Farming hit by worst crisis since the Thirties

Millions of livestock now worthless; Produce prices plummet to all-time low; Profits wiped out across the industry
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The Independent Online
BRITISH FARMING is facing its worst crisis since the Thirties,with prices collapsing so badly that most farmers are now making nothing on their produce. An animal welfare emergency is looming with more than one and a half million unwanted livestock animals.

A remarkable set of data collected by The Independent indicates that farmers are losing cash on virtually everything they grow, breed, fatten, harvest and pick, from cabbages, potatoes, apples and oilseed rape to pigs, sheep, cows, eggs, chickens and milk.

An unprecedented coming-together of adverse economic factors, from the rise in the value of the pound to the collapse of the Russian economy, has meant that for almost every agricultural commodity, apart from wheat which is still in profit thanks to its EU subsidies, the price farmers are receiving for their produce this year is less than the cost of its production.

Yesterday the Agriculture Minister Nick Brown disclosed he would be seeking an increase in his budget from the Chancellor Gordon Brown to ease the plight of farmers, but stressed that there would be strings attached.

He will be having "candid discussions with the Treasury" for an increase in his agriculture budget, he said after meeting his Welsh counterpart,Christine Gwyther, for crisis talks about Welsh farmers.

The depression's universal aspect - zero profitability across every sector - is regarded by farming analysts as unique. "This has never happened before," said Kevin Pierce, the livestock adviser to the National Farmers' Union. "In the past if one agricultural sector was down, another would be up, and make up for it. Now everything is on the bottom at the same time." The Rev Nick Read, an Anglican cleric who is the head of the Rural Stress Information Network, a national charity helping farmers to cope with the crisis said: "The situation is catastrophic and people who have been around for a long time say that the only comparison they can make is with the Thirties."

The peculiar intensity of the current economic crisis has not yet registered with the public, probably because, after years of subsidies, farmers are popularly perceived as featherbedded fat cats crying wolf, and complained loudly about their disastrous 1998, when farm incomes plunged widely into enormous losses. "I think compassion fatigue has set in with the public," Mr Read said. But every indication is that 1999 will be even worse.

The crisis has also taken the Government, not sympathetic to farmers at best, more or less by surprise. It is only the remarkable series of "livestock dumpings" of the past month that have this week made MrBrown sit up and take note.

Livestock farmers, the hardest hit of all, now find that because of market collapses and the end of government subsidises, they have a million ewes and 600,000 dairy calves on their hands, unwanted but with no value. Rather than pay slaughterhouses to dispose of them they have been abandoning the beasts in public places or with animal charities.

On Thursday Mr Brown indicated for the first time that he was aware of the depth of the crisis by suggesting that some livestock farmers might be given redundancy payments of up to pounds 40,000. But last night he struck a less sympathetic note, ruling out direct cash help and suggesting farmers were partly to blame for their plight.

Mr Brown said the market had been oversupplied for two years and there was now no "easy solution". Farmers had responded to falling prices by breeding more unsaleable ewes he said, adding that there was a limit to what the Government could do.

"Our room for manoeuvre with the CAP is pretty limited. We cannot introduce unlawful state aids, nor can I reshape the state aids that provides the bulk of support at the minute."

The Tory party chairman Michael Ancram hit out at the minister, saying: "It is simply not good enough for Nick Brown to wring his hands and say he doesn't know the answer. His job is to find answers and quickly, before too many farmers go to the wall."

RSPCA officials, meanwhile, were considering cruelty charges against "utterly irresponsible" farmers who abandoned a flock of sheep at one of their centres. The 335 animals were dumped at the charity's Bryn-y- Maen base, near Colwyn Bay, in north Wales, by 45 farmers who claimed that they could not sell them.