Landlines: The most progressive farmers are way ahead of the game

It is not unique to farming, but there is a problem when representing the industry, as the national farmers’ unions do, or writing and talking about it that we necessarily take a “one size fits all” approach.

Every representation or comment can’t be hedged about with qualifications that there are good, bad and indifferent farmers. The NFU can’t stake a claim for more support by admitting that attempts to keep the worst farmers in business will mean the best making even bigger profits. Even the convention of top third, middle third and bottom third for efficiency, costs, returns or outlook on life can be too general.

But as we can’t represent farming or write about it by discussing tens of thousands of individual cases every time we have to generalise and that applies to all those ready and willing to advise farmers on how to run a competitive business. They know that even as they write and talk the most progressive farmers are ahead of them and a large number are at least abreast and they’re preaching to the converted. As for those lagging behind, stuck in their ways or heading for oblivion by their own favoured method – drink and betting often figure – they’re not going to read or listen anyway.

But the well meaning keep trying. A recent effort was by Peter Kendall, who stood down in Feburary after eight years as president of the NFU of England and Wales. He is now chairman of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board which has the remit of trying to improve British farming’s competitiveness using levies from farmers. That makes it as popular as any levy-raising organisation has ever been with farmers, but Mr Kendall believes the board can help British farmers feed the growing world population, cope with climate change and increasing constraints on how farmers are allowed to farm.

A basic lesson to learn, he believes, is that shoppers will buy imported food if it is cheaper. I can’t recall if he mentioned that when NFU president, but it is true. And regardless of how European Union farm subsidies are allocated – I’m not going into all that again – farmers can do more for themselves by farming more efficiently. As noted above, the best of them already are and I’ve always thought that if only half the effort the industry as a whole puts into arguing about subsidies was put into improving efficiency and productivity it would – again as a whole – be much better off.

The truly progressive sectors, such as un-subsidised egg and chicken have proved that. Mr Kendall pointed out that the feed conversion rate for chickens – amount of feed needed to put on weight rapidly - had improved by one per cent per year for 20 years. Against that dairy farmers, he said, could add £450 million a year to output if the present middle third raised performance to the level of the present top third and the present bottom third reached present middle third levels.