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The further destruction of small farms

I am so angry that I have to get this off my chest despite a long list of farm jobs still waiting to be done!

I have just had two phone calls in quick succession. The first from someone wanting to sell us space in a 'Good Cheese Guide' associated with this year's World Cheese Awards [we won a Silver in last year's Awards]. I gave her our address and so on, but warned her not to expect us to fork out for an entry because our production has been so reduced by the way our Government has handled Foot and Mouth Disease. She told me that she is hearing the same story again and again. The demand for cheese seems to be rising and 'the multiples' are increasing production by 2.5%: but the small independent producers and retailers are being put out of business. She agreed that this seems to be the aim of government policy.

Next call was from a helpful advisor from 'Business Link', the body administering the South West Region Recovery Fund -

which provides help for small businesses that have been damaged by the Way Foot and Mouth Disease has been handled.

We had applied to the Fund, been accepted, had a visit from a Business Link Advisor who had looked at the evidence of damage to our small on-farm cheesemaking enterprise and the associated organic wool products enterprise, and told us that we were likely to be offered a grant in the region of £2,500. We signed all his papers, so that he will be paid for his visit and report - and awaited results.

Then we heard from a friend who runs an on-farm business selling meat, excellent sausages, etc. made from the rare breeds animals [mainly pigs] which he raises, to very high standards, on his small farm. He has a licensed butcher's shop on the farm, and sells practically everything he produces from the farm and from local farmers' markets. He works incredibly hard, his business was just starting to take off and he has been crippled by the restrictions which came with foot and mouth disease.

Like us, he must have been under the constant stress caused by the threat that at any moment he might be confronted with the demand to cull his animals - but he has higher overheads and was of course prevented from sending the pigs to be slaughtered. So he rapidly became overstocked and starved of income.

He, like us, had to cope with the dilemma of whether to go out to the markets and risk bringing back FMD, all the amateur biosecurity notwithstanding.

His pens became overloaded with too many, too fat pigs, and broke. His insurance refused to pay because, they said, the cause of the damage was not 'impact' or 'accident' but Foot and Mouth Disease, which he wasn't insured against! Extraordinary that FMD can even break pig pens!

He is under such stress with the worry of keeping everything going, coping with all the Byzantine complexities of movement restrictions, and doing the work to food hygiene requirements, animal welfare needs, etc., etc. that he has crashed two cars in the last week or so. [He drives his produce to the markets and sells them himself.] I expect the insurer will refuse to pay because the accidents were caused by foot and mouth disease.

He had been accepted for the Fund, inspected, had an accountant draw up a business recovery plan and had been offered a grant in the region of £12,000.

Then he received a 'phone call telling him that he is a farm - so he doesn't qualify for anything!

The mixture of nice man, nasty man treatment had practically stretched him to breaking point.

So I started making enquiries - and my second 'phone call was from a very helpful member of the Business Link staff. He told me that my foreboding are justified.

My on-farm, organic, specialist cheesemaking business cannot receive assistance from the SW Recovery Fund.

This fund is administered under EU rules and the EU rules guide the giving of aid by defining 'sectors'.

The 'Transport' and 'Primary Agriculture' sectors are excluded from receiving the aid.

Because my friend fattens his own pigs and subsequently butchers them himself and sells the meat himself, he is classified under 'primary agriculture'. If he bought in the slaughtered pigs from elsewhere and sold them, he would qualify for aid. It doesn't matter that his farm income comes almost exclusively from selling meat direct to the public, like a shop with a top farm assurance supply, he is classified under 'primary agriculture'.

Similarly with us. Because we raise the sheep ourselves, milk them ourselves and make our cheese exclusively from our own production of milk, we are classified under 'primary agriculture'.

It doesn't matter that we sell most of the cheese ourselves from the local pannier markets, from the farm direct to customers or by mail order.

If we bought in someone else's cheese and sold only 10% of our own, it would be different. Similarly, if we provided agricultural services - like our silage contractor, or the AI man, we would be eligible for assistance!

Words fail me.

Both our friends' business and ours are what we are told the government wants farm businesses to be. We know that they are what our customers want.

But we can't expand and contract at short notice like a merchant trader or professional consultant -

and we have been tied hand and foot by government policy. We have been starved and squeezed and injured.

And now we find that we aren't small businesses that can be helped recover, unlike all the other businesses which to some extent benefit from our efforts, like hotels, B &Bs, self catering caravan keepers, agricultural engineers, feed merchants - and of course the damned Business Advisors who administer the Fund - who can't find out what the fundamental rules are before they have gone out on their visits, written their reports and collected their fees...

To give him credit, the chap who telephoned was evidently equally incensed about the situation and encouraged me to take it up with my MP and MEP... I will of course, if I can find time - and I won't wonder why our Ministers of Double speak haven't done anything about this yet.

It all helps the 'multiples' build up their 'market share' after all - and helps get rid of the small independent farms and food producers.

Every man in the street 'knows' how much farmers have been 'compensated for foot and mouth'.

The truth is completely different.

A lot of farms had their animal compulsorily purchased by the State and killed - thereby bringing their businesses to a complete halt. Most have been hamstrung by restrictions and loaded with costs - and when it comes to the recovery aid, farms, unlike other Rural businesses are, in fact, excluded from the little compensation that is available.

Now I'll go and feed last year's [no longer lambs] whethers which are eating-up the grass with this years lambs in Higher Homer Meadow.

With best wishes,

Lawrence.

(Added later) I should add a caveat to my earlier email. I should have made it clearer that I was passing on what

I have been told by the local officials administering the Business Recovery Fund. This doesn't necessarily mean that EU rules really dictate that it is impossible to allocate Recovery Fund assistance to farms - 'primary agriculture' - or that food businesses like ours must be classified as 'primary agriculture'.

[We hear on the grapevine that a farm B&B business has been given a grant. Why is that business not 'primary agriculture' if cheesemaking and retailing is 'primary agriculture'?]

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