On Sunday it was Open Farm Sunday, and we went to visit a farm. It was in a beautiful hilly, undulating part of Devon, a part I’m not too familiar with and so very different from around here. Red, dry, stony land that drains far too efficiently and as a result suffers from drought. The farmers there think of it as marginal land, though to me it looked like an answer to a prayer.
It was a large arable and grass farm sporting a huge renovated farmhouse surrounded by landscaped Japanese gardens, red brick walls, laid brick drives and wrought iron gates. It receives substantial payments from set-aside and various agri-environment agreements. It’s heralded as an environmental flagship farm.
My impressions? One of wealth and prosperity. The farm has served its owner well in acquiring all manner of subsidies which I felt were not an actual necessity in the survival of the farm or the farmer. What did I feel it was delivering in terms of environmental benefits? And value for money to the tax payer? Not a lot. True it was in a beautiful part of the country and the views were stunning, true it had a fine example of a catchwork meadow and true it had some interesting swards. But nothing spectacular or mind blowing. I felt the farm lacked purpose or soul and was being managed to prescriptions laid out on paper without any real raison d’être. No stock, no vibrancy, just neat, polite management filling coffers from the public purse.
I know I’m being harsh; there were plenty of people, especially families with young children, who were really enjoying their visit. It was a good day out. The farmer had worked hard to make it a success, and it was.
Nevertheless when I think of the thousands of farms on the poorer marginal soils of England that can deliver as much, or more, in terms of the environment, landscape and biodiversity by using only a fraction of the money that’s being handed out to some large prosperous farms, I wonder at the injustice of it. To these marginal farms government/public support can make the difference between sinking and swimming.
I know very well that subsidies are not there to bolster up bad business and I’m not suggesting for a moment that they should. But it seems fundamentally unfair that farms which have taken care of their environment over the years and kept flower-rich meadows and such like in tact should be low down on the list for receiving public support, while those, often more productive and more profitable farms, which have in the past ploughed up their meadows and removed their hedges should now be being paid, as a priority, for restoring such things.