The Road Transport Needs oi Agriculture
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SERVING THE COUNTRY' LARGEST SINGLE INDUSTRY By E. W. BEBBINGTON
Assoc. Inst. T., A.M.I.T.A.
Transport Officer, National Farmers' Union
SOME time ago I received from a colleague in America a copy of an article written by a prominent economist especially for that country's Farm Bureau Federation. The article was headed "U.S. regulations chain carriers— take farmers for a ride," and the author, after claiming that "The most thoroughly regulated industry in the United States to-day is transportation," set out to prove that by narrowing the power of the Government regulating agencies to the prescription of safety measures only, and thus providing for greater competition, the freight bill of the nation could be reduced by billions of dollars. Such claims are, of course, arguable and I have no doubt that people engaged in the transport industry of the U.S.A. would disagree with a good deal of the author's appreciation.
Nevertheless, this thought-provoking article caused me to reflect on the situation in this country and to conclude that our agricultural industry was perhaps fortunate in having what would appear to be greater freedom in the choice of transport.
Agriculture is our biggest single industry, occupying in England and Wales alone over 30m. acres, and has an annual output in excess of £1,500,000.000 which is more than the combined output of the coal mines, plus the traffic receipts of British Railways, There is no uniformity in British agriculture which, for the purposes of this article, I am taking to include the many pursuits normally described as horticultural. Conditions of soil, terrain, rainfall, natural drainage and climate are so varied that each holding, and very often even each field, must be regarded as being a special case in itself. Thus, it is not surprising that, particularly in regard to his day to day activities, each grower must, of necessity, become something of a transport specialist in his own right. Indeed, the transport picture seen from the headquarters of the National Farmers' Union of England and Wales, whose membership totals more than 200,000 potential transport users, is intriguing to say the least.
What They Produce To obtain some idea of the transport problems involved we should spend a moment looking at the production figures, bearing in mind that British farms produce enough food for half the population. In a normal year our growers produce over 9m. tons of cereals, over 6m. tons each of potatoes and sugar beet, and some 2-1m. tons of vegetables. The total annual production of meat is over 11m. tons and milk amounts to well over 2,000m. gallons. In addition, there are almost lm. tons of fruit to be picked, 20m. boxes of eggs to be dispatched, and, to complete what can only be but a brief outline of the national agricultural picture, we might add to this the fact that our growers need annually some 5m. tons of fertilizers and upwards of 6itn. tons of lime.
Of the total farm produce it is estimated that 4-1m. tons are carried by rail. With the exception of a comparatively small amount moved by canal, the balance is carried throughout by road. Movement of this traffic, of course. is not always under the control of the grower and considerable tonnages are collected at farm gates by merchants and co-operative societies who also deliver a large proportion of the farmers' requisites, including fertilizers. Collection and delivery by merchants and co-operatives are F,2 largely in privately licensed vehicles, although a fair share of the business is enjoyed by the independent and nationalized road haulage industry. Indeed, it has often been said that agriculture must be one of the best customers of the road haulier. Specialist services are essential for such commodities as milk, which must be collected daily, and we have all read of the trends in bulk collection in this field. The growing of produce for the quick-freezing industry has risen significantly and this calls for a highly organized road haulage system to ensure speedy delivery to vining plants, etc. It is true that the movement of grain in bulk has increased slowly, but only because this mode of transport depends on satisfactory bulk storage equipment at farms, the expense of which very often cannot be justified. But the trend is there and it will develop rapidly as more farm and mill bulk storage is installed.
• Fast and Flexible Transport Although a certain amount of short notice movement takes place in the " heavy " commodities mentioned above, particularly during harvest time, the demand for a fast reliable service is even greater in the horticultural field. Although the volume of traffic here is not nearly so big, it requires a far greater degree of specialized transport service. Fruit, flowers and vegetables are all highly perishable and the inherent nature of the products themselves demands careful handling and stowage of the packages. Unexpected sunshine can lead to sudden demands on transport and, conversely, unexpected rainfall which interferes with the harvesting of the crop can mean the sudden unemployment of vehicles.
Added to this fluctuation caused by weather conditions, which incidentally can treble the labour force on a holding overnight, are the exacting conditions under which such produce is marketed. A good deal of it is sold "on commission and to ensure it reaches markets in the best possible condition it has to be picked as late as possible for arrival at the market early the next morning. It is not surprising, therefore, that in this particular section of our industry there is a greater proportion of on-call owneroperated vehicles than in the arable and dairy sections.
