Friday, February 23, 2018

Can we really trust politicians to deliver for farming?

February 1, 2018 by  
Filed under Clodhopper

Getting rid of direct payments will mean short term pain and little long term gain, says Clodhopper.

Do you trust British politicians when they say they want to support farmers? Do you trust your regional NFU branch to support and inspire the farming community? Do you believe your farming business is profitable? If so, why?

Most growers and livestock producers I know would say “Yes, farming is profitable – at least most of the time.” But they say it with a forked tongue. I know my business does make a profit, but if you read my accounts there is no tax payable.

Why? Because the margins are so small that a slight deviation in payments can tip the balance one way or another. But I like the fact that I am profitable and pay very little tax. It hasn’t
always been that way although I am no Alan Sugar in size or stature.

Over the years, I have paid my share in corporation tax and other contributions. Yet for me, the best years of farming have gone. I am left with small margins. Any profit, such as it is, comes from my farm support payments. Remove them and I, like many others, will struggle.

As a small farmer, my margins are tight. In my younger days, I didn’t complain. I would claim that I chose to be a farmer because of the lure of the countryside. The great outdoors was my workshop. Fast forward three decades and my view is somewhat more objective.

I work long hard hours. If I told my fellow pub goers how many hours I worked and how little profit I made, they would either laugh, fall over in amazement or call me a liar. No-one other than farmers can survive on such a small income surely?

No guarantees

I’m not even on the minimum wage. Nobody guarantees my pay for me. I have no index-linked pension. I take no regular holidays or holiday pay. In short, I am what they call asset rich and cash poor. And time poor as well.

I no longer want to diversify. Luckily, that’s all been done. What profits I do make are secured by this extra income along with support payments. Farming for food no longer pays alone. But I don’t want to rely on the British public to support my living – why should they?

All this means I feel a touch of guilt when people ask me what I do for a living. Sometimes admitting to being a farmer makes me feel like a benefit cheat – somebody who takes the money while hardly deserving it.

Despite assertions to the contrary, I cannot with all my hard work and honesty create much of a secure future for generations to come. Yes, I can pass on my small acreage but to what purpose? Few people would want it other than for its possible development potential. And who could blame them?

But that is the way things are now. The system produces food but it isn’t enough. People are unlikely to ever go hungry again. They expect instant food and aren’t too fussed about where it comes from – hence the government’s pledge to phase out direct payments.

Defra secretary Michael Gove has pledged to maintain the £3bn received by UK farmers until 2022 – and some form of direct payment until 2024. After then, who knows?  It is likely future payments will depend on farmers offering more environmental benefits – and greater public access.

Nothing new

Environmental issues are nothing new and most farms over the last 15 years have been associated with some form of countryside stewardship scheme. And in the past I have maintained that most farmers do indeed look after the environment without incentives from elsewhere.

But without direct payments many farms in the future will struggle.

It isn’t easy on some heavy land to make an income. Either from the marketplace or from the environment. I have been grateful for my annual cheque even though I believe such payments have have been detrimental to the farming industry as a whole. After all, direct payments have encouraged higher rental values for farmland.

But I still feel uneasy about increased public access to the countryside. Already people assume they have a right to roam wherever they like. Footpaths are abused and the vast majority of the public feel they can walk anywhere.

I don’t want the public on my land. I have enough trouble as it is from hare coursers on a weekly basis. If  I entered a private garden and walked where I wanted, there is no doubt that the owner would be upset. And it is the same for me and my farm.

In exchange for public money, we are expected to accept everything thrown at us. So let’s stop the handouts and leave farmers to the open markets. Leave the farmers alone to farm in peace. Yes, we will suffer in the short term. But longer term we will be better off.

The stronger among us will survive and prosper – as we always have done. Things cannot be worse than they are now for our great industry, with farms gradually being taken over by fund managers or big corporations. The time for change is now – or maybe 2024!

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