Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Geoffrey H Cole, MA (Agric) Cantab[33] (A47)


  Long before the ructions surrounding the Live Export trade in sheep and calves, the BSE crisis, Salmonella in poultry and eggs, E. Coli 0157, overuse of antibiotics and Organo-phosphates, British farming was in disastrous condition. As one Cumbrian farmer succinctly put it when he was criticised for investing some of his compensation money for the livestock he'd lost into racehorses.  .  . "Ah's honest". . . "Ninety per cent of them were bankrupt afore Foot and Mouth struck and the compensation they received got them and their bankers off the hook. . ."

  From 1990 to the present day British farmers have suffered the same exploitation as befell the Danish Farmer from 1880 to 1910 and the events which eventually forced change happened in an almost identical sequence.

  Ever since 1979 the Tory party has noised on about the need to reform the CAP but they did nothing about it because basically they were paying out European money so why should they care? Farmers are largely Tory voters, ignorant of the effect that Thatcher's "handbag" rebate was having on them and ever keen to fall for the well-spun Tory line that it was these wicked Brussels Bureaucrats who were to blame. . .

  My shelves are littered with report after report on the reform of the CAP from Chris Patten to Gummer, Gillian Shephard, to Waldegrave etc etc etc etc and today one hears gibes from farmers pumped up by the NFU propagandists that this government has.  .  . "no policy for the countryside.  .  ." Well it has but it's not one that finds favour with the big farmers who populate the general council of the Union and falls in with their narrow vision of a countryside devoted to ever more production of food which is not needed and we cannot sell.

    —  The continuation of production subsidies throughout the 1990's has been the ruination of the family livestock business.  .  .

  All production subsidy payments must be discontinued forthwith.  .  .

  Despite the screams of "let down" this change must take place within 18 months—no longer—because the accession timetable for Poland and the new applicant members of the EU cannot be stretched out for the benefit of those large farmers in arable Britain who already run off with 80 per cent of the subsidies.  .  . My cousin, farming 700 hectares near Newark, the best land in the country has no need of a subsidy, acreage payment, set-aside etc etc.  .  . If he cannot make a living or adapt on such land then he deserves to go out of business; he has up to 20 options available to him. On this poor hill farm I have about six—suckler beef, sheep, calves, forestry, limited B&B (gratis the Planning Board) or a second job to pay for the groceries!!!

  But the Labour party has to put something in its place or it will be dammed for reforming the CAP, and having no long term strategy.

  Summarising the results of the pilot ESA scheme in the Yorkshire Dales back in the early 90's Professor Riordan said; . . . "The British are experts at scattering a little money around like confetti and none of it doing much good". . .

  We are in acute danger of treating agriculture in the aftermath of F&M in just this way. We see a veritable plethora of "Funding Agencies" apparently offering monies for all sorts of worthy causes with the good of the countryside at heart you will note.

  However if the produce of the land cannot be marketed so as to give the primary producer a fair return all such initiatives will come to nothing.

  At the end of last century the Danish farmer was being exploited by the larger landowners and the big export wholesalers supplying the burgeoning industrial populations of Britain and Germany. They were being screwed into the ground in exactly the same way as our farmers today are being plundered by the high street supermarkets and its no good anyone in the NFU or anyone else twittering on about level playing fields or promoting British produce. The bottom line for them all is profit and they don't give a damn who or where it comes from. . .

  In order to negotiate with these vast companies to obtain the best deal available farmers need to organise themselves into production and marketing cooperatives just as the Danes have done.

  The first Danish farmers cooperatively owned and operated dairy was founded in Hjedding in 1872 and since then the Danish farmer has rarely looked behind him. And today wherever I look in Europe—farmers think cooperative enterprises. A group of Spanish farmers joining together to market a rather special wine; Austrian and Slovenian farmers joining together to produce and market organic foods in both countries of the south Tyrol; the vegetable growers of Insel Reichenau in Lake Konstanz forming a cooperative to counter the competition in the vegetable trade from their arch rivals the Dutch; in Sweden and Finland farmers who market the wood from their farms through a producer cooperative sell their timber for 10 times what I get for it here.

