The reform of the CAP is turning into a real dog’s breakfast in Scotland. NFUS is championing a return to coupled support, despite the fact that it had led to completely unsustainable farming practices pre decoupling.
Almost without exception, every livestock farmer in the UK reduced their stock numbers after support was decoupled in order to improve their profitability. Lowland farmers got rid of a little stock, while the man in the high hills could greatly improve his bottom line by getting rid of the lot. It was proof, if we needed any, that coupled payments were merely bait in the bottom of a jar to catch monkeys like us farmers. It encouraged us to produce too much for the market and drove prices down.
My memories of farming during that period of fully coupled payments are like some hellish version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves where I was grumpy and everyone else that lived off my back was happy.
The feed and fertiliser merchant was happy because I needed to buy ridiculous amounts of feeding and fertiliser to sustain my burgeoning fields of livestock. The vet was happy because I had to buy loads of vaccines and drugs to prevent and treat sickness in my animals caused by overcrowding. The silage contractors were happy because I needed to take two or three cuts of silage. The meat wholesalers were happy because they could pick up their supplies at well below the cost of production and the supermarkets were happy because they could garner huge profits by selling my cheap meat at inflated prices to their customers.
Compare that scenario to how it is today in our decoupled world. Now it’s me that’s happy. My animals are also happy now that they’re not crammed up too tight, even the wildlife is happy because I’m not ensiling their young along with the early cut of silage I used to take.
Strangely enough now that my wildlife and I have joined the happy club the former members seem to be grumpy. The meat wholesalers seem to be particularly grumpy because they now have to buy their meat in a market that is sensitive to supply and demand. The supermarkets are also a little grumpy because their margins are being squeezed by the very grumpy meat wholesalers. I’m sure that this makes me a very bad person but I would quite like it to stay the way it is now when I’m happy and everyone else is grumpy.
Why anyone would want to start the cycle once more and recouple support to production, that will eventually lead to oversupply and subdued markets is quite beyond me.
And I’m not alone either.
I sat round a table with representatives of sheep farming organisations just recently and when the suggestion of headage payments was brought up it was as if the elephant in the room had just dumped something big and nasty in the corner.
No one had an appetite for a return to a sheep headage payment. Thoughts of the ministry men standing at the head of the race, armed with electronic tag readers, matching up the numbers on their claim forms, was etched in every face round the table.
Nigel Miller has stated that coupled payments will be vital to ensure Scottish beef and dairy production doesn’t decline. I only hope NFUS is giving some thought as to how sheep farming can be supported without getting dragged back into the coupled mire as well.