Not a lot for farmers to be optimitistic about...

Things are gathering apace and the countryside is a hive of activity as farmers rush around as we try to catch up with spring fieldwork. The days and nights are still fairly cold but the ground is beginning to dry and there are even rumours that temperatures will rise later this week.

I am wondering if there is a possibility that within a few weeks we shall be wishing for the odd shower to encourage the newly planted seeds to germinate and get going – time will tell.

Reports of the NFU conference paint a fairly gloomy picture. Those farmers fortunate enough to find time to put on a suit and attend, did not it would seem hear much to be optimistic about.

The ‘horse gate ‘ scandal was still headline news and Tesco chief executive Philip Clarke tried to reassure British beef farmers that they would be reviewing food sourcing, bring their meat production ‘closer to home’, and they would clamp down on rogue operators who exploit the processing industry.

NFU President Peter Kendall insisted that longer term thinking and a shorter supply chain were critical. He said: “We now need supermarkets to stop scouring the world for the cheapest products. They should be sourcing high quality, traceable products from farmers here at home.”

Time will tell if the promises of many retail chief executives who have taken to the airwaves in recent weeks, result in a sea change. Once the pressure is off and the spotlight shines elsewhere will they keep their word?

I believe we could well see horse meat openly sold as an alternative to beef; particularly amongst the immigrant population for whom it is a natural alternative.

DEFRA Secretary Owen Paterson clashed swords with Peter Kendall over several issues including the Minister’s total lack of interest in encouraging farmers to produce much needed food. He is determined to cut English farmers’ CAP payments by up to 15 per cent, to fund agri-environmental schemes and rural development. This would disadvantage English farmers compared to our European cousins, many of whom will receive over 50 per cent more support.

One has to wonder why Mr Paterson takes this line. I suspect many conference goers were wishing Jim Paice had not been so unceremoniously dumped by David Cameron last summer, as he had a good working relationship with the NFU and understands what is required to ensure we can sustain a healthy agricultural industry. It would seem Mr Paterson chooses not to.

As reported in the editorial of the Farmers Weekly, government’s promises to slash red tape and bureaucracy have so far failed to make any noticeable difference to famers.

The plan was to simplify, combine or scrap regulation to free up farmers to get on with doing what we do best – running our businesses. The National Audit Office reports the cost of complying with regulations is an average of one-tenth of a farm’s net profit.

As Jane King, Editor of the Farmer’s Weekly, said: “If farmers are to achieve their full potential, inspections must be proportionate and not a burden. The rate of progress in cutting red tape has to speed up and agencies involved must co-ordinate their activities.”

The truth is that the red tape, bureaucracy, farm visits and regulations do not make us better farmers, or ensure we produce better food.

We do not look after the countryside any better than we would without this constant interference and intrusion. In fact, I would hazard a guess that the opposite is the case in many instances.

The amount of time wasted in preparations for the visits, needless paperwork, checks and balances and all the rest, does in fact take up time and resources which could be better utilised running our businesses.

It is perhaps worth noting that not all farm machinery seen trundling down the roads is legitimate. Should tractors be seen out and about at odd times of the day or night, it may well be worth checking in with the local farmer or calling the police. The rural insurer NFU Mutual has reported that farm machinery thefts have risen sharply during the past three months.

Thieves are targeting farms, and large tractors, telehandlers and quad bikes are being taken. They mostly end up in Eastern Europe; 22 tractors have recently been recovered from Poland.

Farmers, the police and Farm Watch schemes are trying to tackle the problem, but support from the public if they become suspicious could well help to close the circle.

Crime Stoppers are launching a Rural Crime Awareness Campaign at the South of England Agricultural Societies AGM later this month. This is an effective organisation which works closely with the police.

Farms, rural businesses and isolated properties appear to be vulnerable and easy targets for petty thieves and more organised criminals.

With the co-operation of all the above the countryside will hopefully become a safer place and less attractive to thieves and criminals.

Carola Godman Irvine