Lumping all farms
together as victims of
harsh times takes the
limelight away from the
farm categories who
really do need help,
avows Marie Skinner
• Marie Skinner farms 180ha (445 acres) of arable land in Norfolk. Cropping includes cereals and sugar beet and farm diversification includes a conference centre and livery yard. She sits on the NFU cereals committee and HGCA board.
Keep Britain Farming, says the NFU and all farmers agree wholeheartedly. But, what does the statement really mean? Are we demanding the right to keep producing food across the country? Or, do we want a guarantee that all existing farms survive?
The difference is critical. Small, family farms of all types are disappearing at a rapid rate. Although the farms may be gone, the land is still farmed.
Despite enormous drops in farm incomes, there is no sign of land becoming unwanted.
Agriculture is not on its knees. Agriculture UK is a thriving industry. It has built up enormous reserves over the good years which means it can survive for some time in todays leaner and harsher climate.
The NFUs recent declaration of doom and gloom is wrong. It is dishonest to deny the good years that have existed, particularly in the arable and dairy sectors. Lumping all farmers together as victims risks undermining the case for helping those farmers who are suffering extreme hardship and distress.
Three categories of farmers deserve public sympathy and government support. First, the hill farmers who are suffering, not because this year is bad, but because it comes after many, many years of struggle and low incomes.
Second, beef producers hit by the BSE disaster. They have had two years of suffering in which their businesses have declined, regardless of what they have done. They face a future which is uncertain and over which they have no control.
Third, small, family, lowland farms. However hard they work, they cannot compete with the economies of scale of their larger neighbours. Their fields and farms, that have sustained families for generations, are seen as ripe for take-over by ambitious agribusinesses. Their precious holdings are being gobbled up at an alarming rate. Overnight they disappear, another livelihood gone. Whole farms turn into just another field on a large estate.
If the NFU wants to help those farmers most at risk, it must support policies that will specifically help family farms, even if those policies are unpopular with large area, high subscription-paying members.
If keeping farmers on the land is a priority, existing support must be paid at a higher rate for smaller units than for large. It must make sense to modulate payments (within individual countries, not within Europe) so that the rate of payment per hectare or per head remains, but is lower the bigger the size of the farm.
Support payments have generated surplus cash on the largest units in the past few years. Money that has been used to expand those units and has, in turn, fuelled the rapid increase in rents and land prices. Subsidy cash has acted against the interests of small to medium-sized farmers, putting expansion out of reach of the very businesses most in need of more land to remain viable.
If the NFU continues to use hardship cases to claim sympathy for the whole industry, then it must defend its small farmers. It must fight for them having special treatment. If necessary, at the expense of the large.
Larger farms should reflect on the fact that strong family farms form a solid basis to agriculture. They provide the ballast that gives the whole industry strength and stability. The fortunes of all areas of farming are interlinked. If the bottom falls out of the industry, those at the top will eventually feel the effects.
The implications should be obvious to the NFU, they must look after the family farm in every area of negotiation. The NFUs slogan for 1997 was "Keep Britain Farming", for 1998 it should be "Keep Farming Families Farming".