Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Is there a future for smallholders?

Summary:  Is the small farm becoming extinct? Are property prices making a few acres no more than a dream for many?   This analysis suggests there are opportunities and a future, and gives good reasons why the small farm sector should not be abandoned by either politicians or farming unions.

“What are the prospects for smallholders today?” was a question posed by a reader this morning. “The small farms seem to be disappearing around here (Derbyshire) with the big boys expanding like nobody’s business. Are there any small farms left near you?”  Farms are increasing in size, and big ones expand at the expense of the smaller ones. With houses in the country fetching high prices there’s an incentive for farms to be divided. 

Small farms are being sucked up by larger ones by:

1.  Sellers can divide the property into two. The house, buildings and five acres, and there's the land to be sold in one or a number of lots.

2.  A farmer wanting more land buys a complete farm and then divides it into house + buildings as one lot which is sold and the land which is kept.

3.  Smaller farmers can decide to stop day-to-day farming yet remain an ‘active farmer’ through contract agreements. Or rent land on tenancies drafted to maintain eligibility for Agricultural Property Relief for inheritance tax.

4.  Faster tractors with larger loads increase the feasible range of operations for off-lying land. 

My caller wanted to know the future. I replied it is surely based on how entrepreneurial they are. Many use their limited land much the same as a regular farmer, selling stock in the mart, but the returns are very small, if positive at all. It surely is a life-style choice, nothing more. But if the microscopic income from their small farm is enhanced by a generous pension, or work off the holding, or a separate and profitable business on the holding, why not enjoy the the life-style? Far more interesting than many other occupations, like golf or cruising.

The current popularity of ‘country’ - 4x4s, Agas, clothing, boots, farm fresh food, dogs and so on - stimulates the attraction and value of country properties. Those in possession have a useful asset, even if it’s not one producing much income. Those aspiring to farm will find smallholdings don’t provide the entrĂ©e into the business that it once did. The initial 20 - 60 acre holding is over-priced for those wanting to farm conventionally. 

Yet a few acres and some reasonable buildings plus a polytunnel of two have the potential to provide a worthwhile rural business, but it won’t be selling a few fat lambs or a steer or two, or selling a few tons of corn. 

Direct selling to the final customer is obviously key, and the range of vegetables, herbs, flowers and exotics is considerable. Specialising in off-beat varieties of plants or livestock can be very significant. The popularity of 'bronze' turkeys among the food writers has developed a demand which, a few years ago, was quite specialised. Less common varieties can often find a premium price which more than off-sets lower yield. 

Providing a service for local, and less local farmers is another route to financial stability. The smallholding has the potential to provide a base, be it farm contracting, secretarial work or something entirely off-piste which matches the skills and interests with the local, or even national market. While many standard farm contractors are off-shoots of conventional farm businesses, others can build up successful operations in pest control, woodland work as well as fencing and other needed jobs which the ever-expanding conventional farmer needs to buy in. 

The future of the smallholder is far from dull and those involved shouldn’t see themselves as a dying breed. Regulations and risks will always be a part of their lives, as they are for anyone with any type of business. The popularity of their main asset, the property itself, says they are not alone in valuing both life-style as well as finding they can achieve an income which pays the bills and maybe more besides.

Small farms post-Brexit

The chances of Whitehall and Westminster downgrading the farming sector is likely. The demands on public funds from health, education and defence are very likely to overshadow the needs of farming. Not only will this threaten payments it is likely to result in am effort to reduce the administrative costs of farm subsidies.
Cutting out small farmers would make a big reduction in the work of the Rural Payments Agency, as well as making the job of application easier as well. HMRC have simplified VAT for small companies, so there’s a precedent. Farm subsidies for small holdings could be made on a formula or algorithm that is easy to use.
There’s a danger that payments might be reduced, on the basis the holdings are part-time, hobby sized, unimportant. It is an argument which could be quite logically used by the farming unions in their negotiations, on the basis their membership is made up of larger full time farmers.
This would be a mistake. Small farms, family units, are an important source of British born labour and provides starters with the chance of getting going. Building a farm business from a low base remains possible.   

Further reading: 
  • Swiss dairy farmer rents out his cows - and keeps their milk!  Alpine 20 cow dairy herd engages those interested in the traditional way of life and cheese production, and has self-catering accommodation for members to use. Practical Farm Ideas 25-3
  • Rabbit netting machine rolls out and buries netting - 1000m/hr  Practical Farm Ideas 19-4
  • Garden playground ideas, all made in farm workshop  Practical Farm Ideas 18-2

Every issue has innovations and ideas with the potential of building to a business based in a smallholding. 

