Memorandum submitted by The Family Farmers'
Although numerically fairly small, this Association
is almost the only organisation in Britain which works to promote
the smaller family farm. We believe a high proportion of the population
agrees with us that farming is essential to the fabric and character
of Britain. We believe many people share our concern that the
trend to ever more industrialised food production will have far
reaching consequences and diminish the quality of life of most
citizens. This is already starting to happen. When the process
gets out of control and the consequences become so unpleasant
as to prompt serious remedial action it will be too late to stop
it. The widespread effects of the Foot and Mouth epidemic have
highlighted the importance of farming to a great many aspects
of community life.
We therefore submit this memorandum for your
It is difficult to address your terms of reference
exactly. Before discussing how to cope with a problem, one must
decide on the objectives. In this case, the question is a stark
one: should Britain continue to be farmed, or should mainstream
farming be abandoned, leaving the majority of the land to revert
to a state of nature, with a few farms remaining to produce speciality
foods for niche markets?
There is a fundamental confusion as to what
is expected of agriculture. On the one hand it is to be "sustainable"
above all else. This word is now used in many senses, often embracing
the concept of "multifunctionality". This cumbersome
word is shorthand for all the good things that the right kind
of farming does. What is often not realised is that sustainability
must also mean that farming itself can be sustained; that it will
not be allowed to wither away.
On the other hand Government, and some economists,
tell us that food production is no longer important. The implication
is that if we cannot compete with (often subsidised) food brought
in from other parts of the world, where conditions enable it to
be produced much more cheaply, we should not be trying to farm
here. We are told that we must "produce for the market".
What market? Global traders control the "market" for
most commodities and ensure that prices are kept to a level far
below our costs of production. There is, of course, a "market"
for speciality or niche products, but it is, almost by definition,
limited. Most of the population buy what is on supermarket shelves
at the lowest price. Mass caterers, such as schools, hospitals
and forces also buy mainly on price, ie they do not buy British
produced food unless pressed to do so.
The fact has to be faced that, if some means
of supporting British farming is not applied, there will soon
be very much less of it. It has been suggested that if only farms
became large enough they could produce at world prices with little
or no subsidising. This is by no means a certainty. How much farming
would survive, and for how long, there is absolutely no means
of foretelling, it will depend on so many unknown factors. Just
now the large farmers are busy swallowing up the small farmers.
If, as is quite possible, the large farmers go bust, no farmers
will then remain.
The areas least likely to survive, if prices
are low and subsidies minimal, are all the pastoral regions. They
are already suffering from severe depression due to the low price
of milk. Because of this many farmers have quit dairying and are
trying to make a living from other forms of livestock production,
ie beef and sheep. The abundance of meat on the world market has
depressed prices to a level where the only profit comes from subsidies
paid, which is a patently ridiculousand unsustainablesituation.
Areas where stock has been removed by Foot and
Mouth are demonstrating how fast land deteriorates as soon as
it is unstocked. Some wildlife may flourish in abandoned countryside,
but it is likely to be much less enjoyable for tourists. Many
subsidiary rural businesses, which cater for farmers when they
are prosperous, will find their trade much diminished if there
are very few farmers left. In areas where farming forms a significant
part of the economy, unemployment and general deprivation will
become a problem and expensive ameliorating measures will be needed.
We cannot believe it is really necessary to
explain in great detail all the environmental and social consequences
that will ensue if farming is allowed to wither away. It cannot
just be assumed that the countryside will always be there, no
matter how unprofitable farming is. It won't. At least not in
The other important aspect of British agriculture
is the matter of food security. This does not seem to cause much
concern in official quarters, but it worries many ordinary citizens.
Some 66 per cent. of all our food needs are still supplied from
home production, and 79 per cent of temperate foods. This could
quite easily dwindle to a much smaller proportion, even in the
space of a few years. Nobody really knows how long farmers are
prepared to live on an almost non-existent income in the hope
that things will improve. If profitability does not improve a
point might be reached where a large number gave up the struggle
to survive all at once. With many farmers near retiring age, and
without successors to their farms, there could be a sudden exodus.
Studies are already showing that many farmers' children do not
want to take on the struggle.
