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Dividing the sheep from the, er, weighted sheep

It's not commonly known that my brother is a farmer. He operates a mixed farm on hundreds of rolling acres somewhere in England. He is a jolly sort, up with the lark, singing as he milks the cows.

His job entails keeping everyone fed and watered, raking in European subsidies, raising yield levels, keeping costs down, making profits on unlikely soil, meeting unrealistic targets from supermarket purchasers, turning sows' ears into silk purses and generally clearing up the muck no one else will touch. A job very different from mine, obviously.

I was surprised then, when his customary Christmas phone call revealed a change in his approach. "My God," he profaned, "this is going to be the worst year ever; I'm going to sell up and try an assault on Everest in the nude as a stress-buster.

"Is it foot and mouth?" I asked. "No," he replied, "I've never felt fitter. But now you mention it, I've had enough of being blamed for central government neglect, inadequate resourcing and downright shoddy policy initiatives." As I said, a world very different from my own.

He went on: "Since foot and mouth they've replaced the body that used to be responsible for us, NAFF, with another, DEAFER. Has anything like that happened to you ?" I assured him that I could see no parallels. "DEAFER is just about to introduce new ways of subsidising us. We used to have pig units, sheep units and cow units; now we just get funded for sheep."

I gasped. "So you don't get funded in units anymore?" "No," he said, "Just sheep; pigs are weighted sheep, and cows are sheep with a disadvantage uplift. Some things haven't changed though; the subsidy still depends on the field you put the animals in; tough upland meadows earn the farmer twice as much as the lush grass down below. Naturally, the cows don't know that; they just want easy chewing.

"But some things have changed a lot. We used to get a birth subsidy for each new animal into the world. They've scrapped that and added it to the standard grazing subsidy. Now you get it each time you move your cow to a different field. The best rewards come from short grazing in lots of different fields and off to slaughter before they get too big to cost you. So it's more veal and less beef in future."

He hadn't finished."Do you realise we now get farm regulators for everything we do? We have a winter auditor, a spring comptroller, a summer inspector and autumn reviewer. We have inspectors who check on the auditors and auditors who send us questionnaires asking how the inspection burden should be reduced.

"For example, after we have harvested the wheat and sold it, auditors come and count the stubble stalks to see if they tally with the amount of wheat we claimed the subsidy for; every stalk on every farm, every year. If they find any bent stalks, you pay the money back. Of course, there are other auditors who will help you straighten the stalks in advance, for a fee. I've been asked to give written evidence, in triplicate, to an anti-bureaucracy committee."

I was aghast at the sheer insanity of it all. "But what of traditional skills and crafts?" I asked. "Surely you still get satisfaction from nurturing, watching things develop?" "No," he said, "it's all done by computer, these days; and the bit that isn't soon will be. Even butter's made by Churn Direct."

"Are you sure," I felt bound to ask, "that your problem is not partly down to your incompetence? You may need a training course in management." "That's just what DEAFER keeps saying," he replied. But where could you get training to help you cope with this madness? He hung up and left me with a feeling of intense gratitude that I work in a sector that is a watchword for rationality and common-sense.

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