Can farmers keep their heads above water?
IT’S been a tough 12 months for businesses up and down the country, but perhaps none more so than Britain’s beleaguered farmers.
The miserable weather, not surprisingly, has had a major impact. A drought across much of England during the spring was followed by record-breaking wet weather that led to a poor harvest for many farmers, along with higher costs to keep livestock and high seed prices for crops, compounded by the rising cost of fuel and feed.
There is concern, too, about the widening prosperity gap between urban and rural areas with as many as 40 per cent of 16-24 year-olds unemployed in some rural areas compared to 10 per cent across the country as a whole. Farm workers, angry at the continued squeeze on living standards and still smarting from the pre-Christmas announcement that the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB) will be abolished this year, are due to protest this morning outside the Oxford Farming Conference where Environment Secretary Owen Paterson is due to speak.
It is undoubtedly a hard time for many in the farming community and at a meeting of key UK rural charities last month, the Prince of Wales warned that many British farmers are facing an “emergency situation.” At the meeting, the Farm Crisis Network said its casework was already double what it normally experienced at this time of year in the South West and North West, while the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution (RABI) revealed it has paid out two-and-a-half times as much money in emergency payments to two-thirds more working farmers than in the same period last year.
Following the meeting, The Prince’s Countryside Fund announced it was donating £150,000 – the entire amount of its emergency fund – to help support struggling farmers in the UK, a figure which was then doubled following a donation by the Duke of Westminster. Lord Curry of Kirkharle, a trustee of The Prince’s Countryside Fund, said it was the first time the fund had used all of its emergency funding, a reflection of just how difficult life is for many farmers right now. “Farms have been hit hard by the poor weather and it is only going to get worse as the need to buy in feed at inflated prices and the increase in other costs begins to have a serious effect on cash flow.
“In addition arable farmers are having a dreadful year and it is clear that this year will be no better. The impact will probably be felt in January and February onwards so it is particularly well timed to release the money now and ensure the charities can prepare for the increase in demand for their services.”
The emergency funding is given to rural charities which then distribute it to those that need it most. Some of the charities supply food vouchers, while volunteers have started to carry foodbank boxes in their cars to give help straight away when they visit people.
Farmers are also among the groups at high risk of contemplating suicide, a risk that has risen sharply over the past 12 months with all of the Farming Help charities’ helplines receiving calls from individuals contemplating suicide.
Victoria Elms, The Prince’s Countryside Fund programme manager, says the whole farming sector has found the past 12 months tough. “We’ve had the bad weather, which has seen an increase in diseases, there’s been increased fuel costs and poor silage. Farmers haven’t been able to produce enough and have had to buy feed earlier than they would do normally, so it’s really been a perfect storm.”
She warns that the crisis is likely to continue. “This crisis will be felt until the harvest in 2014. Next year’s crops can’t be replanted until September so we won’t see the results until next year.”
Which is why the money from The Prince’s Countryside Fund is so important. “It can be anything from helping pay a gas and electric bill for a farmer to a pair of wellington boots, but it also goes to helplines which they can call for advice. Sometimes just knowing that there’s someone out there who cares and can help makes all the difference.”
Rob and Louise, both in their 40s, run a tenanted dairy farm in the Midlands. Nine years ago Louise suffered heart failure and for four years was in and out of hospital before she eventually received a heart transplant. Those four years were very difficult for the family and Rob found it impossible to cope single-handedly with looking after the farm, as well as their two young children, and driving hundreds of miles to visit Louise in hospital. Then they suffered another blow when their herd was closed down with bovine TB. “I didn’t know where to turn,” says Rob. “The bills were mounting up and I just couldn’t see my way through or bring myself to ask for help. If it hadn’t been for RABI we’d have lost everything.”
The charity provided grants to cover the cost of temporary labour on the farm to allow Rob to be with, and care for, his family, as well as help with claiming the state benefits to which they were entitled. Rob was then put in contact with Farm Crisis Network, which provided family support, and the Addington Fund which helped by providing funding for fodder for the cows.
Now the family is back on its feet and farming successfully again, running its own pasteurisation unit and selling milk. It has also recently taken on two more contracts to supply local shops.
“Living in the countryside can be quite a lonely existence,” says Rob. “One thing I have learned from our experience is to look for the signals from people who need help because I know how I was helped.”
Farmers don’t like going cap in hand to anyone but one dairy and sheep farmer in North Yorkshire, who wanted to remain anonymous, says without help he wouldn’t have been able to continue. “The past 12 months have been a hand to mouth existence. The cost of feed for cattle and sheep went up at least £50 per tonne last year which has made life very difficult. Lamb prices are dropping and feed prices have risen and the price of milk has not gone up to balance this out,” he says.
Previously a farm worker, he took out his own farm business under tenancy with his wife and two children three years ago and has worked hard to grow his business. But the farm suffered badly in 2012 faced with the wettest summer for a generation and the significant rise in costs of feed, diesel and fertiliser, coupled with the drop in milk prices.
It left him with half the crop he normally produced which meant he needed to buy in feed this winter without knowing how he would be able to pay for it. But then he spotted an advert for RABI, which helps farming families in financial difficulty. “I had never heard of them and it was only by chance that I saw an advert, but within days they came out to see me and were answering my questions.”
The money they gave him has been a lifeline. “They probably saved me. I wouldn’t have been able to carry on without their support and I can’t thank them enough.” But he admits that asking for help wasn’t easy. “I’m not proud that I’ve had to ask for help, I’m embarrassed to be honest. But I know it’s not just dairy and sheep farmers who are struggling, all sectors of farming have been affected by the situation.”
Like farmers up and down the country he just wants make a living. “Farmers will carry on doing what they do best and as long as they can feed their livestock then they’re happy, we’re not out to become millionaires.”
He now has enough funds to see him through the next couple of months, but like many farmers he will be hoping that he still has a business to run this time next year. “I’ve got my own farm, something I’ve always wanted, I just hope we get a drier summer and I hope I can still afford to put food on the table for my family, because that’s what I’m doing this for.”