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Farming

Cultivating votes: Farming and the election

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Farmers can have an influence on election: A close eye on political developments.

Farmers can have an influence on election: A close eye on political developments.

THE ELECTION on May 7 is widely touted as being one of the closest of recent times. Away from the photo opportunities and soundbites, farmers around the UK are keeping a close eye on political developments.

Both the FUW and the NFU have made no bones that they are looking towards central government to support farming and the wider agricultural industry. With votes precious, the question is how far political parties are prepared to bend their policies to meet farmers’ expectations. While votes in the shires of England tend to aggregate towards the Conservatives, the picture in Wales is rather more complex.

For a start, there are more small independent farms per head of population than there are in England and income from agriculture and food production make up a larger part of Wales’ own domestic product.

When one focuses on the commitments of the larger parties in Wales, there is little meat in any of the manifestos, which focus on large picture macro-economic concerns rather than practical proposals to improve the lot of farmers and agricultural workers and farming communities in the short to medium term.

The Conservative manifesto has promised a lot for the longer term:

  • 25 year growth plan for food industry
  • Commitment to 25 year TB strategy (including culling)
  • 5 year tax averaging
  • Single farm inspection taskforce to co-ordinate visits, including Red Tractor
  • Treble food, farming and Agri-tech apprenticeships
  • Great British Food Unit to promote British exports
  • Push for Country of Origin Labelling for dairy in Europe

The long term is all very well, but at a time when farming incomes for family farms are being squeezed tighter than ever, most farmers will be most interested in the here and now. Farmers need certainty about their income and about the support they can expect from government now and tomorrow and not in the sweet bye and bye.

The Conservatives have promised to deliver in 2017 a referendum on whether Britain should stay in or stay out of the European Union. What they have not said is what they will do to help farmers replace European funding payments, upon which many farmers rely, if, in 2017, the British people choose to leave the EU. In addition, the Conservatives have not said how British farmers will be able to continue to access European markets for their produce if tariffs on imports to the EU from the UK follow, as they surely would.

The Labour Party has a significant problem with rural and farming affairs. From being an industry that commanded a seat at the centre of Cabinet discussions, farming was side-lined during the last Labour Government and there is no dedicated minister for agriculture and rural affairs in the Cabinet on the Bay.

Lingering resentment exists in some parts of the Welsh countryside over the ban on hunting with dogs, particularly on upland farms where predation by foxes is a particular problem. There also remains considerable disquiet at the way the Welsh Labour government caved in to those protesting against badger culls. In both cases, it seemed to most farmers that Labour was more interested in appeasing voters who had perhaps a more rosy view of Reynard the Fox and Brock the Badger than most farmers experience in their daily lives.

So, where Labour has a policy at all on agriculture, it is more concerned with issues at the end of the food-delivery process than those issues at source level. Labour’s manifesto commitments on agriculture (in the broader sense) are:

  • End the badger cull pilots
  • Expand the remit of the Groceries Code Adjudicator
  • Ban zero-hours contracts – workers have right to permanent contract after 12 weeks
  • Long-term food strategy
  • Maximum-permitted levels of sugar, salt and fat in food marketed to children
  • Broadband rollout

In times past, the old Liberal Party was the last redoubt of Welsh farmers. Broadly put, large landowners backed the Tories, farmers and rural communities tended to back the Liberals. The splintering of old ties is, however, likely to see the Liberal Democrat vote across large parts of Wales shrink significantly: while Mark Williams seems likely to hold Ceredigion, Brecon and Radnor is on a knife’s edge. With the Liberal Democrats looking to be coalition partners with any new government, its ability deliver manifesto commitments is necessarily limited, but it is likely that promises to review policies rather than put forward specific measures of their own would make them relatively easy to slot back in to either of the main party’s farming commitments.

Plaid Cymru’s pitch is, perhaps, predictably to wish a plague on both the houses of the Conservative and Labour parties, with Carmarthen East & Dinefwr candidate Jonathan Edwards claiming that: “Plaid Cymru is the champion of rural Wales. We are the only party that has a strong record of standing up for farmers and rural businesses, and opposing the establishment parties’ threats to the EU funding that the sector depends on.”

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Farming

FUW welcomes new minister

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Minister for the Environment: Hannah Blythyn

THE FARMERS’ UNION OF WALES has welcomed the announcement in continuity in the Welsh Government, following the Cabinet reshuffle (Nov 3), which saw Lesley Griffiths continuing in her role as Cabinet Secretary for Energy, Planning and Rural Affairs, with the addition of a deputy, Hannah Blythyn as Minister for Environment.

Responding to the news, FUW President Glyn Roberts said: “We welcome the continuity of keeping Lesley Griffiths as our Cabinet Secretary. Our working relationship has been a positive one and we look forward to continue working with her.

“With issues such as climate change and water management dominating agendas such as those listed in the Well-being of Future Generations Act, we are pleased to see Mrs Griffiths will be able to continue to fight for the interests of our rural communities – communities for which agriculture is a cornerstone.

“We are also pleased to see that Hannah Blythyn has joined the Cabinet. The addition of a new Minister recognises the complexity of the portfolio and we look forward to working with Hannah in the context of her remit.

“We met with Lesley Griffiths last week and will now seek a meeting with Hannah Blythyn at the earliest opportunity, to discuss those issues which are of concern to farmers and have an impact on all aspects of her portfolio.”

