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On Friday I went to the Royal Show; not a show I would generally choose to go to. Once a showcase for some of the best examples of British livestock and businesses in the industry, now prohibitive costs and soaring overheads have taken it out of the reach of most exhibitors leaving it to corporate bodies, supermarkets and ubiquitous market stalls to fly the flag.

But I was going for a reason. It was the launch of Hedgelink, a partnership of organisations and individuals leading and supporting the conservation of the UK’s hedgerows, and a project that Robert has been closely involved in over the years and one he’s passionate about. Prince Charles was going to be at the launch. Robert had asked me to go along with him.

nigel with the new hedgelink banner and dvd

We left the farm at the crack of dawn and had a happily uneventful drive up to Stoneleigh, the Royal showground. The day was perfect too. No rain, just sun and clouds with a breeze. The launch was taking place on the Natural England site which is an impressive acre or so of various ponds and plots giving examples in how to encourage wildlife and diversity on farmland and in your garden. The whole was a serene, peaceful green oasis in an otherwise confusing array of stalls and roads.

Leaving Robert to fluster and muster I went off to do a reccy of the showground and inadvertently became caught up in the Prince’s and Duchess’s arrival! I duly shook hands and murmured complete nonsense while being once again taken aback by Charles’s approachability and the genuine interest he shows when talking to people.

Prince Charles with a group of very happy schoolgirls – they were chuffed!

I’ve had contact with the prince before. It was nearing the end of the 2001 FMD outbreak when a small group of us were invited to have tea with him on one of his supportive visits to a devastated West Country. He had apparently followed all my weekly TV video reporting on Countryfile; knew intimate details of my stock and farm; displayed real understanding of the trials and tribulations I and others had been through. In other words he cared, and there was no indication of doing lip service. I like that, a good egg.

Back to Friday. The launch was due at 1pm. Robert was beginning to show signs of stress when a steward appeared and announced the Prince would be there in a few minutes as he was running well ahead of schedule. The place was immediately seething with a plethora of paparazzi and a surge of people. The line-up had only just organised itself when the prince and his entourage arrived. Feeling small and insignificant with my diminutive camera against a bank of monstrous super-zoomed beasts handled by hardened push-hardest-and-shove journos I was startled when I found myself being asked by his personal aide if I’d like to stand practically next to the price to take my photos!

robert shakes hands with the prince

It was a great success. Hands were vigorously shaken; smiles were stretched across faces in wallace & gromit-like proportions; Prince Charles grinned and crinkled, spending a good time with each member of the team discussing the work they had done in creating Hedgelink and the DVD ‘A cut above the rest’. He’s an avid supporter of the hedgerows in our countryside and went away clutching his copy of the DVD.

the prince discussing the finer points of hedgelaying

Having just watched the DVD. I can honestly recommend it to any of you that have even a tiny interest in hedges. It’s beautifully filmed and presented. The clear, practical information is easy to follow and holds your attention to the end. Even though I have a fair knowledge of hedgerows gleaned from Robert I found there’s lots which will make me look at hedges and hedgerow trees in a new light. To see excerpts of the DVD follow the link and also to order your free copy.

Well done Hedgelink!

There are a number of commercial wind farm proposals for North and West Devon in line with the government’s Kyoto Summit agreement. These are being met with massive opposition. They destroy the look of the countryside, they are inefficient, nimby-ism, and the huge grants available to energy companies who erect them is only there to make the government look as if it’s taken the energy crisis and climate change on board. Which, according to some, they haven’t, as they have their fingers stuck firmly in some other mucky puddle.

One argument that opponents to wind farms use is that because they can only generate power when the wind blows, every time a new wind farm is built a new coal, oil or gas station has to be built as well. I’m not sure I understand this. I get the point that wind farms will only ever produce energy intermittently, so they have to be used alongside other forms of power generation. No one says they are the solution on their own, just part of it. I just don’t see why new non-green power stations have to be built as well. Provided existing such stations are kept operational and ticking over, then when the wind drops they can be turned up. The argument that we need new conventional stations seems to me only to hold true if we need more energy overall – but with the increased imperative that now exists for energy conservation that should not be necessary. Indeed wind farms should surely mean that conventional power stations have to be used less (although as I say still kept operational), so helping to reduce climate change? Can anyone please help me here?

Rural Business Research (RBR), the consortium of leading Agricultural Universities and Colleges that undertakes the Farm Business Survey in England for Defra, has recently published seven enterprise / farm type reports that chart the changing fortunes of agriculture and horticulture.

