Fordyce Maxwell: Quit moaning or become more efficient

Through the ­barrage of attempted soundbites and cheap insults that TV companies and politicians have tried to pass off in recent weeks as electioneering debates, one fact has impressed me.
The most efficient farmers 'probably moan less', argues Fordyce Maxwell. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphotoThe most efficient farmers 'probably moan less', argues Fordyce Maxwell. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto
The most efficient farmers 'probably moan less', argues Fordyce Maxwell. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto

That is, if we accept these audiences as representative, what a nation of moaners we are. I have watched more of these debates than is good for my sanity and almost every question was a hard-luck story of what were politicians going to do for the questioner and/or their section of society, job or profession.

I don’t think anyone suggested what they might do for themselves or society, how they might take more control of their own life. And politicians, wise to the game, have played it to the full by trying to top each other in seeing who could offer most jam tomorrow.

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Not one politician has committed professional suicide by taking a deep breath and saying: “Have you ever thought of trying to do something to help yourself?” How good would it be if we became known for hard work, self-reliance and taking responsibility rather than moaning about how much help we need?’

Farmers, I suggest, are known for all three of the above qualities. We all know exceptions, but hard work, self-reliance and taking responsibility are the rule as farmers cope with the uncertainties of weather, pests and diseases, ­markets for their products and now Brexit. Unfortunately, they’re also noted for moaning.

It has always struck me as strange that an industry with so many forward-thinking entrepreneurs, some making large profits because of their skills and innovations, should be known to the public mainly for moaning that it can’t ­survive without £3 billion-plus of annual subsidies.

It has also always struck me that the farmers complaining least, many not at all, are the ones who have built successful businesses from small beginnings, frequently in the non- ­subsidised or least-subsidised sectors. Vegetables, poultry, pigs, potatoes and dairying spring to mind.

Others have built on a solid framework laid by one, sometimes two, previous generations to, for example, sell millions of eggs or hundreds of tonnes of quality soft fruit through supermarkets, grow thousands of acres of potatoes instead of dozens, manage and contract farm 10,000 acres or more, manage

several thousand ewes and thousands of cattle.

It can be argued that this inexorable and inevitable trend towards fewer and bigger farming businesses is not necessarily a good thing. It can also be argued that economy of scale is the only way ahead for an industry as a whole that can’t expect to rely on subsidies in future.

Looked at closely, it is also clear that many of the most successful businesses are the modern version of the family farm. These are the large businesses that will survive and thrive whatever happens with Brexit, but the encouraging thing is that there are also smaller examples of what can be done. Their stories can be found in the feature section of any farming magazine a few pages after the opening section of farming’s troubles, National Farmers Union demands and “Who’ll help us” letters.

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There are thousands of farmers trying to help themselves just as, I suspect, there are millions of us dealing with our own problems by adjusting expectations to income, working hard, thinking ahead, finding new ways of dealing with life and not expecting a handout or a subsidy. We just don’t hear enough about them.

There is no alternative for us all. Whatever government the UK has after Thursday and whatever promises have been made, there won’t be enough money to meet all moans. When Brexit is complete, farming subsidies will be lower than now.

Farmers can either quit or become more efficient. An example – as it has been for years – is Quality Meat Scotland’s profitability report for sheep and cattle. Year after year QMS finds that those in the top third for gross margins rear more meat per breeding female, sell their store animals for higher prices per kilo of liveweight and also their finished animals.

In short, they’re better at what they do. And they probably moan less.