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FARMING IS FACING A CROSSROADS 

09:00 - 08 October 2002 
No one in the Westcountry needs reminding of the heartache suffered by farmers in the darkest days of the foot and mouth crisis.

But one year on, as farmers restock and attempt to rebuild their lives, British agriculture still remains painfully fragile.

The statistics tell a harsh tale - the numbers simply do not add up to a viable income for many farmers, especially those with smaller properties.

According to the latest figures, a lowland Westcountry farmer who keeps cattle and sheep loses #4,190 a year.

Most dairy farmers currently receive just 16p for a litre of milk - the lowest price in Europe. A litre costs an estimated 20.7p to produce.

During the foot and mouth crisis, each farm lost between #1,348 and #12,057, according to a recent study.

Most tellingly, in the past ten years the number of farms in the region has not changed. Out of a total of 28,000 holdings in the region, 20,000 of them were run full-time in 1992. Today, however, only 13,000 of these farms provide a living solely through agriculture.

It is clear that farmers do not want to sell up if they can help it. They will even take on second jobs to keep their farms going, but the Government is not making it easy for them.

Prime Minister Tony Blair's words at last week's Labour Party conference in Blackpool have dismayed farmers, who say they are not being told anything they did not know before.

Mr Blair said Government money for farming had to be used "to reform farming so that it has a future".

Farmers argue that these words are empty because Mr Blair and Rural Secretary Margaret Beckett are not helping them to reform.

They say that the Government has tied up British agriculture in paperwork so tightly that it can barely move.

James Morrish, a Westcountry farmer who runs the Rural Stress Information Network, said: "You get these statements from Beckett and Blair saying we have got to wake up. That is exactly what these people have been doing!"

At the height of the foot and mouth epidemic, Mr Morrish was receiving around 160 calls a day from farmers seeking advice. Today, up to 40 people still phone him daily.

"A large proportion of our calls are from tenant farmers," he said. "They are predominantly aged 25 to 45, and they have just had two of the worst years that they will ever have.

"The majority are in dairy farming and have an overdraft. They just can't go on like this. All they are doing is earning a bit of money to keep their overdraft at a similar level.

"When we had foot and mouth, people who were struggling didn't feel really isolated because everyone was in the same boat.

"Now the people who are struggling because of the knock-on effect are very vulnerable."

Rosemary Nash, deputy chairman of the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institute (RABI), tells a similar story. "The RABI ran a 24-hour helpline during the crisis, and we heard some horrific stories," she said. "Some people were so traumatised that they could barely speak, let alone cry.

"Farmers are proud and independent. They have been forced into this situation by the methods required by the Government, and half the time they are now being blamed for it."

In the Westcountry alone, the RABI has given more than #2 million to 1,400 farmers since the foot and mouth crisis.

Mrs Nash said the difficulties farmers were facing often had knock-on effects, saying: "Farmers' wives often get very lonely and depressed - it is causing family problems because of that. People tend to get rather upset with one another in these circumstances."

But despite the gloomy situation, many farmers are treating the foot and mouth epidemic as a new beginning rather than the final curtain.

Mr Morrish also stressed that there were many heartening success stories in the farming world, adding: "You would be amazed at the numbers of thank you letters and cheques we receive from people we helped in their dark days. People are restocking their farms, which is good, but worryingly there are a lot of farms up for rent - that is always a bad sign.

"In every competitive industry there will be failures and successes - there have got to be some that fall by the wayside."

Colin Breed, MP for Cornwall South East and Liberal Democrat agriculture and rural affairs spokesman, said: "The Government's current strategies and policies are rather too long-term to deal with the immediate crisis that farmers are now facing.

"They are losing money hand over fist, and are penalised for the most ludicrous of simple errors in their paperwork. They are under enormous pressure from both the market and the Government, to a point where many now feel there is no point trying to carry on. That will inevitably result in a significant loss of home-grown produce and real hardship in rural areas."

Mr Breed suggested two measures the Government could take immediately to help farmers. "They could recognise that Defra and the Rural Payments Agency need an appeal system so that farmers who I think are almost being victimised have someone they can seek justice from," he said. "The Government has also got to get involved in helping to establish farming co-operatives to increase farming incomes."

Ian Johnson, spokesman for the NFU in the South West, said the farmers' current plight was largely down to the economic climate in Britain, with a strong pound encouraging cheap imports and making it prohibitively expensive to export goods.

He also pointed to a Government-co-ordinated buy local campaign as a way of supporting British farming without resorting to subsidies.

"If all the institutions in the Westcountry, such as schools, councils and universities, sourced locally, we would not even have to look outside the region," he said. "And every individual can help by buying or asking for regional produce."

smarsden@westcountrypublications.co.uk