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The year in UK farming: 2015 news review

This year’s farming news agenda was again dominated by the desperately difficult market conditions afflicting some sectors, while the CAP, flooding and bovine TB all featured heavily. Alistair Driver looks back, and forward, at the some of the big stories we covered in 2015.

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2015 #farming news headlines : protests, prices, payments and politics


Continuing market woes

Continuing market woes

In a sign of things to come, the year started with a deeply worrying announcement from First Milk that it was deferring its January pay check after racking up huge debts.

 

While First Milk has since gone some way to restructuring its business, the co-operative’s members have been at the sharp end of a sustained downturn that has affected many others to varying degrees and prompted a huge degree of soul-searching across the sector.

 

Wheat prices have plummeted since spring and have bumped along since autumn at a barely sustainable level of about £100-£120/tonne, leaving precious little scope for profit.

 

Lamb producers suffered a torrid time for much the year, as a perfect storm of high domestic supply, a strong pound and heavy New Zealand imports saw a dramatic downturn in prices.

 

The question across all sectors, particularly milk, has been what can we do in response to a crisis driven by a global market imbalance, with a dash of international politics thrown in?

 

“We have got spot milk trading at 12-15ppl and it is going to take a long time to recover. In fact, some may never recover from this.”

Rob Harrison, NFU dairy board chairman, April

 

Prospects for 2016

There are no great predictions of dramatic recovery across any sectors in 2016, although there is hope of a ‘slow recovery’ in EU dairy commodity prices next year.

 

More of the same is predicted in the cereals sectors, unless a supply shock somewhere in the world intervenes, while the end of quotas in 2017 is likely to affect sugar production and prices next year.

 

Genuine lamb market recovery is likely to be constrained by the exchange rate, while plentiful supplies beef will restrict upward price movements initially at least.


Protests and negotiations

Protests and negotiations

Farmers For Action once again led UK protests against milk processors and retailers, at times clashing with NFU over the merits of doing so.

 

In parallel, industry leaders held talks with processors and retailers over prices, contracts, payments to struggling farmers, sourcing and labelling and retail price strategy – with varying degrees of success.

 

The milk crisis became headline national news during summer, as the industry scored some public relations hits.

 

But the story reached its peak in September, when 6,000 farmers from across the EU descended on Brussels in a loud protest at the state of the industry, which saw parts of the city set alight.

 

EU politicians responded with a £360 million aid package, mainly for dairy farmers, and initiatives to address the underlying problems, such as volatility and supply chain relations.

 

“The situation is not good in Ireland. We are here to protest – I want the EU to intervene and protect our livelihoods for the future.”

Tom Turley, Co Galway, Ireland, beef, sheep and dairy farmer at the EU farm protest in September


CAP implementation

CAP implementation

In England, it started to go wrong when ill-fated plans driven by the Cabinet Office to force a digital-only application system for the new Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) had to be abandoned when it became clear it was not going to work.

 

While the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) made something of a recovery, paying 33,000 claims on the first day of the payment window, many farmers remain in the dark over when they will be paid.

 

In Wales, after a long delay in deciding on an area-based BPS model which will see huge payment reductions for some farmers, partial payments started arriving in Welsh farmers’ bank accounts in December.

 

In Scotland, a hugely complex BPS and a troubled new IT payment system turned this reform into a nightmare for farmers and Rural Affairs Secretary Richard Lochhead. Farmers have been left deeply unimpressed and, in many cases, with no prospect of even a part payment until March.

 

“Why is it always intensive finishers who get kicked every time? I am a young farmer with a new family. What am I to do?”

Beef farmer Daniel Roberts vents his anger at Deputy Food and Farming Minister Rebecca Evans at the NFU Cymru conference in November over BPS cuts he faces

2016 prospects

Farmers across the UK will have two wishes: rapid delivery of their BPS; and significant improvements to next year’s schemes.


Floods

Floods

In 2014 it was Somerset. At the end of 2015, as world leaders were grinding out a climate change deal in Paris, it was Cumbria’s turn to bear the brunt of unprecedented rainfall.

 

Huge damage to property, heavy livestock losses and some extraordinary tales of near misses and rescues was the result on the ground.

 

The all-too-familiar scenes of towns, villages and fields under a sea of water again shone the light on Government funding and flood policy. And, thanks in part to farming’s arch-critic George Monbiot, the respective role of sheep and trees in the uplands in causing or preventing flooding.

 

“@GeorgeMonbiot you really are an insensitive chump revelling in your theories. A few more trees and less sheep will not solve rainfall like this.”

