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Last Updated: Thursday, 26 August, 2004, 17:24 GMT 18:24 UK
Climate of change troubles farms
By Susannah Cullinane
BBC News Online

Hugh Oliver-Bellasis on Manydown farm
Mr Oliver-Bellasis says politicians are signing away agriculture
"Three weeks of bad weather can destroy nine months' work."

Don't talk to Hampshire farmer Hugh Oliver-Bellasis about the weather.

Recent downpours may have cut the value of his farm's seed cereals by a third.

He explains the rain causes the grain to think it has been planted, and the seed then sprouts - making it useful only for cattle feed.

For Mr Oliver-Bellasis, unseasonal rains are just one more unwanted influence on an industry whose destiny is often at the mercy of external forces.

Farming tradition

We're facing the greatest state of change since the turn of the 20th century and the government won't accept the fact that it's happening
Hugh Oliver-Bellasis

Hugh Oliver-Bellasis joined his elder brother Charles in running Manydown farm in 1979.

The 5,000-acre property, based around the village of Wotton St Lawrence, has been in the Oliver-Bellasis family since 1871.

Manydown produces around 7,000 tonnes of seed cereal a year, alongside break crops of grass seed, oilseed rape, linseed, beans and poppies for morphine production.

The farm also has beef cattle, sheep, pigs and free-range chickens, all of which it sells in its own farm shop.

Great change

With traditional country hospitality, Mr Oliver-Bellasis brews me coffee in his farmhouse, which looks out over a well-tended garden near gently rolling hills.

The kitchen is dominated by a massive Aga. A labrador sits obediently in the corner.

As we settle down to chat, London seems far away.

But Mr Oliver-Bellasis says he has reason to wish the English capital, and particularly the inhabitants of Westminster, were more visible.

"We're facing the greatest state of change since the turn of the 20th century and the government won't accept the fact that it's happening - and I'm really bothered."

Harvesting crops
Labour, proximity of people, regulations, all add to the cost to the cost of production
Hugh Oliver-Bellasis

He is dismayed at the reforms to EU farming policy that take effect next year.

Each farm will get a single subsidy, regardless of what it produces on the land.

The government argues that it wants to give incentives to farmers who most help the environment, and says it will do whatever it can to help farmers through the changes.

But Hugh Oliver-Bellasis is not impressed.

Policies developed in Brussels, he says, may work for mainland Europe but not necessarily for Britain's farmers, who face higher regulatory costs and a different climate.

He believes the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is uninterested in protecting agriculture because officials think Britain can import all its food.

"We have a government that doesn't give a damn."

No free lunch

The "man in the street", Mr Oliver-Bellasis says, is generally disinterested in the issues facing farmers, and likely to believe the agricultural industry is receiving unnecessary support.

Not true, he argues.

"Labour, proximity of people, regulations, all add to the cost of production."

View across Manydown farm
Mr Oliver-Bellasis says Britons wake up when their view is at stake

Compare a possible 250,000 subsidy for Manydown, he says, against approximately 600,000 the Manydown Company pays in wages.

And farmers who cannot afford additional staff end up working 80-hour weeks - often earning less than the minimum wage.

But British farmers, he says, are hanging on.

Not so super-market

At the farm shop, staff are preparing aromatic pies and replenishing stocks of Manydown meat.

In the past, Manydown sold its livestock to processors for the supermarkets. But now the farm sells everything itself.

"I got thoroughly annoyed spending 18 months getting a beef animal right but then buying poor quality meat in supermarkets."

Butchers at work in Manydown's farm shop
Manydown now sells all its livestock from its own farm shop

Mr Oliver-Bellasis says that while meat from New Zealand and Argentina is cheaper, the perception that it is of a better quality is wrong.

British animals are equally good, he says, if processed correctly by abattoirs.

He says the idea that British retailers are making an effort to sell locally-produced goods is a myth and that most Britons are uninterested in supporting British producers.

Unfortunately, Mr Oliver-Bellasis says, most farmers are not in a position to open similar businesses and niche farmers' markets don't cater for commodities.

Lucrative land

The house-letting is infinitely more profitable than growing crops
Hugh Oliver-Bellasis

Manydown also has other resources. The company owns all but a few of the houses in Wootton St. Lawrence. It rents any not used by the company's 22 full-time staff to people working in the neighbourhood.

"The house-letting is infinitely more profitable than growing crops," Mr Oliver-Bellasis says.

He reluctantly admits that a section of land bordering Basingstoke may well end up being used for the same purpose. It was designated as land for new houses in 1996.

This change in countryside use has stirred an otherwise apathetic non-farming community he says.

"When they think they're going to lose their view then they pay attention."

Going to grass

Hugh Oliver-Bellasis is passionate about farming, but he worries about its future.

Under the new structure of subsidies, Mr Oliver-Bellasis warns, the incentive to grow crops - with little prospect of profit - may well diminish.

He believes many farmers may cut their losses, accept the subsidy and put their farms into grass.

He says the "effect on Mr and Mrs London" will be a long time coming. But it will impact on the environment and eventually affect tourism.

"Instead of seeing a patchwork quilt of crops, tourists will see grass, grass and more grass."


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