Subsidise and be damned - farmers are a special case

There is no substitute for family-scale agriculture as the backbone of a proper rural economy
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The Independent Culture
WHEN I last met Robert, he was a school-boy and my younger brother's best friend. The other day, I met him for the first time in 30 years. He had taken over his father's farm in the heart of the finest dairy country of the eastern Cheshire plain. This farm, with its beautiful early 19th century house, was once regarded as a ranch, an enormous holding, even by the relatively prosperous standards of Cheshire.

Robert reported, with a rueful grin, that his farm was now regarded as medium-to-small and close to marginal. In his mid-40s, he had been told that he must double the number of his milking cows if the farm was going to survive the chilly, agricultural climate predicted for the early years of the next century.

Joel, 28, is a young beef farmer whom I met last year in Creuse, in the green, empty heart of France. He has built up the family farm so that it now occupies the land which sustained 10 separate farms 20 years ago. He produces high quality, grass-reared, organic beef by a mixture of old- fashioned and high-tech methods (closed-circuit TV in the cowsheds, computers in the farmhouse, but no chemical fertilisers or suspect, bought-in animal feeds.)

Joel too said that, despite all his investment and innovations, he regarded his own chances of survival as 50:50. He looked forward with foreboding to the new round of EU farm policy negotiations, which were then only a cloud on the northern horizon but are now provoking froth and fury in Brussels.

Both men are typical of the kind of updated, but traditional, farming that we should cherish and encourage. Both face an uncertain future.

I am going to try to make an unpopular argument: we should continue to subsidise farmers, although not in the way we do now, which is counter- productive to the farmers themselves.

My old boss, Andreas Whittam Smith, recently argued in this space that all agricultural support was mis-spent: that farmers had no more right to be subsidised than car-workers, miners, fishermen or journalists. Jeremy Paxman once described Mr Whittam Smith as looking as though he might secretly "farm half of Norfolk". Apparently not. But to answer Andreas's main argument, I believe that there are two fundamental reasons why farming is different.

First, you can abolish a steel-works or a coal mine or a car factory and eventually replace it with something else. You cannot abolish the heart of France or the Welsh hills or the eastern Cheshire plain. There is no substitute for family-scale agriculture as the backbone of a rural, rather than mock-rural, semi-suburban economy. There is no other way to preserve the characteristic landscape - or landscapes - of western Europe, which are largely an agricultural creation.

The present rate of rural depopulation is already disturbing, even with subsidies in place. The option of low intensity suburbification is not available to all regions. If subsidies were to be abolished, One Man and his Dog might be no longer just a television programme, but the population of western Shropshire.

To glimpse a subsidy-free future you need only visit the soulless steppes of Norfolk, or the mournful plains of the Ile-de-France where vast cereals farms - which require no subsidy but take the biggest ones under the present bizarre policy - have destroyed hedgerows and villages, and poisoned water courses with nitrate fertilisers. You only have to visit Brittany, where industrial pig-production units have swamped the pork market and befouled the local water supply.

The second reason why agriculture is different is that it produces the food we eat. The BSE crisis was a by-product of "efficient", non-traditional agriculture: the only kind that could survive if subsidies were abolished. There is already a turning away from chemically-produced and genetically modified food, which suggests that a more traditional form of farming can have a future. But it would be impossible for it to survive without targeted subsidies and incentives, at least in the medium term.

The present Common Agriculture Policy (CAP), though much reformed, is still based on encouraging production by propping up prices at artificially high levels. Economically, it cannot survive the enlargement of the union to the thousands of underdeveloped farms in Poland, Hungary or the Czech Republic. Politically, it cannot survive the next round of world trade talks.

But there are good, pro-farmer, pro-rural reasons for wanting to phase out the present CAP and replace it with a policy that would be kinder to family-sized holdings, kinder to the environment and, yes, even kinder to animals.

The present policy has bred its own downfall by encouraging mindless productivity ahead of quality or the interests of the wider rural economy. Even the French government has abandoned its support for this approach, long hypocritically defended as a means of protecting the delicate culture of La France profonde. France has become the world's second strongest agricultural power during the last 30 years, but has lost 500,000 farms in the process.

The CAP has been generous to the giant cereals farms of the north - which have been in turn kind to French political party funds - but the empty, green heart of France has become emptier and emptier. (Hence all those cheap holiday homes).

Now all the ministers in Brussels, including the French, say that they favour a policy that targets aid for well-run, smaller and medium farms; a policy which is tied to food quality and respect for the environment. So far so good. There are differences about how such aims can best be achieved. That is inevitable.

The real problem is that the negotiations in Brussels are not really about the future philosophy and direction of farm policy at all. They are about who should pay. Germany and the European Commission have suggested that part of the cost of a reformed policy should be paid by each government to its own farmers. This makes perfect sense if there is to be room in the EU budget for anything else. But it doesn't serve the self interest of the French, whose agriculture, and public spending, is currently subsidised by the EU (ie the Germans) to the tune of around pounds 5bn a year.

The depressing prospect - even the likelihood - is that the hope of a sensible CAP reform will be lost in some middle-of-the-night compromise based on the interests, not of farmers or consumers, but of national treasuries.