Farm­ing needs a plan –and it needs it now

Country Life Every Week - - Letters To The Editor -

HAR­VEST Thanks­giv­ing 2016 is more solemn than usual. It’s not been a bumper year, which has em­pha­sised the vul­ner­a­bil­ity of farm­ing to world food prices and its de­pen­dence on agri­cul­tural sup­port. A whole gen­er­a­tion of farm­ers is there­fore won­der­ing what the future holds in a go-it-alone Bri­tain. The easy as­sump­tions that marked the ref­er­en­dum cam­paign have given way to in­creas­ing concern at the ex­tent of un­cer­tainty.

Philip Ham­mond’s com­mit­ment to ‘busi­ness as usual’, but only un­til 2020, is per­haps the only cer­tainty and is in­creas­ingly recog­nised as the best he could do. He knows no more than any­one else what Brexit will re­ally mean for agri­cul­ture and the coun­try­side. In­deed, care­ful anal­y­sis of the speeches of the man in charge of the whole process, David Davis, re­veals the to­tal ab­sence of any plan. There is noth­ing: no pro­gramme, no strat­egy, no red lines. His largely vac­u­ous pro­nounce­ments give no hint of an agri­cul­tural pol­icy—be­cause there isn’t one. Any smoothtalk­ing pro­fes­sional advisers who claim to know what the Govern­ment has in mind are sim­ply mak­ing it up. The Govern­ment hasn’t got any­thing in mind, any more than has any govern­ment in the rest of Europe.

The farm­ing in­dus­try ought to fill that gap and give Theresa May some idea of what’s needed. And that’s the prob­lem—apart from a gen­eral de­sire that things shouldn’t get worse, there is no con­sen­sus in the coun­try­side. At one ex­treme, the fool­ish think they can have more or less what they’ve got now (of course, with­out the pa­per­work). At the other, the wise re­alise that this is a new world in which agri­cul­ture will have to jus­tify any sup­port it gets and jus­tify it to a largely un­re­spon­sive na­tion. With no French or Ger­man agri­cul­tural lobby in sup­port, that will not be easy. With­out a uni­fied plan, it will be im­pos­si­ble.

How­ever, the signs of any such plan are nonex­is­tent. The NFU seems to have turned in on it­self. Sub­sti­tut­ing con­sul­ta­tion for lead­er­ship, it’s wan­der­ing round the coun­try ask­ing the mem­bers what they think. In­evitably, that means the for­mu­la­tion of a farm­ing wish­list to which the NFU will be in­sti­tu­tion­ally shack­led. It’s there­fore un­likely to have any of the flex­i­bil­ity that will be es­sen­tial if it’s to win con­ces­sions from the Govern­ment.

Mean­while, the en­vi­ron­men­tal cam­paign­ers are re­cov­er­ing from the shock of Brexit, which, al­most to a man and woman, they op­posed. Their pri­or­ity is sim­ply to turn agri­cul­tural sup­port into a driver for en­vi­ron­men­tal pol­icy. No more pro­duc­tion pay­ments, just money for wildlife, habi­tats, flood pre­ven­tion and soil im­prove­ment. They ar­gue that this is the only pro­gramme for which the pub­lic will pay. It’s all very admirable, but whether there would be any farm­ers left able and will­ing to take up this sup­port is open to doubt. What is cer­tain is that this vi­sion is far re­moved from that of the NFU.

With­out a ru­ral pol­icy with broad ru­ral back­ing, we will be left to the mercy of the Trea­sury. It’s got its eye on the £3 bil­lion we now spend on sup­port to plug the gaps in the UK’S post-brexit fi­nances. A cred­i­ble pro­gramme de­signed to fund farm­ing and the en­vi­ron­ment is, there­fore, vi­tal. Some­one has to bring the in­dus­try and the NGOS to­gether round a common pol­icy. Agromenes be­lieves that’s a task for the long-term land­hold­ers, rep­re­sented by the CLA. They must cor­ral us all into de­mand­ing a con­tin­u­a­tion of eco­nom­i­cally ef­fec­tive and en­vi­ron­men­tally sound agri­cul­tural sup­port. With­out that, Brexit will truly be a dis­as­ter for the coun­try­side.

‘There is noth­ing: no pro­gramme, no strat­egy, no red lines

Fol­low @agromenes on Twit­ter

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