  While British farmers continue to attempt to operate as exemplars of the robust 19th Century self-made small capitalist entrepreneur and politicians "bum" them on to do so they will be mercilessly exploited by a system which demands cheap food whether it comes from Thailand or Argentina—Industrialists keen to keep down costs (wages) and politicians anxious to placate the unions have conspired together (not deliberately) to provide the British public with "Cheap Food" from anywhere on earth. . . because the Victorians and their industrial power made it possible.

  My first experience of farmers' cooperatives came to me when I worked on farms in Sweden 53 years ago. . . I never saw my boss waste a minute standing around auction rings as British farmers did. . . looking on and trying to assess "wat traade was ganna be like". . . for his pigs sheep fat cattle etc. That was the job of the marketing specialists employed by the Headquarters organisations of the various producer cooperatives. For 50 years I have watched our farmers being fleeced by dealers in a marketing set-up which can only be described as mediaeval because of pride, tradition and ignorance that there could be any other way of doing things. Indeed whenever I have suggested these views to farmers, especially the established middle-aged ones, I am invariably admonished with ". . .Hoo wad ta git a fair price widoot a hockshin. . .?" The simple fact never seems to cross the minds of the NFU etc as to how a car manufacturer decides on the production run of a proposed new model or the employment of analysts who research the market.

  Also politicians of all political parties must bear a heavy responsibility for all that has happened since the formation of the most successful marketing operation ever set up by British farmers in response to the depression of the 1930's namely the MMB. . . dubbed in my college days. . . "the sheet anchor of British Farming. . .". So successful was it that the political establishment took fright. To operate effectively the Board controlled the whole product. . . you could only sell to the board even though your milk might be collected by a Nestle or a United Dairies lorry and politicians imagined that farmers would operate restrictive practices and "SCREW" the consumer—this they never did. After the depression of the thirties the "regular" monthly milk cheque gave the producer confidence. All the marketing boards set up after the war had failure built into them. . . "cause you could sell some of your eggs or potatoes or tomatoes at the farm gate thus by-passing the price agreements negotiated by the respective boards. They all failed with the exception of the Wool Board which again had a monopoly of supply and still has. . .

  At the very time as I write this certain farmers are questioning the appointment and suitability of Sir David Naish to be chairman of United Dairies to replace Lord Haskins. It was the weak and woolly headed thinking of Naish who allowed John Gummer to use EU competition regulations to break-up (destroy) the MMB. The idiocy of this policy which promised gullible farmers "competition for their milk" (when in fact there was a glut and there should have been a cut-back in production) had disastrous repercussions. It exacerbated the quota system and in Britain as opposed to the continent allowed "smart Alex" farmers to trade quotas which were in actual fact the property of the EU commission. . . Furthermore unleashing the "dogs of the market" into milk sales had the opposite effect to the intention of the quota system. It destroyed the family farm small producer. . . Worse still "open borders" allowed the dairy companies to import as they wished so those very Tory-voting big farmers now squeal and bleat about level-playing fields as a result of the market forces experienced at the hands of Northern Foods and Express Dairies. But Gummer was the fool who allowed it to happen. . . A certain French president would have stood his ground.

  Yet the Foot and Mouth Crisis has caused many farmers to take their stock to the auction marts which have served as collection, batching and despatching centres just as happens as normal on the continent.

    —  Thus the result in Denmark is that no animal spends more than two hours in transit from farm to slakteriet. . . and this was also the situation in pre-1989 Hungary.

  Anyone who doubts the ability of farmers' cooperatives to get the producer a fair deal should study the history of the Cooperative movement on the continent and ask themselves, for example, who founded Brittany Ferries? In the fifties the Breton vegetable growers were dumping produce on the streets in their battles for a better deal from the French Government. To expand their markets they wanted to sell at Covent Garden so they bought a ship to sail their produce from St Malo to Plymouth—French farmers acting cooperatively founded one of the most successful Ferry Companies on the Channel. Likewise the largest shareholders in Danish Seaways were for a long time the Danish Farmers cooperatives. . . Success speaks success. . .

  If the Labour party want to make a valuable contribution to a stable future for British farmers they must be prepared to finance farmer/producer cooperatives throughout the country in bacon, eggs, pigmeat, mutton, beef, vegetables, milk and dairy produce etc etc following the models which are so successful in Europe. AND if need be the government has to follow the French lead a few years ago where its young farmers were concerned, by introducing a large element of carrot and a big stick. . . viz ". . .we will give you a generous start-up loan but you will join a cooperative won't you. . ."

