Campaigning on Behalf
of Britain's Family Farms
Osborne Newton, Aveton Gifford, Kingsbridge, Tel: 01548 852794,
Newsletter Spring 2017
Most of the excitement over Brexit is about trade. It is not about who will buy our lamb, if not France, but about who will buy the products of our heavy industries – cars, planes, and suchlike. There is a tacit assumption that whoever will buy our “important” products will also sell us unlimited cheap food. This imported food could bankrupt many farmers, as the majority of people will not want to pay much higher prices for our home grown food, even if it is produced to a higher standard.
We now have a mission: to make our government understand that British farmers are absolutely dependent on subsidies to produce many of our food crops; that if subsidies cease to be available, many farmers will cease production and we will be desperately dependent on imported food. Once our food production is abandoned, international food traders will have us at their mercy. Also there will be no British countryside. Farming is what creates, and cares for, the landscape. With no landscape - animals at pasture, waving fields of corn - to enjoy, all our lives will be poorer, and our tourist industry greatly reduced.
Already there is an official “UK – US trade relations inquiry”. The scope was extremely wide: the challenges, opportunities and implications for the “production and sale of goods and services on both sides of the Atlantic.” A frightening prospect for us!
In our submission we pointed out that as US costs of production are low and their surpluses large, their prices are likely to be much below our costs of production. Free trade, which industrialists are looking for, could bankrupt a high proportion of British farmers, who would not be able to compete on price. We further pointed out that, although many people seem to think farming is an unimportant activity, if it was simply abandoned, the resulting dereliction of our countryside would be much regretted, and the tourist industry seriously damaged.
We are not equipped to comment on all aspects of the Brexit arguments. But we must try to inform the public about the likely effects any proposals will have on both our food and our rural communities. Huge scale agricultural production will be defended by large farmers. Ecology has a large and well funded body fighting to protect all our flora and fauna from damage by farming (or possible absence of farming). It is our job to fight for the ordinary small and medium sized farmer, to explain his importance throughout the countryside and our rural communities.
Are small farmers as worth defending as birds, bats, fritillaries, etc? They could even be essential to the survival of much wildlife. Nobody knows; there has been no research recently into the ecology of smaller farms. If we are to continue to fight for smaller family farms, we shall need financial help to employ experts.
Annual Westminster Meeting
As usual we gathered a good group of interesting and interested people in the Jubilee Room. Professor Matt Lobley talked on the implications of Exeter University’s report on the future of small farms.
His report has been summarised in previous newsletters
They thought that small farms were the bedrock of farming; the best way of defining them was by manpower – farms that employed one or two people. Matt emphasized that, while some smaller farmers were successful, they are, as we have often pointed out, something of a dying breed. Some are successfully handed on down generations, and these tend to be the best ones. But many have no successor, produce less, and when they die, their land is often taken up by a neighbour, thus creating a larger farm. Some small farmers do their best to become big farmers!
The history of “the small farm problem” is interesting. Matt thought it was only serious since after the second world war. He pointed out that as a whole, small farms are useful to communities. Where there are many, they help to keep local facilities of all kinds viable. They provide a source of extra labour in busy periods, and also for performing useful jobs such as clearing roads of trees after storms.
He thought supporting small farms was important. The single farm payment is vital for them - payments should not depend on size, but be given according to the benefits provided by the farm. He mentioned lapwings as a specific example – they could make a farm worthy of subsidy. More help should be available on hills and moorland. A big help would be to allow one second house on a farm so the two generations could work together.
Dame Helen Ghosh started by saying that the National Trust’s remit was not to do with farming. It had not been set up specifically for farming. Its involvement with farming had come by accident, along with the stately homes it had acquired. New objectives have now been set up for the next ten years. There will be more emphasis on carbon retention, habitat and ecology.
Half their farms were let on farm business tenancies, other tenancies averaged fifteen years. She thought most of the way people farmed was governed by what is profitable, it was not necessarily how farmers would like to farm. She thought farmers followed the supply of money, and money for farmers is regulated by government policy.
Subsidies should be distributed by outcome, not by area. Hill farming needed a mechanism for its protection; public money should be available for public good. She thought a “ladder” of farms of different sizes was needed for the sake of the landscape and to give farmers a start on small farms.
Discussion followed freely. The chairman started it by asking the question: who provides the advisory service farmers need? The answer did not seem very satisfactory.
Dame Helen was asked if available subsidies would go to the National Trust or their tenants?
Answer: “The tenants.”
Question: Do you want pillar two to be scrapped?
Dame Helen: Yes, subsidies should be diverted to other outcomes from the farm, not simply food production.
Q: How long will the transition take into other means of financial support?
A: A long time; after all the Brexit deals
Q: Farmers will need a decent income after the proposed end to subsidies. Do subsidies result in cheaper food? I support and agree with the National Trust’s “mosaic policy” in the Lake District.
Q: There was a problem 10 years ago with the willingness of taxpayers to give support for subsidies to farmers. How do we get united in common ideas and views?
Q: Cattle provide so much for bio-diversity. New proposals are all bad for livestock farmers.
Q: Around the Suffolk coast there are many farms around 200 acres. The playing field for small farmers is not fair because they lack the benefit of economy of scale. How do we get the ear of Government regarding the problem of small farms? Smaller farms don’t know how to talk to each other. A monitoring scheme would be good. The CAP was set up as a social programme. Its aim has been lost – small farmers are embarrassed as being such.
Q: We should beware not to take our eye off the ball of food security.
Q: The public should be educated that a cheap food policy is no good. The average annual
income of all citizens is £28,000. How big a farm is required to attain that figure?
Q: There is no need to demonise the Barley Barons – just don’t give them subsidies.
0.5% of National Expenditure is not much for the support of good land care. Good food is crucial to health and welfare. Agribusiness should be curtailed and the NFU should get involved in our work. Rewards should be given to worker/ acre ratio. Hiring labour has its social benefits. Matt Lobley says that is not a valid argument.
Q: Labour on the land is a special case. Farmers should get tax relief for employing workers. A serious debate is required to enable people to get started on the land. The regime needs to be introduced to discourage people buying land for tax reasons only. Look at the European system of New Entrant and retirement assistance.
Q: Local food banks need more publicity. The Oxford Farming Conference is a lobby for large scale farming, and pretty intimidating. It is always a platform for innovation. I praise the NT for their commitment to environmental schemes on their small scale tenanted farms.
Q: There is no single way of measuring the size of a “small farm”, 3ha? 4 to 5 staff can often be the case on horticultural land. Perhaps a standard labour requirement based on the physical size of the holding. Horticulture is a difficult case where subsidies are concerned.
Q: The retail industry needs regulation. Farmers need a bigger slice of the end price of the food they produce. There is a need for politicians to be made aware of the problems of small farmers and value their importance.
Q (From the Prince’s Countryside Fund): There needs to be a mentoring programme for farmers, with consultants involved, to increase their resilience and to empower them to speak out and share information.
“Questions” soon evolved into comments, many interesting and constructive, and containing implied questions. The discussion had to be cut off firmly at four o’clock. Was it strange that Brexit was hardly mentioned?
It would be excellent if those present, on receiving this, would write in and expand their ideas and suggestions for solutions.
Pippa Woods (CBE)