Christine Jardine: Take farmers’ concerns seriously

Picture: Johnston Press
Picture: Johnston Press
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IT IS farming show season. Rural communities are hosting annual events for farmers, food producers and machinery suppliers.

It is the highlight of the summer season. None more so than last week’s Turriff Show. But the unpredictable weather was not the only cloud on the horizon.

Turriff was my second show this summer, and not my last. The theme was the same at both. The North-East’s farmers made it quite clear that unless something changes, the rural economy on display next summer could be a very different, much slimmed down beast.

The reason? The perceived failure of the Scottish Government to implement the most recent EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) changes effectively and timeously.

Well, I would say that, wouldn’t I, is possibly what is going through your mind. But the farmers’ frustration is not about politics. Neither is it entirely about their own self-interest.

Yes, they are angry at what they regard as specific failures which will affect them directly but there is a much wider debate around the table, on which the future of our rural communities may hang. But if it is to be fully aired and properly addressed it will need confirmed townies like me to start taking heed of what our farming relatives have been telling us and lend our weight to their cause.

Perhaps for too long many of us have regarded the issues of the CAP as too complicated or too remote, and an issue for farmers and the NFU to take up with the European Union.

But if what farming representatives are warning is true, we are all both culpable in and vulnerable to the issues that threaten rural communities.

It is there in front of us every time we shop. Given the choice of quality Scottish foodstuff – strawberries, beef, fish – do we take the home product or opt for cheaper imports? Ask any driver the price of petrol and they can recite its progress over the past few weeks. The price of a pint of milk is more of a challenge to most.

It is an argument well rehearsed in the media. The supermarkets are driving down the prices, the farmers need support. They need their politicians and their government at Holyrood to step in on their behalf. Talk to the supermarkets, put pressure on to give them a fair deal. But even in making the argument there is a recognition that the politicians are not to blame. Not so with the broader argument, and the bigger threat.

When it comes to the CAP, however, it is a very different picture. Farmers are angry at being kept in the dark by Scottish ministers about the effects of changes in the regulations long after their colleagues in England, Wales and Northern Ireland had been informed by their relevant authorities.

Now there are fears that they will not receive the important base payments in time, and that it will be their industry which pays for failings at Holy­rood in interpreting the changes and implementing them.

And that is the crux of the problem. While farmers wait for Holyrood to figure out what they are to be paid, our entire rural industries are in limbo.

If the farmers do not get the base payments on time they cannot buy foodstuff, grain, machinery. The impact will then be passed on down through the chain of the rural economy until it reaches the high streets.

As a defence, the Scottish Government can, of course, point to the fact that they must get the calculations right. The EU insists that money is used correctly or they can be “disallowed”. Perhaps that argument would hold more water if other governments – France and Ireland – had not made payments to their farmers up- front and without resort to delays.

But perhaps the Scottish Government’s biggest problem this time is that they cannot simply pass the buck to Westminster. No. It’s the Scottish Government which interprets and implements the CAP. It’s the Scottish Government which did not give its farmers the same respect and attention they received elsewhere in the UK, and the Scottish Government which must act to relieve the pressure the sector is facing.

Sadly, if they don’t, they will not be the ones who pay the price.

• Christine Jardine was a Liberal Democrat candidate in this year’s general election