Agriculture: Minister promises to help crisis-hit farmers

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THE AGRICULTURE minister Jeff Rooker hinted yesterday that a crisis package for the rural economy would be announced shortly, including a replacement for a scheme aimed at helping dairy farmers to dispose of calves which is scheduled to be wound up at the end of next month.

Mr Rooker told MPs that farmers were going through "an extremely difficult period", with prospects not looking good for the immediate future.

"We are looking at a package. It has to meet immediate short-term needs and must not ... grow like topsy and make more complicated restructuring for the long term," he said during a debate on farming and the food industry.

The calf aid processing scheme - commonly known as the "Herod" scheme - was introduced in 1996 soon after the beef export ban was imposed. It was intended to alleviate the problem of large numbers of calves hanging over the market and was not designed to be permanent. Farmers were paid a premium worth about pounds 81 for every calf aged under 20 days slaughtered at approved abattoirs and not intended for human consumption.

Mr Rooker went on to deny accusations that the Government was dropping plans to set up a Food Standards Agency from next month's Queen's Speech. "Our commitments remain absolutely as they were earlier this year ... It's a manifesto commitment. We're going to deliver an FSA."