Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries.

Part of Orders of the Day — Supply. – in the House of Commons on 7th June 1937.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Morgan Price Mr Morgan Price , Forest of Dean

The hon. Member for Stone (Sir J. Lamb), who is closely connected with the agricultural industry, will agree with me that the troubles of agriculture are not by any means confined to this country. The whole world is faced, and has been faced for some time past, with a crisis among the producers of commodities, particularly agricultural commodities. I do not object to the general principle of the State giving subsidies to agriculture under certain very important conditions. My criticism of the hon. Member for Stone is that he has not emphasised as I should like the need for those con- ditions being laid down and insisted upon by the State as a condition of the giving of subsidies.

Agriculture cannot carry on in its present disorganised condition, with the producers unorganised as they are all over the world. One reason why the producers of agricultural produce have been suffering is because of the scattered nature of their small production units. It is a shortsighted view to say that the State should not come forward and give assistance to agriculture, because agriculture is not only of economic but of social value. In giving assistance the State must lay down conditions: (1) that a measure of efficiency must be given in return for the subsidy; (2) that a measure of public control must be established over the industry to see that efficiency is carried out and, (3) that the workers in the industry must receive a very important share of the subsidy in order to improve their conditions.

I am glad that certain speakers have referred to the agricultural labourers. Too often in debates on assistance to agriculture the labourer is ignored. I should like to refer to one point in connection with the condition of agricultural labour, and that is that we all wish to see better wages paid. The hon. Member for Stone referred to the fact that there is a scarcity now of good agricultural labourers. That very fact will tend automatically to raise wages, quite apart from the activities of the Wages Board. That is as it should be. In my experience of the agricultural labourer I have found that there is one thing that he would appreciate perhaps more than anything else, and that is holidays with pay, particularly in the cattle raising and dairying districts, where Saturday and Sunday work has to be done, year in and year out, no matter what the weather. I am sure that all progressive-minded farmers would only be too glad if they could give holidays with pay, and I hope they will use every effort to give this necessary relaxation to the farm workers once in the year at least and for as long a period as they can. In the long run it would pay them by the return of the man to his work after the necessary change of atmosphere and environment.

Reference has been made to the indebtedness of farmers, which prevents them at the present time from developing their industry and bringing it up to date. As things are at present many farmers who bought their farms at high prices after the War, on mortgage to the banks, are unable to carry out the necessary improvements. The Agricultural Credits Act, which was passed in 1928, had had very little effect in that direction. The interest rates are too high, and the whole thing has got into the hands of the great joint stock banks. We must consider this matter from the point of view of the State affording cheap credit for the purpose of improving the industry.

I know pressure is being applied, and it will increase, to bring farming up to date. In my own neighbourhood I know several farmers who would like to qualify for the accredited milk scheme, and get the extra penny per gallon from the Milk Marketing Board, but they have not the necessary capital. They are not their own landlords, and in some cases their landlords, with the best will in the world, are not able to supply the necessary capital to make it possible for the farmers to earn this extra penny per gallon. The other proposal for improving the herds, the attested herd scheme, will mean that farmers will have to provide further equipment, and the conditions which will have to be laid down will also lead to further expense. A farmer will not be able to apply for the extra penny per gallon under the attested herd scheme unless cheap credit can be afforded him. In my own neighbourhood I have seen farms hawked about owing to the break-up of estates, and on inquiry I found that to bring these farms up to date would require as much capital as the person wants as the purchase price of the farm. That is going on all over the country, and it is leading to the hold-up of the industry in a most disastrous way.