You may find these facts and figures interesting, particularly for Less Favoured Area (LFA) hill farms. This shows that the average farm loses heavily on livestock production, and only survives because of public payments (Single Payment Scheme (SPS) and agri-environment) and diversification. Even so, the average income of c £11K pa is pitifully low when this has to cover farmer time and any rent. How many non-farming families would be willing to work for a combined salary of £11K pa?

Below is a summery which provides an overview of each report. If you are interested the full reports can be found by following the link. The data is taken from actual farm accounts

Rural Business Research charts the changing fortunes of farming in England

Rural Business Research (RBR), the leading consortium of independent academic units undertaking the influential Farm Business Survey (FBS) in England, presents a series of reports highlighting the changing economic fortunes of farming.

Report Series

Crop Production in England

Pig Production in England

Poultry Production in England

Hill Farming in England

Dairy Farming in England

Lowland Grazing Livestock Production in England

Horticulture Production in England (Horticultural Business Data)

Details and downloads available at http://www.ruralbusinessresearch.co.uk/

Crop Production in England shows that whilst arable fortunes started to improve in 2006/07, many producers had already committed their 2006 harvest to marketing contracts and spot sales, reducing the impact of price increases on the sector. General cropping farms returned a Farm Business Income (FBI) of £317 per hectare, whilst Cereal farms recorded an average FBI of £261 per hectare. The balance sheets of many cropping farms improved, with land value increases resulting in average net worth of cereals and general cropping farms increasing by 10%, to £5200 and £4700 per hectare, respectively. The financial year 2006/07 witnessed an increase in the number of farmers taking part in the Entry Level Stewardship (ELS) scheme with average total receipts from this revenue increasing by £10 per hectare on the previous year. With increasing fuel and fertiliser costs eroding increasing output prices, the wide variation in performance of cropping farms looks set to continue for the foreseeable future.

Pig Production in England charts the declining UK pig population with sow numbers having fallen to below 400,000 in the UK. Food security is now racing up the political agenda, and the report details how pork production as a percentage of supply has fallen from 116% in 1996-98 to 69% in 2007. The 54 Specialist Pig farms analysed in the report recorded an average feed bill of £120,000, accounting for some 77% of total variable costs and highlighting the plight of the sector as cereal prices continue to rise. The wide range in business performance, and the increasing costs of production, highlights the problems facing many producers – it is clear that the vast majority of producers are currently making substantial losses on their pig production. The rapid decline in the sector as at end of 2007 showed a 4.4% fall in total breeding pigs on the previous year; the fall in gilt numbers was even higher at 16%, reflecting the cut-backs that are occurring in the Industry.

Poultry Production in England identifies that 69% of broiler production takes place on the largest 400 holdings in the UK, with 100,000+ broiler units dominating supply in the sector. With farm gate sales of £1.66 billion in 2006, 90% of domestic demand for poultry meat was satisfied by home-grown production. Egg production is also dominated by a small number of suppliers with 1% of producers accounting for 78% of output by volume and satisfying 89% of the demand for eggs. Whilst egg prices recovered in 2006, gross output to the sector fell due a decline in laying hen numbers. Free range producers saw a slight fall in Farm Business Income (FBI), resulting from increased gross output that was more than offset by higher variable costs. Rising feed costs are likely to result in substantial changes in the fortunes of the poultry industry – profit in the sector is under extreme pressure as variable costs increase placing considerable pressure on the bottom line.

Hill Farming in England examines the costs and returns of farming in England’s “grazing livestock” Less Favoured Area (LFA) farm businesses – with LFAs accounting for 17% of the total farmed area, returns to production in the areas where poor climate, soils and terrain limit activities, have traditionally been lower than many other sectors. In England, 40% of beef cows and 45% of breeding sheep are in the LFAs and farming plays a crucial role in maintaining the distinctive landscape of such areas. LFA Grazing Livestock farms earn some 50% of their total revenue (output) from crop and livestock farming activities with 27% coming from the Single Farm Payment, and 15% from specific agri-environment payments. The balance of revenues is earned from nonfarm/ diversification activities. However, the average LFA farm is losing money to the tune of -£16,044 Farm Business Income (FBI) from crop and livestock production per farm in 2006/7. Revenues earned from the Single Farm Payments, agri-environment schemes and diversification more than offset the losses of the traditional farming enterprises to generate a headline FBI of £10,786 in 2006/7. LFA farms depend to a substantial extent on public payments accounting for more than 40% of their revenues. Total public spending on the LFA farms amounts to £148m per year, or £193/ha. This total spending compares favourably with recent estimates of the social value of upland environments.