  As I write this I hear that the site of the Lockerbie Meats abattoir is to be sold off as a car park. . . a facility which the livestock producers of the Borders desperately need. It was John Gummer in the '90s who knew what the EEC regulations required (only 12 of our abattoirs complied at that time) but he refused to give the industry long term loans or grants to modernise; so the facilities shrank and the F&M crisis revealed a huge haulage operation of hapless animals being trucked about the country—spreading disease and lining the pockets of dealer farmers.

    —  Without a complete reorganisation of marketing the British farmer is a lost cause—a continuing drain on society (whether he is bleating for an increase in the ewe premium or gloom over the low price of corn. . .)

  Worse still, we are 100 years behind the European competition in these matters. Indeed we have allowed the supermarkets to take over many of the functions which should be under our control (meat hygiene and quality control should be done by us—after all it's our product and the farmer suffers when there is—to quote the Guardian's cartoonist—Steve Bell. . . "shit on the meat".

  Only by running the job ourselves can we stop such disgraceful practices as the rebranding and redating of milk by cowboy companies or sale of broiler chickens pumped up with 50 per cent by weight of water. . . Farmers and their industry get the blame for these disgraceful operations.

  Already the Danes and the Dutch are setting up "sister cooperatives" in the applicant countries Poland and Hungary. . . So either the Pigs will go to the grain or vice versa (remembering that up until the First World War these countries were the bread basket of Europe) consequently these two countries will divide up the European market between them!!! And the Oliver Walstons of this world could find their grain prices falling even lower. . .

  The Fatstock Marketing Corporation set up in the fifties was not a true cooperative for there were shareholders whose voting strength was related to their share holdings or the volume of trade done by them. I sold my fatstock on deadweight basis and by-and-large did as well as I would have done at the auction; my stock went straight to the abattoir and I was free of the ridiculous market day ritual apparently so enjoyed by older farmers (or is it popular as an excuse for a day out and a gossip away from the missus!)

  FMC failed because when the main shareholders saw an opportunity to make a fast buck they sold out. Therefore any cooperatives set up with start-up aid from government must follow continent practice to the letter. . . one member one vote. . . This means as in Holland that the man who takes 10 boxes of Cox's Orange Pippins to the packing station has the same say in the business as the man who drives in with four tonnes. (See Picture) Here I quote from the Federation of Danish Farmers publication about Cooperatives in that country. . .

    "In several Western Countries there are hybrids of cooperatives/corporate companies, where the farmers own "shares" in their company and where these "shares" are tradable. There are also cooperatives where people other than own shares and capital and have influence. In Denmark the cooperatives are kept pure. . ."

  Fortunately there are some younger farmers who realise that they do not, and will not have time to waste standing about at auctions—if they are to survive in the farming future—many of them operating as "one man bands" or doing a part-time job (as I have done). This is standard practice all across the continent—from northern Sweden to prosperous Bavaria. . . but it should be stated that the NFU has never accepted that people like me are "farmers" and that we are a net gain to the rural economy as well as maintaining a strong rural population (they have never accepted the OECD report of 1972).

  But the writing is on the wall. . . the citizens of Europe are prepared to pay for landscape, scenery, environmental protection and enhancement. . . They are not going to pay for surpluses of food no-one wants and cost the taxpayer vast amounts of money—funds which we cannot afford to extend to eastern Europe.

  However it should be noted that a discerning public conscious of health issues are demanding ever larger quantities of organic food. The Farmers Union with their maximum production philosophies poured scorn on those of us who were pushing organic three years ago. . . We were told it was. . . "a niche market and would never catch on . . ." So today the British farmer led by a union selfishly serving the biggest arable farmers, incapable of market research, and arrogantly dismissive of the House of Lords report on "Antibiotics in Food" 1998 finds himself "up the creek without a paddle" while the Supermarkets fight each other for supplies from all over the world!!!

