Friday, February 28, 2014

So, farewell then, CWS Farms

Faced with a £2 billion deficit, the Co-op is to sell off its farms. The group now regards them as 'non-core' and thinks that they distracted from its other activities. Most of the farms are arable, although there is also some soft fruit production.

Now is a good time to sell as farmland prices are rising and these are good farms in attractive locations which have been well looked after, although there have been some expressions of concern that their arrival on the market may depress prices (but I think that is unlikely). There are still individuals with £30m or more in cash willing to buy farms in the UK. They could be worth £350m, although presumably would be sold separately. Some of the farms are thought to have development value. They are located in Cambridgeshire, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Leicestershire and Yorkshire. There are also farms north of the border in Aberdeenshire and Perthshire.

CWS was, I think, Britain's biggest farmer, certainly after Sentry Farming disappeared from view, although there are other contract farming companies, notably Velcourt: Velcourt . Farmers Weekly commented in an editorial that 'The C0pop's exit from farming is in part an acknowledgment of the high capital requirement of modern commercial agriculture relative to the returns.'

The CWS owns 15 farms that cover 19,830 hectares (49,000 acres). Only 2 per cent of production ends up in the Co-op's own supermarkets, with cereals sales to bread manufacturers accounting for 70 per cent of production. The Co-op has owned farms since the 19th century and had argued that they provided an edge over its competitors as consumers were becoming more concerned about the provenance of food (in practice only some consumers).

When I was growing up in London in the 1950s we got virtually everything from the Co-op from milk and bread to clothes. The return for customers was a declining 'divi' whilst the stories failed to modernise as competitors strengthened their offer. The Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society, then the biggest in the country, was known locally as 'Rob All Customers Slowly.'

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Transatlantic trade talks hit trouble over agriculture

The US-EU trade talks are running into trouble on a number of fronts, but predictably agriculture is proving to be a particularly difficult issue. The farm lobbies on both sides of the Atlantic are active and influential and the EU feels a need to respond to the concerns of its citizens on such subjects as GM crops and hormone-raised beef. For its part, the US sees this as protectionism under another guise.

Food safety is an area where there is a particular gap with the EU sticking to the 'precautionary principle' which can justify intervention in the absence of much in the way of hard scientific evidence while the US has a more lenient 'risk assessment model' which only bans products if there is a known risk. The EU is about to approve a GM strain of corn/maize, but that is after a decade of debate and six scientific studies. It remains to be seen how much is actually planted.

The fundamental problem is that the public in the two entities have different attitudes on issues of this kind and these are difficult to overcome, particularly when the EU is engaged in a constant search for democratic legitimacy and popular support. Standing up to big US corporations marketing allegedly dangerous products and processes is one way of doing that.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Large farms may abandon basic payment

It is being reported that some large arable farms are considering abandoning the basic payment (the successor to the single farm payment) because of the 'three crop' rule: Three crops

I do think that this rule is a typical example in the CAP of a possibly laudable objective leading to a policy instrument that is deficient. It arose out of a desire to curb the landscape and biodiversity effects of monoculture. However, at one time there was an implicit view in the EU that some parts of member states would be farmed in a way that maximized productivity. Requiring farmers to grow three different crops undermines this and, in my view, is an unwarrantable intereference in their freedom to make their own commercial decisions. I would also question whether it really achieves that much in the way of 'greening'.

Whether farmers would give up the basic payment is an interesting quetion. It can be a very substantial amount for some large-scale arable farmers, but others receive relatively small sums. However, in many cases it is the difference between making a profit and making a loss. The real hope must be that some progress will be made in reducing the impact of this policy instrument.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Adapting farming to climate change

One of the predictions of climate change is that extreme weather events will increase in frequency and although one has to be careful about generalising from a particular weather pattern, there is some evidence to support that hypothesis given the wettest winter in the UK for 250 years. It would seem that additional warmth is being absorbed in the oceans. It is not so unusual for the Atlantic to be a storm factory at this time of the year, but the destination of the storms is changing with the jetstream diverted south.

There is a growing recognition, even on the political right, that denial is no longer plausible and that one needs an intelligent discussion about policy options: Talking about the Climate

In particular there are questions about how one can sustain productive farming under these conditions in such areas as the Somerset Levels. Adapting to the particular features of the local climate is important and here is a good example from the Isles of Scilly: Churchtown Farm

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Agri-environmental schemes after 2014

Not everyone's topic, but if you are affected in any way or just interested there is some useful information here, courtesy of the excellent RELU Landbridge project: Agri-environmental schemes