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Farming

Commitment on funding welcomed

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Addressing NFU Cymru conference: Lesley Griffiths

NFU CYMRU has welcomed the Welsh Government reaffirming its commitment to ring-fence funding for Welsh farming post-Brexit.

Last week NFU Cymru met with Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Rural Affairs, Lesley Griffiths AM, and in a wide ranging discussion covering a range of topics, Brexit topped the agenda.

Following the meeting, NFU Cymru President Stephen James said: “I am pleased that in our meeting with the Cabinet Secretary, Lesley Griffiths AM, she reaffirmed the commitment from the First Minister that funding for Welsh agriculture from the UK Government to the Welsh Government will be ring-fenced for Welsh farmers post-Brexit.”

The Cabinet Secretary’s commitment follows on from a response that the First Minister gave to Plenary on October 24 and reaffirms the commitment in the Welsh Government / Plaid Cymru Securing Wales’ Future document which stated that it is ‘essential that equivalent or greater resources to those Wales would have received from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) are provided from the UK to support Welsh farming’.

Stephen James continued: “NFU Cymru’s message on future funding arrangements has been clear and unequivocal. Governments in Cardiff and Westminster must maintain current levels of investment for farming in Wales, to ensure Welsh farmers remain competitive and can continue to produce food to the highest standards whilst maintaining and enhancing our environment and meeting our climate change obligations.

“At Plenary, the First Minister mentioned that he would consider looking at alternate ways of working and we would absolutely agree with that. This is an opportunity for us in Wales to work collectively to create a new agricultural policy framework that helps to achieve our vision of a productive, progressive and profitable farming industry that delivers jobs, growth and investment for Wales.

“We see the development of a new policy framework as an evolution over a period of time, with the timeframe for change very much determined by our future trading relationship with the EU.

“With the UK Government having committed to the same cash total in funds for farm support until the end of this Parliament, the next step is for the UK Government to clarify how these funds will be allocated amongst the home nations. This allocation should be based on the current formula for distributing CAP funds within the UK.

“Farming is a long term business and we need clarity and certainty on a range of issues including funding, trade and future agricultural policy. Developing agricultural policy and budgetary frameworks should be developed in partnership between the governments of the UK, so that a common policy framework can be agreed. A common policy, but a policy which allows flexibility for each country to take account of the pattern and practice of farming within their country.”

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Farming

Family farms on the brink

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Under threat: Over 80% of small farms are struggling

FEWER than one in five family farms are making a profit from their farming activity, according to research undertaken by the Andersons Centre on behalf of The Prince’s Countryside Fund.

Analysis of data from 172 participants in the first year of The Prince’s Farm Resilience Programme has shown that the average farm made more than £20,000 loss from farming activities, and instead is reliant on other income streams to make a profit.

The shortfall was made up by income from non-farming activity, such as tourism enterprises, renewables, direct selling of products to the consumer, or income from working off farm as well as farm payments.

According to the report, broadly speaking, farmers face two business choices in order to cope with declining economic fortunes: either to focus on a farming solution or to redeploy resources away from agricultural production. In reality, it may be a combination of the two or farmers may vacillate between the two courses of action with periods of off-farm work generating income interspersed with a focus on the farm.

There are, of course, two further options open to farmers. First, they may cease farming, either entirely through selling up the farm or by letting their land. Or secondly, they might tighten the belt and continue business as usual.

Worryingly, many operators of small farms, believe the near future will see them retiring or otherwise leaving agriculture altogether.

Lord Curry of Kirkharle, chairman of The Prince’s Countryside Fund said: “Although the initial figure is startling, the research from the Andersons Centre shows that farmers are increasingly looking at their farms as a business, and are proactively looking for how they can generate an income from diversified sources to remain profitable.

“This is more crucial now than ever. Farmers must develop their skills and improve their business confidence to survive. If they do not, the risk of extinction for the family farm is very real; farmers must act now to both strengthen their core farming business and to spread the risk.

“The Prince’s Farm Resilience Programme is vital, because it equips farmers with the tools they need to remain financially stable. Maintaining diversity of farm size is essential to protect the British countryside and our rural communities.”

The Andersons Centre developed a bespoke and easy to use Business Health Check Tool for The Prince’s Farm Resilience Programme, allowing farmers on the programme to benchmark their performance, identify their strengths and weaknesses, and make informed business decisions as a result. Data from this tool was analysed to identify trends and performance in the farm businesses involved in the initiative.

The Prince’s Farm Resilience Programme aims to help 300 family farms, across 15 locations, each year. It brings together like minded family farm enterprises in local networks, to review their current activity and identify improvements and opportunities that can be made on-farm to build resilience, effectively helping farmers to take control of their businesses. Farmers who took part in the first year have confirmed they have higher levels of confidence in their business, better business management, and stronger communication within their family.

The Prince’s Farm Resilience Programme directly addresses some of the issues raised in a report commissioned by the Fund from the University of Exeter, ‘Is there a future for the small family farm in the UK?’

The report detailed how the loss of small family farms would have devastating effects for the British countryside, leading to loss of employment, breakdown of rural communities, and potential negative environmental consequences. The report concluded that it was essential to maintain a diverse range of farm sizes, but that this was in significant jeopardy.

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