July 4, 2008

A Dynamic and Vital Resource

I f ANY industry has demonstrated how quickly it can react and adapt to seismic change in a very few years, it's British agriculture - and Westcountry farming in particular. It has moved, effectively, from a subsidy-borne sector to a dynamic and vital national resource in well under a decade.

The resilience, tenacity and sheer bloody-mindedness of the agricultural community has helped the transformation.

So, too, has a willingness to learn and experiment, and the realisation that vision about how to prioritise in a fast-changing world will allow agriculture to flourish and prosper.

It has been a remarkable achievement, undertaken under a plethora of bureaucracy from a Government that has at best proved indifferent, and is frequently hostile to a community it knows does not contain many votes for New Labour.

Add to that the historically aggressive trading behaviour of most of the large retailing supermarket chains, plus growing energy and labour costs, and it is a wonder that farming has survived at all, let alone thrived.

Naturally there have been industry casualties since the new century dawned. The sheep industry shrank notably as a result of foot and mouth disease in 2001. And dairy farmers sold up in droves, faced with appalling returns and mounting costs.

But all that has changed - not least because food security has become a reality once again, with the need to feed an ever-growing world population finally recognised as perhaps the most important issue facing mankind in the future. The era of cheap food has disappeared, probably for ever.

At the same time, aspiring and fast-expanding nations in the Far East and South America are making added demands on global supplies. So, with a finite amount of farmable land, there will always be a place for the producers of food.

Consumer demand for better, healthier, and, above all, local food is seeing our farmers aiming to provide the sort of high- quality and traceable produce that exemplifies the Westcountry.

The organic sector, too, is snowballing in popularity, with hundreds of producers in the South West now satisfying a trend that can no longer be dismissed as a niche fad on the fringes of conventional agriculture.

The reality of the disappearance of direct subsidy support for livestock production has spawned a thoroughly hard-headed approach from the farmers of today, coupled with the knowledge that good husbandry of the countryside and its flora and fauna will promote support from the urban taxpayer. Even in the Westcountry, with its myriad traditional family farms, agriculture is no longer seen as a way of life, but as a commercial business.

In this region we are especially fortunate to have a grass- growing climate ideal for cattle rearing, both dairy and beef. Neither is as reliant on processed feeds as herds upcountry, and that has to be a bonus, with grain prices now 80 per cent more than a year ago.

Because of the high arable prices, many more Westcountry farmers are growing their own feed this year, with plantings up 8 per cent.

If South West dairy farmers are now receiving the sort of returns for their produce that sees them in profit, the region's beef farmers are also getting realistic payments. In fact beef prices have risen from 215p a kilogram at the start of the year to around 268p this week. Their resurgence has a positive knock-on effect for the other cattle sectors, all of which are showing encouraging upturns.

The lamb trade too, has risen in leaps and bounds since the setbacks of last year, with more farmers expanding in the sector.

But the realisation that, after 30 years of really cheap domestically produced food, consumers are going to have to pay more, is slow in dawning. These days the average household spends only 10 per cent of its income on food.

The plain truth is that, despite the far better payments, to safeguard long-term sustainability of both beef and lamb sectors there needs to be a further increase in farmgate prices.

Latest figures from the English Beef and Lamb Executive show that beef finisher units faced a 17 per cent rise in costs in the year ending March 2008. In the same period sheep breeding flocks saw sales drop by up to 13 per cent.

Melanie Hall, South West regional director of the National Farmers' Union, spelled it out.

She said: "We continue to experience a marked increase in feed prices, with recent figures showing a rise in feed price of 37 per cent between March 2007 and March 2008.

"Given that feed costs can represent up to a third of production costs for intensive beef-finishing units, the impact on profitability cannot be underestimated.

"In the same period other costs have increased. Fertiliser has gone up by more than 70 per cent and fuel continues to rise, as have costs associated with animal health.

"What these figures show is that despite recent and long overdue rises in the price paid at the farm gate, the increased input costs faced by livestock farmers are negating gains.

"I make no apology in calling for the supply chain to deliver further increases to livestock farmers to cover production costs and allow primary producers to secure a return that allows them to invest with confidence in a future in livestock production."

And there are other worries, particularly to be found on the Westcountry's uplands - Dartmoor, Exmoor and Bodmin Moor. Hill farmers there will need enhanced subsidies to keep going, if the moors and uplands are to remain grazed.

And the already depleted pig industry faces rising costs, many associated with animal welfare considerations that do not apply to foreign competitors, putting the industry on the back foot and making a mockery of EU aspirations for a "level playing field situation" for all its farmers.

(c) 2008 Western Morning News, The Plymouth (UK). Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.