All farmers work long hours, giving UK shoppers value for money, and this should be considered a public good, says Neil Farmer, an arable and sheep farmer from the Herefordshire-Worcestershire border.
A man was in our yard loading hay last Sunday. When we finished, he referred to the day as ‘dole day’.
At first I didn’t know what he meant, but then it dawned on me. December 1 – the day Basic Payments start to hit bank accounts.
The definition of the word ‘dole’ is a benefit paid by the state to the unemployed.
I guess it could be argued that Basic Payments are money paid by the state, but it is definitely not a payment to the unemployed.
I recently read a report written by a farmer’s wife near Peterborough, describing her husband’s day on November 29.
Out at 7.15am, loaded 10 pallets of spuds, then loaded 2 tonne boxes for another customer and graded and bagged 3 tonnes for a different order.
His afternoon was spent grading and bagging another 8.5 tonnes, then loading for local deliveries and making those deliveries.
After that, he went on to collect sprouts from another farm for weekend deliveries, followed by setting up and checking heaters in the potato stores on two different farms, finally finishing up at 9.00pm.
This is hardly the day of someone who is unemployed.
If Brexit goes ahead, followed by the inevitable demise of the Basic Payment Scheme, would this day’s efforts, supplying quality food at an affordable price, count as the ‘public good’ Michael Gove was so keen on?
I personally think it should.
Most farmers and farm staff work long hours six or seven days a week.
If wages and salaries plus overtime were to match those paid in other industries, ex-farm prices would have to double to cover the increased cost of staff.
My friend works for a local farmer/contractor.
He regularly does 40 hours by Thursday afternoon, or occasionally Wednesday night, when lambing, destoning/potato harvest or baling.
Then there are still three days’ work left in the week. And he’s not the only one.
I’m not sure how this squares with the European Working Time Directive, which calls for four weeks’ holiday a year – how many farmers do you know who have more than one week holiday a year? – a rest of 11 hours in every 24, a day off after a week’s work, restricts excessive night work (don’t mention lambing) and provides a right to work no more than 48 hours a week.
None of the farms I am familiar with would operate correctly if these rules were applied without extra staff being employed.
These extra staff, if available, would come at a cost which could not be afforded at the best of times, and without the Basic Payment money would definitely be unaffordable.
Whichever party ends up in power next week, they need to be very careful how they approach farm support in the future.
I have always felt the French have been our best ally when it comes to farm support.
French farmers have always had more political influence than UK farmers, and that influence has filtered through to the European Union when agricultural support has been debated.
It has carried weight to the benefit of all European farmers – including UK farmers.
And with Brexit done – to quote Boris – that influence will be lost for UK farmers.
Future farm support is likely to be aimed at the latest buzzword – rewilding, grazing rare breeds, creating flood plains, growing thistles docks and ragwort and tree planting.
With oaks taking around 130 years to mature, good luck with that.
All the farm work which is currently carried out by farmers and farm staff must be very good value for money for the country as a whole, and therefore a ‘public good’.
People who promote reducing or abolishing Basic Payment-style farm support when the UK finally leaves the EU need to understand the amount of goodwill there is when it comes to the volume of work farmers and farm staff are willing to do for the returns.
Once that goodwill is lost, it will be lost forever.
The next generation is often less willing to carry on in the same footsteps and may well look for a better paid career with fewer working hours and more holidays, and there are many options available.
The young should be encouraged into agriculture, and one way of doing that is better pay and prospects.
But this can only happen if agriculture is profitable.
All food production in the UK is financed by the farmers themselves. Finance is critical for the future of this production, is this a ‘public good’?
Costs rise all the time, with large machinery dealers now charging up to £70/hour for tractor machinery repairs.
I know of one second generation family dairy farm which sold up their herd in 2018.
The vet bill alone on that farm was £30k per year. That’s equal to the value of 100,000 litres at 30p/litre, not counting the cost of producing each of those 100,000 litres.
Unless we get a Liberal Democrat landslide on Friday 13, which ain’t gonna happen, Brexit will be done.
The subsequent reduction in farm support which will follow will, in my view, cause ex-farm prices to double by the time of the next election in 2024 due to reduced supply.
But at least we won’t have to comply with the European Working Time Directive.
Neil can be found tweeting at @Nelliefarmhouse