The immediate future of farm policy in Britain

The context
Farming is currently experiencing many difficulties and the recent history of the Farming Community Network (FCN), a Christian charity devoted to supporting farming people in difficulties across England and Wales, makes their impact very clear. Not to be forgotten are those who are still struggling to recover from bouts of flooding from last year and the year before. In recent twelve months farming income fell by 29%. This has been extremely difficult for most farmers with cash flow under extreme pressure and short-term debt rising rapidly to levels where in some cases servicing the interest payments looks beyond the realms of possibility.

Whilst all farm income came under severe pressure, Dairy farmers on non-aligned contracts were to suffer particularly. Many hung on in the hope of rising milk prices but by the end of 2015, five dairy farms were closing every week, leading to a slump in cow prices causing consequential difficulties for those wanting to change sectors.

For others, simply complying with existing regulations can be problematic. For older farmers, those who are under significant stress because of other issues and those suffering bereavement, possibly the loss of a partner responsible for managing the farm’s paperwork, the result can be yet more stress, sometimes bringing them to the brink of despair.

Bovine TB continues to be a rapidly increasing problem, spreading out from the well-known endemic areas. It is estimated that in hotspots three out of four of FCN cases have a TB component in the mix.

Coming on top of all this, the administration of the first year of the latest reformed version of the Common Agricultural Policy has gone badly wrong, across all of the home nations. Many people’s payments were delayed and several thousands have still not been paid in full.

FCN casework during the financial year underlines all the above. The first six months saw casework evolve broadly in line with the previous year. Though modest in proportion, the continued growth of between 1% and 3% in every category of support is evidence to the continued decline in welfare amongst Britain’s farmers. After it became clear in December that there were problems in the payment of the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS), FCN’s helpline calls rose to five times the level normal for the time of year: broadly speaking an extra 250 cases per month. The total workload of
the 400 plus volunteers is difficult to quantify exactly, and in any case only some of those in difficulty will approach FCN. Nonetheless this shows both how significant this payment is, often amounting to the same figure as the farm’s net income and how vulnerable many farms are.

Possible policy responses
The above makes it clear that any sudden cessation of support or further hiatus in its administration would have a very major effect on farming. It’s important to remember that this is not just about economics and production: it’s also about people and families and their possible distress, anxiety and despair even. Nor is it just about being big efficient farmers versus marginal small ones. This is not a plea to carry on with exactly the same farm policy indefinitely. There are major questions to resolve about food supply, the future role of farming, why and whether it should be supported, how and to what end, but all that will be much more difficult if serious damage is done in the meantime.

It is obviously a relief that the government has announced some immediate continuity and this should be welcomed as we go on to think about what the longer term policy might be.

Compiled by members of the Agricultural Christian Fellowship
September 2016

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