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Farming in crisis Tuesday, 14 September, 1999, 14:39 GMT 15:39 UK
'Bad businessmen and bad farmers'
sheep farmer
No more grants, says Mr Rickard
The crisis in UK agriculture has led to farmers and other groups calling for more financial aid.

Farming in crisis
Those calls are not unanimous, however.

One expert who differs is Sean Rickard, former chief economist of the National Farmers' Union, who says that grants should no longer be handed out to small, "unviable" farms.

Mr Rickard, who now lectures at Cranfield University School of Management, told BBC News Online that what is being described as a crisis in farming is only affecting small farmers, particularly small livestock farmers.

Larger farms, he said, had the money to invest properly, and had probably become large in the first place because of the farmer's good business acumen. They were therefore the healthiest, and would survive.

He said that many small farmers were "not good farmers or good businessmen" and that handing out grants would only serve to prolong the crisis.

The effects of fluctuations in the market cannot be countered once stock is bred, say farmers
"Ultimately, supporting these farmers only delays the inevitable for a year or for two years," he said.

He continued: "People have got short memories. It was only a year ago that farmers demanded 100m from the government, and they got it. Now they're back again.

"If you were to take any other industry in the same situation, you would let it go to the wall. It's hard, but there it is.

"There's no solution to this problem other than to reduce the amount of food we produce - and that means reducing the amount of farmers."

His views have outraged the farming community, who say that forces outside their control are responsible for the current crisis - such as the ever-deteriorating economy of eastern Europe, and frequent health scares.

They also point to the nature of their industry - the need for long-term planning making rapid changes and reactions to emerging situations very difficult.

Prepared to live on a small wage

That small farmers are those affected by the crisis, according to Mr Rickard, is not simply a matter of economies of scale.

He said that many small hillside farmers had only survived this far because they were prepared to live on a very small wage.

But he added that some farmers might be able to survive through diversification into other fields: "However, you have to see that small farmers are not always the best businessmen, and if they cannot make a success of their farm, it is unlikely that they will be able to make a success of a different business."

Environmental damage

sheep in lorry
The market price of sheep has crashed
He criticised their abilities as managers, and said that some farmers' over-stocking of sheep over the past few years had resulted in environmental damage.

He said: "You don't have to believe forecasts of areas of countryside turning into scrub because there will be no farmers left to look after them.

"If the number of farmers goes down by 10%, then the area of land farmed might go down by 1%. There will not be a situation like that reported in France, which is a much larger, less populous country anyway.

"Farmers going under is nothing new - they go at about 2-3,000 a year as it is.

"If you go up into the hills now, there are probably half the number of farmers there were 10 years ago, but the countryside is still there and is still managed."

"Too many farmers"

Although he does not support grant aid for farms, Mr Rickard said that a "golden handshake" might be a good idea.

He said: "A system where you actually pensioned farmers off so that they could either retire or look into other employment opportunities might be part of a solution to this present situation."

Mr Rickard predicted that in the future, 80% of the nation's food will be produced by 25% of the nation's farmers.

"The countryside will continue to be managed well and efficiently by farmers who know what they are doing.

"We simply have too many farmers, and too many farmers who are not doing a good job, at that."

Sean Rickard: "75% of output is produced by 25% of farmers"
Sean Rickard explains why he thinks diversification is not an answer
See also:

05 Sep 99 | Wales
08 Sep 99 | UK Politics
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