I RECENTLY attended the annual buffet lunch of the local National Farmers Union branch. Apart from the weather, which was indifferent, it was a superb occasion. The hosts are fortunate in that they have a suitable building convenient for their farmhouse so the event can be held under cover if necessary.

They are generous in that they allow this building to be used for such purposes.

The whole basis of the event is a neat trick. Some of those who attend are asked to bring food for the guests.

There is always a marvellous selection of salad, quiches, pies, ham, beef, in fact everything anyone could reasonably want. The puddings are similarly donated, they always look superb. Just look at them and you put on weight. Well, that's my excuse. They would not disgrace a five-star hotel.

Having donated the food, helped to set it out and then washed up afterwards, everyone is charged for attending.

No wonder a tidy profit is made and a good time is had by all.

Each year the hosts nominate a charity to receive the profits. This year it is the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution, RABI for short. RABI has been established for many years.

It is the industry's in-house charity, whereby those who have fallen on hard times are helped by everyone else.

The world changed for RABI as for so much else, when foot and mouth struck. Until then the hardship cases had been relatively infrequent and normally caused by some unavoidable calamity, such as an untimely death, or latterly, by the fall in stock valuations.

Traditionally the value farmers had in their stock, for example the cows they had for milking, used to enable them, when they retired, to have a nest egg to supplement the state pension.

During the last few years, because of problems such as BSE, the value in the stock fell dramatically. So the nest egg was not worth so much. The problem was worse if the farmer was a tenant, and had no land to sell.

It is not particularly unusual for tenants to have to keep on working well past conventional retirement age, because they cannot afford to move on. This has clear consequences for the availability of land for new entrants who often rely on tenancies to get a foot on the ladder.

The foot and mouth outbreak changed things dramatically for the worse. Farmers were unable to trade normally because of the entirely reasonable movement restrictions imposed to try to halt the spread of the disease.

The fact that they were reasonable restrictions did not lessen their effect. Cashflows became a trickle. In the worst cases there was no money to buy feed for the stock. RABI, which had restricted its grants in the past to supporting the farmers, had to start supporting the feed bills.

The strain on their finances was immense. The industry has rallied round.

RABI received some substantial donations from, among others, the Prince of Wales, the Duke of Westminster and the Freemasons.

The main public thrust of the fund- raising has always been the numerous small events, profits from which go to the charity.

It is a good example of an industry trying to help itself through difficult times.

We know that the proper way to remove the need is greater profitability through better prices.

In the meantime RABI is to be applauded for putting its finger in the dyke.

Updated: 10:20 Tuesday, May 20, 2003