There are some benefits to being an EU member, but European rules on dairy quotas, BSE and fencing stakes have closed numerous British farming businesses, says Neil Farmer, an arable and sheep farmer from the Herefordshire-Worcestershire border.
There is a famous Monty Python scene: At a meeting, John Cleese’s character Reg asks, ‘What have the Romans ever done for us? Apart from the aqueduct, the sanitation, the roads – obviously the roads – irrigation, medicine, education, health, public baths and the wine?’
At this someone shouts, ‘Peace’, and Reg says, ‘What?! Oh, peace yes... shut up!’
Perhaps today we should ask: What have the Europeans ever done for us?
There are some benefits to being members of the European Union, of which the biggest is without doubt peace.
But not everything that has happened in agriculture since 1973 has been of benefit.
Average wheat price
Take a look in the John Nix Pocketbook for 1987, and you’ll find the average wheat price was £93/t, less £3.37 co-responsibility levy – remember that curve ball?
Nitrogen is quoted at £110/t, although N was available at £95/t in July 1986. This means one tonne of wheat buys at worst 0.85t of N.
Now look in 2019 Nix, and you’ll see wheat at £150/t and N at £225/t. A tonne of wheat buys 0.66t of N. These prices are already out-of-date, and today a tonne of wheat buys closer to 0.58t of N.
But yields are higher today, I hear you cry. ‘Really?’, I say.
The summer of 1984 was hot for weeks, not too dissimilar to 2018. We harvested over 3t/acre of Norman wheat after spuds in ‘84.
In 2018, we struggled to get 2.7t/acre also after spuds. I know of one farm that harvested 884 acres of wheat in 1984 and averaged 3.8t/acre.
‘But we get Basic Payment today’, you say, and I say that just goes towards the extra cost of fuel, rent and spray etc. And some of these prices are inflated due to the Basic Payment.
The beet factories at Allscott and York closed in 2006, and we were told by the European Union this was for ‘the greater good’ as they were used as bargaining chips in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) negotiations. Were we sold down the river in those negotiations?
There is now, as far as I know, only one farm in the West Midlands growing sugar beet, although I find it more than a little ironic that fodder beet is currently fetching almost twice the price of the 2019 contract price for sugar beet.
Milk quotas were brought in overnight on April 2 1984. Many productive cows were culled, so rearing calves for the beef herd were in shorter supply.
Milk quotas had a knock-on effect right through agriculture. Britain abided by the letter of the milk quota law, unlike some of the European Union countries.
Dairy farmers were fined a superlevy for producing over quota milk. This resulted in perfectly good milk being poured away – a disgrace in my view.
I know of at least one family who invested in brand new dairy facilities on a rented farm, but hadn’t started milking when quotas were introduced, so they had no quota and no claim to quota. They went out of business as a direct result of this.
When Britain was in trouble in 1996 because of the BSE outbreak, the European Union response was to ban British beef exports, and they were in no hurry to reinstate those exports once the disease had been brought under control.
BSE brought Scrapie in sheep into the spotlight and the National Scrapie Plan was set up near to me in Worcester. Part of its remit was to prove a link between BSE and Scrapie.
All it succeeded in doing was proving there was NO link and the Worcester office was closed down.
Despite this, the European Union decided farmers could no longer bury fallen stock, using BSE and Scrapie as an excuse. Even though it was proven there was no link between them, sheep burial remains banned.
I once wrote to our then-MP pointing this out and was told in a written reply from the Minister at Defra that they could do nothing to change the situation because ‘it’s European law’.
It was also of course decided that any sheep over 12 months old had to have its carcase split, once again ignoring the fact that there was no BSE-Scrapie link.
This rule included any teg with its adult teeth showing, therefore devaluing what was a perfectly good lamb carcase by around £20. How much money has been lost by store lamb fatteners due to this rule?
Thankfully, after several years of lobbying, common sense and fairness has prevailed. The rule has now been changed and does not come into force until July 1 in any given year.
At some point, someone in the European Union decided it would be a good idea to ban certain chemicals, including arsenic, in treatments for preserving fencing stakes.
This was done without publicity, so many farmers and fencing contractors carried on erecting fences using stakes that were rotting off at ground level after three to five years.
And the labour cost to put up a fence with stakes which last for half the lifetime of those treated with the original treatments remains the same.
I know of at least one large fencing contractor that went out of business due to complaints and possibilities of legal claims against them due to them supplying – in good faith – stakes that didn’t last five years.
I cannot begin to imagine what a trawler man would write if he was to add a paragraph or two to this article. The fishing industry has had a rough deal from the European Union.
For years they have been forced to throw away good quality over-quota fish that was already dead in a bid to preserve stocks. It was madness, but once again it was European rules.
I visited the Fish Quay on the Tyne at North Shields a couple of times around twenty years ago, and the locals said the place was a shadow of its former self.
If Python were to remake Life of Brian today and John Cleese was to ask at his meeting, ‘What have the Europeans ever done for us,’ the reply from the floor might be, ‘straight cucumbers…shut up!’
Neil can be found tweeting at @Nelliefarmhouse