Confidence, that fragile flower, is at a 16-year high among farmers. Or at least it is among the 465 respondents to the Lloyds TSB survey last autumn. Buoyed up by higher prices and profits for most types of farming, the confidence level was reported as a record in the 16th year of his annual survey by that indefatigable collector of statistics Professor Donald MacRae.
Arable, dairy, mixed, livestock and hill – which effectively also means livestock, mainly sheep – farming were covered. The average size of farm was 440 acres and 77 per cent of those taking part were owner-occupiers, in itself a fair reflection of the owner/tenant split.
Few know more about statistics than Professor MacRae, chief economist at Lloyds TSB, whose interests extend well beyond farming. His regular surveys of all types of business and findings on, for example, the effect of VAT increases on the economy, mean that if you want stats and figures, he’s your man.
But his annual farming survey, unlike the Scottish Executive’s annual findings on the financial state of farming, also published last week, goes beyond numbers by asking farmers how confident they feel about their future and what their investment plans are.
The survey replies are anonymous, so this confidence level has always been interesting because I’ve always believed that farmers, who have a reputation as pessimists and moaners, are deep-down optimists in private. If they were not, they wouldn’t be farming because the advice about getting out of the kitchen if you can’t stand the heat does not apply only to politicians.
As Robert Townsend advised years ago: “If you’re not in business for fun or profit, what the hell are you doing there?” Townsend, in his book Up The Organisation, was writing about big business and corporate life, but the advice applies equally to small businessmen such as farmers.
If farming is the endless misery that it sometimes seems when listening at meetings or reading NFU pronouncements about the latest disaster or potentially fatal government decision, why stay in it? Come to that, why the present furore over shortage of tenancies and the difficulties of new entrants getting a start? If things are as bad as farmers claim, who in their right mind wants to start farming?
All of the above are, of course, rhetorical questions. The farmers’ unions have to argue a case for the majority of their members and that usually means painting a bleaker picture than justified by the facts, demanding a whole loaf in the hope of getting a half. It also means continually being in danger of crying “Wolf!” once too often.
In a perfect world, we would all tell the truth and farmers and politicians would say in public what they often say in private. As would, of course, grain merchants, livestock dealers, salesmen for any product, and auctioneers. Then again, in a perfect world we would all be happy.
Farmers stay in farming because most of them, most of the time, enjoy what they do, where they live, how they live, and make enough money to do that. Young farmers want to get a start on their own because they are convinced they would be successful and would like to live in the same way.
It seems there is an ingrained desire to farm, and time after time there have been, and are, examples of what hard work and determination can do to achieve that end. There are also examples of those who do their best and don’t make it, plus the many sons and daughters of farmers in recent years who have opted for careers outside farming, as Townsend recommended.
I remember once seeing a quote along the lines of: “The test of a vocation is love of the drudgery involved.” That must apply to farming more than most vocations because even on its best days, in any farming system there are elements of what the uncommitted would think of as drudgery.
It’s the satisfaction of making the routine tasks part of an efficient and effective system that keeps farmers going; the religious equivalent, I guess, would be that line about the “daily round, the common task”, furnishing all we ought to ask.
Ambition, job satisfaction, satisfactory lifestyle, profit for those good at their job – they’re all possible and that, I think, is reflected in answers to the Lloyds TSB survey. Whether many, if any, of the anonymous respondents say publicly that they feel confident is another matter.
Scottish Executive statistics for farming indicate that 2011 did indeed give cause for some optimism in difficult times for the whole economy. Output rose by £338million to £2.76billion and total income from farming increased by £23million to £596million year on year.
But, for the pessimists, input costs, mainly feed, fuel and fertiliser, rose by £277million. And output included common agricultural policy subsidies of £598million. That is, without subsidy Scottish farming’s output would barely equal costs. As ever, that’s a thought, and not a happy one.