Monday, March 23, 2015

Balls in less farm subsidies shock

There was what I found to be a rather surprising exchange on agricultural policy at the end of the questioning of Ed Balls as Shadow Chancellor on Sky this afternoon. Someone from the farming industry asked him about declining self-sufficiency in UK agriculture, no doubt him expecting to say that targets to increase it should be set. The NFU has just tweeted that she is one of their members.

Instead he said that he believed in international trade and that this gave consumers a wider choice of products in the supermarkets and this kept prices down for consumers. He was also critical of the CAP, although that is standard for UK politicians.

He was then asked by the facilitator whether he favoured more farm subsidies or less and he unequivocally answered, 'Less'.

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Monday, March 16, 2015

Campaigning for farming and food in the general election

The general election is an opportunity for farming and food issues to be debated and the National Farmers' Union is fully entitled to brief its members with questions to be asked of candidates. Indeed, the NFU has posed very interesting questions about any referendum on membership of the EU and what the implications of 'Brexit' might be for British agriculture, an issue that requires more systematic attention and exploration.

What I think is less helpful is any suggestion that we need self-sufficiency targets which can all too easily smack of Soviet central planning. The NFU has warned that by 2080 less than half the nation's food needs will be met by UK farming. This date is a long way away and it is not clear whether this is a figure for temperate foodstuffs or whether it includes tropical products like the ever popular banana.

The NFU's report entitled Backing British Farming in a Volatile World said that 85 per cent of consumers wanted to see supermarkets selling food from British farms. This is a bit like asking people whether they are in favour of motherhood and apple pie.

There are food security issues to be discussed, but as Tim Benton of Leeds University, the UK's global food security champion, commented: 'It remains an "open question" as to what the optimal level of self-sufficiency should be.' I would argue that there is no methodology that can tell us, given all the uncertainties. That may, of course, represent a case for being cautious, but I don't think that target figures are the right way forward.

The NFU claims that more than half the income of an 'average' farm comes from single farm payments (soon to be the basic payment). This suggests an over dependence on subsidy, but the NFU says they are needed to protect against price volatility. What would perhaps help more is a supermarkets ombudsman with more powers and a staff of more than three to ensure more of a level playing field. But then governments like low food prices.

You can read the NFU report here: Backing British Farming

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Friday, March 13, 2015

Mid-term review on the cards?

Many observers of the CAP, particularly environmentalists, were disappointed with the last reform of the CAP. They argued that it was not a reform at all, which has been true of many so-called reforms of the CAP, honourable exceptions being those initiated by Commissioners MacSharry and Fischler.

Commissioner Hogan has responded to the criticisms, saying that there could be a mid-term review of the CAP in 2017, leading to more reforms: Mid-term review?

Some scepticism is in order, as a mid-term review may lead to little more than some tweaking and cosmetic changes. However, at least it shows that the possibility of a renewed reform debate is not dead.

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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Huge growth in price of best arable land

The average price of UK farmland reached a record of just over £10,000 an acre in the second half of 2014. This is 8.3 per cent up on the previous year and the 11th year in a row that prices have broken the previous record. However, the average price masks a growing gap between the price of top quality arable land and ordinary pasture.

The price of prime arable land, mainly in East Anglia, rose by 277 per cent in the decade to 2014 according to figures from Savills. These figures beat prime London property, up 127 per cent over the last decade, the FTSE All-Share index and even gold. Rumners Farm, a 560-acre North Cambridgeshire arable estate sold for about £2.75m in 2007. Now it is back on the market at £8m.

Investors are pushing up the price of the best land. Bagless vacuum cleaner magnate Sir James Dyson has been buying up land in Lincolnshire. He now has 25,000 acres, having recently purchased the 3,000 acre Cranwell and Roxholme estate. According to Mark McAndrew of Strutt & Parker private investment competition can push up the price from £7,000 an acre to £12,000-£13,000.

Investors are interested in land as a counter-cyclical safe asset. With a growing world population, food prices should rise in the long term.

Other hotspots include Hampshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire, 'Home Counties' that are within easy reach of London and appeal to lifestyle buyers who may want to breed horses.

What is curiously missing from the reports I have read is any mention of the CAP. The subsidies it provides make land a more attractive asset and push up prices. It then becomes difficult for new entrants unless they inherit, become farm managers or are prepared to start with a marginal livestock enterprise. The sector may be deprived of innovative new talent.

Rising land prices do nothing for the 30 per cent of farmers who are tenants. For dairy farmers under the cosh from falling prices for their milk they offer the prospect of a better return if they sell up as many are doing. However, their farms are rarely in the most lucrative areas.


Saturday, March 07, 2015

Complex picture on cutting payments to big farms

A common complaint about the CAP is that too high proportion of the subsidies go to already prosperous farmers. The counter argument is that these farmers are the most efficient and the most internationally competitive. It all comes down to what you think the CAP is for and there has always been confusion about the objectives and their relative preference ordering.

