Just a hobby farmer with a single field

For various reasons, I’ve ruled out voting Labour or Conservative at the forthcoming election.

I have no interest in voting for the British National Party.

I am therefore left to choose from the Scottish National Party, the Liberal Democrats or the Greens.

As I take voting seriously, I’ve been researching the candidates for our constituency of Gordon and their respective party’s policies, particularly in areas that directly affect us.

While I was reading the Liberal Democrats’ policies for rural communities, I discovered the party dismisses people who farm single fields as “hobby farmers” who are therefore undeserving of support.

I find this attitude infuriating as it deliberately brushes aside the contribution that many crofters, smallholders and small farmers make—be they hobbyists, small businesses or subsistence grafters.

So, not being one to sit back quietly, I wrote a letter to the long-standing Gordon MP and Liberal Democrat candidate, Malcom Bruce.

It reads:

Dear Mr Bruce,

I’ve been considering how to cast my vote at the forthcoming election. Having ruled out the Labour and Conservative candidates for Gordon, I was considering voting for yourself as the sitting Liberal Democrat MP.

However, I like to know what policies each party has in mind for areas that affect myself and my family most closely. After studying various documents in the past few days, I came to “Liberal Democrat policies for rural communities”.

The first few subject areas had merit so i was tending to favour what your party had put forward for rural communities.

However, all that was negated when i reached “a fair deal for British farmers” to find I was among those summarily dismissed as “hobby farmers” with a single field and therefore unworthy of support.

I am a full-time crofter, located just outside Insch. My family has a single 4.5 acre field, plus a number of smaller enclosures that give us a total acreage of six acres.

We breed pedigree Berkshire pigs, which are a traditional British pig that the Rare Breeds Survival Trust lists as “At Risk”. I am the Berkshire Pig Breeder’s Club’s Scottish representative and, as such, know that there are just four or five of us maintaining the breed in Scotland. We keep two boar and two sow lines on the croft, of which one—the Mermaid—is both the oldest sow line and the most endangered.

We also breed Scots Grey poultry, a traditional and rare Scottish breed. We have 40 hens and three unrelated cockerels, which is a very large proportion of the entire UK flock. The RBST lists the Scots Grey as endangered—with fewer than 200 breeding hens remaining.

So, even though we are just a “single field” farm, we are doing much to maintain the genetic diversity of the national pig and poultry herds.

The policy document states ” Liberal Democrats will build on that strength and ensure farmers get the fair deal they deserve, able to earn a living wage …”

While I am a full-time crofter, I do not making a living wage from the croft. The croft supplies most of my family’s food and usually covers it costs, but no more. I have just spent five-and-a-half days preparing this year’s potato field for planting, trudging back and forth across the field with the rotavator, push plough and hoes. Eight hours a day of grinding, hard physical work a day—with many other chores to do before and after—in return for a year’s supply of potatoes for us and the pigs, plus a few for sale to defray the cost of seed potatoes and fuel.

When we sell our weaned piglets, we’re lucky if they make the £60.20 cost of production (less labour) due to the unrealistically low price of food. But while your party would like to see larger farmers earn a living wage, have a fair deal and receive more from the Single Farm Payment, it dismisses those of us who grind out a living at the bottom because we’re single-field hobby farmers.

Strangely, several larger scale farmers that I know would benefit from your party’s policies even though their agricultural activities are far more “hobbyist” than our own. I know farmers with hundreds of acres who work offshore or in the airline industry, who can afford the latest and greatest equipment thanks to their six-figure off-farm incomes, and who even laughingly describe themselves as “play farmers”. They receive SFP even though they hardly need it. We were ruled ineligible.

The Liberal Democrat policy document  pledges to “help protect our natural environment and heritage”. Despite not receiving any government support for environmental initiatives, we have set aside areas of our croft that are maintained in a more natural state. We have planted hedgerows and coppices of locally sourced, native shrubs and  trees. We allow wildflowers to go to seed to provide food for birds and small mammals. We do not use pesticides, herbicides or fungicides. As a result, our croft supports large populations of birds, small mammals, insects, and amphibians (both frogs and toads).

We also maintain the heritage of our area by repairing and rebuilding drystane dykes, by considering our activities and how they affect the Neolithic stone circle across the road, how they affect the look and feel of the landscape as seen from the hillfort at Dunnideer, and how they link the past to the present to the future. People have farmed our location for at least 6,000 years and we are well aware that good stewardship of the land is vital to ensure that whoever follows us will be able to sustain their place in this landscape.

The policy document says that money saved by not supporting “hobby” farms could be used to provide ” cheap loans to help farmers invest in environmentally-friendly biogas digesters”. We have a long-standing interest in alternative, sustainable energy sources and again, even though the costs were high for our limited means, we have invested where we could by installing a solar hot water system. We would consider wind power and biogas digesters—after all pigs are an eminently suitable source of muck to fuel a digester—but without financial aid this is never going to happen. And your party rules that out because we are a single-field hobby farm.

Finally, the document says “Organic and reduced-input foodstuffs should be encouraged.” We are not certified organic as we cannot afford the certification process, but we run the croft as closely to organic standards as our means permit. And you can’t get much more by the way of reduced inputs than crops that are sown by hand, weeded by hand with hoes, and largely harvested by hand. Unfortunately for us, most customers expect reduced input crops to match the price of intensively produced crops produced on an industrial scale using vast amounts of fossil fuels and synthetic fertilisers.

