Newspapers report that British agriculture is suffering its worst crisis since the 1930s, but is that really so? Despite the BSE crises and their annual complaints about the strong pound, farmers are still out there farming, after all. Isn’t it just a case of their crying wolf once more? No. Rationalisation has arrived in the countryside and will change its face for ever.
The family farm is disappearing, and the agriculture minister Nick Brown’s promise of cash for farmers who retire is designed to hasten the process. Farms in Britain are instead becoming rich men’s toys or the kind of right-sized, downsized, large-sized businesses favoured by management consultants. Given how industrial-scale agriculture has been slated in recent years, this seems ironic. But to the government it is simply inevitable, in a way the triumph of the proletariat is not.
The current problems began under the Conservatives with the BSE crises and the strengthening of the pound. Jonathan Pugh, whose family currently manage a 2,000-acre hill farm in Wales, found they were unable to sell their lambs to the Spanish market that once took them with such enthusiasm. They hoped that things could only get better, but under Labour the crises have got worse. With the economic problems in Russia and the continuing strength of the pound, the export market disappeared.
At home, new government regulations have made slaughtering costs prohibitive, and, uniquely within the EU, the farmer alone is expected to bear those costs. The result is that lambs that once made Pugh £36 each now make him £18. Worse, his ewes, which had lost 50 per cent of their value over the previous three years, are now almost worthless. The wool market has collapsed, and Pugh’s fuel costs have risen twice in the past six months. What should he now do?
The Pughs have already tried to spread their costs. In 1989 they bought a small farm after the 96-year-old man who farmed it died. The house was sold to a detective constable, and the land remains worked by them without any extra labour. The local council has been keen for them to graze their sheep on the 750-acre park it owns, and the Pughs have obliged, although for what reward it is difficult to say. They looked hard at the organic option, but, Pugh tells me, it made no sense to him. “They wanted us to dip our sheep in Bayticol, which is so toxic you have to burn it.”
Another avenue the family explored was diversification. They planted trees but it hasn’t helped their financial situation. What, then, would? Money? “The politicians are very clever,” Pugh says bitterly. “They always say, ‘There’s no more money’, so people think we want money out of them. But we don’t want money. We want our markets back and we want to be dealt with fairly.”
That means allowing farmers to compete on equal terms with their EU neighbours and challenging the supermarkets and the middlemen who have been allowed to grow so fat at the expense of both farmer and consumer.
Pugh believes that, while the government proclaims that it can’t help, the truth is that it doesn’t want to. “I sometimes think it’s part of some master plan,” he told me. “Perhaps it’s something to do with the right to roam and giving people the countryside.”
I can understand why he thinks as he does. After all, those in government seem merely embarrassed by the farmers’ shouts of despair. It is as if they can’t wait for the family farm finally to die. “Why,” they appear to wonder, “is it taking so long?”
The average net farm income in England for 1998-99 was £8,000 and falling. But, as the American writer Fawn Brodie once wrote, “there is a gold mine or buried treasure on every mortgaged homestead. Whether the farmer digs for it or not, it is there, haunting his daydreams when the burden of debt is most unbearable.” Many have hung on; some despair. In Wales farmers are now killing themselves at a rate of one every ten to 11 days. Others are trying to sell and finding they cannot.
As the estate agent SPD Savills told me, there isn’t a market for remote farms with poor land in the hills or the fens. It is impossible to know what will become of such farms and the land they work. The older farmers will doubtless die in harness, but who will take over from them? Their sons and daughters are leaving to find work in the cities. In other areas of the country, those with an attractive house near a city have found a buyer for their home among the urban rich. SPD Savills informs me that these urban buyers are increasingly being forced to buy the farmland as well.
The larger farms that might once have been glad to swallow smaller neighbours are now struggling. But in the end it is they – or the contract farming companies that manage them – who will take over most of these oversized suburban gardens.
It has often struck me as odd when the Conservative press describes new Labour as “Roundhead”. No one in new Labour has any sympathy for Cromwell’s “plain russet-coated captain that knows what he fights for and loves what he knows”. On the contrary, they wish him an early retirement. And if he turns his shotgun on himself, well, it’s all the same in the end. When the Countryside March arrived in London last year, the protesters were derided by the city elite as “toffs and peasants”.
The countryside of the new millennium will be a brave new world, managed by big business and inhabited by the rich, urban middle class: Notting Hill holding hands over the hedgerows with its city friends.
The author is married to a farmer in Leicestershire