Thursday, 8 April 2010

Agriculture in Jersey

The state of agriculture in Jersey since 1946 has been one of a continual, unremitting, decline in a once prosperous industry.

If we look at external pressures on the industry, we can see two trends which combined to put increasing pressure on local farmers: subsidies of competitors and increased regulations required by the export market.

The nascent European Economic Community which came into being shortly after the war served to protect, subsidise and regulate agriculture within its sphere. Initially, this meant mainly France and Germany, but as the community grew and changed, this put competitive pressure on the price on local produce. Once Britain joined the European Community, this pressure intensified, and the local market was reduced to a scramble to get the best price on early produce.

The main mechanisms for protection in the domain of the EU was in providing monetary subsidies for farmers for produce, and guaranteeing to purchase (and dispose of) surplus produce; the funding of this enterprise was by part of the indirect taxation on goods known as VAT (value added tax).

While crop and dairy subsidies were introduced in Jersey, they were funded instead from direct taxation revenues, and could not cover anything like the scope and scale of the EU operation. Instead of providing a competitive balance in the market place, subsidies served simply to enable Jersey farmers to maintain (and not increase) their level of income. Low interest loans were also introduced as an attempt to help, but while at first they funded a degree of growth, with existing farmers able to buy farming land from farmers who were leaving the industry, they rapidly came to be a mechanism for keeping farmers from the brink of bankruptcy, applied on an ad-hoc basis, sometimes without proper controls such was the degree of desperation to keep the agricultural industry afloat.

The dairy market was protected by the prevention of outside milk imports, although UHT milk and other dairy products were allow in. Separate dairies were closed or combined into a single Jersey Milk Marketing Board. However, the consumption of milk declined, and in addition, the States were forced to impose the same degree of regulation for quality control on the dairy industry as the European Community in order to ensure there were no grounds for trade embargoes on dairy products and cattle exported from the Island. Ironically, these regulations did not cover the type of feed for cattle, with the result that, like most of Europe, Jersey cattle suffered from the infection from prions known as B.S.E. The decline in the export market was slowed down largely by the innovations introduced by Brian Le Marquand, who monitored and exploited niche markets for dairy products such as UHT and organic milk. Nevertheless, by 2002, overproduction meant that a reduction in the dairy industry seemed the only way forward.

Crops, however, maintained a competitive edge only through timing; if the local produce could reach the export markets before the later English produce had entered, profits could be generated. It was an increasingly desperate strategy as improved farming techniques in the U.K. brought the crops there earlier, while wider European markets feeding the U.K. demand for produce also began to compete on timing. Local farmers were also restricted by "stop digging orders" which attempted to impose a quota on the amount of local produce produced, so as to reduce the problem of over-production. However, if the market suddenly collapsed, as happened increasingly with the new potatoes in the 1990s, the agricultural committee in the States was forced to provide emergency dumping facilities; unplanned, this caused more problems with masses of rotting potatoes damaging the local environment.

There were also local pressures on the industry. From just after the war, until the 1980s, the boom in tourism provided competition for staff, and as time went on the emerging finance industry came to squeeze out the other industries in the comparatively generous salaries paid to employees. The existing French farm workers no longer were being replaced by new immigrants, and the Portuguese farm labourers moved to more lucrative markets such as tourism, finance and service industries. An increased pressure came with government demands to provide a better quality of accommodation for farm labourers, with much that existed being deemed to fall below proper safety and health standards.

Not only was there a massive fall in farm labourers, many farmers themselves gave up farming, while many of their children declined to suffer the low cost of living and long hours demanded by farming. The massive boom in property prices fuelled largely by the finance industry from the 1980s onward meant a demand for old farm properties, which began to increasingly be sold off and renovated to appear on the estate agents' books as "Traditional Old Granite Jersey Farmhouse", and the like. With decline of the farming community, gradually the old agricultural societies of the Parishes either ceased or amalgamated and widened the appeal of their cattle shows by providing other entertainment.

The policy of the Agricultural department became increasingly one of promoting larger farms at the expense of smallholdings, as this was seen as the way forward for economies of scale to help the industry. The nature of the land, however, prevented too great a shift towards more mechanical and less labour intensive farming practice, as the best land for crops was often found on the cotils, which was not best for large labour-saving equipment, so that one means of economising was restricted..

Fishing saw various conflicts over local fishing rights with France, and although these were resolved generally in favour of the status quo, there were still incursions and disputes with French fishermen; as a proportion of catches were sold in France, and any general blockades by French farmers or fishermen impacted upon the local fisherman; quotas were also introduced to preserve fish stocks in local waters, both in terms of the size of fish permitted to be caught, and the period of time in which it was permitted to fish particular stocks. However, the fishing industry was generally smaller and leaner and not dependent upon imported labour, and the export market was easier to reach, as fisherman did not have to incur the same penalty of freight costs as the farmer, being able to transport their catches themselves to other ports. Middlemen, such as fishmongers, where they were not fisherman themselves, found increased town rents reducing their profit margins, and the number of such declined.

Returning to agriculture, we may note that the last protection of the States of Jersey for the farming community was, following the guidelines of the Island Plan, to protect farm land in the so-called "green zone". This land could only be used for farming, and not sold off to property market. However, increasingly as time went by, small areas of "re-zoning" took place, although the policy held up remarkably well. However, it remains to be seen how well it can be continued, when farmers leave the industry, and no one is prepared to manage the land. It is possible that the States department "Agriculture and Fisheries" will be forced to widen its scope to management of the vacated countryside, probably changing its name, and that more land will have to be rezoned for either the property or the leisure markets.

In 2003, a reorganisation of States Committees saw the demise of the Agriculture and Fisheries Deprtment, with some of its services and administrative duties devovling to other committees, and others simply ceasing. It now falls under the umbrella of the Minister of Economic Development.

In the same year, a vote was taken by the membership of the Royal Jersey Agricultural and Horticultural Society regarding the import of semen from outside the Island to improve the breed, as herds were growing fewer, and total livestock was in decline, leading to dangers of inbreeding associated with a small genetic pool. This would reverse a 240-year-old law banning importation of semen from herds outside the island. It was defeated by a majority vote of two to one, leading to the resignation of two vice presidents of the Society.

But the issue kept returning, and in July 2008, the States of Jersey took the historic step of ending the ban on imports, and allowing the import of bull semen from any breed of cattle, although only semen that is genetically pure will enable the resultant progeny to be entered in the Jersey Herd Book. Despite precautions, in February, 2010, it was revealed that Semen from a non-pure breed Jersey bull had been imported into the island despite strict laws and checks, and 100 cows have been impregnated with the semen. Their offspring will not be recorded in the Jersey herd book. Despite assurances that this mistake will not happen again, and was caught in time, doubts must remain on the future purity of the Jersey breed.

While fields remain protected, there are fewer farmers in Jersey, and the decline of greenhouse use has led to one substantial change - as "brown field" sites, they are often the subject of planning applications to change their use to housing, and the land is being fast lost to future generations of growers. Whether this is wise, given the rises in world food prices, remains to be seen.

The one light on the horizon is a nascent allotment movement, which is seeing small beginnings, but one day may prove a training ground for a resurgence of interest in agriculture, especially if rising oil costs make food importation more costly.

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