Farmers told to diversify or go under

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN'S FARMERS must diversify into other activities if they are to survive. Conserving rural scenery and wildlife could become their most important occupation apart from growing food, the Agriculture Select Committee said yesterday. Forestry and timber products, food manufacturing and marketing, tourism and even light industry will be the other key areas for rural expansion.

Peter Luff, committee chairman, said that in a few years most farmers could be receiving payments from taxpayers for acting as environmental guardians. But the MPs fear the Government will lag behind other EU nations in helping farmers to diversify, putting Britain's agricultural industry at a competitive disadvantage.

Their conclusions come in a report on European Commission proposals for statutory new countryside policies across the 15 member-states. These proposals, which the MPs say are ``modest and fragmentary'', are part of the latest reform of the widely criticised Common Agricultural Policy, which farm ministers are to agree on by the end of March.

Running the policy and all the subsidies which accompany it absorbs half the European Union's budget and costs taxpayers pounds 30bn a year. Britain is the second-largest net contributor after Germany.

The reform will slash guaranteed prices paid in the EU for most major crops, making Europe's farmers compete on world markets. Set-aside, in which farmers are paid for growing nothing, will be abolished. The changes are needed to avert trade wars and enable the EU to expand to the east, taking in former Warsaw Pact nations, without going bankrupt.

Farmers will receive compensation for these changes, but there are still disagreements between member-states about how long it compensation should continue for.

The MPs on the select committee call for rural development policies and the administration of subsidies for environment-friendly farming to be devolved from Brussels to the nations and regions of Britain. They take the British government to task for falling behind in developing a strategy for the rural industries of the future which must grow as farming shrinks.

The committee fears other member-states will use the new policies and subsidies for green farming and rural development to give their farmers an unfair advantage. Support from taxpayers could enable them to sell their food cheap. Britain, say the MPs, must ensure Europe's farm ministers agree to ``rigorous control and monitoring.'' Mr Luff, Tory MP for the rural Mid Worcestershire constituency, said: ``There is a well-founded feeling that other EU member-states have been more generous in helping farmers to diversify than successive British governments. British farmers are fearful that their competitors on the Continent will be getting greater subsidies, so there will not be a level playing-field.''

The committee took evidence from British farmers before writing its report.

It said the proposals did not set aside enough money to encourage farmers to be more environmentally friendly or to diversify.

"The importance of setting the appropriate level of EU financing for this proposal cannot be overestimated - EU funds are absolutely critical to its success."

Hard Times Force Family to Sell Up

"I WAS selling my ewes for pounds 60 on average in 1997 but last year they didn't even fetch pounds 25. In the end I [made the decision to] give the last 25 away."

Like thousands of farmers across the United Kingdom, Jim Akrigg, who is selling his hill farm in east Cumbria, suffered greatly in the last few months. In fact, 1998 was the worst on record for an industry which saw increasing numbers of farmers selling up.

Mr Akrigg, whose family have been farming near the village of Kirkby Stephen since 1946, has decided to move with his wife and three sons to Canada to start afresh on a new farm. The Akriggs, who kept ewes and cows until recently, are not unique.

A survey of hill farmers conducted recently revealed that 43 per cent of respondents with children said they would not be taking over the family farm.

"We are fed up", said Mr Akrigg. "The damage has been done now and it will take years for things to get any better. Normally, if sheep are down then cattle or pigs are up but recently everything seems to have been flat and in the doldrums." He added: "I want my sons to be able to stand on their own two feet."