The Booker Column
|FRUITS OF FOLLY :
the torching of the orchards
21 March 2004
Cider makers and apple growers predict that the skies over the West Country
will blacken next autumn, as tens of thousands of apple trees go up in
smoke: The reason is yet another extraordinary anomaly in the way that
Margaret Beckett and her officials at the Department for the Environment,
Food and Rural Affairs have chosen to apply the new "single farm payment"
Under a change to the EU's farm subsidy system, farmers will be paid not for
what they produce but according to their acreage. Uniquely in the EU,
however, Britain has chosen to exclude the growers of apples, pears, plums
and cherries from payment. Growers of hops, soft fruit, asparagus, and
willows used for fuel will, like other farmers, receive £230 a hectare per
year. Orchard owners will get nothing -- unless by January 1 they have
uprooted all their trees, in which case they will receive the full £230,
even if the ground is left unused.
This decision is particularly absurd in view of all the efforts in recent
years to revive England's apple orchards, after years of decline when
British fruit growers found it hard to compete with EU-subsidised
Continental competitors. According to the European. Commission,
three-quarters of the apples grown in France were destroyed once hefty
subsidies had been claimed.
The choice that Mrs Beckett presents to orchard owners is stark: destroy
your trees by the end of the year, or you will never again be able to claim
payments on the land -- while you compete with foreign growers who are
heavily subsidised. According to Julian Temperley of the Somerset Cider
Brandy Company, "half the traditional orchards in my part of Somerset will
go". John Thatcher, who runs Britain's largest farmhouse cider business,
predicts that next autumn the West Country will see "the biggest bonfires
since foot and mouth, only they will smell better".