Agri-environment scheme under fire at NFU meeting

National Farmers’ Union vice president Guy Smith speaking at the NFU Suffolk annual county meeting,

National Farmers Union vice president Guy Smith speaking at the NFU Suffolk annual county meeting, alongside county chairman George Gittus, left. - Credit: Archant

Urgent changes are needed to ensure that England’s new agri-environment scheme is fit for purpose, Suffolk farmers have heard.

National Farmers’ Union (NFU) vice president Guy Smith, who farms at St Osyth, near Clacton-on-Sea, said there was real concern that thousands of farmers involved in the current Enry Level (ELS) and Higher Level (HLS) schemes would reject the replacement scheme, Countryside Stewardship, partly because of the way it had been designed.

Speaking at told the NFU Suffolk annual county meeting, he said: “The point for government is this isn’t farmers walking away form Countryside Stewardship, it’s Countryside Stewardship walking away from farmers.

“We want practical suggestions as to how we can improve the design of the scheme to make it more farmer-friendly.

“Farmers have embraced the conservation agenda and we accept we have to marry together the twin challenges of production and wildlife conservation.

“It worries me that so many of us will no longer be involved in stewardship in future. It must be an ambition of the NFU to have as many farmers as possible in an agri-environment scheme.”

More than 60 farmers attended the breakfast meeting, held at the Cedars Hotel, Stowmarket, on Wednesday this week, as well as guests including Suffolk Police and Crime Commissioner Tim Passmore.

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In his speech, Mr Smith outlined how the NFU was working to ensure Basic Payment Scheme payments were made on time, to help the cash flow of farm businesses after a difficult year.

The Rural Payments Agency (RPA) had pledged to make the vast majority of payments by the end of January, but had not defined what proportion that would represent. The NFU said this should mean in excess of 80% of payments.

“We’re monitoring very closely the progress the RPA is making. We think they are on track but there is still time for the wheels to come off the train,” said Mr Smith.

He said it was encouraging that ministers and the RPA recognised the importance of payments to the rural economy, as well as to British agriculture.

“It was good to hear the RPA chief executive Mark Grimshaw acknowledge that every pound of BPS money multiplies up to five pounds in the rural economy,” he said. “They realise this represents a cash injection into the wider rural economy and hopefully they will work as hard as they can to get that money out.”.

Mr Smith also urged NFU members to get involved in the ongoing debate about Britain’s role in Europe, ahead of the promised referendum.

“We must be in there asking questions, making sure people think about agriculture when they are thinking about this referendum. Agriculture is important, it’s the biggest manufacturing industry in rural areas and it should be taken seriously,” he said.

“We’re not afraid of farming outside the Common Agricultural Policy. We’re not afraid of farming in a world where no one gets support payments.

“What we are wary of, quite rightly, is finding ourselves in a scenario where we’re competing with foreign farmers who have greater levels of support or who are operating under a lighter regulatory regime.

“The economic consequences of that are quite clear. We’re already losing ground with self-sufficiency and we must stop that,” added Mr Smith.

A collection made during the meeting for farming charity RABI ( the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution) raised a total of £338.