Monday, October 08, 2007
We'll all reap the harvest of farming folly
Thanks entirely to the negligence of our Government and the response ofour friends in the EU, Britain's sheep farmers are facing the worst crisis in their history.
The timing of the escape of foot and mouth virus from Pirbright, leading to the EU's export ban, means that the five million lambs we would normally export between now and Christmas are either unsaleable, or can only be sold on the domestic market at give away prices.
Many will simply have to be destroyed, without a penny in compensation for a disaster entirely of the Government's making.
Thanks to EU rules, it is now illegal to bury this Everest of carcases. Huge quantities of perfectly safe meat, from animals in Scotland, Wales and parts of England much further from any possible exposure to the virus than northern France, will have to be incinerated, at further cost to farmers, who will see most of their year's income go up in smoke.
With this latest foot and mouth disaster, bluetongue, the farm payments fiasco (which has cost Britain £400 million in lost EU subsidies), the bovine TB epidemic estimated to cost taxpayers £2 billion by 2014, and much else, there seems no end to the crises our farmers must endure.
Most have been caused, or made far worse, by our Government's own limitless incompetence. A large part of the problem is that farming and the need to provide the nation with food could scarcely have been pushed further down this urban Government's agenda. Nothing symbolised this better than its decision in 2001 - after the astonishing mismanagement of the first foot and mouth crisis, which cost the nation at least Â£8 billion - to hand responsibility for agriculture and fisheries to the new Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, in which "the environment" takes precedence.
Almost everything looked after by this absurd department - now run by the vegetarian Hilary Benn - from climate change and waste disposal down to farming and fishing, is ruled by policies and laws dictated by the EU. Without any responsibility for devising measures that might serve Britain's national interests, all that is left to its dispirited staffis to carry out decisions handed down from Brussels, which, as the farm payments debacle showed, they do extremely badly.
Alas, it is no good looking to the Opposition for any hope that it might improve matters. When David Cameron wanted Conservative policy ideas, he obediently followed the Labour agenda by chucking in farming and fishing as mere add-ons to the overriding cause of "fighting climate change".
He then gave the task of chairing his Quality of Life advisory group to John Gummer, remembered by farmers and fishermen as one of the worst ministers they ever had, and an ardent Europhile quite happy to accept that all key decisions should continue to be made in Brussels.
No doubt to Mr Cameron's delight, the theme of global warming ran right through the 549 pages of Mr Gummer's resulting document, headed "Blueprint for a Green Economy", leaving the concerns of our farmers and fishermen to play a very subordinate part. It is all very well for Mr Gummer to prattle on for hundreds of pages about the overriding need for a "Low Carbon Revolution", but in the end nothing better illustrates the unreality of this wish to put climate change at the top of the Tory agenda than how it brings two policies into conflict, making a nonsense of both.
Heading the EU's own agenda at the moment is its obsession with biofuels, which it has decided must provide 10 per cent of the fuel we need to drive our transport by 2020. But to grow enough crops to meet our EU target will take more land than we currently use to grow food, and force us into a far greater dependence on imports just when world grain and food prices are rocketing. (The price of wheat, a prime source of biofuel, has doubled since April.) Mr Gummer is right to be moan the fact that already we don't grow enough of our own food. But this becomes totally pointless when he endorses an EU policy which will compel us togrow very much less of it. Our farmers are already paying an impossible price for the way successive governments have pushed farming ever further down their agenda.
Before long the contradictions arising from this contempt for agriculture will produce a crisis beside which everything seen so farwill pale into insignificance, hitting the front pages of every newspaper in the land.
Daily telegraph Set-aside subsidy halted to cut grain prices
By Bruno Waterfield in Brussels Last Updated: 2:28 am BST 27/09/2007
European Union agriculture ministers have suspended for one year a subsidy that pays farmers not to grow anything as they attempt to bring down soaring wheat prices."Set-aside" rules, which forbid farmers from planting on 10 per cent of their land, mean European taxpayers are funding farmers to keep 9.4 million acres of land idle. British wheat prices have doubled over the past year to £200 a ton and there have been sharp price rises for bread, pasta and meat products inrecent weeks.
Neil Parish, a Conservative Euro-MP and the chairman of theEuropean Parliament's agriculture committee, believes that the set-aside policy should be "scrapped"."We want farmers to be more responsive to the demands of the marketplace," he said. "Yet we are tying one hand behind their backs by forcing some of their land out of production."Peter Kendall, the president of the National Farmers' Union, welcomed the suspension."With mounting concern across the world over grain shortages the productivity of our farmland matters more now than ever," he said.
