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Farming in crisis Thursday, 14 October, 1999, 15:03 GMT 16:03 UK
Prices - years of feast and famine
"The statistics are shocking - farm incomes have plummeted 75% in the last two years - but even they do not show the real story."

Farming in crisis
Those words came from Ben Gill, president of the National Farmers' Union, at the end of August and were reinforced in October by auditors' figures showing farming profits had halved since last year.

The later figures, from Deloitte Touche, also showed a 50% fall in the previous year - leading to the same conclusion of a 75% drop over two years.

Mr Gill backed up his words with statistics showing the falling price of various types of farm produce.

The amount farmers were receiving for lambs, for example, was down from 2.91/kg in the first half of 1997 to 2.01/kg in the same period of 1999. Pigmeat had dropped from 1.16/kg to 0.79/kg.

The basic picture is undoubtedly true - farm incomes have fallen across most sectors in the last couple of years.

But as is so often the case with statistics, a few numbers do not tell the whole story. And before the falls of the past few years, there were some spectacular increases in farm prices.

Big falls follow big rises

There has been a lot of publicity about the plight of cattle farmers. Some have dumped calves in public places because they are getting as little as 50p a head for them, following the abandonment of a price support scheme.


Looking at the above graph, however, shows that in the years 1992-95, farmers received up to 45% more in real terms for their calves than they had in 1990.

The current falls are devastating, but are made even more dramatic given that they come from a high level.

The beef industry has been in the doldrums for three or four years because of BSE, but that problem proved to be a temporary boon for farmers producing sheep meat.

Again taking 1990 as a base figure of 100, the graph shows that prices climbed to a peak of 163 in 1996 as consumers shied away from beef.

The price of pigmeat also rose around the same time, though not so spectacularly with the peak hitting 122 in 1996 before being hit by over-production in succeeding years.

The same picture can be seen in the graph at the top of the page illustrating net farming income - the profits farmers make.

In 1992, these were an average of 121 per hectare. Three years later they had tripled to 363 per hectare.

A Biblical problem?

The farmers want help, but their pleas are not always being met with sympathy. Those who disagree with financial aid might turn to the Bible - Genesis 41, to be precise - to reinforce their argument.

This is the episode where the Pharoah of Egypt dreams of seven fat cattle being eaten by seven thin ones. And then of seven succulent ears of corn being consumed by seven bad ones.

The dreams were interpreted by Joseph as meaning there would be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine.

To put it another way, farming is a cyclical operation and in the good times, preparation must be made for the bad.


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