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May 2000

[Week 18 · May 1st - 7th - 2000]

MUTINY IN THE MARCHES

Welsh farmers are up in arms - against the MoD. For years many Welsh farmers have allowed the Army to use their farmland for military exercises, but imagine what it must feel like when, as a Welsh hill farmer raising lamb, your loyalty to the UK is repaid by the MoD sourcing 98% of its lamb from overseas.

Apparently British companies have been unable to provide competitive enough tenders for frozen lamb despite the low prices UK farmers have been receiving for their lambs. This raises two questions. First, as an 'organ' of the 'State' (which is also responsible - indirectly through the BoE - for the artificially high value of Sterling), should not the MoD be supporting its farming community almost irrespective of the cost? The high value of the pound makes it difficult for our farmers to export, while imports become cheaper. In such times surely State bodies should be seen to source domestic produce?

Second is the issue of self-suffiency as a nation. During and after WWII the UK managed to produce a large proportion of its own food. Why is it that successive governments have not maintained this philosophy of greater self-reliance for food? Surely we should be supporting home-grown produce - not least because it keeps people employed, reduces the drain of currency paid for basic imported foodstuffs (rather than exotic items), and makes the UK less dependent on food producers based in other countries. Perhaps we ought, as a nation, to be re-addressing this situation.

Anyway, back to the hills of Wales... There, as a mark of their frustration, a growing number of Welsh farmers in one area have banned the Army from carrying out a special escape and evasion exercise on their land. Instead, the Army has had to relocate its exercise to the Highlands of Scotland. How will Scotland welcome the Army one wonders?

Other topics around the countryside.
The Euro slumped to a low this week making farm exports even harder to achieve. Grain prices have also been hard hit, with a large volume of wheat already swimming around the international market.

A midlands-based sheep abbattoir (Mead Webber of Eardisley) has closed its doors, which means there is one less buyer at the local market. There is concern in the industry that there will be further abbottoir closures, concentrating buying power in the hands of a few, much larger, buyers. These larger buyers may be tied into supplying supermarkets with very specific meat specifications, which may work to the detriment of smaller producers.

Finally. Produce Studies Research has carried out a crime survey of some 800 farms - ranging from vandalism to theft, to dumping of rubbish. Results suggests that 25% of these crimes go unreported, and that rural crime is 23% higher than official records show.


[Week 19 · May 8th - 14th - 2000]

A CHANGE OF FORTUNE?

A number of farmer co-ops and dairies are discussing proposals that would reduce transportation costs for milk by rationalising collection from the farm. The released savings could then be returned to dairy farmers who are suffering from the low commodity price of milk in the market.

Currently it is quite common for tankers from different dairy processors to travel the same route to collect milk from different farms. The proposal is for single carriers to collect and transport the milk. Anyone who has watched the news over the last year will know from their mass protests that road hauliers are already suffering financially from this Government's transport policy; and obviously the high costs impact on the final product price the consumer pays and what the farmer gets. Some estimate that the savings could be as high as 1p/litre, although they may perhaps be considerably less.

Elsewhere this week, Prince Charles was visiting the Sussex countryside. The tour included a visit to the Oathall Community College - a 1400 strong comprehensive school with its own farm which is used as a teaching resource - a visit to Fletching Village, and an address to the Sussex Cattle Society. The Prince is a farmer in his own right with considerable knowledge of the rural scene, and his moral support for the farming community through the BSE and other crises has been considerable, even if it hasn't swayed opinion in Brussels or elsewhere.

  [Week 20 · May 15th - 21st - 2000]

A LOAN TOO FAR?

This week saw news from the Bank of England that loans in the farming sector have risen for the fifth year running, with the total amount of borrowing now exceeding that at the deepest part of the 1990 recession.

Loans to agriculture, forestry and fishing in Q1 2000 were over 6% higher than the same period last year (which in itself saw a 4.5% rise), and stands at almost 7.9bn. Very disheartening, given the strength of Sterling and commodity prices. Add to that the news this week, that farm incomes have fell yet again during the last year. Let's hope that these loans help farmers ride out the storm until things get better.

Other news of the week... William Hague, speaking in Richmond, Yorkshire, has asked farmers and landowners to communicate with the Conservative party about the red tape they face when trying to diversify. Over the last decade many farmers have had to diversify into new areas of production or business in order to survive. The last thing they need is bureaucratic and costly obstacles to making such diversification moves.

Perhaps the greatest botch up of the week was the revelation that some 500 UK farmers have unknowingly sown oilseed rape contaminated with GM varieties. Imported from Canada, the seed stock may have been planted on over 35,000 acres of Britain's farm land. For those worried about the future of GM crops, this latest fiasco shows just how difficult it will be to control the spread of these crops and their potential cross-contamination of non-GM plants, and whatever side-effects that produces within the environment.


[Week 21 · May 22nd - 28th - 2000]

MORE GM WOES

The environmental group Greenpeace has highlighted worries that GM contaminated maize seed has been planted on nearly a million hectares of land across the EU this year, and follows last week's revelations that a several hundred of UK farmers had unwittingly planted GM contaminated oilseed rape..

Maize is usually grown as a cattle feed crop, and over 100,000 hectares of maize was planted in Britain last year. While the cattle connection may seem inconsequential, it potentially has a knock-on effect for organic farmers who may supply supermarkets which demand GM-free produce, and organic production regimes which are zero-tolerant to GM material.

One Norfolk farmer who planted rape has already ploughed in his GM contaminated crop. However some farmers in the UK, and those in several other European countries [France, Germany and Sweden are also known to have GM contaminated rape], and who are claiming subsidies on their crops are waiting till their rape flowers before acting. The European rules say that a crop must be grown until it flowers, and that planting must have been carried out before May 31st, if the crop is to receive subsidy payments. At the moment each of the countries involved seems to favour different courses of action which draws one to the conclusion that a common set of European regulations covering this potential problem need to be drawn up as rapidly as possible, and amendments made to subsidy rules.

Another interesting development to keep an eye on next year, is the intention of the American company XSAg to launch a European website that offers agrochemicals at highly reduced prices. It is claimed that American buyers using the US website can reach an average saving of almost 30% when set against traditional local distributor price lists. One presumes that such savings achieved in the UK will gladden the heart of many a farmer - rather assuming that they are 'wired' to take advantage of the new service which should start next year.


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