"You never see a poor farmer.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that one. It’s at the top of a long list of quips, along with the old chestnut about farmers keeping their tractors outside because the barns are full of Mercedes and BMWs.
While banter like this is guaranteed to raise a laugh in the saloon bar, factually it’s pretty wide of the mark. The jokers are making the common mistake of confusing farmers with landowners. Occasionally, the person who works the land also owns it, but it’s much more likely that the man or woman you see in the field or the milking parlour is a tenant farmer. I’m one and my dad was the tenant on this farm before me. So I know from personal experience that there’s a very thin line between making a profit and being forced to explain to the bank manager why the business is in the red yet again.
Feeding a starving nation
That’s where subsidies come in. State payments to farmers have been controversial for years, but the history of why agriculture is subsidised really dates back to the immediate post-war period. In those days, Britain was a starving nation and farmers were encouraged to produce as much food as possible. Along with animal breeding scientists, plant biologists and horticultural technicians, they did an amazing job at feeding the population.
People like my dad were paid to plough up old pastures for wheat production and were offered incentives to remove hedges to make fields bigger and more efficient. In fact, they did such a good job that we ended up with a surplus of food – the fabled butter mountains and wine lakes, which the newspapers seemed to go on about endlessly back during the 1970s and 80s.
Soon, quotas were introduced to try to curtail the amount of food we were producing. Then, in addition, we were encouraged to look after the countryside, so environmental payments came along.
I have always thought of myself as being a custodian of the countryside, so I think it’s great to be encouraged to look after wildlife and the landscape. The payment of the EU-administered subsidy, which is called the Single Farm Payment (SFP), is conditional upon a large number of environmental management factors being satisfied. This is one of the reasons why you will hear a lot about farmers keeping nature-rich hedgerows, establishing wildflower margins at the field edges and reducing the use of manure, sprays and fertilisers. Large parts of the countryside owe their beauty and diversity to the existence of subsidies. The next time you pick up your local newspaper and read about a nearby farm becoming a wildlife haven for birds, bugs or butterflies, remember that it’s unlikely to have happened by accident.
Now I’m the first to admit that SFPs are not exactly the talk of the town, but they have hit the headlines in recent years due to major problems at the Rural Payments Agency. There has been an overhaul of the organisation after calamitous miscalculations and a massive backlog of payments. This was money owed to farmers just sitting in the Government coffers.
For the record, all my dealings with the agency have been good and we’ve always received our money on time. But I have heard some real horror stories. Like it or not, subsidies are crucial for the survival of British farming as we know it. Figures just released from Defra show a 4.3 percent drop in total farm incomes for 2010, just as the cost of animal feed, fuel and fertiliser is on the rise. Then there are the many tenant farmers who’ve borrowed money or invested their own cash to buy vehicles and equipment. If you took the SFP away, countless numbers of medium-sized tenanted farms would fail to break even.
The critics are right when they point out that the subsidy is taxpayers’ money, but without it, the cost of food would increase massively. That’s because the only way farms could survive financially would be to demand more for the commodities they sell. Only when people are prepared to foot a much bigger bill for their weekly groceries will we be able to do away with subsidies. But for the moment I guess that’s too high a price to pay, in more ways than one.