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October 2000

[Week 43 · Oct. 23rd - 29th - 2000]

A TAXING QUESTION

Friday's FT carried an article on a subject which has been exercising some politicians and countryfolk for a while - making owners of second homes pay full council tax. Apparently the idea is gaining favour within government circles although, one must suspect, that such a move would probably do little to deter people from owning a second home in the countryside.

A few hundred pounds extra a year is hardly going to break the bank of wealthy individuals who can afford the luxury of purchasing a second home. But, it has to be remembered, second home purchases can raise rural housing prices beyond the means of many local people and potentially dismembers a 'community' if the house remains unoccupied for most of the year.

Also...
On Wednesday The Guardian newspaper had an article in which it revealed that the English apple industry is on its knees with half of England's apple orchards having been lost in the last fifteen years. Apparently, only 30% of the apples sold in our supermarkets come from England.

One of the 'faces' that has epitomised Greenpeace in the UK for more than a decade, is soon to disappear from the organisation. Lord Peter Melchett - one of the gang of protestors who destroyed a GM trial crop - is to concentrate on running his own farm in Norfolk.

The House of Commons Agriculture Select Committee was told by representatives of some major supermarkets this week that there is a shortage of home-grown organic food produce, and they subsequently have to import organics from abroad. One representative said that the UK farming industry had been slow to react to the emerging market, although one seems to remember that farmers here have been begging for more funding help for 'conversion' to organic status, a process which takes a couple of years.


[Week 42 · Oct. 16th - 22nd - 2000]

GM DEBATE CONTINUES

In the on-going battle for hearts and minds in the GM debate Greenpeace upped the ante this week (or perhaps, rather, anti- ) with the launch of a new on-line 'Shopper's Guide to GM' to: 'help shoppers get beyond the hype and find out whether the food in their shopping basket really is GM-free'. The guide covers a wide range of food including top brands and supermarket own brands.

Completely unrelated, the Northern Ireland Department of Agriculture released the results of its Farm Business Survey late in the week. The terrifying figures show that average farm income of NI's farmers for the year to February 2000 was just 22/week, or 1,140 for the year. Blame it on the beef export ban, too much red tape, the strength of Sterling, or squeezed retail margins, but some remedy has to be found for farmers. 22/wk is less than the dole and these people probably work twice as many hours as the average employee.

On the matter of retailing, there was welcome news this week that several of the milk processors are to up the price paid to farmers for their raw milk - a rise of 2p/litre from Express Dairies and Dairy Crest, and 2.2p/litre from Scottish Milk. When one considers that a farmer will get around 16p/litre while consumers will pay in excess of 70p/litre, one begins to wonder whether or not there are too many middle-men and costs within in the milk production chain.

The President of the National Farmers' Union of Wales, Hugh Richards, spoke of the Welsh dairy industry in dire terms during the week saying that many Welsh dairy farmers will go out of business unless prices rise. Another Union official has said that ex-farm prices need to rise to 22p/litre if there is to be money to re-invest on the farm in addition to providing a basic income.

Other items...
November 13th has been named by farmers and hauliers protesting over fuel costs as the possible date for a mass rally in London's Hyde Park.

And the Countryside Alliance is planning a rally in London next spring with anything up to half a million people expected. The CA believes the government is still not 'hearing' the voice of rural Britain or, rather perhaps, understanding the problems of many communities. The CA's Chairman, John Jackson has said that an official Department of Rural Affairs should be created.

Finally... a little bit of moral support for British beef as the deputy chairwoman of the Consumers' Association, Professor Harriet Kimbell, told her sons not to eat the local beef while on holiday in France. Cases of French BSE are increasing.

  [Week 41 · Oct. 9th - 15th - 2000]

AGRICULTURE CRISIS...

On Thursday Deloitte & Touche, a highly respected firm of accountants, released their annual forecast on the state of agriculture. Looking at the Jan-June accounts of farms covering 100,000ha D&L's conclusion is that next year most sectors of agriculture will be in the red. The staggering statistic to come out of the work is that since 1995-1996 average farm net income has plunged by 90%, and they can be expected to drop further next year. All of which shows the current agricultural crisis is not over, or perhaps even 'turning the corner'.

Many farms would have suffered further if it were not for the fact that wheat quality and yields were up which provided some support. Potato growers were hard hit by bumper yields [up 11%] which reduced prices.

The Country Landowner's Association has called on the Government to stop the free fall by introducing some short-term help including taking whatever funds are available from the EU to offset the falling Euro, a reduction in red-tape for rural businesses [it is interesting to note that many farmers trying to stay afloat by 'diversifying' frequently encounter bureaucratic obstacles], and implement the Competition Commission's recommendations on the supermarkets.

Also...
According to Thursday's Times newspaper, the Government is thinking that rural pubs could help revitalise rural communities by doubling up as post offices, shops and internet cafes. Having community access to the internet is considered to be highly important by the government.

Concerns that the big five supermarket chains may be pressuring farmers and suppliers to accept lower prices may soon be answered. In its report on supermarkets the Competition Commission has called for a legally binding code of practice, not a volunatry one. Of particular help to farmers might be conditions for payment on time, reasonable notice of changes in agreed prices and terms, and compensation where a supplier incurs costs due to erroneous forecasts by the retailer.


[Week 40 · Oct. 2nd - 8th - 2000]

COUNTRY RIGHTS...

One of the key pieces of social- environmental legislation which the government has been keen to promote - the Countryside & Rights of Way Bill (sometimes referred to the 'Right to Roam' Bill) - looks as if the legislation could take up to ten years to get into operation; at least that is what the NFU's Brian McLaughlin has suggested at an NFU Council meeting this week.

Meanwhile the Daily Telegraph reported that Peers from across many parties are concerned that the right-to-roam legislation will include 'after dark' access. As has been shown by the Tony Martin case, country-dwellers living in isolated places are particularly at risk from burglary. And there are also the not insignificant issues of environmental damage, and public safety. One has to ask, who would be responsible for someone breaking a leg in the middle of the night while excercising their right to roam? Should the landowner, or the injured party? A government spokesman in the Lords has said that there is no intention to make changes to the bill.

A further issue which has ruffled rural waters this week has been news of new government restrictions on shotgun ownership announced on Wednesday in a Home Affairs Committee report on firearms. The Country Landowners Association has pointed out that a variety of guns are needed in the countryside to deal with predators and pests, and that more effort should be put into regulating illegal gun use under existing law rather than heaping stricter rules on official gun users. Apparently the new restrictions will mean that shotgun owners will have to show 'good reason' for needing one.

Other items...
The Food Standards Agency [FSA] announced the results of some research on frozen chicken, indicating that there were unacceptably high water content levels in almost a third of one thousand bought samples. 7% is the maximum acceptable water content.

In a related item, the NFU leader, Ben Gill, has suggested that farmers use their land to promote the British Farm Standard tractor logo. The logo signifies the produce is grown or reared with standards of animal welfare, hygiene, and environmental care.


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