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Farming at the countryside cross-roads

Friday 8 October 2010

In a week when the urban middle classes were in turmoil over proposed Government spending cuts, our rural affairs commentator John Sheard chooses to concentrate on a much more important subject for country folk: the future of farming and its role in the countryside

It would be very tempting this week to concentrate on the subject which has sent the national media into paroxysms of rage: the child support cuts for people earning more than £43,000 a year.

These figures have indeed been greeted with rage in the countryside of my part of the Yorkshire Dales. Because they are not severe enough. For to those who are not rich retirees and week-enders forcing property prices beyond the pocket of ordinary folk, these figures are truly astronomical.

poWer lines
Farming at the cross roads

Anyone earning £43,000 a year in this part of England is doing very well indeed. The last figures I saw published for the Skipton area of the Yorkshire Dales was £16.000 a year. That, I admit, was a few years ago but I doubt very much of that figure has reached anything like £20,000, before tax.

Worse still, pity the poor hill farmer who, recent figures show, is lucky to get £8,000 a year for a 70-plus hour, seven day week, 52 weeks a year. That makes reducing welfare payments to familes who have never worked to £25,000 a year after tax a total obscenity.

These figures demonstrate the total disconnect between the public-school, Oxbridge-educated city slickers who are now leading politicians in all three parties and hard-working country folk. To the politicos, these sums are no doubt mere peanuts, a subsistence income. To most rural residents, they are the stuff of dreams.

And that, rant over, takes me to the really important development of the week for rural areas: a special conference to take place in Newcastle next Friday to discuss the future of agriculture in the North of England (see News).

Whilst townie politicians squabble, few seem to realise that British agriculture is at arguably its most dangerous cross roads since the enclosures of the fields in the 18th Century. That sent hundreds of thousands of peasant farmers into the towns to provide the cheap labour for the Industrial Revolution but allowed the land-owners who remained to become The Improvers, people who invested in new machinery, crops and planting patterns to make Britain the most productive and profitable agricultural nation in the world.

In other words, there were winners and losers. So it is sad to report that, since then, most Government “reforms” imposed since have created mainly losers, with the countryside and its wildlife taking the brunt whilst a few – a very few – farmers like the wheat barons of East Anglia became very rich.

Jump forward a couple of centuries and British farming was allowed to go to the wall in the 1930s because of Government neglect. This nearly led to mass starvation in World War 11 because the nation had become dependent on imported food and Nazi U-boats came close to winning the Battle of the Atlantic.

Once again, Britain now produces only 60% of the food we eat...

That lesson apparently learned (although soon to be forgotten) Government pumped in billions to boost food production in the 1950s. Some farmers became rich again but at huge environmental cost.

Thousands of miles of hedgerows were grubbed out; peat bogs were drained in a way which still causes massive flooding in the valleys down stream; pesticides nearly wiped out our birds of prey and mammals like otters; thousands of acres of heather moorland, subject of a million picture postcards, were decimated by sheep.

Then everything was thrown into reverse. For the past 13 years, we were governed by an incompetent New Labour administration which cared little – and understood even less - about farming. They allowed grasping supermarkets to drive thousands of farmers and growers into bankruptcy and then made things even worse by setting up the Rural Payments Agency, a body which stood out even in a sea of incompetence as a tsunami of bureaucratic insanity.

Once again, Britain now produces only 60% of the food we eat. In one of the world’s most amenable climates for dairy farming, we have to import millions of gallons of milk from France and – even more difficult to believe – arid Italy. And this when a worldwide ford shortage is growing.

At the same time, our farmers are being asked to introduce more environmentally friendly methods (like reducing fertiliser run-off which is poisoning our rivers, as I reported last week) whilst at the same time increasing food production. That is one hell of a circle to square.

Fortunately, we now have people at Defra, the food and environment department, with a long and experienced background in agriculture. Better still, they are asking the real experts – the farmers and the landowners - to take an active role in future planning. At stake is not just our food supply but also our countryside and the people who live here. Let’s hope that this time the lessons have been learned.

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