From this year all member states are obliged to apply a 5 per cent degressivity tax on payments over €150,000. Let us suppose that you are an East Anglian grain baron receiving €1m in subsidies. This means that you would appear to lose €42,500 of your subsidy, but then the 30 per cent greening subsidy is exempt, so the actual sum comes in at under €30,000 (obviously the amount received in pounds is sensitive to the pound-euro exchange rate). The amount lost would be significant but not devastating.

However, any member state or region can impose their own cap. This option has been chosen by all the devolved regions in the UK, but on a different basis in each case: It's your choice

Northern Ireland has imposed an absolute cap at €150,000. There are not many farms in Northern Ireland who would receive more than this. Wales has come up with a particularly complicated system, but again there are not that many farms in Wales who would qualify for relatively large payments. Scotland, where there are some large farms, has set the cap higher. Indeed, their €600,000 starting point is the highest notified by any EU country or region.

It's not difficult to work out the politics of this. Farmers in Northern Ireland who are Democratic Unionist or Sinn Fein supporters are unlikely to be affected. In Wales, the more Welsh-speaking parts of the country are unlikely to be hit (although other aspects of Welsh Assembly Government policy have been a source of complaint). In Scotland, the Scottish Nationalists do not want to upset any constituency, but the relatively small number of farmers likely to be affected are not significant in electoral terms.

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Thursday, January 15, 2015

The future of small farms

The president of the Agricultural Economics Society, Steve Wiggins, has written some interesting reflections on this enduring topic in their latest newsletter which I reproduce below.

'Small-scale family farms remain an enduring feature of agriculture across the world, and especially so in the developing world. Some 418 million farms in the developing world, 95%, have less than five hectares, according to broad estimates made by FAO from (inadequate) surveys and censuses. What's more, in most developing countries the average holding size still tends to fall with each decadal census.

Debates over the productivity of small farms and their likely evolution go back to the nineteenth century if not before. The end of the peasantry has been repeatedly announced, yet reality has proved otherwise. Concerns that smallholdings could not be efficient and would never allow sufficient increases in production to sustain development were voiced in the 1950s and early 1960s; but laid to rest when the green revolution showed what could be achieved on the small farms of Asia. Analyses confirmed that many smallholders ran efficient farms and responded to price incentives. Indeed, diseconomies of scale were apparent, since small farms could manage labour better than larger scale farms.

But like Malthusian pessimism, doubts about small farms periodically resurface. The latest bout began around the turn of the new century, inspired by observations of the new supply chains run by supermarkets and exporters springing up across the developing world. Small farmers would be at a definitive disadvantage in these chains, since they could not meet the exacting demands for standard, high quality production, to strict timetables, in large lots and preferably certified and traceable.

Contemporary Asia, where only a small fraction of farms exceed five hectares, provides some insights into changes and likely future trajectories. Even in rural areas well connected to cities, where supply chains are modernising for staples and not just high-value produce, family farms persist. These farms are, however, increasingly differentiated, as a minority specialise in farming and intensify their production; while most farms provide some income for rural households that increasingly rely on non-farm activities and remittances from migrants.

This throws up two challenges. One, land markets need the flexibility to permit some concentration of holdings in larger operating units, while rural households that want to retain ownership, but lack the means or inclination to cultivate, can do so. At issue are small-scale transfers, perhaps temporary arrangements, with rentals, share-crops and loans predominating over outright sale. Tenure policy needs to facilitate these exchanges.

Two, if small farms are to prosper they need to find ways to overcome the failures that typically apply in markets for inputs and credit. That can be done, of course by the state, but the costs can be (ruinously) high. The alternative is to look to private and collective institutional innovations - contracting, farmer associations, local agencies and franchises for inputs and finance, etc. - to overcome current market shortcomings. A plethora of such initiatives can be seen, even if most operate at limited scale. The challenge then is to learn from these, to find working models - not pilots - that can be replicated or adapted to wider circumstances.

Get these two things right and we can hope to see a gentle transition as most smallholders gradually leave farming on their own terms, while allowing specialising smallholders to expand their holdings.'

One might add that many family farms in countries like the US and the UK have become successful large-scale enterprises but that was dependent on a number of factors including: (i) a facilitating legal framework on inheritance; (ii) good infrastructure to get products cheaply and quickly to markets; (iii) mechanisms to learn about and adopt technological innovations; (iv) ready availability of credit at realistic rates; (v) some government financial support for modernisation. No doubt one could add to this list.

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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Review of the CAP in 2014

Agra Europe have provided a useful review of developments in farm policy in 2014 and a look forward to 2015: Year in review

They claim that it was an 'eventful' year and although decision-makers were certainly busy, it would be difficult to claim that there was fundamental change, although some unanticipated changes such as events in Russia which have added to the problems of the dairy sector.