Phoney forecasts on sheep, wool and lamb? Baa humbug

Fordyce Maxwell Rural Affairs Editor

THERE is a phase every journalist goes through, and I have the T-shirt to prove it, that involves a spoof forecast for the year ahead by acting as a poor man's Brahan Seer - although, as I never tire of asking without getting a satisfactory answer, if the Brahan Seer could see the future as well as he claimed, how come he ended his days boiled in oil by a disappointed former believer?

Resisting an inclination to point out that the possibility of the same fate might deter our more persistent economic forecasters and politicians, you know the sort of forecast I mean:

January: US secretary of state for agriculture delivers same American speech at Oxford farming conference for record 15th consecutive year, stating that a free global market and no artificial aid for farmers is the only way ahead. America announces emergency one-off aid package of $150 billion for a US beef industry terrified that BSE has replaced Iraq as main talking point. George Bush tries to pronounce bovine spongiform encephalopathy in State of the Nation address and is removed to a padded cell. Jim Walker, the chairman of Quality Meat Scotland, resolves to think before he speaks - resolution lasts 0.09 seconds into 2004.

February: Scottish Executive says that its policies made 2003 best for farm incomes for seven years. NFU Scotland says that its efforts made 2003 best for farm incomes for seven years, but it won't last unless Executive stops taking advice from WWF Scotland, RSPB, Friends of the Earth, Soil Association and any other bird-loving, free-thinking, vegetarian, freedom movement that there isn't a law against.

March: Margaret Beckett, the head of the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs says in a speech that top of the government's priority list this year will be ... er, what do you call that lot who look after sheep and cattle and grow spiky stuff in fields? The Scottish Landowners' Federation, desperate to lose its tweedy, Eton-educated, lordy-lairdy image, changes its name to the one-for-all, all-for-one, Scottish Rural Property and Business Association.

Oops, they've already done that, one more example that no matter how outrageous you think you're making a spoof forecast for the coming year, real life - stretching that definition in some cases, admittedly - will outdo you.

So we outgrow spoof forecasts, as we should outgrow the temptation to fill acres of newspaper space and days of television and radio time with reviews of the past year. As Millicent Martin used to sing of a week "It's over, let it go" and we should do much the same.

As it happens, 2003 was a good one for weather and most sectors of farming, although leaving some big questions hanging as the clock ticks into 2004. Such as: how will changes to the common agricultural policy be implemented?; will dairy farmers get a better farm-gate price?; will dairy farmers have the sense to stop producing too much milk?; how has large-scale pig farmer Arthur Simmers got away with dubious production methods for so long?; does Lord Whitty, self-styled UK minister of agriculture, know what he's talking about?; will the new farm-tenancy bill work?; what happens when it doesn't?; can Patrick Holden of the Soil Association rule the world?

And, no doubt, many more you can think of. Not least why, after at least half a century of exhortations from bankers, politicians, consultants and the rest of the population, too few farmers think of themselves as businessmen, or act like one, or think that monitoring and bench-marking efforts to get into the top third of their profession is worthwhile.

Despite everything, bankers in particular say that too many farmers still don't know the answer we were teased with during a lecture at college almost 40 years ago: is farming a business or a way of life? Hands up those who say "way of life". Right, we have now identified the one-third of farmers of all types who never have an overdraft. That figure came from a banker, but I believe him on the grounds that - like many agricultural specialists now in that fine occupation - he started life as a college adviser: a worthwhile, caring, profession that he abandoned simply because the bank was prepared to double his salary.

His further broad sub-division is that about a third of farmers have seasonal overdrafts and a third have a permanent overdraft. The latter group tend to be the most interesting because it tends to include the genuine entrepreneurs, among them those who have expanded by running ever-faster using borrowed money and can't stop in case the edifice collapses.

It also includes those who know that farming, and milk processing and meat marketing and diversification, is a business and that given a modicum of luck to go with the hard work and hard thought, they will eventually graft their way into the sunnier uplands of a seasonal overdraft and, possibly and eventually, no overdraft at all.

Although, as my banker friend will say, an overdraft is not necessarily a bad thing for those who think like businessmen and know what they are doing. Where it is a bad thing is for those who have one permanently, but still think that farming is a way of life that others should subsidise. They're the ones facing a bleaker future, and with less reason than most to expect a happy new year.