LANDLINES by Halidon

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I HAVE a habit of jotting down brief details of weather extremes in comparison with the past.

Such as, for this year alone, noting that the weather in the early months made it the coldest winter for 30 years and the latest spring since 1976.

Followed, we might now recall with wonderment, by a heat-wave June before the coldest August since 1993. Since then we’ve had the worst November snow since 1890 and the coldest December for well over a century.

Conclusion? That after more than a month of snow and ice and sub-zero temperatures I’ve lost interest in comparisons and simply wish, with 100 per cent of the rest of the population, that life might get warmer, less white and less troublesome.

I’ve also, which might also have something to do with the weather of recent weeks, lost interest in looking back.

Taken all round, 2010 was a moderate farming year with moderate peaks and troughs physically, politically and for product prices, and no-one will much care as it passes away tomorrow night.

The main farming organisations seem to be taking the same approach by concentrating on looking ahead to 2011.

Not entirely – NFU Scotland took understandable pride in pointing out that in difficult times it had recruited 320 new members during the past year and 1,500 since 2007. There must have been a few losses in that time, resignations, deaths, that sort of thing as the total number of farmers continues to shrink, but it’s an impressive recruitment rate.

Union headquarters gives much of the credit for that to Jim McLaren, NFUS president for four years who stands down in February, as he has to under the union’s constitution, to become head of Quality Meat Scotland. The pros and cons – or rights and wrongs – of that seemingly preordained move have already been discussed here, but there is no doubt that Mr McLaren has been an effective NFUS president.

Standing for election to succeed him for at least a two-year term are his two present vice-presidents. Nigel Miller, Stagehall, Stow – 170 cows, 900 ewes, farming in partnership with two sons, who is also a vet – is best known to Borders farmers, while the other contender is Alan Bowie, who farms in Fife in partnership with his wife.

For Mr Miller it’s president or nothing, but Mr Bowie is also standing, if he loses the presidential election, for vice-president. The other contenders for the two places are Alan Crichton, Dumfriesshire, John Picken, Fife, and Ian Wilson, Inverness.

Whoever the top jobs go to and irrespective of recruitment and other recent achievements, the union, under its young and intelligent chief executive James Withers, sees its main concern as future changes to Europe’s common agricultural policy (CAP).

That is not a concern for union headquarters alone as it urges members to think hard about how they hope to see CAP changes take effect. The main hope, obviously, is for little change except reduced penalties for infringing or breaking CAP rules.

That, as farmers know full well, but as Mr McLaren told them again anyway last week, is most unlikely.

He pointed out that there have been three reports on CAP change in the past three months, by the European Commission, the European Parliament and, in Scotland, Brian Pack’s committee.

Mr McLaren said the union’s central argument, and belief, is that the case for public fund support for farming is necessary, even in these austere and difficult times; without the £3.6billion or so annual subsidy for UK farmers from the CAP many farmers could not stay in business with an inevitable knock-on effect for the whole rural economy.

The difficulty could be convincing the UK government of that and Mr McLaren tried to be realistic.

He said: “We’re not trying to raise expectations of what might be delivered ultimately (CAP change is scheduled for 2013) because no-one can predict that.

“We’re simply asking farmers to think about systems that might work for their business,” added Mr McLaren.

That is a small part of the process, as he acknowledged – Scottish NFU to Scottish Government, Scottish Government to make a case to UK government, UK government to negotiate in Europe with 26 other member states, European parliament to make final decision.

A long and winding road lies ahead with horse-trading and deals becoming increasingly frenetic on the final stages. And if a final deal is not agreed in the small hours after days of threat and counter-threat, I will be surprised.

Dealing with the CAP as it is can be difficult enough. There are two ways of looking at this.

One is that small wonder farmers are driven to distraction by such European Union rule minutiae as the angle of loading ramp for animals permissible under EU transport rules. Or by the recording and administrative problems caused by, for example, sheep and cattle losing the ear tags that identify them. Or by the way minor infringement of rules can lead to what farmers see as disproportionate penalties – last year more than 450 farmers lost three to five per cent of their total subsidy in this way.

The other way to look at this is that sticking to the rules, however frustrating, is itself the penalty for getting a CAP subsidy at all. It is never going to be less than complicated.

Happy new year.