One can talk or even write about the catastrophic low prices that UK farmers are currently facing for their produce. But it’s not until one has actually been driven to sell wheat at £107 per tonne – as I was last week – that the misery of losing money growing food really hits home.
We’re told by the great and the good that farmers must factor into their business models the likelihood of ever greater farm commodity price volatility as we move towards truly international markets driven by factors such as “weather events” and “speculator sentiment.” But I’ve never been very impressed by such talk because I don’t farm very good land. Whatever the “weather event” or “sentiment” about grain prices, I know perfectly well that there is always going to be a farmer somewhere in the world who can grow cereals more cheaply than I can.
But my current woes are being put into perspective by reading ‘The Path to Power,” a biography of the United States president Lyndon Johnson written by Robert Caro. As a child, Johnson grew up on his father’s farm during the 1920s in the hill country of west Texas. The land was poor in quality but was used to grow the cash crop of cotton. Things were fine all the time prices were high but as soon as cotton prices fell, Johnson’s family was immediately thrown into financial crisis.
By 1929, things had got to the point where even the best soils of Texas could not grow cotton or tomatoes or any crop at a profit. Farmers were plunged into debt and the phenomenon of “foreclosure day” sprung up across the state where scores of farms would be auctioned off each month by order of the banks on the steps of courthouses of local large towns.
By 1931, as Caro describes it, it was common for farmers to see neighbours loading their cars high with their possessions and abandoning their farms, their wives crying, their babies looking bewildered and their older children’s faces “averted in shame.”
In the end, of course, US farmers were rescued by Franklin Roosevelt’s 1933 New Deal, which aimed to “establish a balance between the production and consumption of agricultural commodities.” (For UK farmers, many of whom are currently expected to produce barley for £100 per tonne, milk for 20 pence per litre or beef for £1.80 per kilo, the concept of a balance between supply and demand seems very attractive at the moment.) According to Caro, US farmers had been in terrible financial trouble for many years – long before the Wall Street Crash of 1929 – exploited for decades by powerful merchants and ruthless banks. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
So, for those who would lead me out of the European Union and into a world of free trade I say “no thanks.” Yes, my basic payment scheme payment might be delayed well into next year due to administrative problems at the Rural Payments Agency. Yes, I might rail against the absurdity of the principle of decoupled payments. And yes, even when I receive this year’s payment it is forecast to be much less than last year due to EU modulation and the pound’s appreciation against the euro. But while that is all very disappointing, thanks to the common agricultural policy, at least I’m not planning to load the furniture, weeping wife and shame faced kids onto the back of my Land Rover just yet.