NFU Vice President Tom Bradshaw recently told a cross-party parliamentary committee looking into the future of farm subsidies that, despite cuts to the BPS this year, farm gate commodity prices were currently so good that farmers were riding a “wave of optimism”.
With all due respect to Mr Bradshaw, has the man completely taken leave of his senses? If there is one thing British farmers rightly pride themselves on it is a front of unrelenting pessimism, no matter how much money they are making.
This professional discipline of consistent moaning and complaining is important for a whole variety of reasons. Firstly, on a ‘macro-economic’ scale, UK agriculture is fundamentally vulnerable to cheap food imports. This is due to our high labour costs, small scale farms, unpredictable climate and a relatively strong and stable currency (compared to many less-economically-developed countries, which can export their production cheaply because their currencies constantly devalue).
This means that, in order for British agriculture to survive, it needs a tough food import levy regime and a generous farm subsidy system. For those two things to remain in place, farmers have to retain public sympathy, and to do that they have to look and sound downtrodden and on their last uppers. What tax-payer is going to give an “optimistic” farmer a subsidy? What politician is going to impose a food import tariff that makes food more expensive for consumers, if farmers are full of the joys of spring due to the profits they declare they are raking in?
But the need for farmers to maintain an unrelentingly miserable façade is also driven by important, local ‘micro-economic’ considerations. Every day, farmers have to negotiate with the likes of grain merchants, fertiliser manufacturers, agri-chemical suppliers, agricultural engineers, supermarkets and landlords or their beady-eyed land agents looking for any sign of prosperity in order to jack up the rent. How on earth can we be expected to drive a hard bargain if someone carelessly gives the game away that – for once – we are coining it?
One of my great farming heroes was a neighbour of my paternal grandfather, who was so determined to maintain the impression that he was teetering on the edge of farming insolvency that, although he bought a new car every year, he kept the old number plate and insisted on purchasing the same model in the same colour.
That way, his landlord, grain merchant and machinery dealer were kept under the false impression that he could only afford an old banger. This made it a lot easier to keep his rent down, squeeze the last shilling out of the grain merchant and plead poverty with the agricultural engineer when it came to insisting on a large discount on new machinery.
So, Mr Bradshaw, can you please tighten up your act and learn to provide a truly depressing picture of the British farmer’s lot. As any farmer should know, anything but a declaration of gloomy pessimism is disastrous for any farmer’s prospects. And next year it’ll all go pear-shaped anyway…