The European Commission will publish proposals in November to scrap set-aside subsidies, a move that will please many farmers but dismay conservationists, who say the scheme allows wildlife to flourish on uncultivated land.
Daily Telegraph Resistant E.coli 'linked to imported meat'
Last Updated: 2:30am BST 24/09/2007
An antibiotic-resistant strain of E.coli thought to belinked to imported meat is spreading rapidly, according to an investigation. ITV's Tonight with Trevor McDonald said previously unreported figures provided by the Health Protection Agency (HPA) estimated that the ESBL-producing E.coli strain was infecting 30,000 people in England and Wales each year.
The strain produces an enzyme called Extended-Spectrum Beta Lactamase, which makes infections resistant to many drugs and harder to treat. The bacteria causes urinary tract infections but can also lead to blood poisoning.
The first known cases of ESBL E.coli appeared in the UK in 2003 and mainly affected elderly women. The HPA reported two years ago that it had seen an increasing problem of infections caused by the strain, with one study showing it had caused a significant number of deaths. There have been two major outbreaks reported, in Southampton and Shropshire. The programme claims that the bug has spread in the North, with the number of cases in Blackpool more than doubling in the past two years. Dr Achyut Guleri, a consultant clinical microbiologist at Blackpool Victoria Hospital, said: "It's a problem which is rapidly and recently increasing in England."
The programme said HPA-funded tests of chickens for sale in British supermarkets found a quarter of foreign chicken had ESBL E.coli,compared with just one British chicken. Dr Albert Lessing, the director of infectious control at Wexham Park Hospital near Slough, which screens patients for ESBL E.coli, said:"ESBL is changing now in that we do see quite clearly a younger patient group, so it's really a new disease, if you like."
Daily Telegraph Turkey prices to soar in time for Christmas
By Harry Wallop Last Updated: 2:16am BST 25/09/2007
The cost of Christmas lunch is set to soar this year, after leading turkey farmers said they were preparing to increase their prices. The move comes after a dramatic increase in costs in recent months, with poultry feed costs climbing from £181 a tonne to £240 a tonne.
Paul Kelly, the country's leading farmer of free range birds, said he was likely to raise the price of his bronze birds from about £45 for an average size bird to about £50 this Christmas. Farmers of intensively-reared birds where feed makes up a greater proportion of the costs are expected to put up their prices by a larger amount.
Andrew Lewins, chairman of the British Turkey Federation, said: "I would expect the prices of Christmas turkeys to be between 10 per centand 20 per cent higher than last year. daily telegraph Food industry to pay double for eggs Last Updated: 2:38 am BST 26/09/2007 The price of eggs sold to food manufacturers and caterers will increase by up to 50 per cent, producers warned yesterday. The soaring cost of wheat used in bird feed is driving up prices, theBritish Egg Products Association (Bepa) said. Products affected include sandwich fillings, Scotch eggs, boiled eggs, ready-to-use scrambled eggs, plus eggs in liquid and powdered form.
Clive Frampton, the chairman of Bepa, said: "The dramatic increases in feed costs, coupled with a shortage of eggs for processing, have meant that we are having to pay far more for eggs. The price rises are needed to guarantee supply to all our customers in the short to medium term." The cost of feed, which makes up around half of egg production costs, has nearly doubled in the past year. Bepa's members make egg products for food manufacturers and large-scale caterers. Their products are not usually sold direct to consumers.
Sunday telegraphBluetongue disease: A killer in the countryside
By Ross Clark
Last Updated: 12:16am BST 30/09/2007 Page 1 of 2
The deadly bluetongue virus has arrived in Britain and threatens to be even more devastating than foot and mouth disease. For Richard Storer with Bridie, the offspring of his cow that was destroyed after contracting bluetongue, the northerly rain driving across the water meadows of the River Gipping, at Baylham House Farm, Suffolk, on Friday morning, came as a relief.
Last Sunday, Debbie, his prized Highland cow had been put down by Government vets, after becoming the first animal in Britain to be confirmed as suffering from the bluetongue virus. A second cow, Hesbro Lorraine, was destroyed on Tuesday and, on Friday,vets from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) arrived to take blood samples from all Mr Storer's animals, for analysis at the Institute for Animal Health laboratory in Pirbright, Surrey.
With the temperature dropping below 15C, Mr Storer hoped the midges believed to have brought the disease from Holland or Belgium would die off.
What he did not know was that another set of Defra officials were preparing to make a statement. At 3.30pm on Friday, the deputy chief veterinary officer, Fred Landeg, announced that the five cases of bluetongue so far reported were serious enough to constitute an"outbreak". The disease was now circulating among British midges feeding on cattle, and Mr Landeg warned that it might end up costing agriculture tens ofmillions of pounds.
