It’s been a year of confusion and uncertainty over CAP

It’s difficult to resist the temptation to look back at this time of year, so I won’t try.

Fortified by festive spirit, we can say that taken as a whole, 2013 has been a much better one for farmers than the wet wasteland that was 2012.

True, spring this year was one of the latest and coldest on record, but gradually better weather broke through to one of the hottest, driest Julys in memory and one of the driest and easiest harvests then some of the best autumn seedbeds we’ve had for years.

Against that, grain and oilseed harvest yields in some parts of the Borders and north Northumberland were low and disappointing even by what were always going to be modest expectations.

That was particularly galling when further north in Scotland – entirely due to different weather conditions during the year – yields were much better than expected.

The hope is that the excellent seedbeds most autumn-sown crops went into this year will help produce much higher yields at harvest 2014.

In what has been, so far, a mild December nearly all crops are looking good and the countryside green and promising.

No one, certainly no farmer, takes what the British weather might do for granted, but so far so good and let’s be optimistic.

Cattle and sheep farmers have also had, generally, a better 2013 than when working in the morass of 2012, including at times record market prices. But talking of a morass a less satisfactory part of looking back over the past 12 months is the confusion and uncertainty of the European Union’s CAP agreement.

The word “agreement” is used loosely because every time farmers thought the deal until 2020 was done and details settled they discovered that there is still much unsettled and undone and that, a phrase I hate, but feel obliged to use, “the devil is in the detail.”

One theory is that after politicians agreed a relatively new-look CAP the civil servants of the European Commission calmly went ahead with the version they’d had in mind in the first place, baffling their theoretical political bosses with bureaucracy.

At the same time, the leeway given to individual member states to make their own decisions, within percentage limits, of how to allocate CAP subsidies continues to cause arguments.

How much of the farming budget will finally go to conservation and environmental measures, plus general rural schemes such as better broadband, in Scotland and England is not settled.

Nor do Scotland’s farmers know what their final area payment will be. It looks as if we will be well into 2014 before there is any kind of certainty, bad news for any business.

Recent advice by Douglas Bell, a consultant with the Scottish Rural University College (SRUC), is sound. He told sheep farmers to concentrate on what they can do themselves about their own efficiency and stop wasting time worrying about the ramifications of a CAP they can do nothing to influence.