Sustainability's the Name of the Game as Farming Struggles Back to Its Feet; the Agricultural Community May Be Down after Last Year's Foot-and-Mouth Crisis.but It's Certainly Not out, as David Lloyd Reports

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Byline: David Lloyd

DEVASTATED by foot-and-mouth disease, following a morale-sapping downturn in income over several years, has left farming bruised, battered and deeply bewildered over what the future might bring.

But what the gloom mongers who predicted a mass exodus from farming's ranks failed to recognise was the dogged determination of those who live by the land to ride out the storm.

Though many uncertainties still hover over farming's horizon, there is evidence that the industry is mustering its resources to undertake a degree of new investment and so remain the key player in the rural economy.

The main focus of farming in Wales is, and is likely to remain, the raising of livestock even with agricultural support mechanisms placing an increased focus on sustainability.

According to the Rural Payments Agency milk production in February was the highest since 1994 - even after the slaughter by Government decree of thousands of heavy-milking Holstein cows and heifers in FMD-hit counties such as Cumbria and that part of Powys that rubs shoulders with Shropshire.

Dairy farmers, especially those who have undergone conversion to organic status, still lament the "unsustainably" low price of milk ex-farm.

But there are clear signs that they are ready to invest in purchasing extra milk quota, land and also in updating their milking set-ups and equipment to achieve volume throughput and the high hygiene standards that the big buyers, acting on behalf of the consumer, demand.

Significant moves are being made to strengthen the marketing muscle of primary producers with the farming unions committed to securing reforms that will allow farmers to build stronger co-operatives within the dairy sector.

Meeting under the chairmanship of NFU milk committee chairman Terrig Morgan, of Treuddyn, representatives of the NFUs of Wales, Scotland and Ulster agreed that the time is right for a further push for a Government rethink on UK competition laws on milk co-operatives.

Livestock farmers are also encouraged to invest in the promotion and marketing of meat and meat products.

The closure of livestock markets and standstill on the movement of livestock for most of last year to contain FMD, has resulted in a strong demand from those who finish prime beef for store cattle, which in some Welsh marts has far exceeded the numbers on offer.

Trading has also been hampered by an on going, disease-control regulation that has ruled out multiple drop-offs and prevented buyers making up economically viable loads. For individual farmers, the 20-day embargo on the outward movement of any stock if a new animal is introduced onto the holdings has also proved a handicap to free trade.

The freedom to export British beef, except to France where an illegal ban is still maintained on "political" grounds, has given a boost to the morale of UK producers.

In common with many manufacturers, agriculture is burdened by the strength of Sterling when selling overseas, and producers are concerned that an increased volume of beef could reach these shores from Ireland and the Argentine - and from other countries where FMD is endemic and carrying the added fear that another outbreak could be waiting in the wings.

During the dark days of 2001 farmers were greatly encouraged by the support they received from ancillary businesses whose operations were seriously curtailed by the impact of FMD.

A number of auction centres were eventually licensed as collecting centres and that in turn helped facilitate a speedy return to selling livestock once the go-ahead was given for normal trading to resume.

The FMD crisis also heightened awareness of the therapeutic value of markets for farmers working in isolation with the need to cut costs having forced them to manage without any fulltime labour. …