The Farming Life/Danske Bank awards this week were a great reminder that even in tough financial times farmers are resilient and have a pride in their industry.
That is why they survive bad weather and financial downturns. By nature farmers are optimists, and the weather of October has been worth a lot in allowing work to get finished and cutting feed bills for a winter when cash flow will be a big issue for beef and dairy farmers. The awards also underlined the contribution farmers make to the environment, and as well as for food production is why the CAP exists.
There has been a suggestion from the European Commission that farmers receiving funds for countryside management should, as a condition, have to display a sign showing how generous Brussels has been. This is bizarre for two reasons – the first being that as a net contributor to the EU the UK is only getting back some of its own money, and in any event has the least generous funding from Brussels for rural development. There might in fact be more value in making this point, so that people understand Brussels is not as generous as they think. On top of that there is no need for a sign to show what farmers are doing, since it is self evident from the state of the countryside, without providing the Commission with a free advertisement in every field.
Agriculture is still struggling with the detail of the recently reformed CAP, but thoughts are already turning to the next reform, which has to be in place by 2020. The direction will be driven by the farm commissioner, Phil Hogan. Compared to his predecessor, Dacian Ciolos, he is an effective politician, with a commitment to seeing red tape reduced in the CAP. He admits the reforms he is charged with implementing would not have been his choice, but at this stage he cannot unpick a deal that took so long to deliver through farm ministers, the European Commission and European parliament. When it comes to greening in particular there is a fine line between changing some of the detail and rewriting the legislation, which would be beyond his powers.
Last week a group of Irish journalists had dinner with Phil Hogan in Dublin – a commitment he met, despite having had his gallbladder removed a few days before. This prompted him to joke that this would take some of the badness out of him, and over the course of the evening he confirmed his vision of the future for European agriculture. Earlier in the same week, at the North American-EU Agriculture Congress in Belfast the presidents of COPA, representing farmers, and COGECA, representing cooperatives, set out some of their thinking on the future CAP. Both hinted that it was time for radical thinking, based around a move away from the present structures and the link to land area. They were keen to see a new policy that would tackle volatility via some form of dampening mechanism to give farmers more stable incomes. At this stage thinking is only a rough sketch on the drawing board, but there is an acceptance that the approach needs to change from a policy still broadly rooted in a plan designed for a post-war era and six countries of the then EEC.
Hogan is playing his cards close to his chest on the future of the CAP. He is content for now to get the present policy working better, with less red tape. He knows 2017 will bring a review and an opportunity to begin shaping thoughts on the future. He accepts the damage volatility has caused, but says that when farmers were getting 42 cents a litre for milk in early 2014 not many were unhappy with volatility then. He believes this is a choice farmers need to make, foregoing the peaks to make the troughs more acceptable. That may be through new futures trading arrangements and contracts – or it could involve more self-discipline to accept that high prices have always been temporary in farming.
CAP reform is a long game, and it is good that the debate about new structures that might better serve the industry is starting now. If Phil Hogan drives that debate, farmers across Europe will benefit from having in place a commissioner that although tough, does understand their problems and the need for a CAP that is practically, as well as politically sustainable.