Thursday, 19 August 2010

The Law of Unintended Consequences .....

Recovering from my neediness for followers last week was a slow, painful process but I think I am better now. I have to thank “andreas” who represented the sum total of life beyond the hardcore half dozen and gave me an electronic hug. Now the followers are one stronger and we have the Magnificent Seven .... bagsie me being Charles Bronson’s character (you know - the one with anti-social behaviour issues, no chat but really good with a knife).

Life in the caravan - don’t ask, its very complicated - is a simple one with occasional carbon monoxide fueled moments of skewed clarity. Today I am thinking of the Scottish Government ... I’m so rock and roll, it hurts!

In Scotland we claim subsidy. The subsidy entitlements correspond to what individuals farmed 8 to 10 years ago (don’t ask, its very complicated). To claim subsidy you need acres to put on your subsidy form that no-one else claims. As the rules stand you can use land you will never even see, let alone farm (usually in the deepest, darkest north and covered in heather) to claim subsidy on. Some do this - about 4% of subsidy is claimed this way. Some of this 4% are claimants that have stopped farming altogether and receive an income because the rules enable them to. The term “Slipper Brigade” has been coined for this group and everybody is mildly irritated by them. Everybody except me, that is.

To risk this post turning into a glossary of terms the land that claimants never see tends to be referred to as “Naked Acres”. One of my favourite lines I’ve ever came up with (it’s a short list) was in a talk I did once, moaning about the Single Farm Payment: “... the armchair farmer, fiddling with his naked acres ...” ..... I suppose you had to be there!

Anyway, I digress. The front page of the Scottish Farmer this week had Richard Lochhead our Farming Minister saying how he was going to kick the Slipper Brigade’s ass, ‘cause he is well hard. Everybody is mildly irritated by the Slipper Brigade (N.B. except me) so this is easy popularity points. The proposal is to use undergrazing rules and implement these with rigourous enthusiasm - effectively ending Naked Acres. Minimum stocking rates will apply too.

Great! Everybody’s a winner .... though, actually, no-one really wins, more accurately, and only on the face of it, nobody’s a loser for once - except the Slipper Brigade and, apparently, they deserve to have their testicles wired to the National Grid. All the rest can take momentary satisfaction in the Slipper Brigade’s mild disappointment. They got money for nothing and if they can’t be dragged through the streets by a fast horse whilst everyone else throws eggs past their sell by date at them; or if they can’t be sent to Guantanamo now its shut; at least disband Naked Acres.

This is all very well. But I worry. I worry that the pressure release valve of naked acres, is now firmly shut. I don’t know the percentage of land offered for rent on the open market each year, but I suspect its less than 4% of the total land area. Lots of active farmers rent naked acres to claim a proportion of their subsidy. In the clamour to claim all entitlement to subsidy, I suggest the demand for seasonal land will be increased hugely. I suggest rents will increase significantly as a result. And where does that leave New Entrants, trying to get hold of land in an already highly dysfunctional land market? ..... Nowhere to go! People without stock may well get stock again - just enough (and who cares about quality!) to be over the stocking limits, thus taking opportunities away from those that are farming for production not subsidy.

This is where I have to own up to a vested interest. I was lucky enough to get some subsidy. I just can’t get land - that I actually farm - to claim it on. Believe me, I have tried really hard. So I have to fiddle with naked acres too. I produce but I never see the land I claim subsidy on. I will stand tall with the slipper brigade, brothers in arms, bracing ourselves for the punishment that’s due to us. A punishment undertaken by those that wanted the farcical system in the first place but feel its time for a new, improved farcical system to distort markets a bit more.

I read somewhere that Thailand was thriving agriculturally and one commentator, in all seriousness, put this down to having a crap Farming Minister .... he did nothing. Yet, this enabled Thai agriculture to progress, unhindered by government tinkering.

Wouldn’t it be great if things weren’t very complicated? If central government stopped tinkering? They mean well, but never consider the Law of Unintended Consequences. By solving one wrong they create two other wrongs in its place. We have fast multiplying armies of wrongs thanks to subsidy. They march, bayonets fixed, toward the centre of efficient agriculture with killing on their minds.

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