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In Your Field: Tom Clarke - 'Many a grand farmhouse has a dusty portrait of a peasant in the attic'

Being food producers, farmers know there is no such thing as a free lunch. Someone somewhere has worked hard to provide such generosity.

Farms have to earn farmers a living. We are businesses; at times pretty thin businesses. Figures from the National Food Strategy comparing return on capital across the food chain show a stark divide.

 

Food manufacturers and processors earn well into double figures. Retailers and ag-input suppliers rake in 6-8 per cent. Brace yourselves, farmers average 1 per cent. That’s an average. Many make negative real returns.

 

It wasn’t always like that. In the days of intervention pricing, money flowed from swelling grain mountains. The 1980s cartoon of an East Anglian farmer sat by his swimming pool complaining about the weather wasn’t that far off. But for most those mountains are now molehills.

 

This will be a scratchy year in the fens with the Covid-19 potato glut, our beet fields jaundiced with virus, late and droughty wheat. If only there was a net margin on fat hen.


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Across the East some farming families maintain the lifestyle of a generation ago with Range Rovers, skiing holidays and private schools. But increasingly, this is paid for by selling chunks of land, or from wealth generated off-farm or long ago. Many a grand farmhouse has a dusty portrait of a peasant in the attic.

 

But farming is a tradition too. Farmers are part of their communities and cultivate goodwill. Here we let the local museum have part of a field as carparking. Many farmers do more and don’t expect a penny.

 

So last week farmers were angered when Lord Somerleyton, with a 2,020-hectare (5,000-acre) estate, launched WildEast, a plan to rewild 250,000ha (617,000 acres), with the quip that as some homeowners give their gardens over to nature for free, farmers should feel shame for expecting a grant.

 

Farmers, he said, should reverse species loss without subsidies. The catch is, of course, that homeowners do not depend on their lawns to pay the bills. Neither, we suspect, does he.

 

No farmer I know feels empowered by Basic Payments. Basically, we are on benefits. But taking it away over seven years will cause pain. The great hope is new income streams from carbon/environmental markets on top of whatever public good payments are available in the Environmental Land Management scheme.

 

To give away your advantages and unique assets for free is bad business. To let others make you give it away is feudal.

 

In contrast, myself and 21 neighbours formed the Ely Nature-Friendly Farming Zone. We share knowledge and experience of farming to benefit both nature and our bank balances.

 

Sustainability is a buzzword, but it is a good one because giving things away for free is not sustainable. Working together on a worthy goal and an eye on the books is.

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