No farmers, no home produced food. With the
world in such a precarious state, is it really wise to abandon
our ability to produce at least a fair proportion of our own food?
Who knows what natural or unnatural calamity might interfere with
the world food trade. Even without any calamity, it seems quite
possible that, if we depended on the world traders for nearly
all our nourishment, they just might get together and reorganise
pricing so that we had to pay dearly for our daily bread. What
would this do to our balance of payments?
Therefore we submit that it is absolutely essential
that Britain continue to produce food; that the process must sustain
the welfare of animals, humans and the countryside as a whole;
that the safest and most sustainable pattern is to have a good
mix of farm sizes; that profitability must be such that young
people are able to set up in a modest way and achieve a comfortable
living in due course.
If this is agreed, the question becomes how
is this to be achieved in the face of the many pressures which
are threatening the very existence of farming?
First a few non solutions:
Diversification is mainly for those already
in a strong position, with energy and capital to spare, although
it has worked for some.
Niche or speciality markets are an excellent
idea for those with a flair for novel activities. But the demand
for the products is limited, almost by definition. A competent
farmer is not necessarily a competent marketer.
Co-operating is another good idea, but is by
no means always successful. It has a bad track record. The government
has destroyed all efforts at co-operative milk selling on a worthwhile
scale. Experience in other countries has shown that large and
efficient co-ops are not necessarily farmer friendly.
Restructuring is a permanent and on-going process.
The aim of this paper is to suggest that it is also undesirable.
If the process accelerates the result could be the decimation
of farming as we know it.
Training is likely to be of much greater benefit
to those engaged in doing the training than to farmers. What farmers
need is an effective advisory or extension service as used to
be provided free by ADAS, and before that by the NAAS. The US
government has a comprehensive network offering advice to farmers.
Our government experimental farms used to test and demonstrate
practical husbandry and new ideas. (I know from personal experience
that these were really helpful).
Solutions are not easy to find, but here are
some practical suggestions:
See previous paragraph for a start.
Better stewardship of agricultural land is fairly
simple to promote. If proper stewardship of land leads to greater
profitability, farmers will embrace it willingly. The Environmentally
Sensitive Areas scheme and Countryside Stewardship could well
be combined. They should be open to all farms with suitable habitats.
Ways of administering them more economically must be devised,
so that a bigger proportion of their cost actually reaches farmers,
to add to their income. Advice on conservation should be readily
available and truly free.
Farms which are not suitable for Stewardship
should be offered a menu of virtuous activities which would earn
them extra subsidies. These could include such things as caring
for, or creating natural habitats and vernacular buildings, and
also having small fields with wildlife friendly boundaries. It
should be possible to devise fairly simple forms of administering
such finance through the IACS system. If "whole farm"
plans are insisted upon, policing and administering will be much
more complicated. Piecemeal schemes may not be so glamorous, but
they would be much more farmer friendly and therefore more readily
adopted; also easier to administer.
Widening and increasing grants and subsidies
for environmental work would obviously require funding and there
are two feasible sources for this. If they are organised so that
most farmers are able to access them in one form or another, it
will be more acceptable gradually to transfer some funding from
area or headage payments. (The latter can most simply be transferred
by increasing extensification payments. Beetle banks and perhaps
tree planting would be suitable subsidy earners for arable farms).
The other way is modulation. But it is essential
to go back to the original meaning of modulation. That was tapering
payments so that as areas of land or numbers of stock increased,
the rate of subsidy paid reduced. That is, there would be a basic
payment for the first tranche of hectares or animals, but each
succeeding 100 or so would have a reduction in payment. Possibly
with a cut off point.
There is already a precedent for this in the
new Hill Farming Allowance. France has a fairly sophisticated
system whereby the amount of subsidy received depends on the size
of enterprise, the number of people it supports, and the degree
of conservation on the farm. Various people are starting to suggest
that cutting the subsidies of small farmers is not desirable.
It is high time an effort was made to work out a fairer system
of rewards than the present one. To give large amounts of taxpayers'
money to very large farmers is only sensible if you want to encourage
large farmers to get even larger. We have attempted to show earlier
in this paper that it is not really beneficial to have ever fewer
and larger farmers.
