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Why the farmer's cherry bowl is empty

Friday 19 August 2005

They used to say that life was a bowl of cherries. But as our countryside commentator John Sheard points out, cherries have now become a luxury commodity - and may soon be followed by the humble cheese

LAST weekend, rather foolishly, I helped myself to a bag of cherries in a supermarket which sells its produce in kilograms, as per EU edict. I gathered what I judged to be about a pound (lb) in proper units and thought no more about it until I got to the checkout.

"I hope you realise how expensive these are," said the kind lady at the till, "a lot of people are handing them back." Then came the bad news: my smallish bag cost £3 and I would have given them back but for the fact that cherries are my wife's favourite fruit.

Luxury goods?

I was dumfounded. Some years ago, in a previous garden 600 feet above sea level in the Pennines, we had a cherry tree that fruited every year in the face of snow, sleet, hail and frost. Admitedly, the fruit was not over sweet but we used it for cooking and all was well.

So what happened to the English cherry? Quite simply, an evil combination of CAP insanity and supermarket greed made cherry production in England unprofitable. So in Kent and Somerset and the likes, fruit farmers grubbed up their cherry trees and now this simple, once native fruit, has become an imported luxury commodity.

Now this cast a bit of a shadow over the weekend, I admit, but there are places now where you can barely get a pint of beer for £3 so I was not totally bankrupted. But then I read the papers on Monday.

They reported that, according to a survey carried out by a professor at Manchester University, British butter, cream and cheese will become luxury items by the year 2008.

The reason: the supermarket giants have been squeezing dairy farmers so dry that they are giving up the ghost in their thousands. Unable to make a profit at the impossibly low prices the big supermarkets pay, they are quitting the land altogether.

In just three years time, says Prof. David Colman, we will have a shortfall of British milk reaching one billion litres. That means we will have to import this everyday commodity and, bingo, it will become like my cherries: a luxury good.

Now I have had many a tilt at the supermarkets and so have others with much more power than me. Parliament itself, a couple of years ago, banged heads together and made the big chains agree to a voluntary code of conduct to pay their food suppliers a fair price,

That agreement has been ignored, says the Country Landowners Association. But only a couple of weeks ago, the Office of Fair Trading exonerated them of unfair practice in a report which everyone but the politicians accept as a simple whitewash.

Could it possibly be deliberate Government policy to make everyday food fit only for a millionaire's table? I doubt it but then, as I have said many times before, this government has absolutely no understanding of the way that farming works. To supermarket bosses, they are just babes in the wood.

They do, of course, understand politics. And, apart from the fact that some supermarket chains are big donors to Labour Party funds, there is the simple arithmetic of the Iron Sporran, Chancellor Gordon Brown, to consider.

He knows fine well that when food prices are low, he can keep on hoisting taxes without the voting public feeling too much pain. He has been doing it with property prices and mortgage repayments for years. The fact that, by the end of the decade, we might be having a small chunk of prime Cheddar as our Christmas Day dinner is too far away for him to consider: Labour might be out of power by then!

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