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Hidden poverty in the farmyard

Hidden poverty in the farmyard

Amid debates around nutrition, supply chains, affordability, productivity, competitiveness and reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), many farmers are left struggling to make ends meet. How can we support farmers and ensure they have a future? Jessica Sellick investigates.

As well as providing the raw materials for our breakfast, lunch and suppers, farmers deliver a range of environmental benefits, public goods and are a source of economic growth. But there is uncertainty as to whether they are being asked to manage their farm land for one of or all of these purposes, leading many to question how their farms will fit into the farming sector of tomorrow.

It is certainly a difficult time for many farmers trying to make a success of their farm businesses. With a graphic released by the Environment Agency illustrating the extent of flooding farmers have been battling, the rainfall has delayed many of them in preparing the ground, planting and harvesting and/or getting animals in/out to grass. Input costs have increased too, with results from the Anglia Farmers Aglnflation Index showing prices for producing food increased by 12.98% in the twelve months to the end of August 2011. Over the same period, the cost of producing crops increased by 13.33%, dairy by 12.29%, sugar beet by 11.63%, beef and lamb by 11.24% and potatoes by 10.45%. The Index revealed rents, rates and finance had increased by 12.6% and animal feed and medicine costs by 10.8%.

Poor weather and rising input costs have been compounded by the 'horseburger scandal' which saw supermarkets clearing their shelves of some burger lines after equine and porcine DNA was found in Irish checks on meat samples at three processing facilities – two in Ireland and one in England. And by the 'great lamb robbery', with figures released by the NFU showing farmgate prices have declined by 25% and wholesale prices for legs of lamb declined by 17%. Charles Sercombe (NFU livestock board chair) describes how "many of our sheep farmers, particularly those in the uplands, have been experiencing a major downturn in lamb prices which I fear will drive confidence out of the industry".

It is farmers who both risk paying the price for the horse/pig contamination and the collapse in farmgate prices as consumer confidence dwindles in meat products (at least in the short term) and they change their shopping habits to balance household budgets. In the words of one farmer: "we're not in control of what we do anymore, there's little in the way of security...there are lots of fingers in the agricultural pie". Are we at a crossroads in thinking about how to balance these demands and improve farmer livelihoods? How can we respond to their concerns and create the conditions for viable farm incomes? I offer three points.

Firstly, while many farming households do successfully increase production, resilience and their farm incomes – with people seeing a shiny tractor in the yard or a new shed in the field – it is a stark reality that one in four farming households is living in poverty. Farm poverty is a complex, multi-faceted, personal experience that is often hidden from view with farmers trapped without the resources or support to earn a living wage. A project funded by Oxfam looked at the hardships faced by farming families struggling to make ends meet in the Durham Dales.
The report painted a bleak picture, with uncertainty as to when farmers would receive their Single Farm Payment and/or what they would get paid for their livestock at the back-end sales and the economic downturn making it harder for them to supplement already meagre returns with off-farm income. These income circumstances led to situations where farmers couldn't afford to pay bills or mend broken equipment, had to forgo basics such as food and lower their input costs (e.g. reduce the amount or quality of feed given to livestock). Farmers discussed how "we're not a viable business in our own right. I have to work virtually full-time off farm. Farmers work on a shoestring. If we put costs in like other businesses it wouldn't add up. You keep plodding on until you drop dead". "Money, income, it's like balancing plates. It's difficult to find money to invest and keep going. Stocks up in value but the bills are through the roof".

The project highlights some of the physical and economic demands placed upon farmers in the uplands, and chimes with recent debates around input costs and farmgate prices. It also demonstrates how the necessity for farming to adapt and change has always been important, but amid all these challenges it is now essential in order to survive.

Second, the need to change in the farming sector is well recognised, not least by farmers themselves. Well managed initiatives that encourage and support farmers to collaborate ensures that they can take advantage of opportunities as they arise and can be a lifeline for many seeking to make their farm business a success. Indeed, there are a number of support strands which underpin farmers livelihoods and ameliorate some of the financial pressures they face – from accessing free and confidential advice from the local Citizen Advice Bureau to receiving small grants from agricultural organisations in times of hardship and distress.