The suggestion that "modulation" should
consist of cutting all farmers' subsidies by 20 per cent would
appear to be encouraging the demise of another significant section
of farmersall those who are now marginal.
There is another matter which we believe to
be very important, although it does not come within your terms
of reference. The average age of farmers is said to be 58therefore
there must be many over this age. There are reported to be many
tenant farmers who are in such financial difficulty that they
cannot afford to retire. There are probably also many owner occupiers
so heavily mortgaged as to make it difficult for them to get out.
There are also, in spite of all the difficulties, a number of
young people keen to farm who have not the wherewithal to get
started. It has long been the policy of this Association that
there should be help for new entrants, and that this could very
usefully be linked to an early retirement scheme.
Most other European states have schemes to help
new entrants, with a combination of grants and subsidised loans.
Surely it must be beneficial to get younger people into farming.
They should be full of energy and keen to take up any modern ideas
which will help them to make a profit from food production.
A financial package should be devised which
will enable unprofitable farmers to retire with a pension, provided
their land passes to a new entrant. In the case of very small
farms we would accept that there may need to be some amalgamation.
But the object is to reduce the number of farms which are effectively
destroyed as soon as they are sold. This often happens as they
are lotted, to achieve the highest possible total price. The result
is often that the house is bought by a prosperous person seeking
to move to the country, the barns are developed, most often into
holiday complexes if it is a tourist area, and the land is added
to another farm. This may improve the viability of that farm,
but the buyer may not take on the appropriate labour to care for
the new land, but only buy some bigger cultivating machinery.
This can result in more neglected land or animalsor an
excessive burden of work on the farmer.
How to cope with the WTO's aspirations is an
enormous subject which could double the length of this paper,
so we will deal with it fairly summarily, although it is the greatest
single source of farming's difficulties, probably world wide.
The absolute essential is not to allow ourselves to be dominated,
even ruined, by a consortium of world traders who appear, at the
moment, to have the peoples of the whole world at their mercy.
It is hard to see why it should not be illegal
to offer for sale in Britain any food which does not conform to
British legal standards. If the regulations governing our food
production are important, consumers surely have the right to know
that all food offered to them conforms to these standards of safety,
hygiene and welfare, wherever it comes from?
It seems ridiculous that it should be possible
to import, and offer for consumption, food produced in ways that
are illegal here. Also we should not be expected to take in food
which is priced so low as to destroy our own capacity to produce
it, which is what is happening with beef at the moment quite obviously,
and to a lesser extent with many other products.
However, we have equally no right to dump on
world markets food which is subsidised either on production or
on export. Therefore it is essential that quotas and other forms
of production controlbetter described as supply managementbe
retained. Hopefully, a transition to more environmentally friendly
farming, and perhaps an increase in organics, will gradually reduce
surpluses. It is even possible that, if it were easier to make
a living, some farmers, at least, would not feel such a necessity
to half kill themselves producing maximum quantities.
The trouble with quotas is not their existence,
but their administration. The only people who can afford to buy
more quota are those who already have plenty. Means must be found
of moving it from those who no longer need it to where it is genuinely
needed. Siphons on sales, and possibly on leasing also, would
help with this. If milk quota were abolished that would spell
the end of another large group of pastoral farmers. What should
their land then be used for?
We realise that many people truly believe that
liberalisation of world trade brings increased world prosperity,
but would respectfully suggest that the evidence against this
theory is building up. Be that as it may, there can, surely be
little doubt that bringing food within the jurisdiction of GATT
has led to enormous difficulties, worldwide as well as here. By
reducing our profitability it has greatly increased the need for
subsidies to keep farming alive.
We can only hope that eventually sanity will
prevail and it will be realised that, at least for food, a complete
free for all in its trade could prove disastrous in more or less
every fieldthe welfare of animals, farmers and the countryside.
Food is bulky stuff, and another aspect of its free trade is the
global warming caused by carting large quantities to and fro across
the world. Every possible effort must be made to see that the
WTO does not put an end to farming in Britain.
Family Farmers' Association Committee
9 December 2001