Dairy Farming in England details the number challenges faced by the sector during 2006/07, including market conditions of declining milk output price and increasing input costs; average farm gate prices ranged from 16.8 to 19.0 pence per litre. Milk production fell to its lowest level for over a decade, driven by producer numbers falling by 5.4% and continuing the downward trend in the number of dairy farms. In 2006/07 the shortfall of total milk deliveries undershot total national quota by approximately 410 million litres, representing the largest recorded quota undershoot. Farm Business Income (FBI) was £321 per hectare, representing 17% of total farm output. The higher input-output system of the lowland farms returned an average FBI of £340/ha in comparison to the average FBI of £255/ha for LFA farms. Analysis of lowland herds by gross margin performance quartiles indicates that the upper quartile achieved yields of 8000 litres compared to 5700 litres for the lower quartile, and whilst concentrate costs were greater for the upper quartile, the respective gross margins are approximately £1000/cow and £400/cow. The report goes on to note that whilst reduced milk supplies have led retailers to recently increase the milk price, volatility and increases in input costs will erode a substantial element of the increased milk price.

Lowland Grazing Livestock Production in England details that Lowland Grazing Livestock farms account for 10% of the area of farmed land in England, and 17% of the holdings. Lowland grazing holdings typically produce the lowest incomes per farm, per hectare and per annual labour unit. In 2006/07, Farm Business Income (FBI) was £13,500 per business, although large variations in the returns to individual businesses exist, highlighting the negative returns recorded by many in this sector. 20% of businesses make a loss, and two-thirds make less than £20,000 – from which rental value of owned land and the value of farmer and spouse labour must be met. Farm Business Income was lower than private drawings for farms in the lowland grazing livestock production farm type, indicating that on average farmers in this group are eroding their business assets.

Horticulture Production in England (Horticultural Business Data) details that horticulture’s share of total agricultural output has increased by 4% over the last forty five years, and in 2006 was 14.3% of total agricultural output in the UK. In monetary terms, the latest figures for home produced horticultural crops produced in the UK came to £2,107 million. Just over one third of this output is made up of field scale vegetables, although they account for 72% of the total area of horticulture. Hardy nursery stock (22%) and other protected non-edibles (12%) are the next largest in value terms amongst the horticultural sectors. Horticulture Production in England considers the value of home-produced output, the regional importance of production and detailed financial results for horticulture businesses, all based upon the analysis of financial and physical returns from the 207 horticultural businesses within the Farm Business Survey.

Dr Paul Wilson, Chief Executive Elect of Rural Business Research, commented “this series of reports provides the industry with the most comprehensive examination of the economics of agriculture and horticulture in England ever produced – the changes and challenges facing the industry make these reports invaluable to anyone looking to identify key factors to improve profitability

The data collection and analysis presented in the reports has been largely funded by Defra as a key part of the annual Farm Business Survey. Details or downloads of the reports can be found at http://www.ruralbusinessresearch.co.uk/

I’m going to tell you a secret. It’s a secret that’s been simmering away, weaving in and out of our lives since Christmas. No big deal but with the potential to be life-changing. Robert has been granted his voluntary redundancy.

Let me fill you in. Robert has worked for government’s arm of nature conservation since his late twenties. The organisation, then known as the Nature Conservancy Council, reinventing itself as the new-improved English Nature during the nineties and recently morphed into its present guise as Natural England. The organisation has changed hugely over the years and its latest remodelling and reshaping has resulted in a slimmed down version of the original – which, of course, is in line with government thinking. Robert needed a change and when the organisation decided to float its scheme of voluntary redundancy, due to cut backs and a shortage of funds, he applied. Why? For no other reason than he wondered what would happen!

He was told he wouldn’t get it. He voiced his objections. Papers were reshuffled. He was informed he has been moved to ‘group one’ (the most likely candidates) only to be told several weeks later that once again he didn’t stand a chance. You get the picture? Our life was on hold. Did we move forward with plans or did we put all ideas on the back burner? Negotiations continued, another deadline came and went – still we were none the wiser. We tired of the ‘yes-it-is’ ‘no-it-isn’t’ game. Got on with what we do best, but still, in the background, was this unsettling possibility. Then, last week, out of the blue, and when we really did think nothing would happen, he received an email that congratulated him of having had his redundancy…approved!