@Longwool, after Mr Monbiot chose the height of the Cumbrian floods to effectively blame farmers on Twitter for causing them

2016 prospects

Whether the floods come back is anybody’s guess, but the debate over the best way to prevent them is not going away.


Animal health

Animal health

This year might be seen as the year efforts to eradicate bovine TB in England gained momentum.

 

As more cattle controls came in and the TB testing procedure was overhauled, there was disappointment when the cull policy was extended to just one new area, Dorset, and general frustration at the lack of progress on Defra’s TB strategy.

 

But at the end of the year, Defra Secretary Liz Truss announced, on the back of the success of culling in the three English areas, the policy would be rolled out more widely next year, alongside the introduction of post-movement testing in England.

 

But vaccination is on hold across England and Wales due to a global shortage of BCG vaccine.

 

Avian flu returned, this time to Lancashire, hitting an egg farm near Preston in July. While the outbreak was successfully contained, the cost to the industry was into the millions.

 

“Badger control in the South West has been successful and we will enable it to take place over a wide number of areas next year.”

Defra Secretary Liz Truss, December

2016 prospects

In England, all eyes will be on how many new areas receive badger cull licences, while Welsh farmers are wondering where Wales’ TB strategy goes after vaccination was suspended.


Crop issues

Crop issues

The NFU eventually secured a derogation to allow farmers to use neonicotinoids in five counties in England over a limited area this autumn, as the debate over the evidence for and against their long-term use continued.

The EU handed more power to member states to ban GM crops on a national basis, an option many – including Scotland and Wales – have taken up. There was little sign of those pro-GM countries, such as England, moving any closer to new approvals of the technology, however.

 

“We have examples of individual members with up to 40 per cent of crops lost.”

NFU combinable crops chairman Mike Hambly on the impact of the neonicotinoid suspension

2016 prospects

Key decisions at EU level could be made next year on the regulation of potentially ground-breaking technologies, such as genome editing.


Politicial shorts

Political shorts
  • The Conservatives’ outright election victory saw familiar faces Liz Truss and George Eustice return to Defra, with Cumbria MP Rory Stewart joining them

  • While they have set in motion long-term food and environmental plans, their first battle was with the Treasury over a four-year spending settlement which, while it will see 15 per cent cut from Defra’s resource budget, was nowhere as bad as initially feared

  • Enter Kerry McCarthy, the outspoken vegan, anti-meat campaigning appointment of Jeremy Corbyn to the Shadow Defra post. “I am not a mad, vegan, lefty, Corbynista,” she said in response to the air of scepticism and bemusement greeting her appointment in the industry

  • Looking ahead, the big political debate for farming next year will be Europe, and with a referendum on the UK’s membership looming, the stakes for farmers are huge

  • Energy was a big political issue in 2015. Renewables were down, with tariffs slashed across the board, while fracking was up, as the Government looked to open up the search for shale gas and oil to new parts of the country

  • Allan Bowie became NFU Scotland’s new president, while the NFU leadership team has been bracing itself for an election battle next February

  • AHDB found itself at the centre of a storm over red meat promotion, following the resignation of Stuart Roberts as AHDB Beef and Lamb chairman

  • The red meat industry also engaged in a fierce debate over moves by Red Tractor to introduce lifetime assurance for beef

 


FG continued to campaign strongly on behalf of farmers:

FG campaigns
  • FG Insight’s ‘24 Hours in Farming’ in August generated enormous interest on social media and the national media as farmers got on board and told the world what they got up to

  • More councils banned sky lanterns as our ‘Say No to Sky Lanterns’ campaign kept up its pace

  • FG’s Take the Lead campaign continued to hit the headlines, as tougher laws on dogs was debated in Parliament

  • We took in-depth editorial looks at a range of issues, including Joel Durkin’s award-winning series on volatility across the sectors, as well as important features on mental health, health and safety, women in farming, as well as insight into all the big political and business issues surrounding the industry

  • We launched a new website, FG Insight, and some new online tools, including our Grant Checker, and a tyre app

 

FG's parent company Briefing Media staged a number of successful events, including:

  • The biggest Lamma Show ever, at Peterborough in January

  • Agri-Innovation Den, which offered would-be farming inventors their chance to access a £100,000 funding pot

  • CropTec, in November, at Peterborough

  • The British Farming Awards, in October, which saw former NFU president Lord Henry Plumb given a well-deserved lifetime achievement award

 

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