Friday, April 05, 2013

Farmers face early SFP hit

Farmers are likely to face an immediate hit in their 2013 subisdy payments. 'If farmers budget the same as for 2012, they may be in for a nasty surprise,' warned Richard King, head of research at the Andersons Centre.

The proposed EU budget includes a 9 per cent in CAP funding. But one of the oddities of the system is that this year's single farm payment (SFP) will be based on the new CAP budget, but under the current SFP regime. The result could be a cut of about 10 per cent in the single farm payment. This comes at a time when many farmers have been hit by the unseasonable weather. This particularly applies to livestock farmers in higher areas who tend to operate on small margins.

The 10 per cent figure may be a little high, although Richard King insists that it contains a margin for safety. The Commission envisages a cut in single farm payments of marginally under 5 per cent (4.98 per cent) in 2013, equivalent to an overall cut of €1.47bn from the Pillar 1 budget of €44.1bn. This figure will have to be approved by the European Parliament. The cut is the first time that the 'financial discipline' included in the 2003 Fischler reforms has been triggered.

The difficulty is that farmers have become very dependent on subsidies to make a profit. This is the problem with subsidy dependency. Faced with cash flow problems, farmers have been borrowing more. Bank of England agricultural lending figures show farmer borrowing increased to almost £13.5bn for January 2013. This compares to £12.2bn in January 2012 and £11.7bn in February 2011 (albeit there is an inflation component in those figures).

One recommendation is that farmers should consider hedging at least part of their single farm payment to protect against exchange rate fluctuations. This could make thousands of pounds difference, but it is only an option for larger scale farmers.

Other farmers need to consider whether they want to stay in low margin businesses like dairying. There is a risk that if farmers sell their cows and machinery they may then be tempted to live on the assets while the capital value of the farm (if owned) deteriorates. They need an alternative business plan in place.

Fans of The Archers will note the controversy caused by Tom Archer's argument that Bridge Farm should stop milking its own cows and buy in the milk it needs on the market. Although the scriptwriters had the character put it tactlessly, he is right: milking cows is time intensive and the real money is to be made adding value to milk by making niche products such as organic ice cream and yoghurt.

The real difficulty for farmers is that they do not face a level playing field given the buying power of supermarkets. That is not going to change any time soon. But farmers need to recognise that subsidies are going to fall more in real terms than they have in the past.

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