Farmers would have to be prepared for a large number of cases this autumn, and even if the disease died out over winter it would reappear next spring.
Yesterday, the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, announced six new cases, taking the total so far to 11. It is clear they will not be the last. Last night suspected cases were being investigated in new areas, including the East Midlands. In East Anglia, arable farmers have been enjoying better times, as surging wheat prices have boosted profits.
For the livestock farmers, however, it is another story.
The impact of a bluetongue outbreak is not as immediately obvious as that of foot and mouth: there are no piles of corpses, no flaming pyres and, because the disease does not spread directly from animal to animal, Defra has not yet ordered a cull ofanimals on affected farms, only of those shown to be carrying the virus.
Baylham House Farm is closed to the public and a sign warns all but "essential visitors" to keep out, but there are no roadblocks and local footpaths are still open. However, there is a grim realisation that bluetongue is more serious than foot and mouth. Up to 70 per cent of infected sheep die. Cattle can harbour it without any symptoms, increasing the risk of it spreading. Although only 17 out of 1,400 species of Culicoides midges can carry bluetongue virus, those that can are able to travel far and very fast.
The current protection zone, from which animals may not be moved except for slaughter, extends 150km (93 miles) as far as Nottingham. It will not take much for the control zone to cover the entire country.
The manufacture of a vaccine to control bluetongue has been held up by foot and mouth disease. Vaccination has been used successfully against outbreaks of bluetongue strains 2 and 4 in Spain and Italy over the past eight years. And a vaccine against strain number 8 - the one implicated in the British outbreak - has already been developed by the drug company Merial. It cannot be put into production because the necessary work, which was being carried out at the company's laboratory in Pirbright, was suspended on August 4 after the premises were implicated in the Surrey foot and mouth outbreak.
"We took the decision to develop a vaccine in January," says Philip Connolly, a spokesman for Merial, "and our studies show it will work as well as the vaccine against strains 2 and 4 of the bluetongue virus. We were hoping that it would be available in the early summer of 2008. Buton August 4 we took the decision to close live vaccine work at Pirbright. We cannot make any progress until Defra says we can start again.
If we can be up and running by the end of October, we should still be able to get the vaccine into production by early next summer, but if not it will be difficult. "Until last Sunday, few Britons had heard of bluetongue disease.
Even Defra officials, preoccupied with the foot and mouth outbreak in Surrey,were slow to pick up on the symptoms - in spite of the disease's name, animals' tongues rarely turn blue. Debbie first showed signs of being unwell on Sunday, September 16. The next day, she was dribbling profusely from her eyes and there was a injury on her udders caused by scratching. As these are symptoms of foot and mouth, Mr Storer, who runs Baylham House Farm with his wife, Ann, and son, Neil, called a vet. The vet did not think it was foot and mouth and prescribed antibiotics "The following day she was no better, so we called the vet back," says Mr Storer. "This time she found lesions on the cow's feet and in her mouth, but they didn't look quite like foot and mouth.
She called out a Ministry vet, who ended up saying, 'I don't know'. Then a more senior vet came and said it wasn't foot and mouth, but it wasn't until later we were told that the animal must be tested for bluetongue."
The unfamiliarity of the symptoms aside, there was no real surprise among farmers that the virus had arrived in Britain. It has been spreading through Europe for the past decade. There are several strains, but strain number 8 has been rife in Belgium and Holland since 2006, when parts of southern England should have fallen within the 150km movement control areas drawn up around infected farms. Defra successfully argued that the presence of the English Channel made extension of the control zones into Britain unnecessary. It took only a year for the virus to jump the Channel. When the Baylham House Farm case was reported a week ago, speculation centred on the farm's proximity to the A14, which links Ipswich docks and Felixstowe container port with the Midlands. "Animal rights activists have jumped on the fact that live animal exports were switched from Dover to Ipswich in August," said Mr Storer."But if they think gnats are coming over on animal lorries they are barking up the wrong tree.
I'm rather irritated by this. I'm a great anti-live-export man, but I don't like being used. "Defra now believes that the virus came to Britain in a single large cloud of midges which crossed the Channel when atmospheric conditions were ideal on August 4.
What it didn't know until this weekend was whether the virus had spread to the British midge population, making it more likely that bluetongue will regenerate in the spring.
A team of entomologists has since discovered that the virus is present in British midges. For the Storers the main concern is how to preserve their collections of rare species. Besides being open to the public, Baylham House Farm is an important breeding centre. It houses a small collection of middle white pigs, of which the chef Antony Worrall Thompson has bought a small herd, plus various breeds of rare sheep. "One third of our annual income comes in three weeks over Easter when we have our second lambing and people can come and cuddle the lambs," says Mrs Storer.
