Just about talked out – we need action on the CAP

Unions week may also be significant for Richard Lochhead. Picture: Ian RutherfordUnions week may also be significant for Richard Lochhead. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Unions week may also be significant for Richard Lochhead. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Later today, NFU Scotland will hold its 101st annual meeting, but the passage of time and the numbers of meetings held before has not made this one any easier.

In truth, the farming leaders who will face their membership over the next two days at the meeting in St Andrews might well believe there has never been a more difficult, uncertain and potentially divisive time in the union’s history.

It will be scant consolation for the leaders of the union that the slew of politicians also attending the meeting will face a more hostile audience than has been the case for at least the past 20 years when the financial disparity caused by the “green pound” policy stripped hundreds of millions of pounds from the incomes of UK farmers.

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The major hurdle they both face is getting some workable solution to the next Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) where the painful reality of a reduced pot of cash is made worse by the new method of doling it out.

I will not use the term “thus creating winners and losers” as I am only aware of financial losers among productive farmers; any differentiation being solely on the degree of reduced support.

It has only been in the past few weeks that individual farmers have been able to work out how much cash they will be getting under the new area payment scheme.

This initially triggered howls of anguish from beef producers that have not been quelled by a bank survey showing almost half the cattle farmers are intending to increase their stock numbers.

Regardless of that last point, the union is pushing for a better CAP deal for beef producers on a number of fronts, such as increasing coupled payments and a longer lead-in time.

Then, last week, arable farmers, conscious they are also looking at reduced support levels, took up the cudgel and forced the union to come out and say it will fight their corner as well.

This livestock/cropping divide has existed for almost as long as farming itself but the potential damage the current proposals could do to union membership and support is difficult to overestimate.

The fact that this particular set of proposals will bring considerably less cash into the industry does not make their life easier. All the union can do is mitigate the effects of the reduced level of support as much as possible.

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For the politicians, getting a solution to the CAP is also proving difficult. In his time as minister, Richard Lochhead has been adept at dealing with the minor issues facing the farming industry while shuffling off the bigger issues for long-term reviews. However, now he has big decisions to make.

The problem he faces is that farmers are unhappy with the current Scottish Government proposals which, reputedly, have most of their origins in what the civil service believes it can deliver rather than what is best for farming.

He will no doubt repeat his belief that if he had been sitting at the main negotiating table the outcome would have been much better, but that ignores the question why the outcome of the UK part of the CAP budget was so poor when he was at the table.

With UK farm minister Owen Paterson unable to attend, his place will be taken by George Eustice, who came into his undersecretary of state post last autumn.

His appearance will give Lochhead an easy opening attack on the UK government for its merry-go-round of ministers while he has been in post.

Eustice, who comes from a farming background in Cornwall, is expected to speak on the positive aspects of exporting food on a UK basis. This perhaps is not the best message for delegates angry over their reduced funding.

I would therefore expect him to be firmly asked about when the UK CAP budget review will take place. It has been provisionally put in the diary in 2016 but more importantly for Scottish farming he should be pressed on when the results of the review will be implemented. A fudged answer on this will annoy the delegates.

This year, all the political rhetoric is also wrapped up in the referendum, with both sides trying to woo the farming vote.

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While their numbers are electorally small, the farming industry is possibly more involved in the outcome than most as continued CAP support, even at a reduced level, is essential to the continuation of farming.