Friday, August 05, 2016

Badger contact survey jumped on as evidence that culling is ineffective

Today's breaking news that badgers and cattle keep away from each other in the field and don't make contact is hardly a surprise to any farmer with cattle. 

You just don't see the two animals mixing. Yet we all know that badgers poo and pee in the fields, roll and play in the grass, take water from streams and drinking troughs if they can reach inside, visit feed stores and maize silage clamps, spreading TB as they go. And we know that the cattle will graze that grass, drink from stream, eat the silage. How long the infection is live must be known -surely someone in science has found out how long the bTb bug is viable in the meadow, and whether it can be transferred in silage, and what, if anything can kill it. 

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Today's news comes from research funded by Defra and done by ZSL, the Zoological Society of London based in London Zoo. They had collars fitted to badgers and cattle which monitored their movement and incidents when the species were within 2 metres. Why ZSL was the chosen institution is unclear, as there are many others with greater knowledge of cattle, farming and even badgers.

It comes to much the same conclusion as research done last year by AFB in N Ireland which investigated the frequency of badge/cattle contact. They too used proximity collars which they describe as new and exciting technology. They discovered that cattle interacted with each other and badgers did the same, but "at no time were badgers and cattle recorded as coming within direct close-range contact (< 2m) with each other during the study."

The Zoological Society was keen to make their research results news. As soon as it was published it was clear that it would be interpreted by badger groups as a cast iron reason to cancel further culling, and this of course has happened. The misplaced  conclusion is not helped by the opening words of the report: "Close contact between badgers and cattle may not be responsible for the transmission of bTb… " and you have to get further into the story the find out that "This suggests that transmission… is likely to occur more frequently from contamination of the two species shared environment, rather than through direct badger-cattle contact."

Any member of a badger protection society would be unable to resist drawing the conclusion, and it won't be long before we are back in the same place over TB, with no control of badgers in hot spots and a consequent increase in infection.

As expected, the conclusion of the study is for another study to be conducted. Commenting on the study, Professor Woodroffe said: “It has been known for a long time that badgers can transmit TB to cattle – but without knowing how they do it, it is hard to offer farmers advice on the most promising ways to protect their herds. Our study provides the strongest evidence yet that transmission is happening through the environment, helping to explain why controlling TB is so difficult. This work marks the first step towards identifying more effective ways to reduce transmission between badgers and cattle, and also potentially better ways to manage cattle-to-cattle transmission as well.”

"Having identified the environment as the likely location of transmission, ZSL’s scientists are now conducting the next phase of research to identify where in the environment the disease bacteria are concentrated and encountered by badgers and cattle."

Unsurprisingly, comments on the media have been considerable, and generally oppose culling. The media presence of badger protection groups has always been far greater than that of farmers, who since 2009 have had some 240,000 cattle culled - 36,000 in the last year.

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The BTb issue is by no means going away, in fact it is getting worse. I have been looking at the figures which show an increase in herds newly infected, but at a slightly slower rate than I anticipated in 2013.

The major worry is that the spread of the disease is continuing so a number of areas of low risk are now moving into a high risk category. The low risk are being tested only every 4 years, which seems hardly sufficient to monitor and control by culling the disease which appears able to move a considerable distance in that period of time.

But I'm no scientist, and frankly can't understand all the figures contained in the Defra stats .

BTb and EU agri negotiations

If the threat of BTb hitting your herd and the subsequent closing of cattle movements and loss of production isn't bad enough, the consequence on post-Brexit trade deals could make things even worse. Large rises in the numbers of cattle being slaughtered in some parts of the country - in Clwyd the number increased by 125% in the 12 months to May - there is every chance the problem will be used by EU countries to control the trade of products. New Zealand had problems with infected possums and implemented mass cullings as a prelude to agreeing overseas trade deals. While in Wales the number of herds under BTb restrictions has fallen, the has been a 41% rise in the numbers being slaughtered. 

What Practical Farm Ideas contributors have done to help

1.  Re-located all field troughs to badgers can't use them
2.  Improved and strengthened fences that are close to setts.
3.  Fenced off some sacrifice ground close to setts, and running a mower over them to keep scrub back and prevent sett from expanding
4.  Made the whole dairy unit badger proof by fencing between buildings and having badger proof gates (old pig pens with vertical bars make useful ones) that are closed at night and when there's no activity. The stockade includes silage clamps, parlour, cubicles, feed store, calving boxes etc.

