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Tuesday, 24 October, 2000, 10:21 GMT 11:21 UK
BSE: The farmer's tale
By environment correspondent Alex Kirby

The BSE crisis has dealt a savage blow to farmers, who believe they have wrongly been blamed for the disaster.

Laurence Matthews has been a farmer for 20 years, earning a living from the land in south east England where he grew up.

He knows no other way of life: his father farmed there, and before him his grandfather.

Laurence and his wife now have three sons, aged five, three and one. But he is hoping they will leave the farm and find something else to do with their lives once they grow up.

Working for 'nothing'

Laurence Matthews told BBC News Online: "Farming is a lovely way of life. My eldest boy is already showing an interest in the animals and the machinery. But I don't want them going into farming as it is now.

"It's sad, as the farm's been in the family for generations. But I wouldn't want them to work all their lives for nothing."

Mr Matthews, whose farm is part-arable and partly given over to 400 beef cattle, chiefly blamed BSE for what went wrong. Yet he never had a single case of the disease in his herd.

"BSE didn't affect me directly until 20 March 1996, the day when the Government said it was probably linked to the new form of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans", he said.

"Until then I'd been making a reasonable profit on the beef side. Since then I've made none.

"It's very hard to earn a living at all. Before then, I was getting about 700 an animal. Now it's about 450, which means I'm just breaking even. And that's after driving down my costs for feed, labour and other things.

'Society blames farmers'

"The extra bureaucracy involved in the scheme to let consumers trace cattle from birth to slaughter means a lot of extra cost, and it also means it's prohibitively hard for someone like me to produce cattle that meet the specification for British export beef."


It's very hard to earn a living at all


If I'd known 20 years ago what I know now, I'd have thought harder about going into farming

Laurence Matthews says the strength of sterling is responsible for some of the farming crisis, but he still sees BSE as the chief culprit.

"Society blames farmers", he said.

"We don't get the respect we used to. If I'd known 20 years ago what I know now, I'd have thought harder about going into farming at all."

He is hoping that the BSE Inquiry report will give new hope to people like him.

"I'll be looking for anything positive that will affect the market in the future", he said.

"Someone made a mistake somewhere that let BSE happen. But you can't go back into the past and blame them.

"The only thing that will help farmers now is confidence, and that means people buying more meat and paying more for it.

"I hope there'll be something in the report that hasn't come out yet which will begin to restore confidence. I'm looking for my income to come back again."

Looking to the future

He believes the source of the BSE epidemic was a change in methods by the renderers, the firms which process animal remains and produce the meat and bone meal (MBM) which is used in the feed given to farm animals.


The only thing that will help farmers now is confidence

Scientists believe that change allowed the infective agent from sheep with a similar brain disease, scrapie, to survive the rendering process and jump species into cattle fed on MBM made from sheep carcases.

But Laurence Matthews said: "Most farmers just did not realise they were using MBM that could be a problem."

If confidence does not return, he thinks he may have to double the size of his herd in order to survive.

"It all gets a bit industrial, but what can I do? I can't go on for ever making no money from beef.

"In the meantime, my family is feeling the stress. The boys are having to go without some things we'd like to be able to give them. And I just don't have the time to spend with them that they need."


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