COUN­TRY VIEWS

Without a clear Brexit plan, farm­ers face an un­cer­tain fu­ture, says Sara Mait­land.

Countryfile Magazine - - Contents - Illustration: Lynn Hatz­ius

Imag­ine how you might feel if some­one told you that in lit­tle more than six months’ time the source of about 55% of your an­nual wage was go­ing to van­ish… and no one is talk­ing about it. This is what farm­ers are fac­ing. In March next year, when we leave the EU, we’ll also leave the Com­mon Agri­cul­tural Pol­icy (CAP) upon which farms rely for more than half of their in­come.

The CAP is a cen­tral pil­lar of the EU. It con­sumes about 40% of the bud­get and comes, broadly speak­ing, in two tranches: di­rect sub­si­dies to farm­ers and ru­ral de­vel­op­ment. In 2015 the UK’s share of the di­rect sub­sidy was about £2.4bn and the al­lo­cated amount for ru­ral de­vel­op­ment be­tween 2014 and 2020 was set to be £4bn. This is a lot of money to dis­ap­pear from a sec­tor that is hardly mak­ing mil­lion­aires of most of its par­tic­i­pants.

The CAP is ex­tremely com­pli­cated: un­like other forms of in­dus­try, agri­cul­ture varies enor­mously be­tween mem­ber states. For ex­am­ple, the av­er­age farm in France is both smaller and more likely to be mixed than in the UK but, be­cause of ge­ol­ogy and cli­mate, is com­monly more pro­duc­tive. Re­peat this 28 times and it is nigh-on im­pos­si­ble to come up with a sub­sidy sys­tem that is fair. The pre­sent sys­tem has thrown up some real anom­alies: for ex­am­ple, the mas­sive amount of sub­sidy that vast sport­ing es­tates in the High­lands of Scot­land can claim de­spite not pro­duc­ing food. At­tempts to re­form the sys­tem have foundered due to re­gional dif­fer­ences and in­ter­ests.

WHAT’S THE PLAN?

None­the­less it is a sys­tem and it keeps farm­ers farm­ing. In Jan­uary 2018 the Gov­ern­ment said that it would main­tain the pre­sent sub­sidy regime for around five years post-Brexit, while it de­vises a new sys­tem. “Around” is not very en­cour­ag­ing in re­la­tion to in­vest­ment and de­vel­op­ment but, more se­ri­ously, there seems to be no dis­cus­sion about where this money is go­ing to come from. With all the pres­sure the NHS, so­cial care, ed­u­ca­tion and de­fence sec­tors are un­der, it’s quite a stretch to think that a UK Gov­ern­ment or the De­volved Ad­min­is­tra­tions will be able to jus­tify match­ing cur­rent lev­els of farm­ing sub­sidy.

I am not alone in this pes­simism. Worst-case sce­nar­ios in­clude about a quar­ter of all UK farms go­ing out of busi­ness, land prices col­laps­ing (mak­ing loans se­cured against farm­land un­sus­tain­able) and food self-suf­fi­ciency, now at about 60%, plum­met­ing. But above all there is the paral­y­sis this sit­u­a­tion cre­ates: no one wants to in­vest, farm­ers are pulling out of en­vi­ron­men­tal schemes and there’s a real con­cern about the work­force (not just sea­sonal mi­grant labour, but skilled work­ers too – most qual­i­fied TB-testers come from east­ern Europe). But for­ward plan­ning in agri­cul­ture needs time and con­fi­dence, as well as hard work.

Farm­ers ur­gently need clar­ity and a more open dis­cus­sion. What sort of coun­try­side and agri­cul­ture do we want? At the mo­ment there is no clear vi­sion at the top and wor­ry­ing un­cer­tainty at the bot­tom. Of course there are po­ten­tial gains to be had from Brexit, but they will not be re­alised if we just mud­dle through. It is not just that there seems to be no Plan B; there doesn’t even seem to be a Plan A.

BBC Coun­try­file Mag­a­zine will re­port more on Brexit and the is­sues sur­round­ing it later in the au­tumn as the sit­u­a­tion de­vel­ops.

Have your say What do you think about the is­sues raised here? Write to the ad­dress on page three or email edi­tor@coun­try­file.com

Sara Mait­land is a writer who lives in Dum­fries and Gal­loway. Her works in­clude A Book of Si­lence and Gos­sip from the For­est

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