Leading article: We cannot afford to ignore the plight of the British farmer

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The Independent Culture
FARMING IS in crisis. Farmers have been here before. But never like this. For years, they have seen the good times roll. But the BSE crisis brought the honeymoon with Europe for beef-farmers to a painful end. Now the slump has hit agriculture right across the board. Hardly a crop or creature that a farmer can grow or rear will make him money. Average farming incomes fell 50 per cent last year, and lowland livestock farmers saw their incomes plummet into losses three times the size of the preceding year's profits.

This agricultural crisis is an inevitable consequence of economics as well as misfortune. The BSE crisis may have aggravated the situation, but it is not the sole cause of today's problems. Strong sterling, the increasing globalisation of trade, and the collapse of significant markets such as Russia, have produced a hostile environment for our farmers.

It is not a cause that finds a ready ear in government, least of all with this Labour administration which has so firmly set its stall on the side of the consumers and against open-ended subsidies of any sort. Don't ask politicians who have seen shipbuilders, miners and steelworkers thrown unceremoniously onto the scrapheap of economic history to bleed for farmers with four-wheel drives, their own houses and huge assets on which they can borrow. But the problems this time cannot be ignored, however slow the Government has been to accept them. The outlook for farming in Britain, especially the smaller, family-run farms, is bleak indeed. Many will not survive and it is right to address just how their financial and real human suffering can be alleviated, and where the future of farming, and consequently the countryside, in Britain lies. Agriculture Minister Nick Brown's announcement yesterday that he would be seeking funds to offer farmers early retirement inducements is a step in the right direction, even if pounds 40,000 is not a generous pension plan.

It would be wrong to view the brutal restructuring which British family farming now inevitably faces as the end of a tradition unbroken for millennia. The image of the ploughman wending his way home across a chequerboard of fields unchanged for centuries was always myth, the dream of city-dwellers and the stuff of popular poets. The reality is that farming has always been subject to cycles of prolonged plenty followed by sudden and savage recession. And the succeeding periods of restructuring have not always been for the bad.

What is fundamentally different, however, about this crisis is that there is no obvious profitable crop to which farmers in any sector can turn. The current collapse in the market for farming produce runs right across the board. Wheat alone remains an economically viable agricultural activity, but this is only a result of heavy subsidies which will remain static in the face of inflation. Pigs and potatoes, chickens and cabbages, do not even fetch their production costs in the market-place. The market for older ewes who have reached the end of their productive lives has completely collapsed, leaving Britain's farmers with 1 million sheep each year which they cannot sell and which are costly to slaughter. At the end of July, the Government ceased to pay for the slaughter of the unwanted calves which are born to keep dairy cows producing milk.

Now, these 600,000-odd animals have been added to the vast crowd of beasts in limbo between worthlessness and the slaughterhouse and which farmers, in protest, have started to dump on the RSPCA. The only novelty on the horizon is genetically modified foods, and these raise environmental and health concerns.

Nor are protectionist tariffs or increasing subsidy a solution to the economic impasse in which the farming industry finds itself. Unnecessarily high prices are unfair on the British, or European, consumer. And further subsidy would be an expensive postponement of the inescapable day of rationalisation for the farming industry. For a long time, the British farmer has been better protected than the steelworker and coalminer, whose industries failed to make economic sense. Now that many farmers face the same fate as these other industries, it is certainly right that they should be offered a golden goodbye as suggested by Mr Brown.

But an effective buyout of farmers facing bankruptcy only addresses part of the problems facing rural areas. Farmers are not simply businessmen. By cultivating the countryside, they are the effective guardians of our green and pleasant land. If the financial future of farming lies only in large-scale arable operations, then the familiar landscape of patchwork hedges and grazing cattle may become an image of the past. Prairie-scale fields may dominate our flatlands and hilly areas not viable for crops, could turn to scrub. And who will pay to look after that? The future of rural life in Britain is a task not just for Westminster, but one which the newly-devolved Scottish and Welsh assemblies should seize

No government can stop the tide of change, in farming any more than cars. But it can act to moderate the pace and alleviate the pain.