  It's a situation which an all-embracing national farmers cooperative association would have market researched and advised the various production sectors, eg the Dutch and Germans realised the potential 15 years ago for the pink curly leafed lettuce and promoted it. . . The progressive breeding for a long lean carcass in the Swedish Landrace pig 50 years ago—another example. (See third paragraph below.)

  With production subsidies gone the role of the family farmer must change to that of "Landscape gardener" and be paid the average minimum wage for the country of their domicile (. . . this would not cost as much as the present CAP system). The large farmers on the best and most suitable farms can manage without aid and enjoy their "economies of scale".

  The prices for the produce of those smaller farms and family units would be safeguarded along with that of the big units by the co-operatives. In order to achieve this the ESA schemes need to be vastly expanded to take in whole new areas of the country, even individual farms/parishes of the prairie counties (Linc, Cambs) where good landscape and traditional farming patterns prevail eg the Welsh Border Counties, parts of the Eden Valley, the Tweed Valley, the Weser Valley, Germany, or the Forests farms of Finland.

  As well as the co-ops we need Government to set up Organisations like the Federation of Danish Co-operatives or Sveriges Lantbruksforbund. These bodies are crucial to ensure quality, standards, contracts, orderly marketing, branding, promotion etc and product research. The scheme put up by Penrith Farmer's and Kidds to slaughter locally produced livestock and livestock products is a good one and deserves encouragement but Supermarkets need continuity of supply and quality maintained to the highest standards on which their customers can rely and demand eg "Danish" or Holland Apples, Tomatoes etc. . .

  "Fellbred" may be a good brand name but its no use if it is just available in Cumbria—it has to become nationally recognised—as coming from and providing a taste of Cumbria's internationally known Lakeland.

  One of the problems which may well worry farmers clinging on to the auction mart system is where would they off-load all their old draft ewes for example? There is no reason why these should not be processed at farmer-owned abattoirs, made into our own brand of dog meat under a trade name such as "Wuffers" or something like that. Already the auction companies are telling farmers that the old system cannot go on where sheep were sold in batches of from two to a hundred animals at a 10 per cent commission—they are saying that this is time consuming and uneconomic. However mention of Farmers Co-operatives gives many of the traditional auction companies severe palpitations. . . They do not seem to realise that by acting as collecting, batching and despatching centres they would make their money easier and still retain all their "special" breeding sales and their property and valuation work. No need either for farmers to lose their sacred day out and gossip while they watched their stock collected and loaded as determined by a national computer network matching demand with supply on any given day.

  But to do this Britain must be in the forefront in setting up a microchip system of identification for the rapid recording of animal details, numbers, origins etc. This requires international co-operation and some investment on the part of EU governments to set it up as we must do to protect member states against another dangerous disease outbreak.

  In moving to a system of orderly marketing on co-operative lines which is necessary to meet the dual challenges of foreign competition and the withdrawal of subsidies the changes must not be entrusted to DEFRA and the NFU for these reasons.

  The symbiotic relationship between these two bodies has been a disaster for farmers, consumers and taxpayers alike. When Thatcher sold off or privatised ADAS the Ministry became nothing more than a subsidy "bran-tub", devising ever more complicated regulations against fraud (F&M revealed the ineffectiveness of the system) and gold plating, in the best British fashion, relatively simple EU decisions. Like the NFU they are stuck in Time-Warp of production subsidies. Farmers are just a small piece of the rural jig-saw and policy to date has given them a cockeyed and selfish opinion of their importance against all the other interests in the countryside—an idea that the CAP exists as a fund whose sole purpose is to top up farmers' incomes.

  As Paul Flynn MP has admirably described the situation, there have been no Royal Miners or Royal Marconi workers. Farmers will have to learn to co-operate for their common good and salvation or go out. They can stack supermarket shelves, or do another job like anyone else as I had to do to live on a hill farm; no use bleating that . . . "You've done nowt else but farmin and don't want to do anything else". Well if that's the case get back to your farms and shut up. . . but don't expect the public to bail you out. . .

  As the NFU only represent 33 per cent of farmers and of those more than half are "horsiculture" farmers, they must not be allowed to organise any co-operative ventures. They have a totally reactive attitude to most proposals by government and treat with scorn the Consumer Food groups and the environmental organisations (eg Nitrogen sensitive zones). Only since F&M have they made any moves towards co-operatives, shown no willingness to follow the Europeans and continue to profess themselves the best in the world. We seem incapable of learning from the competition. . . it's a national failing.


