Monday, 16 June 2014

Rich and poor farmers, and the EU gravy train

I've always been a sucker for statistics, a nerdy anorak who can sit staring at rows of figures for hours on end in a bid to make something out of nothing. It's a dangerously time-consuming activity, a habit which could probably be cured by getting out more.

The latest mouthwatering collection of numbers to grab my attention comes with the catchy title Agriculture Facts and Figures 2014, and is supplied by the Scottish Government's army of number crunchers. The publication paints a stark picture of life at both ends of the Scottish farming spectrum, and shows the extent to which one of the main industries in Sheep and Rugby Country depends for its very existence on subsidies and grants from European sources.

Apparently the average Scottish Farm Business Income (FBI) without grants and subsidies would have been minus £16,000 in 2013. But when the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) payments and other hand-outs are added into the equation the figure improved dramatically to plus £30,000.

It does not mean that all farmers and proprietors of other agriculture-based businesses are rolling in money. Far from it.

Nineteen per cent of farms (about one in five) had a negative income, a further 42 per cent had an FBI below £30,000. So 61 per cent of farm businesses earn less than the £30,000 average. Thirty-two per cent recorded incomes of between £30,000 and £100,000, leaving an elite of eight percent in the above £100,000 bracket. A yawning gap between rich and poor, just as it is across the rest of society.

Scotland's continuing membership of the European Union has been one of the topics raised during the Independence referendum debate. And an "In-Out" referendum promised by the Conservatives should they win the 2015 General Election could result in an end to our EU ties. In the event of Britain (including Scotland) leaving or being kicked out of the EU then presumably the £663,695,661 paid to 21,861 Scottish enterprises in 2013 will completely dry up. That's a big statistic for anyone to contemplate and digest.

The total in grants and subsidies coming to the Scottish Borders is difficult to calculate, as many of the payments are now kept a strictly guarded secret following an EU ruling in 2010.

The figures which are in the public domain (some 16 per cent of the overall total) show just over 170 businesses in the TD and EH 45 postcode areas collected £13.7 million between them. Among the most significant payments were in the sums of £725,000 and £316,000 to two Berwickshire farms, £454,000 to a Peeblesshire business, £337,000 to a Selkirkshire company and £264,000 to a Jedburgh-based Trust.

It would appear (if you multiply the published figures by six) the European payments are worth at least £82 million a year to Borders farming with over 1,000 businesses reaping the benefits.

That's probably enough statistics for now. The question is: can Borders farming and the rest of Scottish agriculture afford to be without this European lifeline?

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