Farm Payments and More

By The Bevis Trust In | May 3, 2016

We’ve just completed our Single Farm Payment application. Some people think farmers are rolling in it, and who knows, maybe the barley barons in the east are doing very well. Here in Wales, the story is very different.

About 15 years or so ago, the farm payments switched from headage payments (paying per head of sheep or cattle on the farm) to area payments (how many hectares are being farmed.) On the retrospective base date that this happened, we had just let out most of our land for grazing tack cattle and for silage and this meant that the payment quotas went to those temporary tenants and none to the farm at all. After a decade of no payments, we decided that we would have to buy quota to farm our own farm. This cost us £37,000.

When you get quota of entitlements to payments you are then subject to a growing handbook of compliances and inspections. This gets more onerous every year.

Last year Rural Payments Wales decided to run the whole process online, even though many Welsh farmers do not have computers or an internet connection. The online system collapsed and they changed back to a paper system a few weeks before the closing date. This year they only accept online applications, which basically means that you have to use an agent, because the whole process is so complex and the penalties for even the smallest errors are onerous. Our NFU agent, Peter Williams, patiently explained all the latest details for us.

The applications are based on maps, that can be seen online but you cannot print them off, so if you have no internet you cannot access them. Previously all updates of the maps were relayed up to Aberystwyth in note form to be entered on the main maps. And the Tir Gofal (stewardship) maps were different to the SFP maps, with different field numbers and habitats categories. So nothing matched. Now at least they are all under one map and can be updated by the farmers themselves.

We were on Tir Gofal for ten years, and under this scheme we had to run down the fertility of some of our fields to promote wild flowers and we were not allowed to mow hay before 15th July. All great stuff in theory. The reality is somewhat different. Wild flowers do not magically appear in fields, all we got was buttercups that the livestock avoid. By July all the seeds of the grasses have dropped so the protein value of the feed is low; all you have left is old dry stalks – basically old rope. And nobody makes hay nowadays anyway, it is all silage. Contractors can be in and out to make silage in three days, whereas hay takes longer to air dry and many years the hay crop failed due to wet weather. Sometimes you could not even burn it. So the only option was to graze those fields all through spring, which defeats the whole object of the exercise. Now Tir Gofal is finished and the fields are back to normal farming, a wasted exercise all round.

The thrust now is to put less funding into farming and more support into conservation. This supposedly is the theory, but it does not translate into reality. Last year we had to map every tree within each field boundary, so that its shade area could be deducted from the claimed field area. What a performance! Then RPW realised that this was simply incentivising farmers to cut down the trees to save their payments, so at the last minute, having done all the work, we were told to abandon it. On our farm, we have planted all the odd corners with trees, and made new woods and ponds. These total 30% of the land area. None of this land is eligible for farm payments. We only get paid for land that is in ‘agricultural condition’. For example, as the best farm in Wales for Brown Hairstreak Butterflies, we have fenced off several hectares for blackthorn for butterflies. As a result we get penalised for this by deducting the area from our farm payments. So the incentive is not to have wildlife but only grass. And our payment is due to halve over the next five years, from £9,437 to £4,737. We get a 25%  ‘greening payment’ on top and this is due to increase over five years. This of course will not persuade the average farmer to become more wildlife friendly.

Fifteen years ago we decided to plant up some areas into new woodlands and applied for a Woodland Grant Scheme. But again, compliance is the name of the game and we ended up with a contractor planting regimented rows of imported ash (which now has ash-dieback disease) and larch (which is subject to Phytopthera.).  Now we are being told to chop it all down and replace with a broad mix of species! We learnt this lesson the hard way and instead we grow our own trees from seed and plant them out randomly, no rows, no monocultures.

But why farm at all? The average Welsh farmer’s wage is about £4.30 per hour for a 60 hour week – no minimum wage for the self-employed. Bottled milk is cheaper than bottled water and dairy farms are going out of business everywhere. Most of our food is imported into UK from other countries that do not have the same welfare standards as us, and whose farming is often at the expense of precious wildlife habitats. Paradoxically land prices have escalated so it is almost impossible to get into farming. The average Welsh farmer is close to retirement. Bovine Tb is now running totally out of control. So we have a perfect storm for farming. Farming is also a multi-skilled job, and most farmers have themselves been brought up on farms. It is not something that you can easily pick up, and even the agricultural colleges are changing most of their courses from agriculture to leisure industry. Once a skilled workforce is lost, it is an uphill struggle to revive it.

The human population is increasing every year. Food demand is increasing but the prices as a percent of income have never been so low. 18% of food is wasted. It is not allowed to be re-cycled for pig food.  Many farm margins are in negative. Wildlife in the farmed landscape is paid lip service only. Farmers are urged to ‘diversify’ which is politic speak for ‘get another job’. We are wrapped up in red tape and sapped of all initiative.

Will Welsh farming go the Monbiot route and become abandoned land, returning to Wild Wood filled with Bison (don’t forget to double ear tag them and get them in for Tb testing)? Or can Wales be self-sufficient for food while at the same time enriching its wildlife heritage? This is what the Bevis Trust is all about.

Nick

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