Rural crisis: Farmers' lot - Men of the soil turn into unlikely new bre ed of militants

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The Independent Online
"There's no divine right to farm," was one stark message of the Oxford Farming Conference earlier this month and one Jack Cunningham, Minister of Agriculture, has been driving home with increasing bluntness. So what does the future hold for farmers and the agricultural landscape? Stephen Goodwin, Heritage Correspondent, assesses the prospects.

Farmers and farm workers have become the improbable new militants of British industry. With their livelihoods in turmoil following the "mad cow" crisis, ruddy-faced men from the shires have taken a lead from their French counterparts and gone on the march, blockading ports and herding their cattle to Downing Street.

The immediate demand is simple. Farmers want the Government to ask Brussels for another pounds 980m to compensate for the effect on their incomes of a strong pound. But the underlying cause of their frustration is much more complex.

After decades in which farming has become almost a dependency culture - only half-joking, an arable man at Oxford told how regular brown envelopes from the Ministry of Agriculture had fuelled his taste for champagne - the future is uncertain.

BSE has been a nightmare, particularly for hill farmers, but the big upheaval in the early years of the next millennium will be brought about by a phasing out of the price support system of the European Common Agricultural Policy. As the Americans cajole the European Union into a freer market, farmers will no longer benefit from what is in essence a multi-billion pound subsidy to export Europe's surplus produce.

"The Old Testament of Europe, with the CAP as Genesis, is being overtaken by the new Europe where the global market is gospel," former Tory minister David Curry told a farming audience recently. Not everyone likes the new religion, though Britain, with larger, more mechanised farms, is better placed to exploit it than most EU countries.

Three-quarters of the surface of Britain is agricultural land. There are some 234,000 farms supporting 600,000 farmers, their spouses and labourers. But it is a dwindling population and at the present rate of decline it could be little more than half the present figure by 2020. The number of labourers has halved in two decades to 69,000.

Though farming is traditionally thought to be governed by the weather, the biggest influences over the coming decades are going to be politics, consumer taste, food safety and science.

While lowland farms are well placed to compete in a freer market, increasing exports to the rest of Europe, the outlook for many hill farms is bleak. The rough grassland over much of the uplands of the Pennines, Scotland and Wales is suitable for sheep and suckler herds producing beef calves, but not much else.

Without heavy subsidies, most hill farms could not survive. Yet these are the same farms that give much of the uplands, particularly areas like the Yorkshire Dales and Lakeland, their cherished appearance of stone walls and old barns. The public will have to decide whether it wants these landscapes to survive and if it is prepared to pay.

Conservationists have long argued that the answer lies in reforming the CAP to link farm support to protecting the environment and improving public access rather than a head count of livestock. And though the idea was contrary to farmers' ingrained bias for maximising production they have slowly been coming round.

Global warming is likely to cause some change in the agricultural landscape. With a predicted rise of 1.5C in average temperatures by 2050, early potatoes will be grown across much of England, reducing imports from places like Egypt and Italy and more maize will be grown to feed cattle.

But climate change will be a small player compared to genetic modification. Scientists will develop crops more resistant to disease and tolerant of herbicides or drought. Flavour and sweetness will be enhanced and protein and starch levels modified to suit consumer demand.


1985-87 1996

Regular workers 149,000 102,000

Regular part-time workers 62,000 57,000

Farmers, partners and directors 290,000 281,000