WMN opinion: Looming profits crisis a wake-up call for farming
The outdated cliche that you never meet a poor farmer has long since been eradicated from the minds of all but the most prejudiced observer. And the reality, certainly here in the Westcountry where livestock farms and mixed holdings are the norm, is that farming is – for many – an ongoing struggle against low farmgate prices, disease and bad weather.
But it is true that in the past few years incomes have inched up and, in spite of continuing poor prices for raw milk and the ongoing tragedy of bovine TB, more and more farmers have been enjoying the kind of rewards that ought to go with the vital role of growing and rearing our food. Not for much longer, however.
If figures just out from the National Farmers' Union are even close to being accurate, farm incomes are about to plummet. Profitability in the pig sector is poised to fall by a half; in dairying it will plunge by 42 per cent. Lowland and upland livestock grazing farms are also facing significant falls in income over the year ahead, the NFU warns. Some of these holdings were scarcely providing a living wage, even when times were relatively good. Disaster beckons if things are any worse than the NFU predicts – which is always possible.
Of course to some extent a few good years will help to cushion farmers from a bad one or two. And the lifeline of EU support, under the Common Agricultural Policy, is there – for now – as a fallback to keep the wolf from the door when profits are squeezed. But South West NFU director Melanie Squires is right when she says farmers cannot produce at little or no profit indefinitely.
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Yes they need to be rewarded for managing the landscape for the good of the environment and for wildlife and yes they need financial support to ensure that production is maintained through good and bad years. But until the price paid at the farmgate is better than the cost of production, farming – especially livestock farming – will lurch from crisis to crisis in the way we have seen in this region in particular for far too long. It has got to stop. We have had wake-up calls before; let's hope this one is the catalyst to bring about real change.
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The-knee jerk reaction to many privatisation plans down the years has been to warn of a serious drop-off in the quality of service as a result of the change. Sometimes it has proved correct; often it has not.
So we will reserve judgment before offering wholehearted support to those who fear what will happen when helicopter search and rescue services pass from public control into private hands. It is not a given that handing over to civilian pilots will necessarily prove disastrous; nor that switching from Sea Kings to smaller aircraft will necessarily lead to a poorer service.
The point is, however, that fears have been expressed and it is for ministers, who are pushing through this change, to give us the reassurance all will be well.