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Farming in Crisis Monday, 1 February, 1999, 19:37 GMT
Why farming's crisis matters
Farmed countryside
A familiar patchwork - but can it survive ?
By Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby

British farming is in crisis - again. Who says so? The farmers say so. They often do.

It would be easy to dismiss farming's current problems as exaggerated, or even invented. It would be easy to recall the familiar stereotype of the British farmer as a rich whinger.

Farm gate prices
It would be tempting to say that an industry that has brought us the horrors of BSE deserves little sympathy.

Farming in Crisis
But it would be a pity not to listen to the farmers, because what is happening to them now is real, and it is serious.

farm gate prices
The NatWest Bank believes that 25,000 farmers - up to 15% of fulltime producers - may be forced to leave the industry. They are likely to be people with small farms.

Farmers' incomes are at their lowest level in real terms for 60 years. They fell by almost 50% in 1997 and are expected to fall by another two-thirds this year.

The price farmers get for their beef is down by 35% in two years; the price for milk and chicken by about 22%.

About the only farmers who have seen prices rise are those growing potatoes.

All in the same boat

Unlike most recent troughs in the industry, this time the crisis is hitting farmers across the board.

Arable and livestock sectors are suffering together. "Up horn, down corn," is no longer true. Both are in deep trouble.

The reasons are plain. Farming is always at the mercy of the weather, and in the words of the old countryman, "there's been a lot of weather about recently".

Dried-up reservoir
Drought is only one problem
The disruption caused by El Nino has spread far beyond the Pacific. And British (and European) agriculture cannot remain insulated from what happens on world markets.

Not only the weather has been in turmoil. Global economies are highly unstable, and a Russia staring into the abyss is no longer a major market for British farmers.

BSE means it is impossible to sell British beef abroad.

And the pound remains stubbornly strong, making it harder to sell British produce abroad, and easier for imports to come here.

Even so, does the crisis matter to people outside the farming community?

There are several reasons why it does matter, and matter a lot.

Knock-on effects

If farmers are in trouble, then many other country people will be too. That means shops finding it harder to keep going, and rural transport services with fewer passengers.

Pub bar
Fewer farmers, fewer customers
More people, especially young people, will move to the towns. And rural schools will be that much emptier.

Then there is the question of what farmers actually do. Yes, they grow food, often too much of it, because of the cock-eyed subsidies from the Common Agricultural Policy.

The more farmers produce, the more the CAP pays them. That cannot go on for ever.

But farmers also maintain the countryside. And if they are not there to do it, the countryside we cherish will change drastically.

Much of our countryside is not as "natural" as we imagine. It is the product of centuries of human activity.

But it is what we are used to, and what many of us value. Farmers (apart from the industrial ones who turn fields into prairies) are the people we have to thank for it.

If they cannot earn a living from producing food, why not pay them to be park keepers?

In the end, though, producing food is what farmers want to do. And it is why we shall go on needing them.

So forget food surpluses and grain mountains. Forget what technology and genetics are doing to increase yields.

Look instead at the two most marked trends in modern agriculture - size and distance.

Economies of scale

Throughout the rich world, it is the big farms that are best placed to make a profit unaided. They are the ones that can afford the investment and the risks that will bring success.

Yet big farms are not friendly to wildlife, nor (often) to consumers.

Safe, sustainable, environmentally-friendly food supplies are more likely to come from small farms than big ones.

Then think of the distances much of our food has travelled to reach us.

Supermarket shelves
Spoilt by choice?
It is not just a question of strawberries from Burkina Faso or mangoes from Brazil.

It is about the miles an animal has to travel in a lorry to be slaughtered. It is about the transport involved in stocking supermarket shelves with something to satisfy every choice.

That transport is not sustainable, or environmentally-friendly. If climate change really is a serious threat, then local food supplies will soon become far more important.

We need food produced near to where we live, by farmers who are not turning their land into outdoor factories.

We need Britain's small farmers - which is most of them. And just at the moment, they need us.

A 'Farm Gate Price' is the price of the commodity paid to the farmer when he sells it ie. when it leaves the farm - for example when sold to an abattoir, supermarket or wholesaler.

It is also called the 'Agriculture output price'

/t = per tonne
p/kg lwt = per kilogram light weight
dwt = dead weight
p/dozen = pr dozen.

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24 Jul 98 | UK
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