We must help farmers hold back the threat of a rampant suburban sprawl
The madness of the old common agricultural policy had to end, but the new version may destroy our countrysideSimon Jenkins
Friday December 16, 2005
The harvest is gathered. The subsidy is banked. A winter sun slinks low across the Cambridgeshire horizon. This is the time of year when Farmer Walston sheds his boots and settles down to prepare his annual report. It goes to his shareholders, which means you and me.
For years Oliver Walston has infuriated many (indeed most) of his farmer colleagues by rendering the public an account for the generosity shown him by the British taxpayer. Each year his Thriplow farm has received £150,000-£200,000 under Europe's common agricultural policy, often for producing food that nobody really wants.
Walston sends out mugs boasting his annual output of wheat, barley and oil-seed rape. He recounts the stupefying prices his crops fetch in Europe's rigged markets. He tells of the chemicals with which he is encouraged to drench his land; the sums he is paid to rip out hedges then put back hedges; the demands to save orchids and annihilate ragwort. Armies of officials tramp his land with clipboards telling him what to do. But unlike those who persecute local publicans, hoteliers and small businesses, these bureaucrats always bring money.
Twenty years ago Walston gasped at the "unparalleled prosperity" farmers were enjoying and wondered how long it could last. Ten years later he repeated that astonishment. Farmers Weekly might whinge and demand subsidy with menaces. Walston accepted that he was among the richer of the breed, but all farmers had done well from CAP subsidies and protected markets. They should have the grace to say so, and remember again that it could not last.
So each year Walston said thank you. If any taxpayers would like to drop by and chew a mangelwurzel, pick a daisy or roam a meadow, feel free. They had paid for it. Walston let visitors roam fields, ride horses and watch birds on his land. I am sure he would let them climb hills and fish streams were East Anglia not topographically challenged. They were all mad, he cried, paying him so much money, but the least he could do was appreciate it.
That is all over. This is the first year in the life of the new rural Britain. The much-abused 2002 CAP renegotiation allowed member states to fashion their own farm support. In Britain this meant a new regime that no longer subsidises production. Thirty years of traditional farming is over. The day of the "single farm payment" has dawned and it is devastating.
Having never cried wolf before, Walston is entitled to be believed. For the first time his farm is going to lose money. The price of wheat is down to £64 per tonne from a high of £130 10 years ago. That is three-quarters less in real terms. Yet costs are still rising, fertiliser by 30% in a year. With eastern Europe's prairies entering the grain market there will be no respite. The recent European sugar agreement will end the glory days of sugar beet. The best hope for oil-seed rape is government subsidy for biomass fuel.
The most profitable fields at Thriplow are likely to be those set aside for doing nothing or turned over to horses for livery. The single farm payment offers compensation for the loss of production subsidy, but on a rapidly declining scale. Soon it will reward a farmer only for his landscape stewardship. Walston may be able to claim "higher level stewardship" for remedying the ecological crimes past governments have paid him to commit; but this depends on his skill as a park keeper. His bank manager told him last year that he would have been better off had he shut down his farm, grown nothing and sat back to watch the taxpayers' larks rising over the taxpayers' weeds in the taxpayers' meadows.
For all this Walston does not complain. The past quarter century was very good and, "Hallelujah ... at long last the common agricultural policy has got it right". The new subsidy, he says, is "proper, reasonable and just". Taxpayers are rewarding farmers for what the opinion polls claim to want, the proper custodianship of the countryside. He can grow what he likes and sell it where he can. But farmers must live more simply or do what most already do, which is cross-subsidise their households from non-farming income.
This means that the next farming generation will mostly be "hobby" farmers. The labour force on Walston's 2,000 acres has gone from 47 after the last war to just two today. Overnight the farm's biggest asset is no longer its subsidy-rich acres but the old cottages in which the workers once lived. The best local crop is Cambridge commuters and second-homers. And while they may want the adjacent meadows to stay intact, John Prescott and Gordon Brown could not care less. Executive homes and warehouse estates will reduce the number of single farm payments.
The countryside is now under intense pressure just to vanish. Single farm payments are the right answer, but they have come late. They will require adjustments beyond the tolerance of many farm families, not to mention their successors. Thousands will give up and sell for development. It will require all the ingenuity of planners and subsidisers to hold back a rampant suburban sprawl.
Rowland Parker's epic of English rural life, The Common Stream, described the village of Foxton in which Thriplow farm lies. It records three traumas in the history of that settlement. One was the Saxon massacre, the next the Black Death, and the third the arrival of the combine harvester. Each stripped the village of more than half its population. After each trauma the common stream somehow fertilised the village back to life. Foxton now faces a fourth and possibly final trauma. This could end its existence as a distinct village altogether and turn it into a dormitory estate within the Royston/Cambridge/Ely metroplex.
The implementation of single farm payments is thus critical to more than the fate of British farming. It will decide whether the countryside, at least in southern Britain, remains in a remotely rural form. Not only must the money be sufficient to keep farmers on the land but the rules must change. A new planning regime has to award rural Britain the same statutory protection long granted to urban Britain. Landscape must be listed and conserved. Otherwise, outside national parks, all is gone. There is no mystery about what this means: look along the coast of New England, round Los Angeles or on the shores of the Mediterranean.
Britain is rightly vilifying France's selfishness on food-trade reform. But the irony is that France has at least found a means of protecting long-term what may yet be unique in western Europe, an extensive countryside. It is an irreplaceable asset to which millions of Europeans will one day flock for leisure and escape, having destroyed their own. Britons will re-enact D-day not just every holiday but every weekend, with attendant pollution, hassle and expense.
Farmer Walston may have lost his status as a barley baron. But we need to keep him where he is, with his farm, his subsidies, his expertise and his welcome intact. We would miss him were he gone. And were he gone, nothing would get him back.