Har­vest’s good gifts come at a price

In the wake of the Gov­ern­ment’s pledge to fi­nance farm­ing un­til 2020, Cum­brian farmer Dou­glas Chalmers ex­plains why the in­dus­try will still need pub­lic money post Brexit

Country Life Every Week - - Opinion -

IMAY be part-time and ours may be a small farm, but we feed peo­ple, care for a patch of Cum­bria’s rich tapestry of land­scape and are af­fected by the Trea­sury’s de­ci­sion to sup­port UK agri­cul­ture —with the same amount of money as it re­ceived from the EU (Town & Coun­try, Au­gust 24)— un­til 2020. This gives the in­dus­try time to build a new agri­cul­tural pol­icy that’s fit for pur­pose, not one we’ve had to cob­ble to­gether.

It’s ex­cit­ing that, for the first time in more than 40 years, we can write our own ru­ral poli­cies, but we have to get them right. The farm­ing lobby is al­ready ar­gu­ing that we should be more self-suf­fi­cient, but if we started feed­ing our­selves with only home-pro­duced food from Jan­uary 1, we’d run out by early Au­gust. Our farm­ers must be al­lowed to pro­duce food and most peo­ple want us to do so.

Na­tional Trust chief He­len Ghosh has called for farm sup­port to be avail­able only for wildlife and the en­vi­ron­ment. Ev­ery­thing else—food pro­duc­tion, wa­ter qual­ity, flood man­age­ment and hol­i­days—should be cov­ered by food man­u­fac­tur­ers, util­ity com­pa­nies and the tourism in­dus­try.

Sadly, very few farm busi­nesses are vi­able with­out Com­mon Agri­cul­tural Pol­icy sup­port, es­pe­cially in the up­lands. We need to clar­ify that this sup­port is no longer the ‘sub­si­dies’ we were un­com­fort­able with and hasn’t been for 10 years. Farm­ers are not en­cour­aged to pro­duce as much as pos­si­ble, re­gard­less of the mar­ket or their ef­fect on the en­vi­ron­ment. In fact, they pro­duce de­spite the mar­ket.

Farm sup­port doesn’t push up the price of food in the shops—it should pull it down, as pro­duce can, and does, leave the farm at less than the cost of pro­duc­tion. With­out the fixed ba­sic pay­ment per hectare, many farms, es­pe­cially fam­ily ones, would go un­der.

Food man­u­fac­tur­ers’ re­spon­si­bil­i­ties are to their share­hold­ers, so why should they pay farm­ers more than they have to? Yes, some busi­nesses do try to en­sure they pay pro­duc­ers a fair price, but these deals are usu­ally linked to the cost of pro­duc­tion, plus a fixed mar­gin.

Much of farm pro­duce is a com­mod­ity and, be­cause of sea­son­al­ity, per­isha­bil­ity, stor­age lim­i­ta­tions or cash­flow, farm­ers usu­ally have to be ‘price tak­ers’. With added­value op­por­tu­ni­ties lim­ited to niche prod­ucts,

Fields of gold: our farm­ers aren’t just food pro­duc­ers, they are the guardians of our land­scape

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