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Farming in crisis Monday, 20 September, 1999, 16:08 GMT 17:08 UK
Why farmers think they deserve help
steel
There was little help for obsolete industry: Why are farmers different?
By Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby

Describing the meltdown of farming in the United Kingdom is easy. The hard part is deciding how to arrest it.

Farming in crisis
Very simply, farmers in almost every sector - dairy, meat, poultry, horticulture - now earn less from their crops and animals than they spend on producing them.

The only exception is wheat, where the grain barons of East Anglia continue to thrive.

The National Farmers' Union lists the causes of the crisis it has identified:

  • an overvalued pound,
  • high UK interest rates,
  • too much red tape,
  • increased indirect taxation,
  • higher social and welfare standards than competitors,
  • particular problems for dairy and beef farmers,
  • a collapse in several important world markets.

There have been previous crises. Earlier this year, farmers were saying their situation was grim, because almost every sector was in deep trouble.

Ask them what is different today, and they tell you that six months ago they had some hope.

Now, they say, the hope has run out, and many are desperate.

wheat
Industrial farming does not sell
Ask them for a way out, and the answer is almost invariably the same: more help from the government, or from Brussels (both of which mean the taxpayer).

Now they have won a big cash injection, but why should farmers be given help no other industry would dream of demanding?

Britain's industrial wastelands, the sinewy places which once produced the coal and steel, now lie empty and silent.

They were allowed to die without very much in the way of help. But the shipbuilders and the miners could have worked wonders with the cash farmers now want for slaughtering worn-out sheep, or unwanted calves.

Farmers continue to be paid for what is called "set-aside", for leaving their land unused so as not to produce harvests they cannot sell.

Losers all round

Nobody suggested industrial set-aside for the technologies we have left behind.

Farmers see themselves as a special case. And in a sense they are: if farms are abandoned, it is society that loses.

The rural economy would contract, with schools, shops and businesses closing, and jobs disappearing. Transport would become even less reliable.

The vegetation, even the landscape, would change once animals were no longer grazing it.

The NFU president, Ben Gill, has held out the prospect of parts of Britain becoming "deserts" like areas of central France.

pigs
Good welfare costs more - and pays better
And that would matter to many Britons, because we use the countryside for all sorts of reasons - leisure, sport, walking, birdwatching - things with very little connection with farming.

So we vote the farmers the extra money they want to tide them over till better times arrive, because it is in our own interest to do so.

In return, we should demand that they make their workplace not just more people-friendly, but more hospitable to plants, animals and birds.

There is little willingness today to give industrial farming a blank cheque. But the fear is that the present crisis may mean fewer and larger farms.

Staying popular

Growing globalisation means UK farmers are increasingly at the mercy of forces outside national control. One way they may confront that trend is by delivering what voters want.

You could argue equally well that it would have been in society's long-term interest to give the same sort of help to Britain's rust belt, dependent now on dole and drugs, and little else.

But who goes rambling round the back streets of forgotten England?

See also:

15 Sep 99 | Farming in crisis
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