There are many other crofts and smallholdings up and down the United Kingdom who make similar contributions to the food chain, to genetic diversity, to their communities, to the environment, to the nation’s heritage, and more.  By dismissing us as “people who farm one field as a hobby” and therefore unworthy of the support of your party, the government or the wider community, you do us and the country a grave disservice.

I, therefore, will not be casting my vote for yourself as the Liberal Democrat candidate for Gordon.

Now, let me see what the Greens and the SNP have to say in their policy documents.

14 Responses to “Just a hobby farmer with a single field”

  1. I also considered adding a paragraph pointing out that we are subject to the same regulatory and inspectorial regime as larger farms, but decided against it because I started thinking of many additional points I could make. Best to keep it tightly focused.

  2. I couldn’t agree more with your views and your response to your local MP . It’s the same story here in Ireland .We sell our pork and bacon locally and find a lot people know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. I enjoy reading your blog,
    Martin

  3. I’d save money on the stamp.

    Including PFI and public pension liabilities, the UK’s national debt is approaching £3 trillion. To me, this smells of hopeless insolvency, renders the body politic a corpse and makes the forthcoming election merely a distraction from sowing beans.

    Any whiff of economic recovery intantly takes the price of oil over $80 and thereby snuffs out the prospect of recovery, and – of course – the viability of large scale, industrial farming.

    Back in the real world, being a hobby farmer with a single field is looking like a great option!

    Fraternally, with six acres,

    Max

  4. I’ve just been asked exactly what I’m getting so worked up about. Okay, I’ll put it very simply.

    I’m annoyed because I’m tired of the views that:

    1. People who farm on a small scale are hobbyists.

    2. Hobby farmers don’t contribute.

    3. Only big farms deserve support.

    If farming is considered deserving of support because of its many and varied contributions to the community, to the economy, to the environment, to the nation’s heritage and the like, then all farms, crofts and smallholdings should have access to whatever support is made available—not just those whose commercial power means they can buy the ears of politicians.

  5. The Lib Dems’ scornful view of one-field “hobby farms” is intriguing when you look at how many of their senior MPs in the last Parliament were from Scottish constituencies with large numbers of crofts and smallholdings. Danny Alexander, Nick Clegg’s chief of staff, was MP for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey. John Thurso held Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, Galen Milne held Banff and Buchan, Alan Reid held Argyll and Bute, Charles Kennedy held Ross, Skye and Lochaber, Alistair Carmichael held Orkney and Shetland, and of course Malcolm Bruce held Gordon.

    Do their “single-field” crofting and farming constituents realise they are regarded as undeserving hobbyists?

  6. bee in the balm Reply 3 May, 2010 at 14:42

    so let’s see. hard, filthy, back breaking labor with little chance of financial success or appreciation from an ignorant and frequently just plain stupid public, sounds like the perfect past time!
    the phrase “hobby farm” makes me grit my teeth.
    standing strong alongside you across the sea on our measly 10 acres.

  7. As a family, we used to have several relatives the LibDems would class as “hobby farmers”. Due to the crippling economic conditions in the 1980s, we no longer have any. Two walked off the land (handing it over to the banks we now own!), one died and one sold the land for housing.

    On their, and your, behalf, I am offended.

  8. You are an inspiration. Know that you inspire not only small scale farmers like my family all the way over here in Maui, Hawaii – you are an important voice in changing policy to reflect the needs of our modern (yes, modern) society.

  9. An excellent letter, Stonehead. It’ll be interesting to hear what sort of response you get.

    Regards, Gary

    • The reply reads:

      Thank you for your email regarding Liberal Democrat policy for rural areas.

      I will bring this to Malcolm’s attention and get back to you.

      With kind regards,

      Rob Milsom
      Campaign Team – Malcolm Bruce PPC

  10. I wonder if the reply will come via his £30k a year secretary/ WIFE!!!!

  11. LittleFfarm Dairy Reply 5 May, 2010 at 08:46

    Ooerr Stoney,

    hope you weren’t including my poor old OH in your “airline industry” observation; if it wasn’t for him working to pay the mortgage we couldn’t survive.

    I find the whole thing infuriating as we are alternately tagged ‘commercial’ or ‘hobbyist’ depending on what suits the Powers that Be – generally for all the wrong reasons. We can’t claim SFP but of course if we don’t adhere to cross-compliance or fill in all the forests of forms we can be heavily penalised.

    I’m sure smallholders get inspected more regularly that the larger farms as we are quick-&-easy targets for the bureaucrats. And because we have Dairy GOATS, if any animals had to be culled because of FMD, Bluetongue, TB or whatever we wouldn’t get any compensation – because goats are not considered to be “dairy” animals.

    I’m getting very cynical & still have not decided where I will cast my vote; to be honest none of the parties have any direct appeal. And because we are in what is considered a “safe seat” our votes count for so much less (not “one person, one vote” but in our area actually 0.195% of a person).

    Despite the excitement of uncertainty surrounding this election I for one feel downhearted at the nation’s future prospects….dark skies ahead.

  12. I’d like to know what sort of hobby farmers like you/us are supposed to have. There isn’t time for hobbies; although I do enjoy working in the woods more than the field(s) – does that make me a hobby woodsman?

    While we’re on the subject, what defines a field? Surely the contiguous landscape is just one field, with hills and ponds.

    Great letter by the way.

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