The twitteraria:

Essex Badger PG ‏‪@EssexBadgers‬  4h
An important scientific study was published today which concluded that badgers avoid cattle and do NOT pass BTB... ‪http://fb.me/5kuPKv3ev ‬

Badgergate ‏‪@Badgergate‬  4h
4 hourBenefits of ‪#badgercull‬ accrue v slowly but harmful effects, such as spreading TB more widely, happen v fast ‪https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/aug/05/bovine-tb-not-passed-on-through-direct-contact-with-badgers-research-shows?CMP=share_btn_tw …‬

Hunt Saboteurs ‏‪@HuntSabs‬  8h
8 hours agoA wake up call that farmers should be implementing better bio-security measures and the badger cull be scrapped

(((Keith MEP)))
Verified acco ‏‪@GreenKeithMEP‬  9h
9 hours agoReport exposes the Gov't's bovine TB 'control' measures as nothing more than mass cruelty supported by bad science

Scott ‏‪@Sneekyboy‬  9h
9 hours agoDear English Peeps, please can you stop letting UK Gov shoot Badgers now we know they dont spread Bovine TB to cows

bovine tb ‏‪@bovinetb‬  Jul 27
How TB prevalence in ‪#HERDS‬ across England and Wales has changed since 1996. ‪#tbfree‬ ‪#badgercull‬ ‪#stopthecull‬




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Sunday, June 12, 2016

Where is EU farm policy heading?

Due to the dependence of UK farming on EU subsidies, the referendum is critical for the sector. Where is EU farm policy heading? Does the EU Commissioner have the appetite to help distressed sectors? Has he any further plans to provide relief? 

The count-down to the EU referendum has begun and voters and politicians need to get real, put aside all the crazy facts and figures they have been throwing around, and make a serious assessment of what is round the corner - should we stay or should we go. 

Farmers probably have the most to gain or lose from the decision, as half their income is through payments from Brussels.  They have more that's directly at stake than any other sector. The NHS isn't funded by the EU, and neither are schools. Farmers need leaders, analysts and the national media to get real with the topic and tell them the consequences of their vote. Politicians need to do the same. Empty promises and distorted facts put out to get votes are not satisfactory.

Hence 'Where is EU farm policy heading?' 

Last week I was in the Netherlands at the conferences and events surrounding the Dutch presidency of the Council, which gave me the chance to briefly meet Commissioner Hogan as well as ag ministers from other EU countries. He is enthusiastic for further CAP changes, even before the latest scheme has settled down. 'Innovation' was the word on his and other official lips, but nobody was prepared to define it. I mentioned the value of low tech but high return innovations but he gave me little more than a guffaw and a "try telling that to hi-tech Dutch farmers!" It seems to me he wants small farmers to have robots to milk cows and do other jobs.. so if you're a small farmer with new ideas, particularly any that involve electronics, you may be in luck!

Commissioner Phil Hogan and Minister Martinje van Dam provide a polished performance for agri journalists, both calling for farm innovation

Commissioner Hogan implied the EU had done what it could over the current crisis in dairy and pigs. He said that 23 measures to assist the dairy sector had been put in place by the EU, yet 8 of the 28 countries had yet to implement them - all which indicated to him a lack of national concern. It sounds  significant, but there are obvious reasons why some countries would not bother. The dairy crisis is hardly going to effect Malta, or Luxembourg, or even Croatia and Cyprus. Other EU nations with suffering dairy farmers may well not have the administrative mechanisms to implement his 23 measures. The Commissioner provided an answer that may be satisfactory in political circles, but was not what any UK or elsewhere being paid a pittance for milk wanted to hear. 

The EU makes national governments impotent to provide for their farmers

There is much which can be done at EU level to help the dairy sector, and in fact this is pretty much the only level which can provide help. The dominance of EU regulations makes national governments impotent in this crisis - other than supporting the farming charities which are asked to pick up the emotional pieces. Farmers with poor collateral - tenants, heavily mortgaged owner-occupiers - are finding it difficult to get medium term loans from their bankers.

Arrangement fees, surveys and relatively high interest rates put undue pressure on farmers who have been encouraged by the EU and national governments to turn on the milk taps. Many dairy farmers were rising to the challenge provided by the abolition of quotas together with generous targets provided by national governments. Farmers have risked their money on expansion on the basis of strong signals from governments.

