Farmhouse producers get no help under aid rules Sunday TelegraphChristopher Booker's Notebook... A LAST-MINUTE bureaucratic rebuff to two small West Country food-producers has highlighted the crazy anomalies arising from the Government's much-vaunted scheme to provide emergency aid to small firms that are threatened with disaster by the knock-on effects of the foot and mouth crisis.
Neil Robyns, a sausage-maker, and Lawrence Wright, a cheesemaker, were both promised aid by the South-west Regional Development Agency, until officials looked at the small print of the European Union rules governing compensation payments. Mr Robyns's and Mr Wright's mistake was that their sausages and cheese come from their own pigs and sheep. If they had bought in their raw materials from elsewhere, they would qualify for aid. But because they rear their own animals, under EU rules they are classified as "primary agriculture". Aid to help their businesses survive would therefore be illegal.
When Lord Whitty, the Minister for Rural Affairs, and Lord Haskins the "rural recovery co-ordinator", rhapsodise about the need for farmers to diversify, to "go organic", to go for top-quality, "added-value" products, to sell through local markets, it would be hard to find more shining examples than these two businesses. Mr Wright was for 30 years an architect until, eight years ago, he returned to a north Devon farm near Ilfracombe that he had last seen in his childhood after the war, to make a superb organic cheese from the milk of his flock of 180 ewes. Neil Robyns and his wife, Claire, were nurses until, three years ago, they set up a business making high-quality, rare-breed sausages and bacon near Launceston in Cornwall, from their own pigs, including traditional Gloucester Old Spots and Saddlebacks.
Both firms were expanding fast, selling by mail order and through local markets, until the foot and mouth crisis. Mr Wright, surrounded by infected farms, could not take his cheese to market for months. Because Mr Robyns could not take his pigs on the 55-mile trip to a Truro abattoir, his pigs, still inside because of the winter, continued to increase in numbers until a floor collapsed, killing 60 pigs and causing thousands of pounds-worth of damage to the building. With the aid of the RSPCA he had done everything he could to alleviate the animals' discomfort. But he refused to take money for them to be incinerated under the ministry welfare scheme, because this would destroy the basis of the business and would be obscenely wasteful.
When the Government announced its compensation scheme for small firms, both men applied and, after supplying detailed business plans, were told by the south-west Regional Development Agency, through its Business Link, that they were eligible. In Mr Robyns's case, help had become vital, because the unavoidable costs of his business, which employed two people, had run up debts of £20,000. Mr Robyns was promised £12,500 and Mr Wright £2,500.
Everything seemed fine until the officials discovered that, because their products came from their own animals, this classified them as "farmers", disqualifying them from aid under tight rules laid down by the European Commission.
When Mr Robyns pointed out that he was not claiming for losses on his pigs but on his main business, which was selling sausages by mail order through his farm shop, the officials said that he could not qualify as a "farm shop" because he sold only his own product. Yet, under planning regulations, as many farmers have found, to set up a farm shop which sells anyone else's produce needs special planning permision which is almost invariably refused.
Mr Wright will survive. But for Mr Robyns, his wife and their five small children, who had to be kept away from school for fear of bringing foot and mouth back home, the past six months have been a nightmare. "The only thing that has kept us going," says Mr Robyns, "has been the incredible support we have had from all our customers."
Since restrictions were lifted two months ago, sales have again been soaring. The prospects for their business could not be rosier, were it not for that backlog of debt which, thanks to insistent creditors such as their local council demanding business rates, now threatens to close it at any time.
When their pig pens were damaged by the overcrowding, Mr Robyns remembered he had taken out a special insurance policy allowing him to claim for "interruption to his business". But the company said that he did not qualify because, under the small print, claims could not be made when this was due to "government legislation". For insurance purposes, therefore, the damage Mr and Mrs Robyns have suffered is classified as the responsibility of Government. But when they apply to the Government for emergency aid, first they are promised help, then the officials find a tortuous excuse to withdraw it. It is hard to imagine any other EU government behaving like this to its small, high-quality food producers. And if any readers would like to help Mr and Mrs Robyns's admirable business to survive, their website is www.pomeroyrarebreeds.co.uk. Sept 23