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Andy Greenwood

11:00 - 13 December 2004

New eu regulations which would ban farmers from using tractors in the rain have been labelled "a gross and disgraceful affront" in a scathing open letter to the Government from a leading member of the industry. The Western Morning News revealed two weeks ago that the rules - backed in principle by the Government - will restrict the use of heavy machinery, such as tractors, ploughs and harvesting equipment, on fields deemed to be "waterlogged". The regulations are designed to reduce the environmental impact of farm machinery on wet ground and protect soil.

However Jim Hosking, who runs Fentongollan Farm, near Truro, and manages some 1,800 acres has condemned the proposed regulations as "farcical, unethical and unacceptable" in a letter to the Farming and Food Minister Lord Whitty.

"The announcement by the European Union of new rules 'designed to protect the soil' is a gross and disgraceful affront to the knowledge, skills and judgement of farmers," wrote Mr Hosking, who also chairs the action group Seale-Hayne Future, which was set up to save the college.

"Furthermore, your support for such utter nonsense clearly shows that you have little regard for the basic principles of farming, even though you are prepared to meddle with the everyday decisions that farmers have to make to feed their animals or to sow and harvest their crops. In practical terms, the thought process behind the making of these new rules is flawed in any case."

The regulations form part of a new "cross-compliance" codes under which the region's farmers will receive payments in return for achieving set environmental standards. Failure to meet the rules, which will start to replace traditional farm subsidies from next year, could lead to financial penalties.

When the measures were unveiled Lord Whitty insisted it was not a case of "bureaucracy gone mad" and added: "It is ensuring that the farmer operates in a way that gets the support of society as a whole and does the basic job of keeping the land in good condition."

Arguably the controversial aspect of the proposals is Europe's bizarre definition of waterlogged ground, based on the location of puddles in a field. If a puddle is within 20 metres of a field gate it is not deemed standing water, but the ground is designated as "saturated" if it is more than 20 metres away.

Mr Hosking said: "In the first place, repair of damaged land is perfectly possible with good husbandry in the next dry period. But reinstatement and probable loss of crop is expensive, so any farmer making an avoidable mistake would be unlikely to do it again.

"Secondly, the sight of a puddle more than 20m from a field gateway does not necessarily mean that the whole field is waterlogged, in fact it is much more likely to mark an isolated wet spot.

"We might ask at what stage this summer would the Government have allowed us to harvest our crops? Any thought of latching on financial penalties to such a farcical scheme would be unethical and unacceptable. Add to that it is unnecessary and unworkable; so it should be thrown out before any more time and farmers' patience is wasted."

Mr Hosking said it was yet another case of ministers "making glib statements about the environment, conservation and endangered species without ever seeming to recognise that mainstream farming is all about the production of food".

He added: "Instead of prancing around making statements to impress political and urban friends, there is a serious and urgent need for all of you to put teeth and muscle into addressing the real problems in agriculture and the countryside.

"To highlight just one that threatens the livelihoods of the entire farming community is the stranglehold ("armlock" in the words of the Prime Minister) that the all powerful buyers have over primary producers.

"The constant and unfettered driving down of prices is denying farmers a fair return for all their labours and investment and, one by one, is forcing them out of business.

"At the same time as farmers are leaving the land in thousands, the number of students studying agriculture and others coming into the industry to replace them has reduced dramatically.

"Without doubt the greatest threat to the environment is that there will be dangerously few farmers left to look after it. In fact, they are the endangered species that should be giving you the greatest cause for concern."