`Down' on the farm in Europe. EC farmers' soaring yields lead to low prices, huge surpluses
Adriaan Doeleman gazes pensively over the rich farmland his family has worked for generations. ``The sad fact is,'' he says, ``we're too good at what we do.''
Like other farmers in Western Europe -- and almost everywhere else in the industrialized world -- Mr. Doeleman has become the victim of his own success. Several decades ago, Doeleman's father needed 15 farm hands to work 135 acres of land here in the flat, southwestern corner of the Netherlands.
Today, Mr. Doeleman employs only two men to work twice that amount of land, and the yields continue to grow, helping to swell Western Europe's mountain of surplus food to almost unmanageable heights. Advanced farming equipment coupled with highly sophisticated farming techniques have enabled today's farmer to boost production to levels thought impossible only two decades ago.
Since the early 1970s, the number of farmers in Western Europe has fallen by nearly one half. Yet yields have continued to soar. Agricultural output in Western Europe has grown four times as fast as consumption.
In the past five years alone, stockpiles of unsold surplus wheat, beef, dairy products, wine, and other farm products have more than quintupled, to an estimated $10.2 billion in value. One quarter of Europe's farm land produces nothing but surplus food.
Prices, consequently, have fallen sharply (wheat, for example, has dropped by 15 percent in the past two years). Last year, farmers in Western Europe saw their incomes fall by 6 percent in real terms.
``It's been terrible,'' says Doeleman, who is president of Holland's 8,500-member Southern Farmers Association. His 21-year-old son will take over the family farm in several years' time. ``If nothing is done, it will be very tough for him, I can assure you.''
Earlier this month, at a meeting in Punta del Este, Uruguay, government ministers from 74 countries belonging to the Geneva-based General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), including the 12 European Community nations and the United States, agreed that there is an ``urgent need'' to work toward correcting and preventing imbalances in world agricultural markets.
But details of how that might be done will be left to negotiators, whose talks are scheduled to last another four years.
Meanwhile, accusations of who's to blame for the current crisis continue to fly. The Reagan administration blames the European Community (EC), which spends 70 percent of its annual budget of about $35 billion on farm production and export subsidies.
For its part, the EC insists that the US also subsidizes its farmers, spending about $26 billion in farm aid this year alone -- or about four times more per farmer than the EC does. Other farming nations such as Canada and Australia complain that their farmers have been caught in the subsidy crossfire.
``It is the most predatory sort of behavior,'' said Andrew Robb, executive director of the Australian National Farmers Federation, last week. He added that the US and the EC were attempting to ``bury'' other farming nations.
Weaning farmers away from subsidies, however, would be easier said than done.
The EC, for instance, has already ruled out reducing price supports paid to its 11 million farmers as politically unacceptable. Farmers still make up nearly 10 percent of the EC's working and voting population. (Only about 2 percent of the US voting public are farmers.) ``Drastic cuts in price supports are out because of the unacceptable consequences for farmers's incomes,'' says EC Farm Commissioner Frans Andriessen.
Instead, the emphasis here is being put on controlling production through quotas and other programs. But here, too, the going has been rough. A system of milk-production quotas introduced by the EC in April 1984, for example, has been criticized as an administrative nightmare. It is also a serious impediment to efficiency, many critics say.
At a meeting of European Community farm ministers in Britain last week, British Farm Minister Michael Jopling introduced a plan aimed at persuading farmers to cease production on land currently used to grow wheat. (The EC's wheat surplus is expected to grow to 17.2 million tons this year, up from 8.6 million tons just two years ago.)
Under the plan, farmers like Mr. Doeleman would be paid 300 European Currency Units (about $305) a year for every 2.5 acres they take out of wheat production. But the French government, backed by several other countries, is likely to veto the plan.
These nations view such a program, already applied with mixed results in the US, as too expensive -- even though the cost of running the EC's present farm-support program has already put its budget under severe strain. For example, storing the EC's surplus of 1.5 million tons of butter in refrigerated warehouses costs the EC, and therefore the European taxpayer, $65,000 an hour.
Other countries will object to the plan ``on philosophical grounds,'' says Brian Gardner, a consultant with AgraEurope, a trade advisory body. ``Letting land lay fallow is an idea foreign to the European mentality,'' he says.
Mr. Doelman and other farmers, though sometimes amused by the talk of policymakers and politicians, are quick to acknowledge the seriousness of the situation.
``Something has to be done,'' he says. ``We're determined to defend our interests. We don't believe the farmer should be penalized in the process for doing what he does extremely well.''