It is also interesting to hear that 80% of Dutch dairy output is sold to Friesland Campagnia, a farmer's co-operative. UK milk marketing has been ravaged by 'EU regulations' and the result is chaos and miserable prices. The MMB was not acceptable to the EU.  Splitting it into regional businesses called Milk Marque was no good. Big plants, such as the one in Whitland, were closed - was this the EU, or other dairy companies wanting to reduce processing capacity, so screwing the farmers price a bit more? All was done with the approval of the great and good in UK farming. Dutch milk prices have been held up to around 24c, 20p/litre, a different league to what is paid to many in the UK.

At the press conference there was, as always, a choreographed procedure which allowed for minimal actual investigation - something which I and many other authorised journalists find frustrating. The 10-15 minutes allocated time passes with the Commissioner, and others on the podium (in this case the Dutch Minister) giving detailed answers to sometimes obscure questions. It's just what they like. The time soon passes and the slick MC in charge soon calls time and the big wigs file off stage. Which is where they get caught for 'off-the-record' statements. Does the Commissioner really have such a packed schedule that he can only take 15 minutes of press questions? Or is he following the performance of David Cameron who was spirited off the stage at the 2006 Royal Show, refusing to take a single question from the press?

More CAP changes likely even before the current ones get established 

Farmers who believe the Basic Payment is secure for the next few years are likely to be disappointed. It will be chipped away, the conditions will become tougher. The sharper reduction in Basic Payment (Pillar 1) will be in favour of an adjusted Pillar 2 which will have not only further environmental incentives but also include payments for innovation and science, but no-where is this explained. The ministers, and us journos, were shown a high tech dairy making maximum use of robots but, after spending €1.3million, it was losing money. Then there was a factory farm growing herbs and tomatoes under artificial lighting from Philips, which was never a project that would fill supermarket shelves. Lastly there was a precision arable farmer who was working closely with Bayer. 

Do these farms point the direction of farm innovation?  Are they projects which will attract EU subsidy? Will pillar 2 have grant payments for selected high tech improvements? 

These official farm tours contrasted sharply with farm visits I made after other media went home. Here were farmers that are innovative in a practical way. They focussed on feeding with conventional mixer wagons measuring the value of all ingredients; good ventilation with adjustable curtains; clean water with innovative troughs; quality bedding; good foot management.  Their silage system is simple and low cost. 

I came away with a quiver-full of innovations, not only for dairy but also some useful tips and ideas for arable as well. It was, furthermore, interesting to experience the attitude and stance of an EU Commissioner when on duty and faced with an audience who want to ask probing questions. The Commissioner is an unelected appointee for a term of five years that started in 2014. 

Innovation but no profit from this Dutch €1.3 million set-up. Is this the innovation which Commissioner Hogan is wanting to promote?

Practical Farm Ideas, now in its 25th year, is published quarterly. It carries no advertising and remains totally independent of government or other organisations. Issues focus on cost-cutting ideas devised by farmers in their workshops
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Contact the author:  editor@farmideas.co.uk     (+44)   07778 877514

Friday, May 06, 2016

Attention:  all practical farmers

Practical Farm Ideas reaches 25 years, and it's a real feeling of achievement. 

Those years have not been without incident, yet the publication never missed a deadline, has always been the the right number of pages (44 for the first ten years or so, and then 48), has had a loyal and growing readership. It has had no subsidy or support, official or commercial, but relied entirely on the income from readers. Just like a Penguin book. Each issue has had more plaudits than critics, and more so since the start of the Soil+ cover cropping section.  

'Made it Myself remains the bulk of pages

Over the years a number of readers have said the smaller tips and ideas we put in each issue are really valuable. They'll be happy with this issue, even though, like many impressionable teenagers, I have a fascination with the huge projects, like the home-built self propelled six row potato harvester based on a pea viner which we featured in Vol 1 - 3 Autumn 1992, or, later on, a self propelled Hesston baler.  

Ifor Williams jack: A puncture on the trailer can wreck the day. If you have a functioning spare, do you have a jack - and the spanner - to fix on the roadside? So often it's a equation of leaving it on the roadside, or calling out the tyre fitters. So a standard scissor jack from a large car modified to fit an Ifor Williams chassis makes a lot of sense. It's small, can be stowed under the trailer floor or in the truck. Making it fit the trailer is not too difficult - the pictures provide a design detail that works.