There are one or two points in connection with the Estimates with which I want to deal. Let me say a word about agricultural education and research. I do not see anything in the Estimates of any sum being put by to inquire into agricultural costings. The Parliamentary Secretary will no doubt remember a little debate we had in a Committee when I called him to book for a speech he made in which he ran down the usefulness of costings, on the ground that economists were not agreed as to the way in which they should be interpreted. I am quite prepared to admit that it is a complex science. I have kept costings for many years, and I know well the limitations to their working. I was looking up my accounts the other day, and I found that one or two branches of the farm showed a balance on the right side—a very unusual thing—but that other sides of the farm did not balance, some did nearly and others were on the wrong side. On further inquiry I found that if I interfered with that side of the farm which balanced on the right side, if I enlarged that side, I should upset the whole balance of the farm. I should not get the right amount of manure which would enable me to keep the whole thing going. I am fully prepared to admit that costings is a science which has to be developed. We must find out how far one can extend one branch of the industry at the expense of another without upsetting the balance of the farm.

Farming is an organic process, but it is no argument to say, as we have heard from the Ministerial bench and hon. Members opposite, that costings is no good. On the contrary, the Research Department, I know, has been anxious to spend money on this matter. We have a good example in the case of the Milk Marketing Board which has, out of its own expenses, undertaken research into milk costings, and although there are a variety of figures at least we can see that in certain parts of the country with certain types of management you get a certain figure, and that in other parts with other types of management you get another figure. It indicates that if we are going to give a subsidy in the right way we must know more about the costs of production, and we can only get that information if we go about it in the right way.

I am glad that the Minister of Agriculture referred to the question of grass drying, and I understand he is taking steps to spend money to investigate further into this matter. He is quite right in saying that one of our greatest assets is grass. Indeed, in these days of rising cake values many a farmer would be glad if he could reduce his costs by having an apparatus which would turn his grass into value equal to a good cake, but, unfortunately, there are many practical technical difficulties in the way. The price of the article is at present far beyond the reach of most farmers. From what I can see, if you are to get the best result from a grass drying instrument you will have to do most of your cutting in June or early July, and we all know that grass in June and early July has far greater feeding value than grass when it is cut later on. That is true of hay, and doubly true of this dried grass, but how are we going to get this problem settled? Drying everything and converting the whole of our grass in the early stages into dried grass, is a problem which will require to be looked into and, particularly, we shall have to consider whether we cannot get a cheaper implement than that which is on the market at the present time. We have a long way to go still, but I am glad the Minister is taking steps to spend money in this direction of research.

He has spoken eulogistically, as have other hon. Members in reference, to the researches of Professor Stapledon of Aberystwyth University, but we must not over-estimate what can be done in this direction. I understand that a lot of land on the Welsh hills which has been improved by Professor Stapledon's methods can only be improved at a cost which it is very doubtful the land will return in the way of production. The law of diminishing returns begins to operate in agriculture very early in the process, and most progressive farmers have been engaged for many years in improving their grass land. Years ago nobody bothered about harrowing pastures in February or March, aerating the roots, but every farmer does it now, and he puts on nitrate of chalk if the land is heavy, or sulphate of ammonia if the land is light. That process is going on, and we must not imagine that the discovery of Professor Stapledon is going all of a sudden to make 10 blades of grass grow where only one grew before. I do not wish to run down the experiment, but we must inquire into the economics of this grass improvement as well as the technical and scientific aspect of it. It is one thing to produce and another thing to produce to cover costs.

I was particularly glad to hear of the liming programme which the Minister envisages, because my belief is that it will have a very big effect on the cattle industry. A few years ago we were told that cattle needed minerals for their metabolism and general health, and various companies began selling minerals to the farmers at considerably more than they were really worth. Shortly after- wards, the agricultural experts announced that 99 per cent. of the minerals which went into the stomachs of the animals passed out of them into the earth, and that only 1 per cent. was assimilated. The only way in which one can be sure that the minerals will be assimilated by the livestock is to present the minerals in an organic form, that is to say, in plants which the animals eat. If it be true, as I believe it is, that five or six years of systematic liming, as was suggested by the Minister, will bring about a considerable increase in the lime content of grass we have there a key to the improvement of our livestock and the elimination of disease. The latest evidence is that the presentation of the minerals to the livestock in an organic form is the only certain way of getting them absorbed.

