Scratch the surface and there’s a lot going on! In farming nothing ever stops as the production or natural cycle moves slowly onwards. This year we galloped through harvest with most of the grain going straight into store without expensive drying. By the time this is published planting for harvest 2006 will be well underway and the sheep, hopefully, will be on schedule for a slightly later January lambing period.
I am often asked for opinions on the future of agriculture and queried over the confusing support measures that the industry receives from the EU. A philosophical, factual and non-political appraisal is difficult to encapsulate in The Villager, but here goes ----
The agricultural industry has for long been at the receiving end of political change and the environmental bandwagon has been an easy issue for many to jump on. Indeed, there are now so many special interest organisations peripheral to farming, all jostling for influence that concerns and messages are confused. Farming has moved on, reacted to change as it always does, and is probably at least ten years ahead of current opinion on many environmental issues. Sustainability is the most over-used, abused and misunderstood word in our language.
Out there in the countryside we are being strangled by red tape, inflexibility, confusing messages and diabolical organisation from Establishment bodies. But farming is not alone in this malaise - the whole business sector whether large or small is similarly affected.
We regularly hear that the Common Agricultural Policy cannot be controlled and will be an unending millstone for the EU and the tax payer. This is inaccurate as major changes are occurring to curb the open-ended nature of subsidies to agriculture. To this end, we have a new support system which aims to replace most of the existing crop and livestock schemes that originally befitted the industry. It is called the Single Payment Scheme and breaks the link between production and support moving away from the oversupply situation that the previous systems encouraged. It also benefits the producer who satisfies cross compliance legislation covering a multitude of environmental factors including hedgerow management, field margins and a raft of other ‘good agricultural practice measures’.
The most important aspect of these changes is that all support measures will be phased out over an 8-year period which is a highly significant step forward for the EU, the tax payer and also the farming community.
The new scheme is aimed on a whole farm basis and is not attached to any requirement to farm the land and produce food for consumption at home or abroad. In fact, we now have a situation where I could do nothing apart from basic environmental activities which we already carry out, and claim the farm allocation which is my entitlement. In itself this will mean fundamental changes to the structure of farming although many businesses have already failed because of the dire economic state of the industry.
Many will take this as the first step towards retirement, major changes will occur within business operations, labour will be reduced, and a low cost farming will result, as we all adapt to the changes and ‘system’ that prevails. Non farming enterprises will continue to expand and planners will have to take notice of this demand.
Farms, once again, are attracting investment interest from outside the industry. After all, why not buy a property with guaranteed income over the next 8 years ? There is no agricultural qualification and the land does not have to be farmed. Consequently, land prices are beginning to be artificially inflated by external demand factors. What does this all mean for the future? The scenario that presents itself is that many farms will go out of business, or become even larger in the quest for economic efficiency as support diminishes. This, undoubtedly, will have a downside on rural communities around the country.
I disagree with the concept that small farms, that are the lifeblood of many rural communities, will bear the brunt of these changes and will cease to exist. Many of these businesses have diversified over the years, or operated on a part-time basis to supplement income. This will continue but the next farming generation, apart from needing to be very astute, will require a major income from another source. This will allow the agri-business to develop and perhaps the generation beyond will be the full-time farmers of the future. We can only be positive; in the years ahead farming will play a major role, given the opportunity, in bio fuel production and even food from our own resources may be wanted again. One thing is certain, farming will continually change to meet the requirements of the time.