"But our rams are at Needham Market and the ewes are at Baylham, and at the moment we can't move them."
For the country at large, the question is whether the crises over foot and mouth and bluetongue are now a fact of life for British farmers, and whether we will have to give up for good the idea that we can isolate our agricultural industry from diseases endemic in other parts of the world.
Beside a reedy pond at Baylham House Farm, the Storers have put up a sign. The pond, it says, was used in the 1950s and 1960s as a swimming pool by local children, none of whom ever seemed to get ill in spite ofthe effluent that was pumped into local watercourses."Are we perhaps too sanitised and protected from birth in modern, germ-free environments," it goes on to say, "that we no longer acquire the natural immunities that living closer to the soil would have givenus in days gone by? "Many might wonder whether the same is true of hybrid farm animals, raised in the controlled environment of a modern farm.
Sunday telegraphMilked dry: British dairy farmers uncovered
By James Hall, Sunday Telegraph
Last Updated: 12:37am BST 02/09/2007Page 1 of 3
British dairy farmers are at breaking point, as James Hall found out when he got stuck in for a day of blood, sweat and teats. The farm he visited sells its milk to the supermarkets for 1.5p less a litre than it costs to produce. James Hall spent quality time with Henden Manor Farm's 250-strong herd. It's 5.50 am and I'm covered in dung. "You've got a bit on your face. Have an antiseptic wipe," laughs Bob Felton, the farm manager, as he removes a dollop from my cheek with a disposable towel usually reserved for cleaning cows' teats.
For the past 50 minutes we have been milking a 250-strong herd of dairy cows. From our position in the concrete dugout along the middle of the milking shed we clean udders and apply suction nozzles as the cows pass through the barn, 24 at a time. "The Pit" is a loud and dirty place to be: clattering machinery, lowing cattle, flying waste. And around us the world sleeps.
This labour-intensive process will carry on for another two-and-a-quarter hours, by which time some 3,300 litres of milk will have been extracted from the herd.
In 10 hours' time, once the shed has been washed down and the cows rested, the cycle will commence again. But here's the rub.
Every time that Bob and his team at Henden Manor Farm in Kent milk the cows, they lose money. This is because the price the farm gets paid for its milk is around 1.5p per litre below the cost of producing that milk. This morning's session alone has cost the farm around
The UK dairy industry is suffering badly due to baffling economics such as this.
Since 1996 the number of dairy farms has nearly halved, closing at a rate of 25 a week, while the price that farmers are paid for the liquid has dropped by 30 per cent, according to the Milk Development Council.This has happened because of fluctuating commodity prices, massive increases in the cost of running a farm and unrelenting demand from the UK's large supermarkets for the best possible terms from farmers.
As with most suppliers to Britain's all-powerful supermarkets, dairy farmers have been worried about speaking out over their predicament lest they have their contracts terminated.
However, Henden Manor Farm is different. The farm's owner, Martin Lovegrove, is so concerned about the state of farming in the UK that he has given The Sunday Telegraph warts-and-all access to his farm, staff and financial records going back a decade. I decide to risk blood, sweat and teats by going to investigate. The situation I find is as revealing as it is worrying. Henden is a 600-acre farm located in rolling countryside a few miles outside Sevenoaks in the Weald of Kent.
It was bought by Lovegrove, who owns an oil and gas advisory business in the City, and his wife Roni 10 years ago. Although the farm is not Lovegrove's main source of income, it is not a hobby farm.
Henden supplies milk to one of the UK's largest food retailers (through one of the UK's largest dairy processors), and its herd is three times the size of the national average. It is a living, breathing, working farm. But Lovegrove has had enough. "We are coming to crunch time and the demand and pressures are getting so much that people need to realise that farming is in an appalling situation," he says.
He opens a spreadsheet on his laptop at the kitchen table in Henden's 16th-century manor house. If the stats belonged to any other business it would have been forcibly shut years ago.
The cost of running the farm has increased by 9 per cent every year for the past decade and yet it currently employs fewer staff than it did back then. Last year, it was paid 21.8p for every litre of milk that its cows produced, but its costs per litre were 25.3p due to the price of feed, labour and other costs. This means that it lost 3.5p for every litre it sold, although it managed to claw back the equivalent of 2p a litre through cattle sales. Loss per litre this year, including cattle sales,will be around 0.5p.