From time to time there has been plenty of misguided criticism of the licensing facilities enjoyed by farmers. It should be remembered that farmers, by and large, are not interested in operating their own fleets of goods vehicles. even if they could find the necessary capital. In England and Wales it is estimated that growers operate less than 100,000 goods vehicles of all types of which less than 60,000 are registered at the " Farmers Goods" rate of duty. Of the balance (vehicles registered at the commercial rate of duty and bearing C, or limited B carrier's licences) it can be assumed that most are operated, by specialist growers of flowers and nursery stock who unfortunately do not qualify in the eyes of the Authorities for the nomenclature of "persons engaged in the business of agriculture."
Of the vehicles registered as " Farmers Goods" over 80% have an unladen weight of 3 tons or less and many of these can be categorized as small dual-purpose vehicles, such as Land-Rovers, shooting brakes, pick-ups, etc. From our glance at this comparatively small national fleet it can safely be deduced that the farmer in the main depends on other sources for his freight transport and generally obtains the service he requires from the road haulage industry.
This service is not always available, however, particularly in the more remote parts of the country. Moreover, where a service is available it does not always meet the requirements of the grower, whose transport demands are all too often dictated by the conditions mentioned above. For this reason the owner-operated fleet is essential and equally necessary are the two major licensing facilitiesthe "Farmers -Goods Licence" and the ability to carry a neighbour's produce and requisites under the "Farmers C Carriers Licence." Without these two facilities the national fleet would undoubtedly be smaller and the movement of highly perishable produce at short notice would be jeopardized.
Even so it is known that a fair number of the larger capacity vehicles are de-licensed for four-month or eightmonth periods, which shows the importance growers attach to having their own transport on tap during the peak harvesting periods despite the additional cost. Indeed, without this fleet, the effect of the 1955 railway strike, for example, would have been disastrous so far as food production was concerned as there were simply not enough professional road haulage vehicles available to carry the agricultural and horticultural produce then being offered.
Of the larger vehicles registered at the "Farmers Goods" rate of duty the majority are used for local or inter-farm work. Parliament saw to it that very stringent conditions were attached to the licence when it was first granted in the 1930's and a vehicle so registered is still limited to the conveyance of the produce of, or of the articles required for the purpose of, the agricultural land which the operator occupies.
Limited Licence Concessions A further concession allows the vehicle to be used for the conveyance of another grower's produce and requisites, but here again the conditions are extremely limited. The concession only applies (a) when the vehicle is so used only occasionally, (b) when the goods carried for the other person represent only a small proportion of the total load, and (c) when no payment or reward of any kind is made for the service. Bearing in mind, first, that the grower does not have the industrialist's opportunity to utilize his vehicles to the full, secondly, the amount of inter-farm haulage necessary for cultivation and, thirdly, the .need to have some transport on tap for emergencies, there is every justification for this taxation concession.
Equally important in rural areas where the professional carrier has little or no interest, is the ability of the farmer operating a vehicle bearing a C carrier's licence to carry for hire or reward the produce and requisities of another farmer in the same locality. Since this facility was first granted in 1933 it has proved to be invaluable to
the agricultural industry as it has meant a considerable saving in the transport costs of individual farmers. Moreover1 it is a facility that becomes more valuable as the policy of closing railway branch lines continues and more and more rural areas are denuded of all forms of public transport.
Of course neither of these two facilities can be extended to cover the co-operative commercial activities now gaining popularity in the agricultural world. As greater inroads are made into bulk buying of requisites by farming groups, and in the co-operative marketing of produce—quite apart from the established machinery syndicates—so the vehicles used in connection with these ventures have to be licensed in the orthodox manner and the operators are treated no differently from normal commercial firms.
Farmers' "Conveyor Belt"
But the movement of his raw materials and finished products represents only one of the farmer's ventures into the transport world. Unlike the industrialist, the farmer's production, or " assembly " line, extends far beyond the farm buildings and, accordingly, instead of using a conveyor belt he has to resort to wheeled or tractor vehicles to cope with the problems of internal distribution of cattle foodstuffs, fertilizers and the many other items needed to produce food For this purpose over 500,000 tractors, a ten-fold increase since 1938, are in use to-day and, as a great number of fields are only accessible via public roads, approximately 430,000 of them have to be licensed to use the highway. With innumerable implements and the 300,000 trailers they draw, their movement on roads is governed by some 34 Acts, Regulations and Orders, all of which the farmer is expected to bear in mind to ensure compliance with the legal requirements appertaining to registration, licensing. construction and use, etc.
It follows that, to keep costs to a minimum, vehicles such as these which are primarily intended for cultivation should also be permitted to operate in a limited way on local haulage. The tractor, for example, can be used to haul produce up to 15 miles only from its base, which is probably its economic limit anyway. In no 'sense can it be argued that work of this nature encroaches on the province of the professional road haulier. On the contrary, it is looked on by us in the industry simply as a complementary service.