LETTER : What we should ask of farmers

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From Mr Nick Brown

Sir: Drought or no drought, it certainly appears to be a bumper year for arable farmers. We hear that the combined effects of a switch within the Common Agricultural Policy from price support to area payments and the unexpectedly high market price for cereals have led to record profit levels. This, and the devaluation of the green pound, have made arable farming a good business to be in.

Conversely, other sectors of the industry, particularly hill sheep farmers who cannot grow cereals, are in a bad way. For those that have the option, I wonder whether we are now likely to see an upsurge in the conversion of pasture to arable land, more pressure towards intensification, and a further loss of landscape and ecological character.

It is vital that we maintain a vibrant rural economy and a profitable agricultural sector. The countryside would be a very different, and much less diverse and attractive place, without farming. It is right that farmers should have the opportunity to make a living, and a good one, in a profession that requires a combination of technical skill, business acumen, commitment and sheer hard work matched in few others.

But in a sector that receives huge amounts of public funds, the taxpayers must be sure to receive the greatest benefit for their investment. This benefit at present comes predominantly in the form of a secure supply of relatively cheap food.

In an age when, thankfully, we do not go hungry, we are entitled to ask for more. Provision for nature conservation, landscape improvement, reduced pollution - these are all "commodities" that the farmer is in a unique position to provide. They should be recognised much more centrally in the CAP, and incorporated as part of society's return for the financial support it is giving to the industry.

None of this means that farmers need suffer. Subsidy levels can still be set to give a good living, and can certainly be adjusted to give greater assistance to hill farmers.

It is simply a case, as customers, of changing our specification to the supplier and ensuring that we get true value for money and public benefit from public funds.

That, surely, is the order of the day.

Yours sincerely,

Nick Brown

Leamington Spa,

Warwickshire

17 August

The writer is Principal Landscape Conservation Officer, Warwickshire County Council.

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