Campaigning on Behalf
of Britain's Family Farms
Osborne Newton, Aveton Gifford, Kingsbridge, Tel: 01548 852794,
Newsletter Spring 2016
Our Westminster Meeting
George Eustice, the Minister of Agriculture spoke to a lively meeting in February. It was great to have a Government Minister there; it encouraged a good selection of interesting people to attend. Being busy, he made only some fairly brief comments on Defra’s policy for farming’s future.
He introduced himself as being from a farming background, his family having produced soft fruit and vegetables on a 200 acre farm in Cornwall. He was concerned that in these days very short term tenancies are being granted in Cornwall for growing catch crops which, without any consideration of rotation of crops or care of the soil, is unsustainable.
Very high land values are a massive barrier to young people wanting a career in agriculture, he said.
Referring to opportunities for new entrants, the government are looking into the possibility of encouraging franchising schemes where all steps of the food chain were involved. Young people could get experience of running a farm, without the need for much capital. Mr. Eustice cited McCain’s chips as a good example, sharing modern technological developments, machinery and introducing an apprenticeship scheme.
James Morford, as Chairman of FFA, Welcomed all present and recommended the printed Policy Paper (available at the meeting and on our website) which states concisely FFA’s recommendations for changes which would improve the farming scene, The policies of FFA have not changed significantly in the 37 years of the Association’s existence. Throughout that time we have had many successes over government policies. But in the 70s big and small producers shared a level playing field, which is not so today. Subsidies should be tapered, with no assistance to the very largest.
We define the small family farm as about 100 – 300 acres, with mixed stock and employing one or two people. One should think what else a small farm gives to the community, other than its daily bread. It should not be treated as just another business, as the financial support it receives is widely distributed around other businesses in the rural area. We are in Europe and the Treaty of Rome was a social agreement for the benefit of all. In this country a proper tool to safeguard the smaller producer has not yet been developed, unlike across the Channel – our policy is to develop one
Andrew George, formerly MP for St ives, has supported us for many years. He spoke about the new situation: Whilst the overall wealth of the urban dwellers seems to rise, they are spending proportionally less per capita on food, thus enforcing a downward trend on farmers’ incomes. This pattern looks irreversible and in the current economic conditions farmers are struggling to survive.
Speaking about his involvement with the supermarkets and their bad habits, Mr. George said that up till the disclosing of Tesco’s bad treatment of suppliers and the fudging of their figures, they have been taking us all, and the NFU, for a ride. At last the adjudicator is able to impose sanctions on supermarkets breaking the code of trading practice. This is no longer a voluntary one but is standard law, compiled by the Company’s Commission and the NFU. Wouldn’t it be good if they now competed with each other over their upholding of the code of practice, using it as a standard bearer for their fairness to suppliers?
The system of bidding for tranches of capital grant aid is biased towards big farmers as the sums involved are often too big for smaller producers. The few remaining small dairy farmers are excluded for the same reasons, and are thus disappearing fast.
Regarding application for the Basic Farm Payment, the CAP threshold needs to be resolved, distinguishing between hobby farmers, who should be ineligible, and genuine smallholders of under 5 ha, who should be supported.
Mr. George’s advice re Brexit was DON’T. Most subsidies will be terminated, thus affecting once again the small farmer.
Lord Don Curry also spoke, as he is involved with the research project on small farms – see below. Farms are always amalgamating and the opportunity for new entrants gets harder by the day, he said. The numbers of both large farms and hobby farms are increasing, but the medium sized farms are disappearing.
Business skills are very important for working farmers, who tend to suffer seriously from isolation,
Many interesting questions were debated in the discussions that followed, including the morality of giving very large subsidies to large farmers, especially when the CAP is supposed to be a social policy; it was not intended to feather the beds of the largest producers.
There was discussion on franchising, which could be dangerous; possible changes in inheritance tax, which could be helpful; Brexit, which could be disastrous; and more power needed for the grocery adjudicator. Animal welfare, GMOs, price volatility and who should own land were among the other topics debated.
A good time was had by all and we were delighted with the headline in Farmers Guardian: “Family farmers lobby Government for cap on subsidies”. This was followed by nearly half a page on our proceedings.
Not so great news on TB
Apparently the reporter who gave the good news that the PCR was now considered capable of detecting TB infection in badger latrines was over optimistic. Evidently Defra does not consider the test results to be satisfactory, so the PCR is not to be used. If there are any plans for further testing/development of the PCR they are not being revealed. Why not? Many of us had seen it as probably a tremendous help in eliminating tuberculous badgers, and thus eliminating infection of our cattle.
Meanwhile the NFU is working its socks off trying to organise farmers into setting up further areas
of badger control. Unfortunately Natural England insists on such complicated restrictions on
the operation that progress towards the vital reduction in badger numbers will inevitably be very slow.
Many people do not seem to realize that the entire cost of the badger culling is borne by farmers, who are not, especially just now, in a position to cope with extra expense. Also it is hard to see why it should be implied that the cost of policing the cull is the fault of farmers. Police are needed to control the saboteurs who are trying to prevent perfectly legal, not to say essential, activities.
Defra is working hard at persuading farmers to practice biosecurity – i.e. keep cattle and badgers apart. In separate fields? It is also insisting on ever more tests when moving animals, If culls succeed in reducing TB, no doubt Defra will claim it is due to all the testing and biosecurity. Either way, it seems that any one who keeps bovines in South and West England, and Wales, must live with the likelihood of having to gather all his cattle together for testing at irregular, but frequent, intervals for many years to come, and sometimes losing some, or even many, of them.
It does seem very sad that so many people care so much more about the welfare of badgers than that of cows and the humans who live by them, or the many wild species that badgers prey on..
