Are Britain's farmers right to moan?

Tony Blair is being petitioned by agricultural groups pleading poverty.
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The Independent Online
TRACTOR dealers, feed merchants, fertiliser manufacturers, vets and a whole range of industries dependent on agriculture joined Britain's farmers yesterday in calling on the Government to act over the crisis in farm incomes, which nearly halved over the past year.

The financial slump is now threatening the whole rural economy, they warned in a "rural charter" setting out their demands for action, which they signed and sent to Tony Blair.

They urged him to move to bring down the high level of the pound on the foreign exchanges which is doing more than anything else to cut farm revenues. They are also seeking a meeting with the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, to press their case.

The leaders of 25 agricultural trade bodies and organisations allied to farming, ranging from the British Agricultural and Garden Machinery Association to the United Kingdom Agricultural Supply Association, met at the National Farmers' Union headquarters in London to highlight what they described as the "knock-on" effect on the rural economy of the farming income drop.

The falls have been substantial: over the past year, farm incomes as a whole in Britain have gone down by 45 per cent and in some sectors by even more: the 12,000 lowland cattle and sheep farmers in England have suffered a 65 per cent drop. The farm gate price of wheat fell from pounds 121.70 per tonne in January 1996 to pounds 77.70 in January this year; of milk from 25p to 20p per litre; and of beef from pounds 1.19 per kilo to 90p.

"When the farming industry is hurting, so is the rest of the rural economy," said Ben Gill, the NFU's president. "We are calling on the Government and other key economic decision makers to act on the rural charter to ensure a vibrant rural economy for future generations."

The NFU said that the number of tractors registered for road use in the UK in the first four months of 1998 fell by 47 per cent compared with the same period the previous year. Agricultural investment is forecast to fall by 37 per cent this year, and a survey of of leaders from industries allied to farming revealed business confidence at its lowest level in living memory.

However, Jack Cunningham, the Minister of Agriculture, yesterday denied that the rural economy as a whole was suffering. "I accept that some aspects of farming have had a very difficult time for the last couple of years, particularly in the livestock sector," he said.

"Overall, farm incomes have been in decline for almost two decades, apart from a small and temporary arrest in the early 1990s. But I don't accept that everyone in the countryside is getting very much poorer. That's not the case. Rural unemployment fell in the last 12 months by 4 per cent."

The health and strength of the rural economy "must go way beyond farming", he said, which was why the Government was focusing on issues such as rural transport, applying health action zones and the New Deal for the unemployed to rural areas, and concentrating European Union funds on rural enterprises.

Ironically, the new protest from the farmers and their supplying industries came on a day with some long-awaited good news: the first lifting of the EU beef ban prompted by the BSE scare. Exports of beef from Ulster, which comes from "guaranteed" BSE-free herds, can resume from next week, the European Commission said.

The restoration of trade comes more than two years after the mad cow scare prompted the Commission to impose a world-wide export blockade - the rest of the UK's beef export market remains closed for the time being. Ulster has been cleared because it has a computerised cattle monitoring system which Brussels says provides sufficient safeguards against the transmission of BSE.