There was another meeting that I had at the start of this week. A meeting that left me with more than a degree of concern.
I went to visit a farm in Middle being run by a tenant farmer – actually a young man that I used to teach some years ago (it is always a great delight to meet former pupils). We sat in the farmhouse kitchen with the whole family around – young children included.
I was being asked my views on the level of food security I wanted to see for the Isle of Man, on subsidising farming on the Island, on prices received for lambs here compared with the UK. The email I had received spoke of facing the decision of whether to continue… or throw the towel in.
As we engaged in conversation it was apparent that this young farmer was working incredible hours – something like 5,000 hours a year. That’s the equivalent of two and a half years of forty-hour weeks each calendar year. The financial support given to the farm under the Agricultural Development Scheme was wholly used up with running the business. Having covered other costs, the farmer’s income amounted to £20,000 giving a return for a 100-hour week, of less than £5 per hour. His best hope is that, when he eventually sells up, the value of animals and equipment will give him something for retirement. I know this young farmer to be an able young man – a graduate in a mathematics-related field. He grew up in a farming family and has been farming since he returned home from university. Whether talking about livestock, organic production, EU subsidies or the business side of the industry he knows his stuff.
We talked through some of his options. He is farming on a scale that doesn’t make niche marketing a solution. He is farming for commodity markets. Not owning the land makes it harder to diversify in other ways. The Brexit decision adds to the uncertainty.
I had a sense that the government subvention was not a subsidy for the farmer – it was a subsidy for our food. A further, and perhaps more costly, subsidy for our food comes from the commitment of this farmer and others like him.
Spurred on by this meeting, I went to the Royal Manx Show yesterday – what a great event! I visited the MNFU maze (photos attached).
I am enormously grateful to general secretary of the MNFU, Belinda Leach, and President, Brian Brumby, for the time they gave to answering my questions on Manx farming. We talked about a very wide range of issues from the recent misselling of imported meat under Manx labels to the successful marketing of Manx cheese in the USA - and from our competition with UK farmers receiving EU subsidies to the challenges for a multi-species abattoir. There are decisions to be made over the meat plant and future subventions. Going beyond the Food Matters strategy there are questions to be asked about opportunities for non-food crops for green energy production. It may prove too difficult to reinstate red meat derogation (import limits) but there is hope that commodity food prices will rise above current lows.
One well-argued possibility relates to the way in which some countries (eg Germany) have prevented the sale of selected foods at prices below the cost of production. This falls short of protectionism but could prevent retail loss-leading on items that disrupt fragile local markets and damage local producers.
It is all too easy to take our agricultural sector for granted.
I look forward to visiting many more farmers in Middle over the next few weeks. I am keen to learn more and develop my own understanding.
On a positive note – I had never realised the full significance of the "additive-free" label on Laxey flour.