FRIEND OF A FARMER

SOW AND YE SHALL REAP | March 15th 2008

Crinity/flickr

Don't pity the farmer, writes Stephen Hugh-Jones. Silly subsidies and a high demand for grain has made some rather lucky lately--particularly if they are harvesting the unnattractive oilseed plant. All well and good, until it springs up in the field next door...

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Three yards from the windows of my house lie acres of what looks like a nice green English field. On the nice green, a huge flock of wood-pigeons is pecking for food. I've little time for pigeons, usually: the London variety spend their lives endlessly strutting, or being strutted, around, or occasionally taking off en masse, like an avian Luftwaffe, to defecate on the city's public buildings, cars and pedestrians such as me. But this flock of country pigeons, I wish more power to their beaks. Because what they're pecking at are the young leaves of oilseed rape. And the more they eat now, the less in two months' time, I reckon--no doubt naively--there'll be.

So what's wrong with oilseed rape (canola, in North American)? For a start, its colour: green now, it produces flowers of a glaring, almost unnatural, yellow. Come May-June, the West Sussex countryside will be chequered with them. Second, its pollen stinks. Third, and I admit that this is a peculiarity of my household, though not of it alone, my wife is deeply allergic to that pollen. And by the way, green or yellow, the stuff isn't English at all: most farmers round here would barely have heard of it 20 years ago.

In sum, the scientist who can genetically modify oilseed rape into a scentless version, with flowers of some muted tint, gets my nomination for a Nobel prize. But of course that's not the poor plant's fault. Nor do I blame any farmer for planting it. He's in business, and these days it makes him very good money. What I dislike (and symbolise, however unfairly, with the two words "oilseed rape") are the conditions that surround his money-making.

Money has been a pretty scarce crop on British farms for much of the past decade, indeed decades. And the European Union for some 50 years across the Channel, and 35 in Britain, has been ladling out subsidies to farmers in its place. Mostly these took the form of market manipulation: barriers to imports, artificially high prices and buying-in of surpluses. The result was Europe's famous butter or grain mountains and wine lakes. Even the politicians saw that this and its consequent bad publicity couldn't go on for ever, so the Eurocrats, who had seen that rather sooner, thought up other mechanisms to achieve the same result.

First, farmers could get a subsidy for land they had "set aside", that they did not farm. More recently, that gave way to a scheme that pays them simply for owning the land. All you have to do is keep it in "good environmental and agricultural condition"--which basically means cut the scrub and weeds once a year--and presto, the money's yours. And your entire farm qualifies, no longer only a small maximum proportion of it, as with set-aside. On top of this have come many schemes for rewarding this or that environmentally virtuous practice. British farmers, for instance, who once were paid to grub up their hedges are now paid to plant new ones.

There are solid social reasons for all this, in Britain as in more agricultural countries such as France. If we want our uplands farmed at all, which mainly means sheep, some way has to be found of giving farmers there a tolerable living (and many would say it hasn't been found yet). There are political reasons too, though Britain's farm lobby is less strong than those of mainland Europe.

I don't object to each and every subsidy as such, as free-market fundamentalists do. The market is a wonderful tool, but it's not a system of absolute morality. The trouble is that subsidy mechanisms outlive the conditions that created them. These past 12 months, Britain's arable farmers, like others elsewhere, have been raking in money. The price of grains has soared, for several reasons: poor harvests in the big exporting countries; increased demand, notably from China; and--if less than has been publicised--the demand for biofuels. In America that means corn for ethanol; in Europe, oilseed for biodiesel. The price of oilseed rape has soared too.

Farmers are not fools: to many in Britain the computer is as vital a farm implement as the plough. Very sensibly they have responded to these market signals. There was a brief time in southern England when everywhere you could see pale blue fields of linseed; a novel crop there, but one that happened to be wildly oversubsidised by the EU. This summer, those fields and many more will be brilliant yellow, because that's what the market wants.

But what's wrong with these lucky farmers responding to the market, while dairy farmers are weeping into their pails, and beef farmers over their byres, or--both groups--quitting their sectors entirely, as the price of cattle-feed soars but their output prices don't? Nothing's wrong, except that the lucky ones still remain grossly over-protected and over-privileged.

No farmer will admit it, but he largely escapes the social obligations imposed on the rest of the economy. Builders must fight through a thicket of public hostility, planning (zoning) law, regulations and rules, before they can lay a brick. Manufacturers must clean up their smoke or their effluents, or face at least heavy fines. Not so farmers. Forget oilseed, if they want to convert some wheatfield near a housing estate into a stinking piggery, fine, they can do it.

They can put up buildings to a certain size with no planning control whatever. Their diesel fuel escapes the taxation imposed on other users. They are beginning to face effluent controls; they can no longer, for example, burn stubble or allow undue run-off of nitrate from their fertilisers. But, basically, they are seen as conservers of the countryside; which would be fair enough if all were. In practice, many a big farm looks more like a factory, and many a smaller one like a vast scrapyard of rusting machinery. By contrast, Britain's few inland oil wells face detailed scrutiny before they are even permitted, are ferociously controlled once bored--and (I know several) are so well concealed, quiet and tidy that you would hardly spot they were there.

I don't say all farmers abuse their freedoms, but they could and some do. And all are in the bizarre situation that the subsidy for simply owning x acres of land continues, unchanged, whether that land is earning a fortune or less than no return at all. Again, this doesn't mean all are rich: far from it, many small farms have had to diversify heroically to survive at all. But it is bizarre to use a subsidy to counteract market forces, and then to carry blindly on when the market starts to push the other way. It is also odd to subsidise big commercial enterprises as generously (which in absolute terms means far more) than the much-loved "family farm".

My neighbour the farmer is a very decent chap, much more of a gentleman (not to add richer) than me--or so I'm told. He isn't, in fact, my neighbour; his fine house lies miles away, happily surrounded by permanent pasture. I don't suppose he'd simply shut his ears if I were to hint that, other things being equal, how nice it would be if his financial and cultivatory interests coincided in persuading him to plant the field outside my windows with wheat next autumn, as he did in 2006. And I wouldn't even hint that he might kindly put my interests before his. But I can't feel too upset about the ever-advertised woes of an industry whose basic asset, farmland, is worth today 25-30% more than it was a year ago.

(Stephen Hugh-Jones is a former writer and editor for The Economist, where he wrote the Johnson column from 1992-99. He lives now in West Sussex.)