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Farm subsidy storm: wait for the dust to settle

Friday 13 February 2004

Totally unsurprised by the furore over the Government's decision to "de-couple" farm subsidies from food production, our countryside commentator John Sheard asks country folk to keep calm and wait for the dust to settle

WELL it's happened. After years and years of debate, the Government has finally faced up to the vexed problem of subsidising farmers in ratio to the amount of food they produce. And, as was to be expected, all hell has broken loose.

The Settle-Carlisle: at risk again?

DEFRA Secretary Margaret Beckett announced yesterday that instead of getting paid to produce food that nobody wants, a single payment depending on the size of a farm would be introduced in stages between 2005 and 2012.

And within minutes of the announcement, the big guns of the NFU, the Country Land and Business Association, the Tory party and even the Liberal Democrats began to fire, filling the air with the smoke and flames of doom and gloom.

And this is entirely what an independent, non-farming observer would have expected because it reflects the basic schisms in British agriculture: some cereal producers in East Anglia pick up subsidy cheques running literally into millions of Euros - and hill farmers in the Yorkshire Dales would earn more per hour by cleaning out the loos at their local pub.

I have been a supporter of "de-coupling" subsidy from production for years, ever since the idiocy of the Common Agricultural Policy created beef mountains and wine lakes - and made millionaires out of fraudsters on the Mediterranean rim.

Even before that, the British subsidy system rushed in after World War 11 - after this island nearly starved to death because of pre-war neglect - had done enormous harm to the rural environment.

Paid well (too well, many non-farmers believed) to ever increase yields, farmers turned parts of the land into prairies, rooted out thousands of miles of hedgerow - some many centuries old - almost killed off our birds of prey with pesticides, poisoned miles of rivers and streams with excessive fertilisers, and hacked down untold acres of woodland.

Many farmers got very rich indeed. As a young man, I was green with envy when I saw my first ever E-type Jaguar - being driven across a field in Lincolnshire by a farmer's son two years younger than me!

Well things have changed. That pressure for over production not only ruined huge swathes of our countryside but also led directly to a whole series of highly publicised disasters: salmonella, listeria, BSE and foot and mouth.

Inevitably, the British public got fed-up with paying for dodgy food twice - once in their taxes, again in the shop - and hence yesterday's changes. Inevitably, the big guns began to fire off their complaints.

However, when all the small print comes under the public microscope, I think that for our small farmers in the Yorkshire Dales - people I care about a great deal - this new deal will work out well.

Mrs Beckett made it clear yesterday that during the transition period, special payments would be introduced for people working "difficult" land - and that surely accounts for most of the Dales and the Lake District.

These are the farmers who are already very much at the front of the queue for special treatment because they conserve some of the most important landscapes in Britain - working poor soil often in horrendous weather, unlike the barley and beef barons of the NFU and CLA.

Sadly, hill farmers are not good as putting their case. But there are other, much more vociferous, champions of our uplands in the form of organisations like the Ramblers' Association, whose left wing leaders are very close to New Labour.

An unlikely alliance, that, but if the conservationists and the hill farmers could strike common cause, there is hope yet for the men and women who keep these Dales of ours in the way to which we have grown accustomed.

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