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Agriculture in Guernsey W

With the industry focused on a number of key areas, the island faces very individual, particular challenges. James Watts examines the lay of the land

HAT IS the current state of agriculture in Guernsey? Agriculture in Guernsey consists mainly of dairy

farming. We don’t have as much land available for agriculture as Jersey, so we don’t have enough space for any sizeable industry in crops. Dairy farming is generally doing OK – it is quite buoyant. Until four years ago things were tight – we hadn’t had a price rise for several years – but then we established a new price for milk and we were able to get into a profitable position. The island is very focused on the Guernsey breed of cows and their

milk. Government wants the island to be the centre of excellence in the world for the Guernsey breed, and to that end there is support for dairy farmers. We have to meet minimum requirements in good practice and in return we get a subsidy. This allows the price of milk on the shelf to be competitive. Cheese provides a popular niche product, and cheeses produced

in the island have won international awards in the past, but we don’t produce enough milk to make enough cheese to export. It uses up the island surplus, but we can’t do any more than that. Glasshouse tomato growing used to receive States support, but

when places like Holland started to compete in a big way, I think we realised we couldn’t remain competitive – it was just too expensive. Growers were encouraged to move into new areas and some have done so very successfully. Peppers and clematis, for example, are grown for export. There are a few vegetable growers supplying local supermarkets and tomatoes are still grown – just not on the scale that they once were. It’s important that the Guernsey breed of cattle is kept modern and progressive and can offer something to the world’s dairy industry. There

It’s important that the Guernsey breed of cattle is progressive, modern and offers something to the world’s dairy industry

are some very high-class genetics in local animals. We exported semen to America recently, and we are looking at other areas too.

What are the biggest threats to the industry? Farmers in Guernsey are losing land – it’s being used for other things, such as gardens, horses or development. Agricultural land is designated by planners, but if someone puts a horse onto it or mows it for a field, no action is taken. I think it’s a weak area of the law and the situation has gone so far it would be impractical to do anything about it. We don’t want to have a battle with anybody, but there are areas where there should be a discussion. High costs are a problem for us too. The price of inputs – the

feed and the fertiliser – is volatile. It’s very difficult to absorb the costs because we are constrained by the size of our farms and by the lack of opportunities to make efficiency gains. We can only improve the breeding of the cows and their management. It’s also difficult for new entrants to get established. I’m one of the

youngest farmers and I’m in my late thirties. I took over a farm with 40 cows and rented land. There aren’t many farms now with so few cows, and to buy into a business with 70 or 80 cows would require a great deal of capital. We’re actively working on solutions, possibly in the form of support from the States.

How does the future look? If one of our farmers retired at short notice and there was no one able to take over his herd then the island might be short of milk. If milk had to be imported it could create a very difficult situation. The most important thing is that we have the States and the public

on our side. Taxpayers are very committed to paying a bit more to keep what we’ve got. The possibility of developing an export industry for semen is very exciting, and if we can do that it’ll give the whole industry a lot more credibility. We need to develop mechanisms for keeping the land we have, and

there are exciting developments in improving the management of our cows and our land to improve efficiency, and do it in a way that is very sympathetic to the environment. n

JAMES WATTS is Vice-President of the Guernsey Farmers’ Association

48 August/September 2011

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