The mys­tery of 2020 and be­yond

Country Life Every Week - - Town & Country - Edited by An­nun­ci­ata Wal­ton

WHAT a dif­fer­ence a year makes—or not. The mood at the 2016 Ox­ford Farm­ing Con­fer­ence (OFC) seemed to be for re­main­ing in the EU, with the then De­fra Sec­re­tary Liz Truss re­veal­ing there was no ‘Plan B’ in the event of a Brexit

Twelve months later, many farm­ers hav­ing voted to leave the EU, del­e­gates might take the view that they’re not much wiser about the fu­ture, as cur­rent Sec­re­tary An­drea Lead­som was un­able to shed public light on fu­ture trad­ing, ac­cess to the mi­grant labour that is cru­cial for crop farm­ing, the shape of farm pay­ments post-2020 or whether Bri­tain could re­tain ac­cess to the sin­gle mar­ket and still scrap re­stric­tive EU mea­sures such as the un­pop­u­lar three- crop rule (Agromenes, page 23).

Last week, 53% of OFC del­e­gates said farm­ing would thrive (rather than merely sur­vive) post Brexit, but an over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity was scep­ti­cal as to whether there would be any real changes. Most thought De­fra’s pri­or­ity should be en­sur­ing tar­iff­free trade with the Eu—speak­ers from over­seas warned about the length of time trade ne­go­ti­a­tions can take.

Deputy NFU Pres­i­dent Minette Bat­ters, a beef farmer and Re­main voter, high­lighted the dilemma: ‘I am putting cows to bulls this sum­mer with a view to sell­ing in 2020, but I have no idea how to plan.’ She said farm­ers must not be left on a ‘cliff edge’ with­out sup­port and ex­pressed the view that Bri­tain needs to re­main in the sin­gle mar­ket. ‘About 38% of our sheep meat goes into the sin­gle mar­ket; if no agree­ment is reached, we’ll be trad­ing it with a 51% tar­iff, so the clock is tick­ing.’

Miss Bat­ters’ fel­low pan­el­lists, colum­nist Ge­orge Mon­biot, car­rot grower Guy Poskitt and the Na­tional Trust’s Dame He­len Ghosh, agreed that the Trea­sury is un­likely to match the cur­rent £3 bil­lion pro­vided to UK farm­ing by the EU. ‘I don’t agree with life­style farm­ers—we need to earn the money—but we do need to be able to ap­ply for in­vest­ment, such as equip­ment to be able to grow outof-sea­son pro­duce,’ said Mr Poskitt.

Mrs Lead­som said more would be known af­ter the trig­ger­ing of Ar­ti­cle 50, af­ter which her depart­ment will en­ter a pe­riod of con­sul­ta­tion. She con­firmed that she’s in di­a­logue with the Home Of­fice about ‘the right sec­tors of EU work­ers’, re­pu­di­ated a sug­ges­tion that De­fra was ‘too ema­ci­ated to take on the Brexit chal­lenge’ and said that there would be ‘a clearer po­si­tion on tar­iffs’ in the com­ing months. ‘There are im­pli­ca­tions with tar­iffs, but we al­ready ex­port to coun­tries where there are tar­iffs and our prod­ucts are still in de­mand there,’ she pointed out.

Mrs Lead­som re­ported that UK food ex­ports were up by 8% last year, with an in­crease in de­mand from China and po­ten­tial deals with In­dia, Aus­tralia, the USA and the UAE. NON-EU dairy ex­ports are up by 91%, wheat by 80% and Bri­tish lamb was voted prod­uct of the year in France. Money is be­ing plunged into ap­pren­tice­ship, ru­ral devel­op­ment and agri-tech pro­grammes. ‘Our best days as a food and farm­ing na­tion lie ahead of us,’ she said.

Farm­ing Min­is­ter Ge­orge Eus­tice sug­gested that fu­ture farm pay­ments would be a ‘uni­ver­sal scheme’ across all four UK de­part­ments: ‘Rather than pay­ing a sub­sidy based on a raft of con­di­tions, I’m say­ing “let’s re­ward”.’ He sug­gested that Bri­tain might im­i­tate other coun­tries’ risk-man­age­ment schemes, such as crop in­sur­ance, and that there would be no more ‘slip­per farm­ing’ (his term for landown­ers re­ceiv­ing ben­e­fits for non-farm­ing ac­tiv­i­ties or based on the amount of land they own).

‘I’ve had three years of work­ing with EU law close up and it’s not a pretty sight,’ said Mr Eus­tice. ‘We have a morass of rules— about things like the width of hedges—and a dys­func­tional sys­tem of pay­ments. We need to “un­bun­gle” the con­flict­ing ob­jec­tives of CAP [Com­mon Agri­cul­tural Pol­icy]. We have an op­por­tu­nity to take a more holis­tic ap­proach to the en­vi­ron­ment and to drive wel­fare stan­dards.’

Mr Eus­tice’s Welsh, Scot­tish and North­ern Ir­ish coun­ter­parts were more cau­tious. ‘Will De­fra have the strength to take on the

Lock­ing horns: as the de­bate over the ef­fects of Brexit on farm­ing con­tinue, Gov­ern­ment is ac­cused of fail­ing to pro­vide lead­er­ship

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