THE crucial role a support project plays in the lives of hard-pressed Upper Teesdale farming families was given the royal seal of approval when Prince Charles visited the area on Tuesday, October 23.

In his capacity as patron of the Prince’s Countryside Fund (PCF), he visited the Upper Teesdale Agricultural Support Services (Utass) offices in MiddletoninTeesdale.

His visit was in the wake of a report which said some upland farmers in the dale are struggling to get by on only £8,000 a year.

The report, Challenges Facing Farmers, was produced by Utass and Rose Regeneration for Oxfam, and took an indepth look at the lives of 20 mainly tenant farmers.

It highlighted how low income meant farmers could not afford to pay bills or mend equipment, and had to reduce the quantity or quality of feed given to livestock.

In some cases, farmers even had to go without food.

Many are living in farm poverty – earning 60 per cent lessthan the average income - and are operating without adequate insurance, unable to pay into a pension scheme and have few, if any savings.

One farmer interviewed had farmed a 140-acre holding in the dale for 45 years and highlighted the increased challenge of overheads.

The farmer said: “In the 1980s and 1990s, we were receiving £40 per sheep, now its £70, but fertiliser cost £154 a tonne in 2000 and now it’s up to £380 a tonne.”

Utass provides a range of support services from assisting farmers with administration and paperwork to running young people’s drop-ins and providing a support and advice service 24 hours-a-day all year round.

Project manager Diane Spark said Prince Charles was well aware of the difficulties facing farmers.

She said: “That is why he is so passionate about trying to make things better for farmers in upland areas.

“There weren’t any surprises in the report, but we were saddened by the reality of the details,” she said.

In 2010, Utass received a grant of £36,180 from the PCF, which helped pay for the continued funding of two advisers and an IT trainer.

“We will be introducing the Prince to staff and volunteers and some of the people who have benefited through Utass – especially those who have received IT training,” said Ms Spark.

Prince Charles also visited Middleton-in-Teesdale Auction Mart and took a tour of the sheep pens.

After opening the mart’s new cafe, he joined a meeting of local sheep farmers in his role as patron of the Campaign for Wool, which he initiated in 2008 to address the plummeting price and demand for wool.