown.

After this, there was a plethora of schemes, from the Fat Cattle Act of 1934 to the Barley Acreage payment scheme of 1937, whereby farmers could apply for money if they could prove production.

But it was the introduction of IACs 30 years ago that saw a high point in the art of farming on paper.

Those of us of a certain age can remember early May 1993 when we stuffed into a large envelope bundles of A3 sheets to be sent to our regional service centres.

Each sheet had line after line of field information that had been sweated over the week before with black Biros in hand.

The really complex bit was calculating and identifying your 15% set-aside area. It was enough to drain the batteries on your Casio calculator.

At the time I can remember having nightmares of reading headlines in the local paper along the lines of “St Osyth farmer in EU fraud scandal” because I’d hit the multiplication button rather than the plus.

And today here we still are, poring over forms and maps, except of course now it’s all on screens.

As ever, most of us would much rather not go through this brain-aching bureaucratic hoop-jumping – we’d much rather be out in the fields doing “proper work”.

But as cereal and milk prices go into freefall, it’s a chore that must be done to keep the business solvent. Just like the dreaded set-aside of 30 years ago, many of these new schemes involve a financial incentive to reduce food production.

What should be noted is that while set-aside did initially significantly reduce production, within a few years farmers had managed to tweak the system to return to pre-1993 production levels, while still working with the set-aside regulation.

Whether we will now be able to maintain UK farm production while also delivering “environmental goods” remains to be seen.

And on that note I will sign off for a final time. I’ve enjoyed writing for Farmers Weekly over the past 13 years, but it’s high time to hand the keyboard over to other voices.

May their words exude wit and their observations give insight to those who read them.



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