I notice that in Vote H. 1—"Diseases of Animals" —a sum of £200,000 is to be spent, and that £22,000 is for research into foot-and-mouth disease, which is one of the most baffling of all diseases. As far as can be seen, that disease has nothing to do with the health of the animals. In my neighbourhood last winter, there was an outbreak of the disease in a very fine and well-kept herd, and all the animals had to be slaughtered. They were animals which had wintered out, had been fed on rough forage and had had no contact with imported cakes. It seems that the more healthy the animal, the more liable it is to this terrible scourge. It is to be hoped that some serum may be found which will reduce the liability to this disease. I understand that work is being done in that direction, and I hope the Minister will push forward that research as much as he can.

I would like to refer to another disease which has not been mentioned in the Debate, and which is not referred to in the Estimates. Last Saturday, in Gloucester market, I was talking to a farmer who is a constituent of the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Agriculture and who is very well-informed on cattle diseases. He gave it as his opinion that one of the worst scourges at the present time is Johne's disease. Not much is heard of that disease because it is not epidemic in the same way as the foot-and-mouth disease, and it is not the same as tuberculosis, which is transmissible to human beings, and therefore it raises no question of public health It is a disease which is caused by a microbe bringing about consumption of the intestines. The farmer to whom I was talking said that the toll is very heavy—certainly it has been in the case of my livestock—especially after dark, wet winters, when the vitality of the cattle is at its lowest, and when there is a tendency for from 5 per cent. to 8 per cent. of the animals to suffer from the disease. If the disease is not caught in the early stages, the prospects of getting rid of it are hopeless. I understand that in this case also some research work is being done, which leads one to hope that a serum may be produced which may have the effect of giving immunity to Johne's disease. If that be the case, I should be glad if the Minister would give us some information, and an indication that he will assist the research work as much as he can, since I can assure him that it is a serious disease which will have to be tackled at an early date.

With regard to the poultry industry, I do not agree with the hon. Member for Stone who wants a levy to be imposed on foreign poultry. I do not think the solution of the troubles of the poultry industry is to be found in keeping out foreign products. The competition of foreign products is not the main source of trouble or the cause of low prices. It is true that in December and January a very large amount was dumped in this country, and as I have always said, control of imports is desirable to stop undue quantities from coming in at one time. The real trouble with the industry is the rise in the costs of foodstuffs and the fact that those who are engaged solely in poultry production are feeling the effects of that rise very much. I am a great believer in the extensive method of poultry keeping, because I am convinced by personal experience that during the summer, at any rate, poultry can get 50 per cent. of their food from insects, slugs, snails and worms, and thus reduce the food bill very considerably. Thus the general farmer is able to stand the rise in the cost of foodstuffs better than those engaged solely in poultry production. Nevertheless, I am very much concerned, as are other hon. Members, with the conditions of poultry producers.

I am afraid that the trouble is to a great extent due to the fact that the general stamina and vitality of the poultry has deteriorated owing to insufficient care being taken with the breeding. For instance, poultry-breeding establishments often get big demands for day-old chicks, and in order to meet those demands they will breed from almost any stock. The temptation is very great, and perhaps one cannot blame them, but one of the main causes of the loss of stamina and health is the careless selection of the stock from which they provide the day-old chicks. The Minister did not refer to this matter in his speech, but I should be glad if he would deal with it when he replies to the Debate. Have the Ministry a scheme of accredited breeding stations, a scheme of giving a sort of Ministerial "O.K." to people whose poultry is subject to inspections and who keep the right class of stock, and so on? I am convinced that the only way of getting an improved quality of poultry is by having scattered about the country a large number of breeding stations which are reliable and which turn out day-old chicks in large quantities from poultry of good stamina. There is far too great a tendency also to breed poultry purely from the point of view of egg production without consideration of their general health. Nature always comes back. There is a quotation from Virgil to the effect that if you expel nature with a pitchfork she will always return.