Farming: Plenty of changes – but will any have long-term benefits?

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SOMETIMES my old art teacher told me I was too close to what I was trying to draw and I lost perspective.

Ever since then I have tried to stand back a little from the ­action to get a wider view and see how the issue being discussed looks in a bigger landscape.

Last week, I spent an unhealthy number of hours watching a webstream of the European Union agriculture committee as it wrestled its way through its version of the next Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). As I did so, I tried to translate the euro-speak into what this decision or that amendment would actually mean to Scottish agriculture.

Then I reported on the appointment of Christine Tacon, the former head of the Co-operative farms business, as the first Grocery Code Adjudicator. A wonderfully suited appointment, I thought, reflecting on her background both in business and also in the primary production of food.

This was followed by a trip to Oatridge campus of the SRUC (Scotland’s Rural University College) to an open event highlighting the problems farmers are facing as a result of increased rainfall and reduced maintenance of the infrastructure of their land.

Now, stepping back a little from these events, I wonder which of these three unrelated issues will have the most long-term influence on the farming industry. Which one will we look back at in a decade’s time and say, “That was a defining moment”?

After groping through the jargon beloved by Brussels bureaucrats and politicians, all the pundits described the MEPs’ version of the next CAP as a “step in the right direction” before adding their own qualifications and concerns.

They did not define whether it was a small step or a giant leap and my suspicion is that – with both the EU budget yet to be set and the Council of Ministers yet to adjust the CAP to suit their own country’s priorities – it is a small step. The framework may be there but there is still a great deal left to do.

I was tempted into a John McInroe-esque “you cannot be serious” moment listening to one of the main MEPs at the post-committee press briefing. He described the outcome of their deliberations as having delivered a “fairer, greener and simpler” CAP. “Anything but!” I shouted at my computer.

Then there was the long-awaited appointment of the adjudicator to try and bring fairness into the food supply chain. Although it is a gallant step by the politicians to try and remove bullying by some of the major retailers, I remain unconvinced it will work.

I still believe anyone bringing forward a complaint of unfairness may win the point but lose the match, as no-one, especially not the big buyers, is going to deal long-term with anyone who has a record of complaining.

That leaves us with the farmers being reminded that “the answer lies in the soil”. It is a very old message, but it had plenty of resonance for all those who have looked in despair at waterlogged fields and poorer pastures and crops in recent times.

For the first time, I heard a view that a large acreage would be left uncropped this year because of the state of the land. I also know that – after two wet harvests where they left the fields with deep tracks – potato merchants are not being greeted with open arms by those who have in the past let land for potatoes.

The problem with the land in its current state is there is no quick fix. The long-term loss of organic matter in some of the country’s most productive soil is a serious problem and can only be remedied over a number of years, with husbandry being ratcheted up.

There is also a major problem with farmers now dealing with bodies such as the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, which they see as obstructionist and downright unhelpful.

There will also be costs involved in any improvement scheme and unlike any previous occasion where there were subsidies for liming and grants for drainage works there seems little prospect of such initiatives this time around.

Even if the Scottish Government rural affairs secretary includes drainage schemes in a revision of projects eligible for the Scottish Rural Development Programme, only a few will benefit from what I consider to be no more than a rural lottery.

One of the best late revisions to the CAP might be the compulsory retaining some of the Single Farm Payment for a universal scheme for improving drainage and fertility. That would ­provide some long-term benefit to the industry.