landlines

PG Wodehouse’s commented in one of his many books that it is never difficult to spot the difference between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine.

I sometimes think, usually when reading an NFU press release or the latest concerns about European Union funding for agriculture, that “farmer” could be substituted for “Scotsman.”

And yet, beneath the veneer of farmers complaining in public that they’re hard done by – some of them could give football club managers a run for their money when it comes to moaning about bad decisions by those in authority – there is a hard core of optimism.

And occasionally, in unguarded moments, that private optimism about the future of farming and the equally closely guarded secret that many farmers enjoy the way they make a living, peeps out.

An example is in the latest economic bulletin from Lloyds TSB Scotland with a précis of the results of the annual survey of Scottish agriculture by the tireless Professor Donald MacRae – this is the 13th successive one he has carried out.

A main finding was that among those farmers who took part, 85 per cent had made a profit in their last complete financial year. It was the fourth consecutive year more than 80 per cent of respondents had made a profit. When farming as a whole comprises such a range of farm sizes and different enterprises, and given the well publicised difficult times for pig and dairy farmers, that seems a relatively good result.

And about 25 per cent of farmers taking part in the survey admitted to being optimistic, some even very optimistic, about their future. One in four might not seem great, but it was the highest recorded by Prof MacRae in 13 surveys and the third successive year the percentage of optimists had increased.

Almost 70 per cent expected their business to be profitable in their current financial year, well up on those forecasting a profit in the previous year’s survey.

However, giving weight as always to the argument that farmers can’t be expected to be rays of sunshine, only 25 per cent of survey respondents said their business would be profitable if the single farm payment (SFP – annual European Union subsidy) ended. That was particularly true of beef and sheep producers, with only 12 per cent believing they could make a profit without the SFP. That, as Prof MacRae points out, “illustrates the importance of the SFP to the financial performance of farm businesses and underlines the intensity of the debate on the future method of support for farming.”

While that debate is likely to run and run within Europe, farmers who think ahead continue to stay ahead with the survey indicating that almost half of those taking part earn from non-farming, non-subsidised, sources and that this amounts to an average of 27 per cent of their total income.

Reading that, I thought of the number of farmers I know who now earn money beyond what we think of as basic agriculture. One in particular came to mind who runs a livery and rents out grazing for horses, has a container-storage area, lets out, very successfully, allotments to enthusiastic gardeners, and has plans for dog kennels. Public demand for all four services is extremely good even in these difficult times.

Location near a town obviously helps, as does the fact that he’s from a non-farming background. I don’t know how he’d register on the optimism indicator, but I suspect it would be highly and his concerns about the SFP low.

Getting back to “real” farming and disguised optimism, the Lloyds TSB survey found that actual investment by farmers during last year was about 50 per cent higher than farmers had forecast the previous year. No surprise that that has been a feature of every survey so far, that is, that farmers always invest more in their business than they say they intend to. If that isn’t optimism, what is?

In summary, Prof MacRae concluded: “The 2011 survey has shown farming profitability at its highest level in 15 years. Assessed levels of prosperity rose compared to the year before and optimism for the future has reached a 15-year high.”

Let’s hope that continues. It should at present, as we ease into April in reasonable weather, blackthorn blossoming, autumn-sown crops of wheat and oilseed growing rapidly, spring-sown barley fields greening over nicely, potato planting going well into generally good seedbeds, and grass fields thickly stocked with ewes and lambs.

Even better, cattle and pig prices have risen about 2 per cent in the past four weeks and, better still for those with hoggets still to sell, sheep prices are up about 10 per cent.

Ah, but … fuel costs have soared, energy costs in general are up more than 5 per cent on the year and fertiliser prices are up a remarkable 30 per cent or so. You’d have to take an inordinate pleasure in blackthorn in blossom or a thick, fast-growing wheat crop to feel optimistic about price increases like that.