More worryingly, the business has been heavily subsidised by Lovegrove. He estimates that for every single litre of milk the farm has produced over a 10-year period, he has invested 6p in modernising, growing and developing the farm. This investment is over and above the losses that the farm has had to absorb through negative sales margins. "This is a business like anything else. And for any business to work you have to generate more money than you spend. As it stands today, there is no way you could take anything out of this business. In fact, this farm should have shut down years ago," he says.
He uses a simple business matrix to sum up how tricky the situation is. "It is a fact of life that our Return on Capital Employed (ROCE) is less than 1 per cent and probably less than 0.5 per cent. I can put money in the bank and get over 5 per cent," he points out. For Henden to achieve a conservative 5 per cent ROCE, it would need to be paid at least 31p a litre. Henden is not badly run. It produces more than 2m litres of milk a year, has a contract with a huge retailer and its cows' milk yields are well over the national average. It has doubled the size of its herd over the past eight years.
As I sweep the dung from the morning milking into the path of a tractor pushing what looks like a massive spatula on wheels (which in turnsweeps the waste into a silage pit) I ask Bob, who lives in a converted oasthouse on the estate, how farming has changed in the 17 years he has worked at Henden.
The first thing he mentions is paperwork.
Ten years ago 10 per cent of his time was taken up with admin. Today it takes up a third of his time. The effect of this is that the farm manager has less time to manage the farm, which means that the relative cost of doing so increases. Much of the bureaucracy is Defra-related. For example, the Government's introduction of cow passports (no photo required) adds layers of work. Although this has improved the traceability of livestock - something seen as essential after foot and mouth and BSE - it means that every single movement of a cow must be logged and sent to a central database in Cumbria. European regulations stipulate that all cows must have ear tags with a mind-boggling array of identification data on them. Again this produces large amounts of paperwork.
Some old cows that I meet on my visit havebeen tagged in the ear so many times that little of their lobes remain. More paperwork still comes from the retailer and processor to whom Henden supplies its milk. One of the general reasons for farming's malaise, says Lovegrove, is that farmers do not view it as a business, despite the increasing redtape. This has lead to a widely held perception that farms are somehow not subject to the same economics as other areas of commerce. "This is at the heart of farming. Farmers cannot be absolved of blame in any shape or form. They have really not pushed across their storyline to the consumer and to the middlemen, including the supermarkets, at all well."They have not worked collectively, partly because they are not businessmen and they don't rate this as a business," he says. However, a far more pressing concern, and the nub of the problem, is the farmers' position in the food chain. Lovegrove argues that farming's role in putting good-quality food on our tables has been devalued. "People saying that farmers are the weakest link in the supply chain is absolute confirmation of where farmers have got it wrong. We are the producers so we should have absolute power. Retailers produce nothing, bar the packaging and the market," Lovegrove says. "For us producers to use that power with a capital 'P' would be insane and wrong. But there is an imbalance and it needs to be addressed," he adds.
What he means is this: the "value" of supermarket food relies on three parties - the farmer, the retailer and the shopper. At the moment power lies with the shopper (who demands low prices) and the retailer (who gives consumers what they want). It is the farmers and other producers who are currently being under-valued.
But Lovegrove thinks that this could soon change.
Rising global demand for commodities and falling supply means that food prices are set to rocket over the next few years. A typical basket of food could rise by up to 10 per cent over the next year, according to a research by The Sunday Telegraph. Dairy producers are set to benefit the most, fuelled by strong demand for milk from China.
Lovegrove sees a 35p litre in the not too distant future. "One travels in hope. Life goes in cycles and the world will hit a rough patch. In a rough patch the value of food will be appreciated and the power will lie with the producer," he says. "Countries have had wealth for so long that their priorities have changed.
Vogue magazine is more important than food, and yet we can't live without food and we can live without Vogue magazine - unless you're my daughters. "The world economy has had good growth but it is not going to grow at the same pace over the next 10 years. There will be a rebalance to fundamentals: the important things will be your home, water, food and energy," he says.
Away from the grand topic of global geopolitics, there is an incident in the farmyard. One of the machines in the dairy is not working and an electrician is called out. It is a simple problem and easily fixed but highlights just how slickly a working farm needs to be managed. Cows need to be milked and this requires electricity.
I am told on numerous occasions that their udders will "basically explode" if they are not milked regularly.
Lovegrove says he will continue subsidising the farm for two years and have a rethink if nothing improves, although he remains optimistic.
As I pack up my wellies I cannot think of any other business where a combination of hard (occasionally unsociable) work, inside knowledge and constant battles against over-burdensome regulation goes so unrewarded.
Not for the first time on the farm, I get pat on the back for my efforts. But it is the farmers who deserve it.
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