Comment: Beef producers unlikely to inspire children

Farming has moved on ' but in some cases not far enough. Picture: Getty Images
Farming has moved on ' but in some cases not far enough. Picture: Getty Images
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Brave efforts are being made to interest children in farming. In the Borders and North Northumberland, the Border Union and Glendale show societies held open days and demonstrations for a total of more than 4,000 children last year. Show societies and organisations in north-east Scotland have made even bigger efforts for longer.

And the Royal Highland Education Trust (RHET) last year reached more than 70,000 youngsters ,with activities that included 746 farm visits and more than 1,100 classroom visits.

Why? According to RHET volunteer Sally Wilson, who spoke at the Oxford Farming Conference a month ago, these efforts are to show what happens on farms, because there is an attractive ­career path for youngsters with a range of abilities and skills in what is a vibrant and progressive industry.

From her perspective, as a dynamic partner in an impressive dairy farming enterprise that uses robotic milking among other high-tech production methods, she is right. From the perspective of any bright youngster taking an interest in what farmers have been complaining about in recent months, the “vibrant and progressive” description ain’t necessarily so.

Even allowing for the ingrained farming habit of being more optimistic with plans privately than they ever allow in public, the past few weeks have produced Old Testament prophet standard forecasts of doom. I was reminded of the old tale of a hellfire and damnation minister warning his congregation that there would be “weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth”.

Glaring at an elderly lady with no teeth laughing up at him, he boomed: “And for the likes of you, Mary Morrison, teeth will be provided.”

Reading the steady flow of misery foretold from 2015 because of changes to Europe’s common agricultural policy (CAP), I can’t help thinking that teeth have been provided.

I don’t underestimate the effect of the changes. Every CAP change of direction has produced winners and losers. This time it seems that the beef sector in Scotland will produce both. Those likely to gain are keeping quiet. Those likely to lose one-third or more of their present annual single farm payment because of the complex way in which land is to be classified are distraught.

I don’t blame them. But winning or losing on a re-classification in one member state after years of negotiations by all member states is part of being a subsidised industry. Along with the subsidies come rules, restrictions and, frequently, arbitrary decisions.

Then come the criticisms of how politicians and civil servants have botched it again – and how much harder and more effectively politicians and bureaucrats in, say, Ireland and France fight for their farmers.

All of the above might be a lot of things, but a sign of a vibrant and progessive industry it’s not. It’s a sign of an industry that has known for many years that EU farm subsidies account for a massive part of total income from farming – 79 per cent in 2012, 69 per cent in 2013 according to the official estimates published last week – but has in too many areas still been slow to try to do anything about that.

Better management, better control of costs, recording, budgeting, benchmarking against competitors, finding out what customers really want, better marketing including the internet, learning new skills, adopting new technology – they’ve all been preached for years. The need for farmers to be in the top third for profit in their sector is emphasised with every financial survey.

Many farmers do all of the above. Some do even more. They’re the ones who don’t moan about supermarkets, they have big contracts with them.

They take subsidy payments when they can, but plan to have a profitable business without them. It’s a truism that most are found in the mainly unsubsidised sectors of pigs, poultry, potato and vegetable growing and dairying. Is it irony, or consequence, that the most hidebound farming sectors are the most dependent on subsidy to stay in business – beef and sheep?

Obviously, there are astute and progressive beef and sheep farmers. Clearly making a living from livestock in Scotland’s hills, moorland and uplands is not an easy option. Farmers and NFU Scotland claim that without subsidy it would be impossible, and that the effects of CAP changes from 2015 will confirm that – at the expense of many who decide to quit.

The RHET is looking for more volunteers to speak to youngsters because it believes “no-one is better placed to educate and inspire children than the people working the land”.

Given the present mood of despair among beef farmers, as reflected by the recent series of NFU meetings and press headlines, good luck with that.