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Save the Family Farm

Q&A: Family farmers in need of more help to prosper

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Is there a future for the small family farm or does bigger mean better? Olivia Midgley spoke to Family Farmers’ Association chairman Pippa Woods to find out more.

1 January 2015 | By Olivia Midgley

How can the future of the family farm be secured?

No one can do anything to ensure the success of any farm. Success and profitability depends on so many variable factors including the competence of the farmer, weather, world market, harvest, prices and the physical state of the farmland.

Could the Government do more to help small family farms?

The Government patently thinks big farms are best. Whatever measure is proposed, it will be objected to if it will disadvantage big farms. For example, to reduce the subsidy per acre to large farms is to disadvantage them and is therefore undesirable. To have a ceiling on subsidies might cause farms to be split up, which is bad. However, we would reply this would be a good thing and create new farms for new entrants.

Small versus large – which size farm makes a better business?

Our worry, ever since we started in 1979, is there is no research/statistical information on the benefits of smaller farms – is a rural community with many small farms more prosperous generally, with many small businesses, more ‘social cohesion’ and employment, and a more interesting and healthy environment?  

What can family farmers do better?  

Farm for pleasure, not just for money. Enjoy and take pride in the landscape and the wildlife, as well as the health of crops and livestock. Do not regard ‘the bottom line’ as the be all and end all of your farming activity. Be active in the community. Raise a happy family – if economics can be arranged so that you don’t have to work desperately hard.

If successful, be content once a comfortable standard of living is achieved and not try to buy up every farm in the neighbourhood; leave them for youngsters starting up.  

Or, if offspring want to farm, by all means help them to get started and work co-operatively to a certain extent.  But let them be independent businesses.

How can farmers plan succession better and encourage more new entrants into the sector?

As you get older, if no successor is in the family, consider taking on as a partner a younger person who is anxious to become a farmer. We would like to see more help available for individuals who want to start farming. There is a start to this in the new CAP’s extra payments for new farmers.

Are there enough units available for new starters?

No. There is a lot of talk of encouraging young people to go in for farming, but farms are simply not available. The price of land is only viable if you add to an existing enterprise. We would encourage county councils to keep their starter holdings.  

Also try to find a fiscal method of encouraging the letting out of farms of moderate size. Possibly to restrict inheritance tax relief to a certain size of farm, for example 1,000 acres or 1,000 hectares, or possibly by annual turnover.

How does the CAP affect family farmers?

Farmers are pretty equivocal about the CAP. Some of its regulations are extremely aggravating and costly, for example ear tagging for sheep and having to register calves within 27 days or they become valueless; Nitrogen Vulnerable Zones; possible restrictions on sprays, though they may be valid; there are plenty more.   

But most ordinary farmers worry if they could survive without the Single/Basic Farm Payment. It is often their only actual income on which to live.

Could the CAP be better distributed?

Our main objective has always been to get the very necessary subsidies better distributed.  

Firstly, very large farmers do not need subsidising at all, as economies of scale make it so much easier to make a profit.  

We greatly welcomed the proposal for a ceiling on the Basic Payment in the last CAP reform and fought for it to stay, but to no avail.  

We have always advocated a progressive reduction in the rate of subsidy as the size of farm increases, with a cut off at perhaps half a million, or even sooner.

Similarly we have always advocated better subsidies for all farms that are disadvantaged in any way.  

This might be small size, remoteness, poor or steep land, and so on.

The Hill Livestock Allowance used to be very useful, but successive reforms have whittled away extra help for the hills, wherever they are. There would need to be ceilings, as some hill farms are very large.

Likewise, we have always been in favour of conservation payments, these are often a great help to small and less intensive farms.

Our suggestion of a modest part of all farms being devoted to nature has actually got into new rules.

Does EU policy help or hinder family farms?  

In general, the EU is much keener on family farms than the British Government. I don’t think they distinguish ‘family’ so much, but as Europe has so many millions of small farms, official CAP policy would apparently like to favour them.  

The general tone of the proposals for the latest CAP reform seemed to be to help smaller farms and there was a definite proposal to limit any farm’s total subsidy.

However, member states with the biggest farms got together and almost eliminated that.

Looking to the future, could family farms benefit from anything else?

We would like Defra to go back to giving more specific help and advice to farmers.   

There is now no MAFF and no local office of any kind to which one can apply for advice on a new problem cropping up on an individual farm.  

To reinstate county demonstration farms which used to show useful examples of efficient practices – again most helpful for beginners, or indeed for old hands needing new ideas.

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Do not regard ‘the bottom line’ as the be all and end all of your farming activity, says Pippa Woods.

  • Pippa Woods runs a 80ha (200 acres) livestock farm in Devon and grows barley and kale for cattle feed. She is a founding member of the Family Farmers’ Association

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