Will the industry survive the pressures that are forcing farmers off the land, asks Richard Clarke

If abundant food can be produced more cheaply abroad, why should we produce it here? It’s a simple question, but one that cuts to the heart of the crisis facing British farmers. Why source sugar grown in East Anglia, when it can be produced at a fraction of the cost in Africa? Why buy beef reared in Devon, when South American farmers can sell it to you at a cheaper price, even though they have to ship it over thousands of miles of sea?

Ask all the major retailers about their commitment to British farming - and they are frequently challenged on this - and you will receive the same, unequivocal response: their commitment is as great as ever. Last month, for example, Tesco’s corporate affairs director, Lucy Neville-Rolfe, told a packed room of influential food and farming personalities: “Tesco will continue to purchase from British fields.”

For the retailers, British farmers offer big advantages in terms of traceability and availability: it’s much easier to keep track of how something is produced, and to keep shelves full during busy periods, if food is produced on your doorstep. But while the multiples generally prefer to buy British when they can, and often work hard to make a virtue of it, they expect domestic producers to be as competitive as those based elsewhere in the world. And many claim it’s this economic pressure - particularly in the context of CAP reform - that is forcing farmers out of business.

One glance at the farming press and it’s obvious that confidence levels in the agricultural community have never been lower. Farmers are quitting agriculture in their droves, while figures from HSBC Agriculture show that borrowing by farmers is rising by 3% year-on-year, reflecting the cash flow difficulties they are suffering. The very future of our agriculture sector is threatened.

But why should we care? Companies go bust every day without anyone raising an eyebrow. Why should farming businesses be any different? And, in any case, what’s so bad about buying foreign-produced food? After all, there are now so many international assurance schemes out there that rock-solid traceability is becoming as easy to achieve in Kenya as it is in Cumbria. And it’s a great way to support countries in the developing world.

Mark Tinsley, MD of Lincolnshire vegetable and cereals grower PC Tinsley, says there are good reasons to cherish British agriculture. “People ask, ‘why do we need a farming industry when we could buy all our food from abroad?’ It’s a seductive argument. Even in government, they’re not sure whether they should be supporting the industry.

“However, there are several reasons why we should preserve British farming. In addition to the effect on the environment of the food miles generated by imports, and on our balance of payments, the land will deteriorate if we stop commercial food production.” Tinsley uses the word commercial, but many believe the future of British agriculture is under threat precisely because farmers don’t think enough along commercial lines.

Jon Woolven, director of the Food Chain Centre, which was set up to promote profitability in the supply chain, says: “Farmers are used to political solutions, but I would put my faith in market solutions. CAP reform makes it important for farmers to think commercially.”

National Farmers’ Union president Tim Bennett agrees. “Farmers need to talk about margins rather than prices,” he argues.

The breaking of the link between subsidies and the quantity of food produced, the key plank of CAP reform, is forcing many farmers to refocus. No longer can they rely on production-related subsidies to top up the miserly price they get on the open market. But it’s easy to forget that thousands of pig, poultry and fruit and veg producers have never enjoyed EU handouts, yet they still face enormous pressures. And, judging by our analysis (right) by Steve Webster of agricultural consultants Delta-innovation, they appear to be in better shape for it. (For more information, go to www.delta-innovation.co.uk)

What’s needed, most agree, are solutions that address market forces, regardless of any subsidies farmers may or may not have received in the past and, indeed, may or may not get in the future.

Bodies such as the Food Chain Centre, the English Farming and Food Partnership and the Red Meat Industry Forum are encouraging farmers to co-operate more with each other - from getting together to share tips on operating more efficiently, to forming co-operatives to enable them to buy inputs and sell outputs from a collective platform.

“The biggest threat to farmers is not from their neighbours but from farmers abroad,” says Woolven. “Farmers here need to work together.”

Earlier this month the NFU and the EFFP announced they would be working together more closely to promote collaboration between farmers as key to their survival. EFFP chairman Jeremy Pope said: “We envisage a farming industry that is efficient in its use of resources. Collaboration will be the norm in the sourcing of inputs, achieving production efficiencies and the marketing of outputs.”

But it’s a message that is going unheeded by many, even if Woolven is right that nearly a quarter of farmers are now involved in Food Chain Centre benchmarking projects. Of his own experience, Tinsley says: “It’s been like pulling hen’s teeth trying to get growers to come and share information.”

Nevertheless, it’s hard to decry the efforts of the likes of the Food Chain Centre and the EFFP. But when push comes to shove, farmers have to help themselves. And fears persist that unless they do, agriculture in the UK could eventually die out.

On one hand, tomorrow’s farmers, unspoiled by the luxury of subsidies, will be better equipped to survive. But on the other, if today’s
farmers can’t make it, what incentive is there for young people to take up farming? It’s a bleak prospect, but a real one: British agriculture is in danger of suffering the same fate as our textile, coal and car industries.