Made it Myself pages from Practical Farm Ideas Vol 25 issue 1
Trailed road brush gets front mounted: Mud on roads is a constant problem for farmers, and motorists. This trailed, ground wheel driven brush worked well, but tied up a tractor when there wasn't one spare. Modifying it to go on the front of a handler, and remaining wheel driven, has meant cleaner roads around the Kent lanes where the job was done. He bought the trailed brush for £150 in a sale. Nobody wants ground drive today, preferring hydraulic and small caster wheels - which puncture. 

Need a 60mm socket? Then make one! Fixing his power harrow meant undoing the 60mm bolts which go up through each rotor, and there was nothing like a 60mm socket in the tool kit. Using a scrap bolt as a form he fashioned some heated steel plate around the hex and welded it together. Having removed the form he welded a plate on the top with a nut that fitted a socket in the toolkit. The job worked. I thought of wheel hub dustups, the big nut in the Zetor oil filter that gets undone with a chisel, and there are many more. 

The EU debate:  a useful trip to Brussels as part of a select agri journalist group from across the EU was memorable.  We were there just before their airport was bombed, and there was high security already in place. We saw all three sections, the commission which introduces ideas for new initiatives as well as laws, the council which considers them in greater depth and involves all members, and the parliament where the issues are debated. UK farmers are wanting out, according to a Farmers Weekly survey. There's a lot which is wrong, sure, but the UK also seems to want to keep its distance, which is not a good approach in any club or society. We could, I am certain, have greater influence if we participated a bit more, in the areas where we are active. It was good to get a page on the visit in this issue of PFI. 

Finally, for all who need a new pair of workbooks, there a competition with three winners each who will get a pair of Dr Martens work boots. I tried a pair in the shop, and they make the ones I've been using for years feel very uncomfortable. So have a go - details are on the back page.


Practical Farm Ideas Vol 25 issue 1         Soil+ cover Cropping InternationalSubscribe to Practical Farm Ideas (£16.50/year)          Email the editor

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Zero-till becomes the norm worldwide

This low-cost, environment friendly farm method fits the bill

Farmers across the globe are parking up their big machinery and moving to a system that gets nature to cultivate their soil for them. Instead of steel and diesel they use worms and biology to do the work for them. They save a huge amount of fuel and other costs and get yields which are equal to those they were getting before. Unfortunately the UK farming establishment remains wedded to fighting nature with chemicals and steel. 

This USDA graph shows just how far no-till has progressed in the USA

Over the past four years I have reported on dozens of farmers who have made the change to zero-till. They include people farming 4,000 acres as well as 100, people with heavy land in Essex and Scotland, on Cotswold brash, in wet West Wales and dry Kent and Essex. One 4,000ac contributor saves enough in diesel alone to buy a new Range Rover each year and is getting better yields than ever. He'd very much like a better price for his wheat, but can still make a margin on what he's being paid. 

Maryland and Delaware largely drain into Chesapeake Bay, which some years ago was a soup of farm pollution. State and federal incentives have resulted in half the acreage in these states now under no-till and the water quality in the bay is improving as a result. 

It's regrettable that so little has been done to help UK farmers learn about this exciting agri development which is now is used on 154 million hectares across the globe.

    Virtually all the info about zero-till and soil conservation is coming from farmers - there's very little from agri colleges, little from the media, which depends on advertising from machinery.

Soil management

"Editorial has included articles on soil management for the past three years in a section called Soil+ Cover Cropping International," explains Mike, "and in this issue the lead article is 'Start Simple with Cover Crops' and the article provides the farmer with a cropping strategy which builds soil condition at least cost."
There's another section on making and using compost on the farm, including how to build your own compost tea machine. 
Looking after natural pollinators, using environmental grants to support the farm instead of cropping, and growing herbage mixtures are also featured. 

About Practical Farm Ideas magazine

Aims and Purpose
1. Promotion of low-cost farming
  -  share useful tips and ideas that save money
  -  maximise use of assets
  -  protection of farm soil, building fertility and condition, erosion control

2. Lifting farmers' business knowledge
  -  financial - budgets, performance
  -  forecasting, measuring and controlling risk
  -  legal - company structure, succession

The only farming magazine that focusses on methods and innovations devised by farmers. 
No advertising, no bias - truly independent. 

Best wishes,    Mike Donovan, editor  

PS  If you have any problems please email me   Mob:  +44  07778 877514

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