COUNTRYSIDE ISSUES WITH JOHN CRAVEN
BRITAIN’S SMALL FARMS FACE AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE
What does the future hold for Britain’s small farms? The forthcoming Agriculture Bill may have the answer.
“Gove’s team are now compiling the bill that will change the shape of Britain’s agriculture”
What is Michael Gove’s big plan for our countryside once we have exited Europe and rural Britain comes face-to-face with its biggest upheaval in decades? Everyone who works the land and strives to protect the landscape anxiously awaits the answer and all will be revealed shortly when the Agriculture Bill comes before Parliament.
For the first time we will hear precise details of how Britain’s £3 billion-a-year share of the Common Agriculture Policy subsidy system, which helps many farms survive, will be replaced. As Environment Secretary, Gove has already pledged significant changes – big-time farmers can expect smaller cash handouts and more from the public purse will be directed to “enhancing the natural environment”.
But farmers of every size worry how much the emphasis might switch. Rebecca Laughton of the Landworkers’ Alliance, a group of smallish farmers and growers, says: “What concerns us is that everything will go towards looking after the environment – that Britain will become a great big nature reserve. We must make sure food doesn’t get forgotten.”
Most of its 900-plus members have smallholdings of less than five hectares so they don’t qualify for agri-environment payments.
“In the new system we’d like that threshold removed,” says Rebecca, a market gardener. “At the moment, there are a lot of people producing a lot of food who get nothing. We are meant to be eating 40% of our diet as fruit and vegetables but only 1% of the agricultural budget goes towards supporting that.”
The Landworkers’ Alliance is one of many organisations that responded to the request from DEFRA for views on future policy. The 10-week consultation period ended on 8 May and Gove’s team are now compiling the bill that will change the shape of agriculture in Britain. If they don’t get it right, among the consequences could be trade deals with countries such as the United States that hit the industry like body blows.
SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL
Most at risk would be an already threatened species, the traditional family farm, of which one fifth went out of business in England between 2005 and 2015.
“The Government needs to recognise that small farms are a good thing for the countryside and provide an awful lot more than food production,” James Morford, chairman of the Family Farmers’ Association, told me from his mixed farm in Suffolk.
“They are at the heart of their communities. Our members tend to be on the parish council and involved in village life. Small farms should not be prejudiced against. Productivity and profitability can be much greater on a small farm than ever it is on a bigger one.”
And Vicki Hird of the pressure group Sustain, says: “It’s shocking that Britain has lost almost 50% of its farms in the past 70 years. We need specific payments to help smaller farmers develop or make way for new entrants.”
As if Michael Gove didn’t have enough on his plate, DEFRA has been hammered by a House of Lords select committee for concentrating too much on farming and failing to prioritise the ‘rural affairs’ element of its brief. But I am hearing hopeful noises about this bill. Rebecca Laughton is feeling “quite optimistic – DEFRA seem to be more open” and James Morford believes “there is a desire to change the mould”. We shall see.
Watch John on Countryfile on Sunday evenings on BBC One.
The Agriculture Bill will change farming subsidies – big farmers are likely to get less, while the environment will be prioritised