Health check reveals concerns for farming industry


Posted on: 22 March 2017

Councillors are to talk to Devon MPs about concerns within the farming industry.

A Devon County Council task group carried out a ‘health check’ of the county’s industry last year, inviting farmers to tell them how life is for them and what challenges they are facing.

The task group’s report to the Council’s Cabinet Committee highlighted key findings and sets out recommendations to address farmers’ concerns and to support the industry in Devon.

Agriculture is an important part of Devon’s economy, and it provides the basis for other key industries including food manufacturing and tourism, the report says.

The Council was told that an estimated 75 per cent of Devon farms are making a loss on their milk revenue through contracts with large dairies and retailers – it’s costing them more to produce their milk than they are able to sell it for, farmers reported.

Similarly, cheaper imports from abroad, for beef from Ireland and South America for example, are pushing down UK beef prices.

There was criticism regarding the Basic Payment Scheme – the subsidy that farmers receive from the EU.

The subsidy is calculated per ha/acre, regardless of the quality of land or how the land is used, and critics say that it doesn’t incentivise nor target subsidies to where they’re most needed.

It’s felt by some to encourage expansion of farms simply to achieve higher subsidy, which can drive up the price of rural land. And that some farms are over-reliant on the subsidy; representing between 50% to 100% of a farms’ income in some cases.

An unintended consequence of the subsidy, the report observes, is that is sustains inefficient farms that would otherwise have stopped operating or been forced to become more efficient.

The Council report also says that while farming has traditionally required good technical skills in land management, animal husbandry and crop production, the modern farmer now needs to be a business person, have strong financial, management and market knowledge.

The report says that many farmers do not recognise this shift or the value in developing skills in these areas, and describes a skills deficit within some farms.

Affordable housing is also a concern.  The rise in land and house prices and an increase in second home ownership, coupled with advances in technology which mean that farming is becoming more mechanical and less labour intensive, has meant that fewer young people and families are living in the countryside.

The lack of affordable housing in rural Devon means that young people are moving away.

The agriculture industry, says the report,  needs young farmers, but also local mechanics, engineers, seasonal farm workers, vets and food manufacturers in order to prosper.

The report also describes an aging workforce. In 2013, more than a third of farmers nationally were aged over 65.

Locally, there’s been a notable rise in the number of daughters of farming families in Devon entering the industry, and agricultural colleges, Bicton and Duchy Colleges, report rises in the uptake of their agricultural courses.

However, the fact remains that it’s difficult for young farmers to get a rung on the ladder.  Access to land is a key issue, as is cost.   Farming often requires very large costs upfront to purchase livestock, and machinery as well as other start up costs.

Devon County Council’s Farms Estate is applauded as providing a good, if not rare, opportunity for young farmers and new entrants to the industry.

And as much as 50 per cent of farms in Devon today have diversified to some extent in order to supplement their farms’ income, adding self-catering cottages, Bed and Breakfast, or camping, to their portfolio.

Over Brexit, the farming community, like the British public generally, appear divided.  Some farmers say that the Common Agricultural Policy encourages over production.  Many say that agri-environment schemes and policies such as ‘the three crop rule’, where farmers with more than 30ha of arable land are required to grow three different types of crops, also don’t work well in the UK.

And there’s a feeling, possibly of optimism, that leaving the EU will provide the UK with an opportunity to create its own agricultural policy; one that will sustain the social and economic structure of the countryside and help protect the environment.

But while the Government has pledged a two prong agricultural and environmental package of support for UK agriculture, the policy detail has yet to emerge.  And there’s much uncertainty among the farming community around the political commitment to financial support for agriculture after 2020, remembering that many farmers currently rely on the Basic Payment Scheme to survive.

So, Devon County Councillors will talk to Devon’s MPs to inform them of their findings and to see what can be done at a national level to improve support to Devon’s vital industry.

In their recommendations, the Council’s Place Scrutiny Committee Task Group suggest calling upon the Government to provide, at the earliest opportunity, greater clarity over what will happen to farm subsidies post Brexit, so that farmers can plan for the future of their business.

That, when negotiating world trade agreements, farmers receive a fair and consistent price for their produce.  And post Brexit, that the government puts forward financial support to promote innovations in farming, diversification, and environmental stewardship.

The task group would like the Government to help young farmers with funding for upfront capital investment to get businesses started.

And that the Government looks to refresh planning policies for building of homes, targeted at people working in agriculture and related industries.

They also say that agri-environment schemes should be ‘fit for purpose’, and should balance farming needs alongside environment outcomes.

And finally that there should be greater public understanding of farming, food production and the contribution of agriculture to Devon’s economy, tourism and of the wider public benefits of the natural environment.

Cllr Brian GreensladeThe Chairman of the Task Group, Cllr Brian Greenslade, said:

“My grateful thanks to all those who have given the task group their time, information and opinions, and to the members of the task group and officers who compiled the report and its conclusions.

“Devon County Council recognises the importance of agriculture to the county, not just for our economy, but also to sustaining the vitality of life in rural communities.

“While the council can not address all of the issues identified within this report, we can use our standing to lobby those who can make a difference, and sustain this lobbying.

“I am grateful that Sarah Wollaston MP has discussed the task group report with her colleagues at Westminster, who will study it in detail in due course; and for the interest that the Chairman of the Agricultural Select Committee, Neil Parrish MP, has taken.

“Agriculture has been through difficult times and the future is uncertain, but if issues in our report can be addressed then there is a worthwhile future for people in the industry and Devon County Council continues to help encourage this via the county farms estate.”

A copy of the Task Group’s report is available on our website.

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