HOW would you feel if the government had rules specifying what time of the year you could apply fertiliser?
What if it said you couldn’t exceed a certain stocking rate on your property, and once you reached its upper limit you must buy or lease more land if you want to run more stock?
Or if you were not allowed to cultivate or fertilise your cropping land within two metres of a fence line, including an internal fence, if it includes a hedge?
These are not imaginary concepts, but some of the actual rules applied to farmers in the EU since 2005 when it decoupled subsidies from production and replaced it with a raft of environmental and animal welfare rules.
The situation is fairly similar across the EU, but some specifics from Northern Ireland will help to illustrate.
Northern Ireland farms must have facilities to store slurry (ie manure, urine and washings) from housed cattle, sheep, pigs or poultry for a period of 22 or 26 weeks. Most farms have large concrete or poly storage tanks.
Spreading slurry or farmyard manure on pasture is not permitted between October 15 and January 31. Soil must have a pH over 5 before it can be applied and phosphorus fertiliser can only be used if a soil test shows it is needed.
The stocking rate limit is calculated on the basis of kilograms of livestock manure per hectare. The limit, at 170kg, means there are no feedlots as we know them, either in the UK or the Republic of Ireland.
Supplementary feeding is not permitted within 10 metres of a waterway or 50 metres of a bore or well.
Records must be kept on almost everything including slurry and fertiliser applications, pesticide and medicine use, purchase and use of feed, and even the manner and place of disposal of the carcase of cattle, sheep and goats that die on the property.
Special permission is required to remove hedges and they may not be trimmed between March 1 and August 31 because it might disturb nesting birds. A two metre cultivation and fertilizer buffer zone applies each side of a hedge.
Aside from preventing the establishment of feedlots, the effect of all these rules is to lock farms into the status quo. Paddocks cannot be enlarged for cropping, there are limits to buying store stock for fattening, and numerous decisions that would normally be up to farmers are taken out of their hands. All they can do is keep filling in forms and doing things the same way.
Some farmers say they do not mind the restrictions, arguing they are broadly common sense and compliance is not particularly onerous. The problem is about a quarter of all dairy farms, 50 per cent of cropping farms and 100 per cent of beef farms would fail in Ireland but for EU subsidy payments. With payments subject to compliance with these rules, it is no wonder so many of them say and do whatever it takes.
The lesson for Australian farmers is to be extremely wary of government money. Although subsidies are long gone, governments still provide assistance to agriculture in the form of R&D grants, drought and flood relief, tax concessions, low interest loans, ‘managed’ marketing (rice in NSW, potatoes in WA), plus the $2 billion Trojan Horse of “sustainable agriculture” handouts.
The EU is proof that if the government pays, the government says. And yet the idea that public servants and politicians, which is what governments comprise in the end, know better than a farmer is not only inherently wrong but absurd. The best decisions for any property will be made by those whose livelihood depends on getting it right. And for those who repeatedly get it wrong, the consequences should include selling out to someone who makes better decisions, not risking the loss of a government handout.
David Leyonhjelm has been an agribusiness consultant for 25 years. He may be contacted at email@example.com