Future starts here for farms

IT has become a rare occurrence for an Environment Secretary to declare that they are farming's friend. Labour Ministers, with the honourable exception of Hilary Benn, could not do so. But, having made such a claim, the onus now is on Caroline Spelman to honour her word.

This will not be easy, given that the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy is fundamental to the Minister's well-meaning aspirations and that some Continental farmers, and their governments, may be reluctant to accept far-reaching subsidy reductions to improve the viability of producers in the developing world.

It is an issue made even more complex by the fact that the new CAP settlement will, for the first time, incorporate the EU's accession states who have high expectations of their own. Given the amount that the UK contributes to the EU each year, it will be important that this country gets a tangible return for any reforms, or agreement to waive subsidy handouts in return for a system that rewards farmers for the upkeep of the countryside.

The notion is sound in principle, given the rising level of food prices. But, in practice, the reality could be different – farm incomes, in some instances, are still negligible and the prospect of ascertaining payments for land management promises to be a bureaucratic nightmare with parallels to the ongoing Rural Payments Agency farce.

It is Mrs Spelman's immediate challenge, given this, to explain how her vision will work – the policy detail will be critical. That said, it is, nevertheless, welcome that she understands the importance of agriculture and wants to help farmers become "more profitable, innovative and competitive" – adjectives rarely uttered by some of her predecessors.

The public's appreciation of local produce has never been greater. On this basis, the prospects for farming have never been better for decades. But they can't succeed on their own; they will still require the Government putting a practical framework in place. Over to you, Mrs Spelman.