This summer I fitted in a weekend visit to some Bordeaux vineyards (at my own expense as part of my holiday before you start to hurl your allegations!). I also visited some English farms, not in my own constituency.
The Bordeaux vineyards show what can be achieved, at the top end, by the vigorous pursuit of quality and improvement, through investment, thought, the application of science and judgement, and the exploitation of world brands inthe ever enlarging glamour end of the global market. The huge crane towering over the tiny property of Le Pin sums up the dramatic impact success at the top of the wine world that serving the mega rich can bring. Mouton Rothschild sports two massive construction cranes, as they too plough back some of the surging revenues from the giddy prices the rich Chinese will now pay for the finest wines. So far the buyers queue at the gates, the higher the prices rise. The best in Bordeaux show that from a very small farm base you can add prodigious value through selection, quality based production and excellent marketing.
My visit to one or two UK farms reminded me even in the UK we still have some relatively small farms struggling to make good money out of arable husbandry. If you are a wheat producer you are competing against the vast prairie farms of the new world, where ever larger and dearer machinery can till, sow and harvest vast acres laid out in mega fields with the minimum of cost. In the Uk we like our small fields and hedgerows, spinneys and lanes. The arable crops are broken up by the much loved features of the landscape and by the patterns of ownership and tenancy.
Which leaves us in the grips of the CAP. Much of what a farmer does is designed to use or draw on an EU subsidy. It distances the farmer from adding value and serving that ever growing and more demanding world market. Farmers do what the subsidy indicates. Green policies promote the idea of farmer as grand landscape gardener, earning money for maintaining various habitats and following prescribed rotations.
The CAP itself has been the object of criticism with demands for reform from successive British governments. Mr Blair said he was surrendering part of the UK’s rebate on contributions to buy us agricultural reform. We have lost a big chunk of the rebate but there is still no sign of reform. The new UK government should demand the follow up promised to Mr Blair. Now would be a good time to see if we can remodel or remove the CAP to give taxpayers a better deal.
Successful farming either applies more machinery and technology to ever larger units to get the economies of scale, of adds more and and more value to the fruits of the land before it leaves the farm gate. The successful Bordeaux chateau show what you can achieve by way of extra revenue if you turn your fruit into an iconic product. Some English farmers are struggling, despite some rises in grain prices, because they face strong global competition from bigger and better invested farms. The CAP is dear to taxpayers, but it cannot make up for all the problems caused by the lie of the land, the size of the holdings and the shortage of capital.