  With reference to my proposal that ESA farmers should be remunerated in parallel with the average minimum wage is not a plea for more subsidy. . . indeed the very opposite.

  Farmers have been on a treadmill for the past 45 years; as prices have been reduced using a variety of methods too numerous to list since the war and replaced with deficiency payments leading through to headage payments and ultimately to counting "bodies"—the despicable practice which played such a critical role in the spread of F&M.

  (This sort of stupidity throughout the EU has led to Italian Farmers being accused of counting non-existent olive trees and consequent fraud. . . A favourite "jibe" inspired by NFU/MAFF propaganda which seeks to portray the "Brits" as whiter than white. Of course we wouldn't indulge in such dreadful tricks would we? Funny thing, we have often noticed that in the Shap fells area there has regularly been an outbreak of sheep-stealing just before the "retention" period comes in around the months of February/March which is reported in the local papers. . . So "olive trees" have been known to "grow" on Shap fells.)

This treadmill means that producers have been forced to run ever faster to stand still. This temptation must be removed for the good of farming, the countryside and the environmental damage it causes.

  The exact figures elude my memory but back in the 1960's New Zealand Farmer magazine did a calculation of the number of fat lambs you'd have to sell to pay for an average modest tractor, then the figure was something like 3,000—today you would need three times as many. Hence the treadmill effect; must produce more to maintain income—apply more fertiliser so borrow more money—result heavier crop. Present tractor/horse power can't handle crop—need/must buy bigger tractor so more borrowed money—so the treadmill revolves again. The bankers gain—the countryside loses.

  This process may parade under the guise of economic progress, or efficiency, or economies of scale—so every farmer busts a gut trying to beat his neighbour, to earn that little bit more cash to gobble up that smaller or adjoining farm, maybe, in cahoots with another neighbour. The result in the long term is obvious; a shrinking number of farmers, farm workers and rural population. Give a farmer a subsidy and against falling returns he cuts costs, fires staff and replaces his worker with a bigger machine—it's a familiar and regular pattern. . . .And in the end, when the public realise that they are left with a prairie landscape or upland sheep ranches the remaining big farmers will turn round and wave "bye-bye" as they fly off to their bungalows in the Canary Islands saying "If Joe Public wants landscape he can pay for it". . . You politicians sort it out!!!

  It is not suggested that the basic income suggested is given without any strings. It should be sufficient to maintain a farming family in household necessities of life and a modest form of transport in often remote areas on condition that they farm in environmentally sensitive ways, carry out measurable, identifiable long term good works and true etc etc. To this end its time we reinstated ADAS to advise and oversee such a scheme and remove at a stroke all the complicated form filling of which farmers complain so bitterly.

  To avoid the obvious temptation to work the system, the payments should be designed so that it's one farmer on one farm who gets the payment. . . To avoid the danger that a farmer with two sons divides up a holding into three units "for the records" and thereby gets three bites of the cherry when in reality he's running one farm.

  You may think that this is a preposterous suggestion? However consider this scenario which more and more young people and farmers sons are contemplating. (Incidentally research has shown that the desire to follow in fathers' footsteps is weakest in the areas of the richest and biggest farmers in the south and east of Britain.)

  Do you expect my son with a first class honours degree in modern languages from Oxford University and an M.Sc. in economics from the LSE to come back to farm here for my ESA annual payment of £5,000 and the little one can make on a hill sheep farm in the Lake District?. . . yet he loves the farm and would like to do so. Or my neighbours girls now qualified as teachers? Do you think they are going to face a life of hardship and miserable returns by marrying a farmer just to enjoy life in the Lake District. . . As visitors you enjoy the view. . . but we cannot live off a view. . .

George H Cole MA (Agric) Cantab

14 December 2001

33   A submission of views and opinions from Geoffrey H Cole, MA (Agric) Cantab, Bromley Farm, Mosser, Cockermouth, a 209 hectare hill farm within the boundary of the Lake District National Park, owner-occupied, situated in the Loweswater Valley at an altitude between 175 and 250 metres above sea level. Back

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