British farmers are at the sharp end of the cost of living crisis – we must go further to support them
Farmers are often overlooked and undervalued. They are custodians of biodiversity, cultural heritage, green energy, flood prevention, carbon sequestration, hiking paths… and then there’s the small matter of putting food on the table.
British farming communities are a crucial cog in the cost of living fighting machine. But farming families themselves are facing an even more acute cost of living emergency.
Input costs are spiralling – crops and livestock are becoming more expensive to produce. In 12 months, the price of animal feed has shot up by 60 per cent. In some cases, fertiliser prices have quadrupled because production uses gas, and the price of gas has ballooned. Twelve months ago, a tonne of ammonium nitrate fertiliser cost £280 – it’s now worth £1,000.
Farmers are weighing up whether it is even worth sewing their fields next Autumn
The government needs to do everything it can to intervene. Capping fertiliser prices and reviving mothballed fertiliser plants would be a start, because high prices equate to high risks. Farmers are weighing up whether it is even worth sewing their fields next Autumn. If it’s a bad harvest, they’ll lose even more than usual.
Often, the public see farmers as well-to-do, traditionally Conservative voters. Some are, but the majority are tenant farmers on awfully low incomes. The average wage of a Cumbrian farmer is £8,000 a year, for a lifestyle of work from dawn to dusk.
And those modest incomes are being slashed. The transition from the old farm payments scheme to the new Environmental Land Management Scheme is being totally botched. I fully support the principles underlying the new payment scheme – I don’t think subsidies for subsidies’ sake is acceptable, farmers should instead be rewarded for the public goods they produce – but the government is removing basic payments before the new scheme is ready.
Farmers lost five per cent of their basic payment last year, will lose 20 per cent by the end of 2022, and will lose it all by 2028. Given that, for livestock farms, basic payments account for 80 per cent of profitability, that is a catastrophic state of affairs.
Desperate farmers will either go broke – pack in farming altogether – or go backwards, farming more intensively and less sustainably to make ends meet. No minister could cope with their salary decreasing in progressively larger chunks if there was nothing to replace it. They shouldn’t expect farmers to do the same.
In rural areas, the cost of living crisis is heightened. One-third of residents in my local Westmorland and Furness Council are not connected to the mains gas grid. They rely on heating oil, for which there is no regulator and no price cap – their energy bills are infinite. Meanwhile, a blight of second home ownership is clearing communities of local people unable to afford to compete.
For anyone, financial hardship is a pressure on wellbeing and mental health. But rural poverty has an extra bite to it. Because you’re not just in poverty… you’re in poverty and you’re isolated. And the weight feels weightier if you’re a fifth-generation farmer with the pressure of the family farm on your shoulders. On average, one farmer a week commits suicide in the UK. That is a despairingly tragic statistic.
Farmers are being washed out and worked out. The problem we face is that farming affects everybody but interests very few. For everyone’s sake, the government need to listen to our rural army: delay the phase-out of basic payments, put people with no home ahead of those who’d like two, invest in agricultural education, and treat those off-grid the same as those who are on-grid.
We need farmers for the future. But if farmers in the current era are taken for granted and left in poverty, is anyone going to pick up the baton? Their treatment in the face of the cost-of-living crisis is both a terrible human tragedy and a terrible advert for the next generation.
Tim Farron is the Liberal Democrat MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale.
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