"It stopped being fun about three years ago." We were walking with farming friends along a cliff path in south-west Scotland, looking out across the Irish Sea to the Isle of Man. It was one of those gorgeous, clear, shining days between Christmas and New Year – the sort of day that makes everything seem worthwhile – and we were talking about the survival of a whole way of life.
This little corner of Scotland has all the aspects of the countryside that visitors love, from wildlife to castles, country towns to hill walks. But if the people who tend that country – however energetic, however enthusiastic, however skilled – can't make it fun, then the country will be changed unutterably and the rest of us will lose something than cannot ever be recreated.
Sentimental rubbish? The past three years have been the worst in farming history. An industry already squeezed between rising costs, administrative burdens and falling prices has been hit by two catastrophes: BSE and foot-and-mouth. The plunge in tourism last year has made matters worse, for many farmers rely on B&Bs and holiday cottages to offset the falling income from the farm.
But, you might argue, this industry is subsidised as is none other. Quite aside from the continuing support, year in, year out, for buying produce far above world prices, taxpayers have also spent upwards of £3bn combating BSE, and a similar amount to eradicate foot-and-mouth. And this is a tiny industry, accounting for less than 2 per cent of GDP. Manufacturing, also in decline, is 10 times as big and gets nothing comparable in taxpayer support.
But, of course, the subsidy is part of the problem. The UK was forced to abandon its very sensible system of support as part of the entry ticket for joining the Common Market. Instead of giving assistance on individual products and closing the gap between UK costs and world prices, so that farmers had incentive to produce more food but the country could still import from lowest-cost producers, we adopted the Common Agricultural Policy. That put a tariff wall round Europe's inefficient farmers and forced the price of food for British consumers up. It was madness. But it was a madness that the Heath government felt it had to accept as the price of the entry ticket to Europe.
Now, at last, at last, we have a government report that admits this. The Commission on the Future of Farming and Food, led by Sir Donald Curry, said yesterday that the CAP is unsustainable and recommends that agricultural subsidies should be dispensed in a different way. Instead of taxpayers paying for producing crops, they should pay to protect the countryside.
Wow! What sense! Rarely has a government report inspired such an enthusiastic response. Tony Blair says that "the current situation benefits no-one: farmers, taxpayers, consumers or the environment".
But then Mr Blair's support might have been expected, because he himself commissioned the report in response to attacks on the Government's handling of the foot-and-mouth epidemic and its anti-farming attitudes. But the other members of the establishment have all lined up on side. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Consumers' Association and the Council for the Protection of Rural England were quick with their support. And while the National Farmers' Union and Friends of the Earth were somewhat more circumspect, the general welcome is still pretty extraordinary.
But when a report is (more or less) universally welcomed, wise people smell a rat. The rat here is what actually happens as a result of these proposals. The pattern of this Government is to produce strings of "initiatives" which, however attractive in theory, turn out to be piddling little schemes that no one takes much notice of once the headlines are over. And meanwhile the really big things that the Government ought to be focussing on, like health and transport, are neglected.
The Government has been extremely uninterested in agriculture. Why should the sceptical outsider (or indeed the embattled farmer) believe that it is suddenly going to focus on it now? As Sir Donald put it: "Farmers themselves feel they have lost their sense of purpose: this came through in our consultation very strongly. They don't feel valued."
But who is responsible for this neglect? More than any other part of society, it is the Government. We should in all fairness wait and see what legislative and other changes that Margaret Beckett, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, introduces. But when you look at the detail of the proposals, you can already spot the potential bureaucratic nightmares that may be in store.
For example, it has been proposed that farmers should be required to have a licence guaranteeing that they will work the land in an environmentally friendly way before they qualify for subsidies. Great idea in principle, but in practice it is one more thing that a farmer, who perhaps has to run his or her entire farm without any help, has to try and cope with. It is just the sort of additional burden that stops the whole business being fun. Yes, large farmers will hire consultants that can fix whatever the bureaucrats want, but the whole point of preserving the timbre of the countryside is not to force more amalgamation of farms.
Another idea is to try to encourage co-operatives and farmers' markets. Great idea again. But, in practice, present regulation makes co-operatives difficult to get off the ground. And farmers' markets (which I much admire and have written about in this column) took off because a young, entrepreneurial American women imported the idea from back home.
It has also been suggested that British farmers should be encouraged to produce more organic food – much of which is imported at the moment. The problem there is that the regulations for organic food are very pernickety; what is needed is good food, grown without excessive use of pesticides, rather than extremely expensive food that happens to fit all of the organic criteria.
Ultimately the core of the problem, though, is the CAP. There is a way of patching things a bit by transferring the part of the subsidy that is used to pay for crops and livestock to rural development. It goes by the horrible name of "modulation" – maybe it sounds better in French. In theory it seems a good idea, but we will see how it works in practice. The fact that the NFU is less than thrilled about it bodes slightly ill. But modulation is merely a patch on a dreadful system.
What worries me most is not the analysis but the implementation. The first step on the road to wisdom is admitting there is a problem. That has now been done. Great. But the next stab at sorting out a dreadful system looks like making it yet more complex. If so, then even more of whatever fun is left will go out of farming. The prairies of East Anglia will doubtless continue to prosper at taxpayers' expense. But real farmers in difficult land will ask themselves: "What's the point?"Reuse content