Agriculture Bill: East Anglian farmers’ reaction as environment takes centre-stage

A combine harvester at work on the Euston Estate Picture: ANDREW BLENKIRON

A combine harvester at work on the Euston Estate Picture: ANDREW BLENKIRON - Credit: Archant

UK farming was standing at the threshold of a new era this week as the government unveiled its Agriculture Bill, the structure that will underpin the sector’s future after Brexit.

Harvesting on an East Anglian farm Picture: GREGG BROWN

Harvesting on an East Anglian farm Picture: GREGG BROWN - Credit: Gregg Brown

Many in the industry - including environment secretary Michael Gove - used the term “historic” to describe the moment, but misgivings have quickly surfaced, with farmers’ leaders fearing that the heavy tilt towards environmental issues may come at the expense of farming’s ‘day job’ of food production.

Although this is likely to be a very painful transition for many farmers, more certainty over some issues has been welcomed. However, many of the details of what the bill will mean in practice have still to be understood, and East Anglian farmers were just beginning to absorb its implications this week, and the impact on farm subsidy and future support.

Meanwhile, the phasing out of direct payments over a seven year period in order to make way for Gove’s new ‘public money for public goods’ vision offered some respite: it wasn’t the 10 years the industry wanted, but it also wasn’t as short as they feared it might be. These payments are set to be ‘de-linked’, meaning they should be able to access the money in some format, but without having to demonstrate they are actively farming the land - as they do now - over that period, although the details are unclear.

Big farmers are upset at having to bear the brunt of the cutbacks as the old-style Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) equivalent payments, based on the amount of land farmed, are scaled down to zero over seven year period from 2021 and 2027.

Andrew Blenkiron, director of the Euston Estate near Thetford, said he was disappointed, and estimated he would lose £120k in year one alone as a result of the formula set out by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). “It’s going to be quite a challenge to find that,” he said. “The cost of producing the food here is just as large as on a small farm.”

DEFRA has split the cuts into bands, so that in the first year, the reduction is 5% for the first £30k of support, rising in 5% chunks, up to sums over £150k, which will be axed by 25%.

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This is despite widespread support among National Farmers’ Union (NFU) members for the reduction to be evenly spread across small and large farmers, with the Suffolk branch voting overwhelmingly in favour of this option at its AGM this year. “The industry was almost unanimous in its voice not to cut support according to size of claim - clearly the minister was not open to listen,” said John Collen, who farms at Gisleham, near Lowestoft.

The lack of emphasis on food production is emerging as a major area of concern. NFU president Minette Batters argued it should be “the number one priority”, warning against “national park approach that suspends this industry in aspic”.

“There’s been a lot of talk about public money for public goods, but safe, affordable food, produced to traceable British farms is good for the public,” she said.

Stephen Rash of Wortham, near Diss, said there appeared to be little in the bill for productive agriculture, although once fleshed out, it might not be as bad as some fear. “It looks like it is pandering to the “ chocolate box” countryside lobby and big farmer bad, small farmer good school of thought,” he said.

NFU Suffolk chair Glenn Buckingham pointedout the shift from land management to environmental works would present income streams to land managers, but predicted winners and losers in the difficult task of placing a value on natural capital and public goods.

Essex farmer and NFU deputy president Guy Smith said Gove’s ‘environmental goods’ farm support road map represented “a fundamental shift in policy”, but conceded it wasn’t without merit.

“Our concern is the impact this will have on UK food production and on farm businesses going forward and this will always be our yardstick that drives our lobbying,” he said. The bill could be improved through amendments, he said, as he urged East Anglian farmers to get in touch with their MPs to raise their concerns.

“Now is the time for us all to step up,” he said.

“The Agriculture Act that will emerge from the current bill will embody a ground plan as to how as a nation we feed ourselves going forward.

“We are not convinced Government has yet done enough homework to think this through properly.”