Basic Payment Shambles
It seems that the government has made the most incredible shambles of distributing the annual Basic Payment. This has become such an important element in farming’s economics because, unfortunately, the production of many types of food is simply not a profitable occupation. The payments start in December and many farmers depend on these cheques in order to catch up with paying their bills. Some lucky ones duly received theirs as normal, but many did not and it soon became obvious that something was wrong.
Two separate Parliamentary Committees investigated and reported total chaos amongst the government computers involved. At the time of writing (early March) it has been stated that only 70% of farmers had received the money owed to them; most of the rest will be paid by the end of April,
It would be interesting to know who has suffered more: very large farmers, due several hundred thousand, or even a million, pounds, very small famers due only a few thousand, or normal, average sized ones expecting up to, say, £20K to keep them solvent. Banks have promised sympathy, but it is not clear if they will be willing to forego interest on the necessary overdrafts.
Something we have always wanted is a proper investigation into the value of small farms. We find a great many people appreciate the idea of farms being small and family affairs. As demonstrated by our essay competition, many believe that growing up on a small family farm is not only most enjoyable, but also produces energetic and self reliant people. We like to believe that communities with plenty of small farms are likely to be happy and stable, with many other small businesses also prospering. Landscapes may be more interesting and wildlife more varied and numerous. But we have no actual proof of all this.
Luckily the Prince’s Countryside Fund (PCF) got to ponder the answer to this question and decided to investigate. More or less simultaneously it was noticed by various people of influence that small and family farms were having a tough time, and seriously reducing in numbers. Accordingly the PCF has funded a serious research project at Exeter University which “will look at both the value of small scale farming and what might or might not make it successful in economic terms.” Of course we await the results with the greatest possible interest.
In? or Out?
It is almost “to be or not to be?” Arguments, and brickbats are flying thick and fast. Will they calm down, or will we just have to grin and bear several months of them? It is interesting that the Secretary of State (Defra) and the Minister (Agriculture) have opposite views on which would be best for farming. If it were not, perhaps, a matter of life and death, it could be interesting to speculate what would actually happen to farming if the Basic Farm Payments were stopped, with little or no notice.
The vital unknown is whether an English government would be willing to subsidise farming to the extent that the EU’s CAP does now? Official policy has always been to stop subsidies as soon as possible, but the reality of their importance has, so far, always prevailed. If it did not….would the really big farmers, now receiving enormous, regular payments, manage quite happily without them? Perhaps, instead of buying a bit more land each year, they could sell a little each year, thus, making land available for starters? Presumably the price of land would fall ….. by how much?
How would smaller farmers manage? Presumably the “dog and stick” chaps would cope. But the
meat they produce would have to compete with intensive livestock farmers of all kinds who, occupying only small areas, have not been receiving much direct subsidy.
Would home produced food diminish rapidly? If so, would the government, of whatever colour, care?
Would we just import what was needed? Long term, the growth and increased affluence of the world population might lead to an increase in the price of food to the level where in England its production became profitable again. Or, people might be so bored with chicken and pork that they were willing to pay an economic price for lamb and beef and their production increased again. All a bit hypothetical, and very long term.
Sir Julian Rose, who is a long standing patron of ours, has sent us his description of how the EU treated Poland.
Discrimination Against the Small Farm
My work has sharpened my realization of how government, European big-wigs, and supermarket mega stores manage, between them, to stitch up farmers’ lives, and destroy the quality of our food all over the world. It is unpalatable, yet true, that almost all commercial farmers are pawns in a “globalised food chain” of which the European Union, as one of the world’s biggest “trading blocks”, is a leading advocate .
Back in 2001 I heard straight from the horse’s mouth in the European Commission how the EU “was not interested in small farms”, how it intended “restructuring” Polish agriculture by removing one million Polish farmers from the land, and forming, from their remnants, large farms able to be “competitive in the world market”. That came from the chairman of the committee responsible for negotiating Poland’s entry into the EU. There were no Poles on this committee.
I instantly recognized the agenda, as after some thirty years of farming in the UK, I had personally witnessed the accelerating decline in small and medium sized farms. The same fate was now being prepared for Poland, with its two million small and peasant farmers, farming on average around seven hectares and mostly very proficiently. These are subsistence holdings where feeding and housing the family is the priority and selling produce into the local market tops up the household income.
The European Union hates these sort of farms…why? Because they don’t fit the centralized control system so beloved of EU technocrats, They don’t fit the global trading block agenda which is overseen by he World Trade Organization with its Codex Alimentarius, insisting on cheap food flooding the world’s supermarkets.
In Brussels, it’s all about keeping that system moving forward, expanding outward and enfolding new markets in its deadly embrace, So much so that to attempt to sell into this market place, for any but the very largest specialist outfits, is a recipe for a very bad headache and eventual bankruptcy.
So it is that the government that took the reins after Poland joined the EU pulled its country into the folds of the EU behemoth, promising “pots of gold” for all. But the gold turned out not to be for all. Just for the big boys who already had the wherewithal to exploit the subsidy system and tap the shoulders of the right people in power. And that, of course, was – and remains – the intention all along. It is a small club that runs this world.
Our organization, the International Coalition to Protect the Polish Countryside, has been moving against this tide since its inception in 2000. We have had our successes, particularly in blocking agricultural GMOs from getting into Poland. Now we are pressing the new Polish government to change the food laws which are highly discriminatory against small farmers. Making simple farmhouse processing illegal drives most to operate outside the law. Farmers must create a separate company with an unaffordable separate building in order to carry out their traditional farm processing.
We are writing the new “Food Act” ourselves, in consultation with other farmers, so as to be sure it covers the real needs of Real Farmers and the local and regional human scale production of Real Food. We are accustomed to working against great odds in the cause of the resistance.