There are all sorts of farming organisations and groups that support farmers, operating across all sectors of agriculture. Whilst every farming organisation will vary in the geographical area it covers, its activities and how it is funded; many provide farmers with a lifeline in coping with this critical state of affairs – from helping them complete paperwork to supporting them to diversify their farm business.

There are networks where farmers work together to help each other (farmer networks). For example, Upper Teesdale Agricultural Support Services (UTASS) opened its office in May 2000 and aims to prevent problems from getting to the desperate stage by providing a wide range of agricultural support: "you can help people in the short term who have very little in the way of spare cash, who have few things and come and ask what can I do? UTASS would be one of the first places farmers would look to for help".

The Farmer Network is run by farmers for farmers and supports them to work together to save costs, increase income, knowledge and skills and cope with paperwork. The Exmoor Hill Farm project supports farmers to develop their business, organises events and training and works with other organisations to address key issues facing the livestock sector.

There are also a plethora of other farmer networks including machinery rings, farmer discussion groups and Monitor Farm programmes; and online communities including #AgrichatUK, #clubhectare, #AgGen and the British Farming Forum. More broadly, there are industry bodies (NFU, Tenant Farmers Association) and farming organisations that provide support to people during periods of anxiety and stress (e.g. Farm Crisis Network and Farming Help).
Alongside this, the Government has launched initiatives such as Rural and Farming Networks (RFN) and the Future of Farming Working Group. Advisory bodies such as Natural England/Catchment Sensitive Farming (CSF) and Environment Agency/Farm Habitat Creation project also run initiatives. Some of these groups offer farmgate support whilst others operate at a national level, acting as an umbrella organisations/part of a network of farmer groups, or seek to make public policy more 'farm friendly'.

It is equally clear that many non-farming organisations provide services to farmers (Networks for Farmers). These organisations may seek to provide information, advice and guidance to communities as a whole but their activities may also have a footprint in supporting farmers. For example: The Churches Regional Commission for Yorkshire and Humber (CRC) leads a business support and development project which encompasses farmers; and Oxfordshire Rural Community Council (ORCC) is working with four other RCCs to pilot bulk oil buying schemes. At a local level, faith based groups, village hall and social committees and befriending groups also have a key role to play.

Third, the challenge for both farmer networks and networks for farmers is the need to make their interventions as effective as possible and to ensure their own sustainability. Many of the groups and organisations listed above are on a funding treadmill, grant dependent, with some having their funding cut or withdrawn. Some are supported by membership fees which decline if/when farmers cannot meet the cost.

What is clear is that these networks do not merely provide support so farmers can continue to farm and/or improve the profitability of their farm business, but they also bring about positive change through the prevention work that they do. They can reduce isolation, improve a farmer's mental health and personal well-being status and provide a range of services to meet identified needs (e.g. signposting farmers to debt advice or specialist training providers). This preventative work is crucial, not only for the benefits it delivers, but for the wider social and community outcomes that are achieved. Monetarising this preventative work (and the savings generated for the public purse) could be an important step in providing policy and decision makers with robust evidence about the importance of their continuation.

Finally, there are lots of projects that seek to educate people about farming and the countryside and put the fun back into farming. RSN readers may have seen First Time Farmers, a five-part documentary series looking at all aspects of farming life through the eyes of the younger generation. Filmed over a six month period in 2012, each programme follows the dilemmas, pressures and daily grind of three young farmers including apprentices, shepherds and slaughter men. Some are from farming backgrounds and have had their careers mapped out since birth, whilst others are starting from scratch with no farming background at all.

While some query what the producers are trying to communicate to the public, farmers have described the series as "very good PR for farming", "a solid portrayal of farming life: and "showed the work ethic of farmers and showed one chap that wasn't too proud to say he had made the wrong choice". The recently launched cross-industry careers initiative, Bright Crop, is also attempting to inspire and engage school children to consider a career in our industry; as is Farmers Weekly's Farmers Apprentice campaign; and in January 2013 Christine Tacon was named 'Groceries Code Adjudicator'.

Perhaps the differential between the farmgate price and supermarket price will be explained and farmers will get a bigger slice of the overall retail cake? In the meantime, with many farmers working 80-hour weeks and living under the poverty line the work of farmer networks and networks for farmers is vital in supporting them now and in ensuring that we have farmers for the future.

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