Whinge: the oldest farm pest: Incomes have doubled in two years but the agricultural compulsion to moan remains irresistible

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The Independent Online
THE 'WHINGE' is a farmer's complaint less susceptible to treatment than, say, Colorado beetle, cabbage fly or equine fever. It diminishes the bounty of good years and aggravates the insufficiency of bad years. Endemic from the beginning of agricultural time, it may defy the elements at their kindest. There is no known cure.

But last week, amelioration appeared to drift across the landscape. Farmers' incomes, the Ministry of Agriculture announced, had leapt in 1993 by 62.1 per cent - following a 41.9 per cent increase in 1992.

'This is good news and I feel it should be recognised as such,' says Gillian Shephard, the Minister of Agriculture, commenting on last year's pounds 1.14bn in extra subsidies from the European Community.

The windfall has resulted largely from Britain's departure from the Exchange Rate Mechanism in October 1992. This increased the value of EC subsidies and support prices paid to British farmers every time the pound fell in value - which it did frequently (since the Second World War, subsidies have been paid by the British government and, subsequently, by the EC to compensate for flood, drought and foreign competition). At the same time, government cuts in interest rates for farmers helped to hold down inflation.

Did whoops of delight fill the nation's hay barns and milking sheds? Hardly. The National Farmers' Union points out that farm incomes are characterised by peaks and troughs, and the underlying trend 'is still down'.

Instead of celebrating, farmers began a new, agonised debate about the European subsidies which made the windfall possible. On one side are the well-off (mostly big grain producers, such as those in East Angia) who are beginning to question the wisdom of the subsidy system. Their belief that 'the whole apparatus of farm subsidy has done nothing but harm to the industry and the countryside' and should be dismantled, is backed by the leader writers of the Daily Telegraph. On the other side are Scottish crofters, Welsh hill farmers and everyone else who cannot imagine life without subsidy. The latter, who regard the windfall as 'a momentary phenomenon', are backed by the NFU. But the union, which holds its annual general meeting on Tuesday, is divided.

The whinge-factor, therefore, seems set to continue. Warning that incomes will fall next year, due to EC reforms and the recent Gatt deal on world trade, David Naish, NFU president, says: 'We should not be defensive about this increase in incomes. It is badly needed to keep agriculture viable.' But Sean Rickard, the union's chief economist, acknowledges that the argument for supporting food production is not as strong today as it was in the 1960s.

Oliver Walston, who farms 2,000 acres on the Cambridgeshire-Hertfordshire border (wheat, oilseed rape, sugarbeet, beans), dismisses NFU meetings as 'traditionally an excuse for members to indulge in an orgy of self-pity'. The whingeing farmer, he says, 'is a universal truth - from the barley baron of Lincolnshire to the poorest peasant in Crete. They'll never admit that they're prosperous or having a good year.' Mr Walston, also a farming journalist, says that any proposal that the NFU should abandon production-linked subsidies is 'like the Pope advocating the use of condoms'.

A few miles up the M11, another Cambridgeshire farmer, Adrian Peck, thinks Mr Walston 'naive'. Mr Peck, who has 1,170 acres, 750 of them arable (oilseed rape, winter wheat, beans), says: 'I'm not going around whingeing to anyone. But we have our problems, like every other industry. There have been many suicides in farming over the last couple of years, mainly because of the stress of being on your own, working on tractors and in the fields, but also because of problems in paying back loans. This recent (incomes rise) is an absolute God-send to cereal growers, but it's a blip that will enable some farmers to reduce their overdraft and have a little bit of money to buy a second-hand tractor.' Farmers raising pigs and poultry were having a terrible time.

Across the country, smaller farmers manifested varying degrees of unease. 'People have come through the recession by tightening their belts and neglecting to provide for their old age,' says Barnaby Hannam, a Wiltshire tenant farmer on 260 acres (dairy cows, cereals). 'I don't want to whinge, but we can't unilaterally dismantle subsidies. Finland has raised subsidies to pounds 17,000 a year per farm. The Japanese figure is about pounds 12,000, compared with the European average of pounds 6,000.'

Doubts about subsidies were publicly aired a week ago by Matt Ridley, a dairy and arable farmer in Northumberland. He argued that the world market price in wheat is seriously destabilised by the competing subsidies of the European Union and the United States. Europe's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) achieved stability in consumer prices only by raising them considerably. Mr Walston, who has studied farming in most parts of the world, agrees with this reading of the situation. 'Subsidies are like any drug. You can't manage without them. Pay a man a subsidy to produce more wheat, and the price of wheat goes up. Everything else goes up - fertiliser, tractors, the price of land, rents.'

Like many modern farmers, Mr Walston and Mr Peck work in offices crammed with computers to keep track of things. 'We are victims of our own success,' the former says, indicating a framed photograph on the wall. It showed his father's 80 farm employees at a harvest supper in Cambridge's University Arms Hotel in 1946. Today, he can manage with four employees. 'When I started farming in 1971 my objective was two tonnes of wheat an acre. By 1980 I was getting four tonnes an acre. The United Kingdom went from being an importer of wheat to being an exporter. There are 30 million tonnes of it sitting in storage all over Europe.' Mr Peck, however, insists that before the recent windfall farmers' incomes were no higher, in real terms, than they were in 1948.

To reduce production, the EC introduced 'set aside', a scheme which paid farmers not to use some land for production. 'For the first time ever,' Mr Walston says, 'we're being paid not only for every tonne we produce but for every acre we set aside. As a result, six weeks ago a cheque for pounds 101,000 arrived, made out to me from you, the taxpayer. Farmers will hit me for saying so.'

(Photograph omitted)