On the beast rollercoaster:Uk Farmers Forced To Ride Income Rollercoaster
British farming incomes rose overall last year, largely as a result of increased cereal prices, but farmers' leaders recently warned that this masked a "dangerously divided" industry. The estimated average £13,300 a year earned by those working full time in farming was better than in 2000 and 2001, when it slipped well below £10,000. However, 25 years ago it was more than £26,000 at today's prices, as it was again in the mid-90s, before the BSE and foot and mouth crises.
Those in some sectors, particularly wheat producers, have recently enjoyed huge increases in prices as a result of weather-affected harvests globally and increased demand for animal feed from China and India. But livestock farmers continue to have a rough time.
They have been hit by movement and export restrictions after disease outbreaks, and sharply rising energy costs are also having an effect on poultry and pig producers. Lamb prices too are below 2005 levels. EU payments are keeping many livestock farmers afloat.
The National Farmers' Union is also concerned at a possible growth in geographic divides, for instance, between eastern England, which is given over to intensive arable production, and farm tourism and niche markets in the west.
British grain farmers, who accounted for about 15m tonnes of the 640m-tonne global wheat supply last year, have recently been getting £170-£180 a tonne. Less than three years ago, the price was £60-£70. Agriculture has become increasingly attractive to speculators, and biofuels, of relatively small importance now, will have a rising impact.
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It is difficult to know yet what all this means on the ground. There are about 56,500 cereal farmers in Britain. Only about 18,000 of them have more than 50 hectares, but these account for more than two-thirds of the crops. There are 11,900 farms with pigs, down from 13,600 in 1996, 24,000 dairy farms (down 13,000), 62,000 farms with beef cattle (down 8,000), and 79,500 with breeding ewes (down 2,000).
Poultry farmers and egg producers, without EU subsidies, have been feeling the pinch too. Some without long feed contracts were paying spot prices of £250 a tonne for wheat last year. Though supermarkets raised prices in the autumn to reflect some production-cost increases, they did not cover all costs, farmers say. The NFU says any freezing of prices paid by supermarkets to suppliers could lead to shortages of food and more painful rises later.
The British Retail Consortium said that though food prices rose by 3.9% year on year in January, stores were doing all they could to insulate consumers.
Guy Smith, who farms wheat and barley and a small dairy herd at St Osyth, near Clacton in Essex, has seen his fortunes improve recently, but said there had been an "enormous fallout" for farmer numbers, not yet seen in official figures. "When I look round my own parish, I realize that half my neighbors that were actively farming in 1990 are no longer doing so," he said. "Hopefully we have now turned the corner, but we are not there just yet."
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