The weather, the continuing row over the badger cull and the impact of CAP reform are going to be key factors affecting the agricultural sector in 2014, says Jeff Wells
The agricultural sector in the West Country starts 2014 – as ever – looking to the skies.
The great uncontrollable factor of the weather was largely benign for farmers in 2013, but with thousands of acres of Somerset under water for the second winter in succession due to flooding, it is difficult to predict the long-term impact of this on prime agricultural land. If weather patterns and Government spending priorities dictate that more land is likely to be allowed to regularly flood then that very clearly will change farming priorities in the area.
However a largely dry and warm 2013 meant cereal farmers benefited from an easier harvest last year, extremely welcome after several difficult summers. Dairy farmers saw milk prices rise somewhat last year, but the scourge of bovine TB remains.
Meanwhile, West Country livestock farmers should see their produce attract premium prices after securing PGI status for beef and lamb farmed in the region.
At a national political level in 2014 the two main issues in farming appear to be the continuing saga of the badger cull and the detail of how Common Agricultural Policy reform will pan out in practice.
In reality, the pilot badger culls in Somerset and Gloucestershire last summer showed little more than how difficult tackling this controversial problem remains.
The Government faces very difficult decision on whether to proceed with a wider cull given the performance of both the pilot culls, where the free-shooting method of culling badgers was not as successful as anticipated.
It is continuing to plan for a wider cull, but whether it has the political appetite for the continued fight is uncertain.
Cull opponents certainly disrupted the marksmen and have fought a vigorous media campaign against the cull. But fortunately it appears some of the more unpleasant threats against farmers involved and calls to boycott dairy products have not materialised into anything substantial.
One impact of CAP reform is likely to be a shift in farm payments to upland farmers from lowland.
These two issues are among the problems with which the new president of the National Farmers’ Union will have to grapple. Peter Kendall steps down after eight years and there is a two-horse race between Worcester livestock and arable farmer Adam Quinney and Meurig Raymond, who runs a mixed farm in Pembrokeshire. Minette Batters, chairman of the NFU South West Region who farms in Wiltshire and Robert Lasseter, a farmer from West Dorset, both had nominations for deputy and vice president elections confirmed last week.
Agricultural land continues to be one of the star performers of the real estate market, with the price of farmland rising even faster than London property hotspots and gold in 2013. Last year the average price of English farmland rose by 11 per cent to a record £6,882 an acre, according to the latest Knight Frank Farmland Index, which predicts an average rise of 6 per cent this year.
However, large blocks of investment-grade arable land in the West Country are changing hands for up to £10,500 an acre.