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Friday, 28 December, 2001, 23:22 GMT
Farmers sow seeds of enterprise
By BBC News Online's Mike Verdin

Behind the stench of dung, the waft of herbicide, the nostril-creasing blast of silage, a fresh fragrance is sweeping British farmyards.

It is the, as yet delicate, aroma of money.

For every egg, supermarkets want to know what farm it came from, and which animal laid it

NRita Walsh, Royal Agricultural College

The 2001 outbreak of foot-and-mouth may only have exacerbated the woes of an industry beset by challenges microbial - BSE, Salmonella, swine fever - and macroeconomic - the strong pound.

But there is hope that the seeds being planted, and livestock born, this winter will mature in a more farmer friendly climate.

The average income to farmers rose by 17% this year, official figures said, albeit to less than 8,300.

While 8,000 farm workers lost their jobs in the year to June, this number was half the four-year average.

And 2002 promises "a further improvement, if not a dramatic one," Martin Haworth, policy director at the National Farmers' Union, told BBC News Online.

Improved conditions

Mr Haworth based his forecast largely on matters of fortune, or rather the return of farming's guardian angel from extended leave.

Cereal crops, devastated last winter by flooding, have enjoyed drier drilling conditions.

Lamb exports have recovered faster from the foot-and-mouth outbreak than the NFU had feared.

Silver lining

But ironically the health scares which have so undermined British agriculture are also fuelling its revival.

Dairy cow
Dairy operations: Higher returns

Dairy farmers are enjoying higher milk prices thanks to an output squeeze blamed in part on the slaughtering of foot-and-mouth infected herds.

"For the first time ever, farmers have not met their milk quotas, meaning suppliers have to pay more for their pints," said Richard Wood chief executive of agribusiness firm Genus.

And a growing desire by food retailers to ensure the safety of their wares is favouring a UK agriculture industry determined to improve its disease-tarnished reputation.

"Supermarkets have become increasingly keen to shift responsibility for the quality of produce back to the farmer," said Rita Walsh, senior lecturer in farm business management at Cirencester's Royal Agricultural College.

"For every egg, they want to know what farm it came from, and which animal laid it."

The word "traceability" has followed prion and CJD into the UK agricultural lexicon.

And with British farms, post-BSE, operating stringent monitoring regimes, they are placed to earn a healthy profit from the clampdown.

"Our traceability systems are probably some of the best in the world," Ms Walsh said.

"That puts our farmers at an advantage when it comes to meeting supermarket concerns."

Middlemen cut out

A second concept farmers have embraced to promising effect is that of "added value".

Some are selling produce in processed rather than raw states - Britain's cheese portfolio has expanded to cover 400 types, many developed by farmers with excess milk, and bills, on their hands.

Other farmers, having long complained about levels of mark-up imposed by supermarkets, have decided to reap the margin themselves.

The result - a farmers' market movement which has delivered one of the most dramatic expansions in retail history.

The logo of the Windsor Farm Shop
Royal farm shop: Successful start

It took supermarket legend Sir Jack Cohen, who founded Tesco in 1924, five years to open his first store.

Since the first farmers' market opened in Bath in 1997, the movement has grown to encompass 375 sites - more than half that boasted by Tesco after 77 years.

Winchester farmers' market, Britain's largest, attracted an estimated 80 stalls in the run up to Christmas.

And for every 1 taken at a farmers' market last year, 100 was earned by an on-farm shop or pick-your-own operation, the Farm Retail Association said.

Even the Queen is at it - a farm shop set up in October in Windsor, selling beef, yoghurt and apple juice produced by the royal estates, turned over 400,000 in eight weeks, a source said.

"This from a building the size of a double decker bus," the source told BBC News Online.

Lateral thinking

Indeed, talk in the countryside is more about diversification than downsizing.

"They are looking to make the most of what they have," Ms Walsh said.

"They want to get the best price for what they produce, and they look to make the most of their assets - perhaps converting a disused barn into a stable and providing a livery service."

Growers are also reviewing their produce portfolios, to exploit markets for non-traditional crops, such as hazel saplings used for powering biomass power stations, or the starches and oils demanded by chemical firms.

NFU economists predict that, by 2020, one fifth of UK agricultural land will be reserved for non-food crops.

And while the luxury of choice is largely reserved for lowland growers, blessed with more versatile land, some upland farmers have been able to capitalise on bleaker prospects.

"Wind farming has been a profitable option for those who can get round the controversy often involved in citing turbines in highly visible locations," Ms Walsh said.

Extra skills

The trouble for farmers faced with such an array of options is knowing which ones to pursue.

It will be a vibrant and fast moving industry, one young people will want to associate with

Royal Agricultural College student

"A training in agriculture will not necessarily provide you with the skills to, say, start up a riding centre in your barn," Genus's Richard Wood said.

And where entrepreneurship at its boldest is taking root is in the area of consultancy.

Behind pasture and hedgerow a revolution is underway which is seeing farmers hire advisers, swap tractors for contractors.

"It is about working through ideas. Drawing up business plans. Winning support of banks which are going to look more favourably at a farmer with a properly costed ideas than, as in the past, one who walks straight in with muddy boots," said Mr Wood, whose company owns a consultancy arm, Promar.

Opportunities knock

Opportunities are being created not just for farmers, but for herds of specialists in areas from nutrition to construction.

Such growth is transforming the dynamics of agricultural employment.

"Farming has had a high entry cost, especially with the reductions in the agricultural workforce," the NFU's Martin Haworth said.

"If you did not inherit a farm, it was difficult to get it in.

"Now there is a new point of entry which opens up the sector to a far wider range of people."

Youth appeal

Royal Agricultural College lecturers are already noting the result of this revolution, with an "unexpectedly large" rise in student applications has been credited largely to the broadening array of disciplines represented within agriculture.

Cirencester's Royal Agricultural College
Royal Agricultural College: Student demand

One student told BBC News Online of his enthusiasm for starting a shop on the family farm near the south coast.

"Certainly the attraction of farming is largely a lifestyle thing," he said.

"But there are also plenty of opportunities for those willing to think creatively."

Another talked of the appeal of an industry with such a "diversity of activity and responsibilities".

"It will be a vibrant and fast moving industry, one young people will want to associate with," he said.

The decline in traditional manufacturing industries - agriculture, steelmaking, coalmining - has stripped credence from the idea that "where there's muck, there's brass".

By embracing areas such as retailing and contracting, farmers have at least given themselves hope of grabbing a share of the spoils enjoyed by the UK's buoyant services sector.

And of following the likes of Jack Cohen, who built the Tesco empire from just the kind of stall to be found in a farmers' market.




See also:

20 Sep 01 | Europe
19 Jun 01 | Europe
13 Dec 00 | Science/Nature
05 Dec 00 | Europe
04 Dec 00 | Europe
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