Battling to stay afloat – carrying out one of mankind's vital tasks
Many farmers are struggling to make ends meet. Jessica Sellick investigates how we can support farmers and ensure they have a future in a fast changing landscape.
As well as providing the raw materials for our breakfast, lunch and suppers, farmers deliver a range of environmental benefits, public goods and are a source of economic growth. But there is uncertainty as to whether they are being asked to manage their farm land for one of or all of these purposes, leading many to question how their farms will fit into the farming sector of tomorrow.
It is certainly a difficult time for many farmers trying to make a success of their farm businesses. The rainfall has delayed many of them in preparing the ground, planting and harvesting and getting animals out to grass. Input costs have increased too, with results from the Anglia Farmers AgInflation Index showing prices for producing food increased by 12.98% in the twelve months to the end of August 2011. Over the same period, the cost of producing crops increased by 13.33%, dairy by 12.29%, sugar beet by 11.63%, beef and lamb by 11.24% and potatoes by 10.45%. The Index revealed rents, rates and finance had increased by 12.6% and animal feed and medicine costs by 10.8%.
Poor weather and rising input costs have been compounded by the 'horseburger scandal' and by the 'great lamb robbery', with figures released by the NFU showing farmgate prices have declined by 25% and wholesale prices for legs of lamb declined by 17%.
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It is farmers who both risk paying the price for the contamination of meat in burgers and the collapse in farmgate prices as consumer confidence dwindles and shopping habits change.
In the words of one farmer: "We're not in control of what we do anymore, there's little in the way of security... there are lots of fingers in the agricultural pie". While many farming households do successfully increase production, resilience and their farm incomes – with people seeing a shiny tractor in the yard or a new shed in the field – it is a stark reality that one in four farming households is living in poverty.
A project funded by Oxfam looked at the hardships faced by farming families struggling to make ends meet in the Durham Dales.
The report painted a bleak picture, with uncertainty as to when farmers would receive their Single Farm Payment and what they would get paid for their livestock and the economic downturn making it harder for them to supplement already meagre returns with off-farm income. Some farmers couldn't afford to pay bills or mend broken equipment, had to forgo basics such as food and lower their input costs by cutting the amount or quality of feed given to livestock.
One said: "You keep plodding on until you drop dead. Money, income... it's like balancing plates. It's difficult to find money to invest and keep going. Stock's up in value but the bills are through the roof".
The need to change in the farming sector is well recognised, not least by farmers themselves. Well managed initiatives that encourage and support farmers to collaborate ensures that they can take advantage of opportunities as they arise and can be a lifeline.
The Farmer Network is run by farmers for farmers and supports them to work together to save costs, increase income, knowledge and skills and cope with paperwork. The Exmoor Hill Farm project supports farmers to develop their business, organises events and training and works with other organisations to address key issues facing the livestock sector.
There are also a plethora of other farmer networks including machinery rings, farmer discussion groups and Monitor Farm programmes and online communities. Then there are industry bodies like the NFU and Tenant Farmers Association.
What is clear is that these networks do not merely provide support so farmers can continue to farm and improve the profitability of their farm business, but they also bring about positive change through the prevention work that they do. There are lots of projects that seek to educate people about farming and the countryside and put the fun back into farming.
Perhaps, with Christine Tacon in post as Groceries Code Adjudicator, the differential between the farmgate price and supermarket price will be explained and farmers will get a bigger slice of the overall retail cake? In the meantime, with many farmers working 80-hour weeks and living under the poverty line the work of farmer networks and networks for farmers is vital in supporting them now and in ensuring that we have farmers for the future.
A longer version of this article appears online at the Rural Services Network website rsnonline.co.uk. Jessica Sellick is a rural practitioner at Rose Regeneration. Farmers who can help Jessica with her research are asked to contact her by email at email@example.com