Szczecin Lecture – 12th June 2013
Notes: “Failing of bigger farms”
“Farmers for Action” Blockade re: milk prices.
We farmers have one thing in common, no matter what nationality we are, or how big or small are our farms; we recognise that the power of nature is greater than the power of man. That our ability to provide the food that ends on the nation’s table is as dependent upon the powers beyond our control, as upon our skills as growers. We have an unbreakable contract with nature and it’s that contract with nature that binds us farmers in ways which are difficult for others to understand. But if we should break that contract, and use our powers to try to force nature to bend to our will, then she will take revenge and we will end up as slaves.
But there is something else that many farmers treasure and hold in common: their independence. We have the good fortune to have access to land, which means we can grow our food, provide ourselves with energy and even build our farms, without having to rely upon the outside world and a big deposit in the bank.
It is this factor, more than any other, that puts us in a unique position vis a vis the rest of society. It means that we can survive, even when the system fails.
And the system is failing.
It is failing because the main players of and behind the political processes of our nations, have lost touch with reality. They no longer stand on the ground which we stand on, but on some platform that is suspended above the surface. It is from here that they direct operations, hand in hand with the corporations and despotic business tycoons whose exploitations are based upon the desire for limitless profit and power. Yet, we are the recipients of their decisions. We farmers, who provide the food which is a primary necessity for life, have allowed ourselves to have the terms of the contract dictated to us, rather than we dictating the terms. We have, in too many cases, sold out our simple wisdom to the superficial judgement of those who have no wisdom at all. We have allowed ourselves to become pawns on the chessboard of society, when in reality we are the kings and queens!
There is nothing to be gained by carrying–on this way, only more and more to be lost. So we are going to have to take our power back, if we do not want to be ruled from Brussels, Washington and Warsaw, by technocrats without even the smallest understanding of what happens on the ground and on the farm.
Do not imagine that farmers in England have it easy and are rolling in money. Although farm sizes average approximately three times the hectorage of continental farms, the average farm incomes are only just above the poverty line, with hill farms under the national poverty line. Most farmers are heavily borrowed at the banks. Prices achieved for the majority of commodities do not match the cost of managing fully equipped modern farms. EU production (pillar 1) subsidies now often represent 50% or more of farm incomes and these subsidies are being cut. That is a contributory reason why one farmer takes his life each week in the UK. In France, the statistic is one a day.
Do not make the mistake of thinking that if you have more land you will automatically have a bigger income. More likely you will have a bigger headache.
The large farms are almost entirely managed to provide the corporate supply chain with what is called “cheap food”. Thus, it is that supermarkets like Tesco, Carrefour and Aldi, set the farming policy in the UK, Western Europe and increasingly in Poland. The government chooses to take second place to the vast hypermarket and supermarket chains that dominate the market of today. The average big arable or dairy farm is now nothing more than the subordinate of some faceless transnational hypermarket chain. In their rush to provide the supermarket with its wishes, such farms have become more like car production lines than farming enterprises. A heavy dependence upon monoculture, agrichemicals, large scale and expensive equipment, and a willingness to adopt genetic engineering of the food chain, if told to by Monsanto & Co., have all contributed to the owners of these farms increasingly getting the feeling that their destiny no longer resides in their own hands. And it doesn’t – it resides in the hands of the supermarket chains they supply – the banks they borrow from, corporations they buy from and supply, like Cargill and Monsanto and government officials, most of whom have never set foot on a farm in their lives.
The larger farms of say 300ha and above are actually completely at the mercy of powers over which they have no control and no contact. Those that they supply will drop them dead just as soon as a cheaper source of the same product is found somewhere else on the global market. Thousands of such farms have already suffered that fate.
In the UK, the group “Farmers for Action” (which represents medium sized mixed family farms and dairy producers) have recently intervened in forcing supermarkets and milk processors to raise the prices they pay for liquid milk. Dairy farmers were producing milk at less than the cost of production, as the big supermarket chains staged “price wars” with each other, driving down the retail price of liquid milk. “Farmers for Action” blockaded the processing plants that supplied the supermarkets, so bulk milk supplies could not be delivered to these stores. After one month, the supermarkets raised the price of milk in line with the farmers’ demands.
This is the only language that the big retailing businesses understand.
So the blockades of the Land Agencies in Zahodniopomorskie this last winter, to prevent the sale of prime farmland to foreign corporations – must be the right tactic to follow if Polish land is to be kept for Polish production – and it must be.
If foreign corporations buy this land, they will grow GM crops on it, and the land will be irretrievably contaminated.
The main British farming Union (NFU) did not support the “Farmers for Action” milk blockades. Just as COPA/COGECA fails to support family farmers throughout Northern Europe. The main farming unions are caught-up in the factory production line mentality and are always too close to government. COPA/COGECA represents the large farm sector in much of Northern Europe. It was ready to recommend its members to grow GM crops, even after one of France’s top scientists had revealed that GM maize combined with Glyphosate (Round-up) has shown itself to be a highly toxic killer. Rats given a GM diet over a three year period under laboratory conditions suffered extreme lesions of the kidney and liver after one year and were unable to reproduce after two years.
The CAP of the European Union has played a major part in destroying traditional family farming enterprises, through leading farmers into a global market regime which drives prices paid to the farmer down, whilst simultaneously driving up the cost of inputs and machinery investments – and all the while, completely ignoring the potential of local and regional marketing. The subsidies paid to farmers mean that 20% of farms get 80% of the subsidies – the largest farms. But even this clearly unfair distribution of financial support has not prevented many of the larger scale farm enterprises over-capitalising their enterprises via large bank loans. Loans which never get completely paid off and drain farms of their essential economic viability.
In the UK, the most viable farm units are now those involved in direct sales of quality produce. By making direct contact with the buyer and establishing a trading pattern that supplies local geographical areas, farmers are able to avoid having to enlarge and borrow from the banks, in order to try to remain competitive in ever more volatile global markets. It is the direct sale – smaller farms, cooperating and sharing expertise, that are now proving more resistant to the fluctuations of the global market and the uncertainties of the CAP subsidy regime. They are taking the lead over the large farms which remain entirely dependent upon the supermarket led global market place.
The CAP now faces a critical test: will it respond to the growing citizen lead demand for “real food” produced according to acceptable ecological standards, or will its policies be dictated by the big farm lobby and the corporate interest? The current promise from Commissioner Coilos is for more money for smaller scale bio-diverse mixed family farms, using environmentally friendly farming practices, and a capping of payments to larger farms that do not produce environmental benefits in their regions. However, the likely outcome is an overall cut in the CAP budget and in politically unacceptable amounts of tax payers’ money going into helping already well off farmers and land owners to get richer, while the rest get even poorer.
The future of farming, in an era when the consumer is more directly supplied by the farmer, could well see a radical shift away from big monocultural “factory farms” dominating the countryside landscape and a much more human face returning to the land and the communities it supports. But if governments continue to cosy up to the big corporations like Cargill & Monsanto and continue to ignore the voice of their citizens; it could lead to the destruction of our genetic resource base, which supports human, animal and environmental health and well being. No farmer who shares a love of the land and nature, and who cares even little for the health and welfare of this planet, can allow himself or herself to be complicit in supporting such a tragic destiny for the human race. Therefore, it is up to all of us in this room, to ensure that we never allow the forces of arrogance and greed to overcome the forces of wisdom and sanity.