1 February, 2002
John Sheard argues that, difficult though it may be, farmers must accept changes proposed in this week's landmark Curry report - or go out of business.
SOME of my best friends are farmers. Although I have never made a living from the land, I have lived amongst them and written about their industry on and off for almost half a century. I believe I understand their problems as well as most scribblers - and better than most.
But they do, collectively, have a fault which I find very difficult to accept and one which has given them a very bad image amongst the mainly urban-based general public: they do complain a lot.
In recent years, I admit, they have had a lot to moan about: falling incomes, poor payments because of the strength of sterling, and re-current food scandals over salmonella in eggs, BSE and last year's disastrous foot and mouth epidemic.
|John Sheard: a plea to farmers|
Through most of these, I have supported the farmers: although they got much of the blame, particularly for the food scandals, they were in fact largely innocent: they merely fed their livestock on provender sold by reputable companies and, not being chemists, they did not know the risks they were running.
This week, however, I lost patience with the angry response of the National Farmers' Union to the independent report on the future of farming and food from a commission led by Sir Donald Curry.
"It is taking money from farmers which they don't have," said Yorkshireman Ben Gill, the NFU president.
This was aimed in particular at the commission's recommendation of "modulation" by taking some 10% now paid in food production subsidies - some £500 million over three years from 2004 - and targeting it on conservation schemes and other sectors of the rural economy.
If I understand this correctly - and it is a very complex situation - most of that money would come from the EU. It could be doubled by the British Treasury. But Gordon Brown is a tight-fisted Chancellor and he has many other pressing problems in the NHS, our chaotic transport system, and the cost of sending British troops to all corners of the earth to fight terrorism.
"Yon Gill doth protest too much," I can hear coming from No 11 Downing Street. And I feel it would be much better to concentrate on the positive reforms recommended in the Curry report.
These include reforming, or even scrapping, the notorious EU Common Agricultural Policy; paying British farmers in Euros, not so-called "green pounds;" bigger grants for conservation work; introducing tax-breaks for people selling high-quality local foodstuffs; taking a long look at the huge profits of the supermarket chains which pay their suppliers in buttons; more support for organic farming; and, perhaps best of all, an end to the quest for ever greater production of food that has been going on for more than half a century.
It was that quest for greater productivity - backed, I must say, by the late and unlamented MAFF rather than the farmers - which led to the grubbing out of thousands of miles of hedgerows, the every increasing use of pesticides and artificial fertilisers which polluted our rivers, the over-grazing of heather moorland by sheep, and, worst of all, helping to create the conditions which led to BSE et al.
None of the farmers I know wanted these things. They are, after all, the ultimate country folk and nurturing their land is an essential part of good husbandry.
Now they are being offered a new start. It will be painful in the short-term, and it comes at a very bad time, but in the long term it could mean better pay for more enjoyable work - and, of course, a greener, better maintained countryside.
All change is hard. In the North of England, we have in recent decades seen the virtual demise of great industries like shipbuilding, coal mining, steel and textiles. I urge farmers to grasp this new opportunity - or face a similar fate.