Weaning Scotland off subsidy addiction no easy task

I PERKED my ears up when the speaker said it was just like taking crack cocaine, as agricultural journalists do not have much to do with the drug scene.

It gives you a short-term boost and a long-term bad habit, I noted – but then was quickly transported back into farming matters when I realised John Giffens was claiming the receipt of farm subsidies was similar to taking drugs.

As a New Zealander, it was not too surprising that he questioned the value of subsidies, as his country went “cold turkey” in 1984 when they abandoned 95 per cent of their farm subsidies.

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The vast majority of those farming now in that country do so without support. The vast majority are also strongly in favour of their subsidy-free system with its focus totally on what the market returns.

Giffens is behind a plan to establish a deer farm on Maudslie, a 1,000-acre upland unit on the Arniston Estate, ten miles south of Edinburgh. The plan involves not just a few deer in a park field close to the farm steading but a 1,000-hind herd of deer covering the site.

Speaking at the National Venison Day event in Fife last week, he said that while his plan might be a first for deer farming in this country, farms of that size were not unusual in his home country, as they provided economies of scale with savings to be found in specialist equipment.

The business case looked sustainable in the long term – and that was when he said the project could cope without subsidies as they were a double-edged sword, in that they often made the recipients dependant on them in a similar fashion to someone on drugs.

Coincidentally, only minutes before hearing Giffen, I had listened to James Withers, formerly chief executive of NFU Scotland now enthusiastically filling a similar position with Scotland Food and Drink.

He was outlining the expansion in demand for venison in the home market and the potential for export if production was stepped up.

During his presentation, he stated that he would like to see the day when the agenda of NFU Scotland meetings was dominated by discussions on marketing produce rather than on complex subsidy systems.

Before both men are attacked unfairly, I should add they both stated there were areas of Scotland where support was needed, and that some sectors would not survive without subsidies.

Just to emphasise that point – and to prevent a series of angry e-mails, texts and phone calls – I will state clearly that neither speaker was advocating a free market economy.

Some existing deer farmers may still be sore that their livestock were never considered for headage payments and as a consequence they do not currently get Single Farm Payments.

That position will change under the next Common Agricultural Policy with the move to support coming on an area basis instead.

Speaking at the same meeting, ­Richard Lochhead harangued the UK government over the Common Agricultural Policy budget deal from which Scottish farming will get a share. In a speech which doubtless shall be repeated many, many times in the coming 50-odd weeks before the Independence vote, he stated that the CAP cash would have been much greater if he had been at the negotiating table.

Unless Lochhead was just making a political point and not one of economic philosophy, we are now moving into a situation where English farmers are being driven towards the market while their Scottish counterparts will have as much CAP subsidy as is possible.

UK minister Owen Paterson has already made it clear he is going to move as much direct support as possible from farmers. Lochhead has still to come out with the Scottish Government position on this. No doubt when it comes it will come with a repeat of “it could have been better, etc” but it will also point to how much his government supports direct subsidies.

It is all too easy to forget in the welter of forthcoming bureaucracy that ­almost one-third of Scotland’s farm-produced food comes without a penny from the public purse. Eggs, potatoes, pork, soft fruit and vegetables all come to mind. They all have one other aspect in common and that is the growers involved are acutely aware of the vagaries of the market.

I am not advocating the total removal of subsidies, but like many Scottish farmers I can see the advantage in not being thirled to support.