COUN­TRY­SIDE IS­SUES WITH JOHN CRAVEN

BRI­TAIN’S SMALL FARMS FACE AN UN­CER­TAIN FU­TURE

Countryfile Magazine - - Contents -

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”.

FOOD FOR­GOT­TEN?

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

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