AFTER a decade battling against disease outbreaks and falling prices, the much maligned British farmer could once again see his status rise due to increasing global food shortages.

We spoke to four farmers across East Lancashire to get their views on the current state of agriculture.

WHEN the news broke last August that foot and mouth disease had been discovered on a farm in Surrey, the shockwaves it sent through the farming industry were significant.

The words 'foot and mouth' force farmers to relive the nightmare of 2001 when the disease struck at the heart of British agriculture and burning pyres of cattle were seen across East Lancashire.

While last year's outbreak proved to be an isolated incident, the disruption it caused to farmers nationwide came as a hammer blow at a crucial time of year.

Autumn is traditionally the time when sheep breeders sell much of their stock, a process that was cancelled as movement restrictions came in to place.

Now though, some farmers in East Lancashire claim there is room for optimism as livestock prices begin to rise.

The problem, however, is that rising prices are being tempered by a surge in feed, fuel and fertiliser costs which farmers are having to bear the brunt of.

Thomas Binns, 45, rears 70 suckler cows and 2,500 ewes on a 1,700 acre farm in Downham.

A suckler herd is one in which calves are kept with their mothers and are able to drink the cow's milk during the first few months, aiding quick growth, after birth instead of being weaned within a couple of days.

Selling his animals as store cattle, those sold on to other farmers to avoid the cost of fattening them up for slaughter, Mr Binns is now positive about the future of farming in East Lancashire, although he said rising costs were tough to absorb.

He said: "Fertiliser has risen from £140-a-tonne to its current level, just over £300-a-tonne, and feed and diesel is going up as well.

"But spring lamb and beef prices have started to rise and some of the finishing units who buy our beef cattle are passing on some of their better returns to us."

While prices may be recovering as supply struggles to meet demand, Mr Binns believes that the global food shortage should be a wake up call for the Government and the way it runs its current subsidy system.

Since 2003, as part of changes to the Common Agricultural Policy, farmers in the UK have been paid a subsidy based on the amount of land they farm, rather than the previous system which paid them for every animal they reared.

But with incentives for maintaining things such as stone walls and hedges in order to encourage wildlife, Mr Binns believes Government policy could now be having a negative affect.

He added: "In the next five or 10 years the Government needs to revisit the issue of food production.

"If they subsidise food production I think farming in East Lancashire has a really positive future.

"What better location than being next to those who need and care about their food?

"There are millions of people in towns and cities around here who needed feeding and we are in the prime location to reap the benefits."

Others, however, do not share Mr Binns' optimism.

Hill farmer Barry Hodgson, 62, farms 450 Swaledale and Mule ewes on 160 acres at Wycoller in the Forest of Trawden.

Having made just under £10,000 profit last year. he revealed that he was starting to question whether farming was sustainable at all.

He said: "I was getting a pound a kilo for a live lamb 35-years-ago.

"Since then, costs have gone sky high and I'm still only getting a pound a kilo. That shows the problems we face."

Mr Hodgson claims the lamb price has been controlled by the large supermarket buyers who have sought to control the cost of food for their customers.

Another worry for Mr Hodgson is the fact that a Bluetongue restriction zone starts just two miles from the edge of his land, meaning that no sheep can be brought from that area in to East Lancashire.

If Bluetongue is contracted by a sheep it causes swelling of the joints and tongue but is not harmful to humans.

And while Mr Hodgson said he would not be a farmer if he had his chance again, to hear him speak is to hear someone who obviously gains great pleasure from farming.

He added: "Farming was something I always wanted to do.

"My dad said I was mad but it's a good life, watching stuff grow and nurturing animals, but now its got to be a joke.

"There's too much red tape put on us by the government."

Away from the beef and sheep men, the dairy sector has been another one that has suffered over the last decade as large supermarket chains have driven the price down in a bid to use milk as a loss-leader for their stores.

For years the price of milk stood at around 18pence per litre, a figure that made it a practically unsustainable business venture.

Now though, with the supermarket cartels giving something back and farmers receiving around 26ppl, there is room for hope.

Dairy farmer William Slinger, 36, runs a 100-head commercial herd on the edge of Pendleton and is founder of Connect Plus, the company which produces Bowland Fresh, the locally sourced and marketed milk.

With worries over feed and fuel ever present for Mr Slinger, he also thinks that Government policy changes are vital.

He said: "When the price did go up, it went up to the level it was at 12-years-ago.

"Prices have been pressured down by the market and the only way people can be encouraged to come in to dairying is if the current Government's policy changes, "We have thousands of farmers, but only one or two who can process milk, it's a monopoly essentially. We used to have the Milk Marketing Board buying all the milk.

"That was abolished but the markets it created still exist and there's a few big retailers controlling the market. Farmers round here are as capable as anywhere, they just need the right conditions."

For years, farmers were accused of not looking past the farm gate in terms of their business strategy, but Mr Slinger is looking way beyond that now and is worried about what will happen If China and India start using all their grain and food resources.

"Where do get our food from then?" he asked. "Farmers are slightly optimistic because the words 'food shortage' might mean we are wanted. The problem is the lack of farmers because so many have left the industry, that's a real worry."

For some farmers in East Lancashire, the struggle to make ends meet prompted a different course of action - diversification.

Richard Drinkall, 44, changed the face of Backridge Farm, Waddington, and scaled down his farming business in the process when foot and mouth struck in 2001.

His cattle trading business was blighted by BSE in the mid-1990s and his dairy herd became untenable.

Because of this he converted his farm buildings in to business units and now has 26 companies based at Backridge.

Like the others, he lays blame for the bad times at the foot of the supermarkets and the stranglehold they had on the market, but warned that diversification is not a route everyone can follow.

He said: "Diversification is happening country-wide but there will come a saturation point.

"Those with farm shops are only catering to a niche market - a handful of people who want and can afford traceable food. It's not a lifeline for every farmer.

"I can't see farming staying like it is around here.

"Father and son relationships are dying out because they are not financially viable. Youngsters are going to university but they are leaving the countryside and will be difficult to replace.

"More farm houses are going to people from the city which is not healthy for rural areas."