In a chaotic mix of exhilaration and downright fear our lives have been thrown into space and fallen earthwards in a plethora of ideas. Already I’ve had the builders round, been in contact with Business Link and talked to friends that have been party to the last six months uncertainties, embryonic thoughts and ideas.

Watch this space. Could it be a move to the West Highlands of Scotland to run eco-holidays? A vineyard in Provence? Or will it be converting the farm to total self sufficiency in all forms of energy, water and food, alongside an eco residential build and a green oak teaching facility? Whatever, these will be challenging, life-changing decisions.

bog pimpernel

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.

It was hot and windy and oh-so-bright. Friday, last week. The sea spangled and sparkled in ten million dazzling triangles momentarily blinding the eye with strings of black blots gliding across a backdrop of shimmering rainbows.

We strolled slowly through the crowds, contented cats full of tapenade (a paste of olives, tuna, anchovy and capers), anchoïade (crushed anchovies in oil, served with raw vegetables), grand aioli (poached salt cod, with vegetables and aioli sauce), farci (aubergine, courgette, tomato, onion stuffed with a delicately perfumed forcemeat on a rich tomato sauce) and tourte (a pie of potatoes, onion and garlic bound together with cream and eggs, wrapped in cured ham and crumbly pastry, served with crème fraiche and salad) washed down with glasses of ice cold rosé, the palest of pale pink. We watched in relaxed companionship the remains of the morning’s fish market being packed away and listened to the harsh nasal twang of swarthy Marseillais fisher-folk as they hollered and shouted to one another across the port above the impatient revving traffic and gush of their flushing hoses. Little Camille, entranced by twinkling rainbow prisms caught in the cascade of cleaning water, ran, arms outstretched, trying to catch the elusive crystal drops. And a seagull shat on Benjamin.

In all the clamour I almost didn’t hear it. Insistent, irritated it brring-brringed, bring-brringed, brrringed against my hip. My phone! I pressed it firmly against one ear but even with my hand clamped tightly over the other could barely make out the faint voice at the other end.

“Mum…..bluetongue…we’m….ade….Devon now’s….red could…tion zone!”

“What? What? Olly, can’t hear…shout. Very noisy. What’s that? What? Ohmygod did you say we’re now a protection zone. Oh shit, oh no! Where is it? When did it happen? Have you phoned the vet? What did they say? Oh heavens. You’ll have to vaccinate. Is there any vaccine? What did you say the vets say? What? When? Hang on. Hang on, I’ll just find a hiding place. You want me to come home? Hang on.”

Eventually I got the gist of Olly’s call. We didn’t have bluetongue disease in Devon. The vaccination programme had been going so well they had now advanced the protection zone to Devon. Vaccine should be made available from the 26 May. Hoorah! This was good news, not the catastrophe I originally thought. I asked Olly to call the vets, confirm our stock numbers and get an idea of when the vaccine would be released. A couple of frustrating shouted calls later and we had a clearer idea of timing. The vaccine most probably wouldn’t be available until I was back.

We arrived back last night. I phoned the vets first thing this morning. My vaccine would be ready for collection after four this afternoon. I’ve got it. It’s in my fridge…and tomorrow, first thing, we’ll start bringing the stock back to begin our vaccination programme. Soon, but not just yet, I’ll breath a little more freely!

A quick update on the bluetongue information. Unfortunately there has been a technical hitch with converting the two Dutch power point presentations into pdfs. Andrew, who is very kindly doing this for me, is away on holiday this week, but as soon as he is back I’m sure that the problem will be resolved and we’ll be able to either upload the pdfs or give a link to them.

The good news is that I’m in contact with Karin from Pirbright who is keen to help and is willing put some information together for the blog. Though due to the warmer weather over the past week she has been extremely busy and won’t be able to do much before the weekend.

But, with a bit of luck, by next week I should have pulled together some useful sources of information that you will hopefully find helpful.

Locks Park Farm

Thanks for visiting my blog. All entries are presented in chronological order.

I have a small organic farm on the Culm grasslands near Hatherleigh in Devon, with sheep and beef cattle. I've been farming in the county for more than 30 years. I've set up this blog to share views on farming and the countryside - please do give your thoughts.

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The Campaign to Protect Rural England has helped set up this blog. We want farming to thrive in England, and believe that it is essential that people understand farming and farmers better in order for that to happen. Paula's views expressed here are her own and we won't necessarily share all of them, but we're happy to have helped give her a voice.

Find our more about CPRE and our views on food and farming at our website, www.cpre.org.uk