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The hidden cost of the dramatic issues that are putting pressure on farmers

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: February 27, 2013

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Nine months of dreadful weather plus a multiplicity of other problems has hit many Westcountry farmers hard – Martin Hesp has been looking at the nature of this perfect farmyard storm.

In some ways we are all laymen when it comes to most walks of life, save for the one in which we work or have some specialist knowledge of. Not that we go around thinking that way – we like to assume we have some notion what it must be like to live in other people's worlds.

Let's take farming as an example – the landscape of this rural peninsula is dominated by fields and agriculture, therefore most of us believe we have some idea what it must be like to operate in that world.

In doing so we often imagine a rather rosy life based in some large farmhouse, surrounded by big expensive four-wheel-drives. We might, for example, think of Brian Aldridge in The Archers radio soap or imagine the seemingly pleasant life of Adam Henson on Countryfile.

Of course, the muddy reality isn't often like that – especially not now. Even the most unobservant countryside lover must have wondered in the past few months how the farming community is surviving after the second wettest spring and summer on record was followed by an extremely wet winter.

The answer is that our agrarians are having a very rough time indeed – and for a few it's been just one series of rainstorms and other problems too many. Last year's floods destroyed crops worth £600 million and on top of that farmers spent another £700 million on extra costs such as buying-in fodder or drying grain just to keep going.

Feed prices soared for the animals indoors while outdoors problems like liver-fluke were flourishing in the wet conditions. Then there was the onslaught of the Schmallenberg disease causing death and deformity in calves and lambs – it has now been found in over 1,000 farms. Some report losing 60 per cent of their early lambs this year.

Add all this to older problems like bovine tuberculosis which takes the lives of tens of thousands of animals every year, rising fuel bills and the general economic crisis – and you have what could be described as a perfect farmyard storm.

Experts believe hundreds of farmers have quit altogether this winter and suicide rates within the agricultural industry are known to have increased.

I am one of those rural-dwellers who – although I live outside the agricultural sphere – have wondered hard about the recent tidal-wave of problems that I assume must be hitting farmers. Which is why I talked to Charles Smith – chief executive of a charity called Farm Crisis Network – to ask if the perception of agricultural hardship had any grounding…

Mr Smith replied that calls for help and advice being received by his organisation's network of volunteers had seen an upward trend: "The nature of the problems has changed – two years ago we were knee-deep in discussions about single farm payments – now our callers are talking about financial issues and growing indebtedness. Especially in small family farms like the ones in the South West, which are under enormous pressure.

"Let's take livestock farmers, for example," said Mr Smith. "Many had to bring in livestock early because they were poaching the ground so badly – that not only damages the ground long-term but also that means you're bedding and feeding them early. At the same time, the quantity and quality of forage was reduced – so these farmers really are under huge pressure. Conception rates also go down and then there's Schmallenberg disease.

"Some Westcountry flocks that normally lamb early have been severely impacted," he added.

"Farmers are quite used to dealing with many variables – but it's when so many come together that he feels out of control," concluded Mr Smith pointing out that farmers – who, by the nature of their job, often work alone in isolated parts of the country – were not the first to queue up and talk or complain about their private business problems.

"It's then, alone in the small hours, that issues can get worse," said Mr Smith whose network of volunteers take calls and offer free help and advice.

Another industry expert, Victoria Elms of the Prince's Countryside Fund (PCF), which was set up by the Prince of Wales, is also concerned about the unseen problems that exist in the countryside as this wet winter very slowly turns to spring…

"This crisis is unique because it is so broad," she has told the media. "There have been others in the past but they have affected particular groups, such as livestock farmers. This affects upland and lowland farmers and even arable farmers as well – which is something we haven't seen in a very long time."

That is why the Prince, through the PCF, put £150,000 into a new emergency fund just before Christmas. The amount was matched by the Duke of Westminster, and others such as NFU Mutual took the pot to just over £500,000. The money is being shared over the course of the next year between four rural charities, including Farm Crisis Network.

Farmers have been hit badly in the past year – and for once we ought to dispel the image of The Archers' Mr Aldridge in his swimming pool and remember that we will need the folk who produce our food in the coming years – as sure as eggs are eggs.

Farm Crisis Network's helpline is on 0845 367 9990 www.farmcrisisnetwork.org.uk

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